Many psychologists have asserted that people are heavily motivated by fear of their own mortality. This claim may well describe large numbers of people, not just Woody Allen, but is it normatively correct? Is it rational to fear death? How might this philosophical question be given an evidence-based answer?
It is still commonly believed that being rational is at odds with being emotional, but emotions such as fear can often be quite reasonable. For example, if a hurricane is predicted in the area in which you live, it is rational to fear the damage that can result, and evidence is accumulating to support fears about drastic declines in the environment resulting from climate change. On the other hand, fear about some potential event is irrational when there is no evidence that the event will actually threaten a person’s well-being. Developing a strong fear of the earth being hit by a huge asteroid is currently irrational because there is no evidence that an asteroid strike is imminent. Is death like the hurricane or like the asteroid strike?
More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus constructed an argument against fearing death that has since become even more plausible: “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.” Epicurus was one of the first atomists who believed that everything consists of material entities and that there are no souls that survive death. If your life ends at death, then you have nothing to fear, because there will be no YOU to experience pleasure or pain. It’s all over when it’s over.
Of course, there are other aspects of dying that are worth fearing, such as disease, disability, and the distress of people who care about you. But from the philosophical perspective that there is no life after death, death itself is nothing to fear.
Especially in recent decades, evidence has mounted that Epicurus was right that minds are material processes rather than supernatural souls. Cognitive neuroscience is rapidly developing experiments and theories that support the claim that the identification of mind and brain provides the best explanation of people’s capacities for perception, reasoning, language, and even consciousness. If the mind is just the brain, then there is no mind to experience suffering of any kind when the brain stops functioning at death. Hence Epicurus was right that there is nothing to fear. If there were any good evidence that life does survive death, then we would have to reject Epicurus’ conclusion, but phenomena such as near-death experiences and séances can easily be explained away.
The fear of death persists as a vestige of religious views that proclaim that life on earth is just a fragment of the existence of an eternal soul. Then religion becomes a solution to a problem that it has itself created: You may be able to decrease your fear of death by believing that you have found the right religion that will ensure that your afterlife will be pleasant. Thus religion allows a person to careen from the fear-driven inference that death is threatening to the motivated inference that it won’t be so bad in the afterlife. Of course, this inference assumes that you have picked the right religion.
If I believed that life survives death, then I would be terrified at the prospect of an eternity of suffering, because I would have no way of knowing which religious beliefs to adopt. In addition to the different main religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, there are many variants, including dozens of different versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. Guessing wrong could lead not only to problems in this life, but to eternal punishment. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the “right” religion hasn’t even been invented yet.
This variety is one of the flaws in Pascal’s famous wager that it is better to believe in God, because if religion turns out to be true, then you get eternal reward, instead of suffering eternal punishment. This wager assumes that you know what religion to bet on. In contrast, let me offer Thagard’s wager: it is better not to believe in God, because then you don’t have to suffer through a lifetime of worrying about death and the right religion! Happily, this wager fits perfectly with rapidly developing evidence that the mind is just the brain. Hence both inference to the best explanation and inference to the best plan support the conclusion that death should not be feared.