Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.

Talking Kierkegaard With ‘Non-Traditional’ Students

Philosophy being the discipline it is, I often find myself commenting on the identity of my students: it is how I remind those on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ that there are possibilities here, not always acknowledged, of ways of thinking about the practice of philosophy, inside and outside the classroom. I offer this vague preamble to set up a brief note about a wonderful discussion that took place in my classroom yesterday morning.

Our assigned reading was an excerpt from Kierkegaard‘s Fear and Trembling: the section on the ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’ which draws upon the Old Testament legend of Abraham and Isaac. I was apprehensive about the reading assignment; Kierkegaard is not straightforward at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried; his central thesis, of individual, incommunicable to the rest of the world, departure from the universal ethical to a personally determined goal or purpose, was highlighted quickly. We were able to examine this claim in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac and to contrast it with the behavior of the ‘tragic hero’ in the legend of Iphigenia:

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is clearly evident. The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; the ethical relation…he reduces to a sentiment which has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of morality. Here there can be no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical itself….With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former.

The discussion in class was dominated by four women students: two African-American, one Pakistani, one Jewish. Each drew upon the text, drawing the class’ attention to passages–like the one above–they thought were crucial and deserving of closer attention and analysis. One of them–no prizes for guessing which one–placed the legend in a broader context, supplying details from the Old Testament which enabled a better understanding of Abraham’s actions. Each, by focusing on the text, enabled its close reading and analysis for the benefit of their class mates. My responses to these students–in making note of how such ‘individual faith’ can come to resemble madness, and how Kierkegaard finds Abraham simultaneously worth admiring and yet incomprehensible and “appalling”–invoked the examples of CS Lewisinfamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and Jon Krakauer‘s  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. They responded to these, in turn, with sharp and perceptive insights and further questioning. (They responded to my little joke about how Sarah would have told God to get lost with a few chuckles.) In responding to these, and in trying to offer as charitable an interpretation of Kierkegaard’s claims as possible, we were able to revisit central existentialist themes and establish connections with Kierkegaard’s distinctive relationship to theism and organized religion.

I could not help thinking, as I interacted with these students, of what a distinctively pleasurable moment it was to see them, by their presence in the classroom, and their responses to the reading, demolishing preconceptions and helping reconceive philosophy and philosophical practice in the process.

Hume’s Atheism And God As Nature

The ‘freethinker’ Anthony Collins is said to have commented on Samuel Clarke‘s Boyle Lectures on the existence of God that “it had never occurred to anyone to doubt the existence of God until Clarke tried so hard to prove it.” (noted in John Clayton’s Reason, Religion, and Gods: Essays in Cross Cultural Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, pp. 314.) I was reminded of this “mischievous” remark yesterday afternoon during my philosophy of religion class, as we discussed David Hume’s ‘Of Miracles‘–which carries out a systematic epistemic debunking of claims for the existence of miracles– for at one point a very bright student asked: Professor, what exactly were Hume’s views on religion? Was he an atheist? (This was her third encounter with Hume this semester, whom we had encountered before in two extracts from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions–against the argument from design, and a statement of the problem of evil.)

Hume scholars will recognize quite readily the can of worms being opened by such a query. (Googling ‘Was Hume an atheist?’ should provide some hint of the dimensions of said can.) Here, I just want to make note of a provocative remark that Philo makes in his rejoinder to Cleanthes in Part VII of the Dialogues–as part of the refutation of the argument from design:

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle?….If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.

It seems to me in these closing sentences that two claims are present: a) Hume suggests that ‘rational’ approaches to proving the existence of God are destined to fail in that they push beyond the bounds of experience and thus, transgress the limits of what can be known or claimed to be true, and b) if there is a referent for the term ‘God’ then the most reasonable thing would be to identify it with the ‘principle of order [of] the present material world.’ The former reasserts Hume’s empiricist biases in metaphysics and epistemology; the latter, more interestingly, supplies another conceptualization of the term ‘God.’ (Hume’s further claim that ‘the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better’ suggests that the longer the chains of reasoning to arrive at the conclusion of God’s existence, the more susceptible they will be refutation.)

So for Hume, the best way to make sense of ‘God’–the only kind of ‘God’ whose existence we could reasonably claim to believe in–is as the principles that underwrite the sensible world we experience. The laws of nature, for instance. God, then, is not the Author of Nature, God is Nature. If ‘atheism’ is defined as the rejection of the standard theistic conception of God as all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful–then Hume was an atheist.

Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.


Margaret Cavendish, Epicureanism, and Philosophy as Confession

In her erudite and enjoyable Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity Catherine Wilson makes note of Margaret Cavendish‘s participation in the so-called “Cavendish Salon” in Paris, which served as “the center of a revival of Epicureanism led by Hobbes and Gassendi.” Cavendish, who might have obtained her knowledge of that school of thought either through her own translations of the originals or from Hobbes, went on to write Philosophicall Fancies, which would serve as one of the “earliest print references to the reviving doctrine.”

Interestingly, Wilson suggests Cavendish’s philosophical inclinations were grounded in her biography:

Echoing Lucretius‘s unforgettable opening passage on the murder of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, Cavendish went on to say in The World’s Olio of 1655 that it was better to be an atheist than superstitious; atheism fostered humanity and civility, whereas superstition only bred cruelty. Unlike More and Descartes, Cavendish recognized no spirits or incorporeal substances in her metaphysical system. Consciousness depended in her view on a material substrate: Nature makes a brain out of matter so that there can be perception and appreciation of the material world.

Cavendish’s religious skepticism and her initial attraction to the atomic philosophy reflected the somewhat rebellious and resentful attitudes of one excluded from participation in the learned world and essentially powerless. Accustomed to being ruled and ordered about by fathers, husbands, and even sons, early modern women might have been drawn to a philosophy in which nature was depicted as accomplishing everything by herself [note Wilson’s use of the feminine pronoun here] without taking direction from an autocratic and psychologically impenetrable divinity. Lucretius insisted that ‘nature is her own mistress and is exempt from the oppression of arrogant despots, accomplishing everything by herself spontaneously and independently and free from the jurisdiction of the gods’, and Cavendish proposed that:

Small Atomes of themselves a World may make,
For being subtile, every shape they take;
And as they dance about, they places find,
Of Forms, that best agree, make every Kind.
[Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (London:1664),6]


As this marvelous collection of quotations–put together by Peter Suber–shows, the idea that philosophy works as a kind of confession has a long and storied history. Among the most famous proponents of this metaphilosophical thesis was, of course, Nietzsche.

First, in Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber, with Stephen Lehmann, University of Nebraska Press, 1984 (original 1878):

[§513] However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography.

And then most memorably, in Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, 1966 (original 1886).

[§6] Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a “drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument….

Links added throughout; Nietzsche quotations from Suber’s page

Blood Meridian and The Nature of the Universe

Yesterday’s post, in which I excerpted a couple of passages from Samuel Delany channeling Foucault, is followed today by two excerpts from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International, New York, 1992). I’m going to call these ‘theological’ in nature. (The entire novel, I realize, may be termed a kind of theology.)

First, the judge speaks to us about the ways and manners of God’s speaking and how traces may be found, read and heard in the world around us:

[T]he judge took one of the packanimals and emptied out the panniers and went off to explore the works. In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

As the judge’s investigations–careful and systematic and thoughtful–suggest, this reading and hearing is a form of diligent study; God’s ‘words’ are not written in the most straightforward fashion and may require some decipherment.

Second, a passage–again featuring the judge–that suggests the universe is a little less comprehensible than the first claim might have indicated:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

These lines suggest a universe our understanding of which is necessarily limited; our best theories of it rest on assumptions about its comprehensibility and uniformity that are unjustified. We are especially hamstrung in our efforts to comprehend the universe because the very tools we use for its study–our mind included–are themselves part of it, and thus always subject to the mysteries and vagaries that self-reference creates.

Lessius and the Fear Theory of Atheism

The ‘fear theory’ of the origin of religion is sometimes traced back to Democritus and Lucretius; it may be found too, in David Hume‘s Natural History of Religion. In its most general form, mankind conjured up God and the gods when made aware of its fragility in the face of nature’s capriciousness and power, its inevitable, painful and slow death. The seventeenth century Catholic theologian Leynard (Lenaert) Leys (latinized: Leonardus Lessius) who enjoyed a long, productive and influential career at the University of Leuven, although perhaps most famous for his 1605 treatise De justitia et jure (On Justice and Law) ‘that went through more than twenty editions in the 17th century alone’ provided an ingenious response–of sorts–to it. It does not amount to–and certainly does not intend to be–a refutation of the fear theory; it presupposes the existence of God, so it does not form part of the dialectic dedicated to the task of establishing such claims. Instead, it applies a converse version of the fear theory to atheism and thus seeks to ground its proponents’ claims in their own particular psychological pathology.

In his De Providentia Numinis et Animi Immortalitate, Libri Duo Adversus Atheos et Politicos (On the Providence of the Deity, and the Immortality of the Soul, Against Atheists and Politicians), which contained some arguments from design–fifteen in all–for the existence of God, and was translated in 1631 into English as Rawleigh: His Ghost, Lessius explains atheism thus: Man seeks to deny religious belief because secretly he accepts its teachings and fears the terrible penalties that will accrue to him on Judgment Day because of his sinful, dissolute life. Afflicted by this agonizing fear, unable to reconcile himself to its terrifying finality and perhaps unable to change his sinning ways, he conjures up atheism and its associated doctrines, notions which deny the existence of God. This lack of belief in a Supreme Being then, relieves him from his fear by getting rid of the cause of that fear.

(The targets of Lessius’ polemic are not particularly notorious. He relied on lists made by Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Claudius Aelianus and identified, among others, the following:  Diagoras of Melos and Protagoras; Theodore of Cyrene and Bion of Borysthenes; Lucian; and besides Democritus and Lucretius, Epicurus.)

Lessius’ theory–while certainly a clever bit of work–is false. It is so largely because: a) arguments against the existence of God are quite as successful as they are–via their refutation of positive arguments for that claim–and show belief in the existence of a Supreme Being to be lacking any rational foundation; and b) in sharp contradistinction to the prima facie plausibility granted to the fear theory of theism by the oft-expressed fears of the unknown by the faithful, it relies on ascribing a wholesale ‘false consciousness’ to atheists.


1. Michael J. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press, 2004, pp 30-33.

2. S. N. Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion, Manohar Books, 2013, pp. 159.