Home » Philosophy » Philosopher offers us puzzles on existence vs. non-existence

Philosopher offers us puzzles on existence vs. non-existence

File:A small cup of coffee.JPG

Hey, perfect for the middle of the night. Shelly Kagan at Chronicle of Higher Education (May 13, 2012) offers,

But wait a minute, says Lucretius. The time after I die isn’t the only period during which I won’t exist. What about the period before my birth? If nonexistence is so bad, shouldn’t I be upset by the eternity of nonexistence before I was born? But that’s silly, right? Nobody is upset about that. So, he concludes, it doesn’t make any sense to be upset about the eternity of nonexistence after you die, either.

It isn’t clear how best to reply to Lucretius. One option, presumably, is to agree that we really do need to treat those two eternities of nonexistence on a par, but to insist that our prebirth nonexistence was worse than we thought. Alternatively, we might insist that there’s an asymmetry that explains why we should care about the one period but not the other. But what is that difference? Perhaps this: When I die, I have lost my life. In contrast, during the eternity before my birth, although I’m not alive, I have not lost anything. You can’t lose what you never had. So what’s worse about death is the loss.

But in that prenatal period, although I don’t have life, I’m going to get it. As it happens, we don’t have a name for that state. It is similar to loss but not quite like it. Let’s call it “schmoss.” Why do we care more about loss of life than schmoss of life? It’s easy to overlook the symmetry, because we’ve got this nice word “loss,” and we don’t have the word “schmoss.” But that’s not really explaining anything, it’s just pointing to the thing that needs explaining.

The graphic is worth the whole thing. After which, back to work.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

5 Responses to Philosopher offers us puzzles on existence vs. non-existence

  1. Or perhaps the claim that we cease to exist after we die is false. If abstract or immaterial things cannot be destroyed or otherwise done away with and my mind is abstract or immaterial, then my mind (or soul) cannot be destroyed or otherwise done away with.

  2. 2

    Lucretius drew a line of existence and nonexistence between being physically present and not physically present in order to dispel the fear of experiencing death or being dead (nonexisting). Basically saying, we’re dead before we’re born so live fear-free because it’s no big deal being dead again.

    That is a different perspective than fearing or not fearing a judgment and potential punishment after death, which assumes that the spirit of a person enters at conception, develops while the person lives, and then faces a judgment after death which determines whether the spirit lives on and exists in some form or not. Basically saying, we’re born so physically live right and spiritually fear punishment because we’ll spiritually receive punishment or reward after physical death.

    The first perspective doesn’t allow for an invisible eternal side to physical existence. The second perspective does. Goodbye Lucretius, you are dead twice.

  3. Or, it could be that we have always been alive, that in fact we are eternal and have, as billions of people on this planet believe, incarnated into physical existence many times, and likely will again. It could be that God actually loves us unconditionally, that there is in fact no Hell, no condemnation, and no punishment (other than what we visit upon ourselves), only a continued learning and growth.

  4. Concerning Bruce @ #3: and on what basis, exactly, would you make those claims?

  5. tgpeeler:

    Concerning Bruce @ #3: and on what basis, exactly, would you make those claims?

    On the same basis by which I suspect Mr. Kelly makes his claims in #2—I read it in a book which I regard as a source of Divine revelation. In his case (again, I assume) it is the Bible. In mine it is the Conversations with God series of volumes by Neale Donald Walsch.

    By the way, I wouldn’t characterize my comments as “claims”. I present them as possibilities, although I personally accept them as true. My position is that each of us must find truth for him or herself. There is ultimately no other authority for the simple reason that we each must decide for ourselves which, if any, of the myriad competing sources that claim authority to accept as valid.

Leave a Reply