09 November 2005

A Serious Metaphysics of Death

I enjoyed Larry Jost's review in NDPR of James Warren's Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics.

Later I hope to post on the arguments of Warren's book directly. For now, here's an interesting thought from the review. Jost suggests (if I understand him correctly) that those who accept naturalism, but who wish also to adopt a 'metaphysical' outlook on life (not resting content simply to believe 'whatever natural science holds'), should take very seriously--perhaps they should even accept--the Epicurean approach to death.

Jost puts forward the idea in a footnote:

Frank Jackson characterizes serious metaphysics as the kind that takes its start from claims such as that "solidity is not an additional feature of reality over and above the way lattice-like arrays of molecules tend to repel each other . . . . By serious metaphysics, I mean metaphysics inspired by [this kind of example], metaphysics that acknowledges that we can do better than draw up big lists, that seeks comprehension in terms of a more or less limited number of ingredients, or anyway a smaller list than we started with . . . [It] is discriminatory at the same time as claiming to be complete, or complete with respect to some subject-matter . . . serious metaphysics means that there are inevitably a host of putative features of our world which we must either eliminate or locate." (From Metaphsics to Ethics: A Defence of Conceptual Metaphysics (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 5 et passim). Eliminating the fear of death is surely the main Epicurean idea about death and locating in a naturalistic framework whatever is sensible in other fears associated with death its main contribution today. Warren's book as a whole well illustrates an ancient anticipation of what a serious metaphysics of death might look like today, one not met with readily in today's philosophy.
Jost's last sentence is meant, I think, to raise a question: If there is a consilience between Epicureanism and naturalism, why is it that one finds little reflection that is Epicurean in character, and a lack of development of Epicurean themes, in contemporary naturalism? (Or is this true?)


david said...

Contemporary naturalism is informed (buttressed?) by modern science. Modern science is based upon the modern philosophy which essentially rejected Epicurus's insistance that man must recognize the illusory nature of most of his desires if he is going to be happy. Modern science encourages men to dream of alleviating their miserable state through the mastery of nature.

Anonymous said...

That strikes me as a plausible historical description of a difference between a philosophy prominently associated with modern science on the one hand and Epicurean theory on the other. Yet surely the relationship between modern science and the philosophic rejection of an (even remotely) Epicurean approach to desire is merely a contingent fact about that science. The propagandists of the 'scientific revolution' and many subsequent proponents of modern natural science have, no doubt, appealed to the mastery of nature for the sake of progress as a guiding force behind science. That science does not foist any metaphysical doctrines on us, though, however much some 'naturalists' might insist to the contrary. Any number of metaphysical views could be equally compatible with the most up-to-date of scientific theories. The science doesn't explain the philosophy; what does?

Fans of Epicurus often stress the supposed compatibility with modern science (though I wonder about Epicurus' views on the gods, the innumerability of worlds, cosmic equilibrium, free will, a true 'atomism,' and other such things that seem every bit as incompatible with modern physics as Aristotelian physics, despite the superficial resemblence). That is, the people who have taken up Epicurean ideas have seen their compatibility with naturalism as a serious strength. The fact that more naturalists and scientophiles have not seen Epicurean philosophy as a serious philosophy has very little to do with science and the metaphysics of naturalism. I suspect that the real explanation is not philosophical at all, but cultural and psychological.

Put simply, Epicurean philosophy does not flatter us. An honest Epicurean stares terrifying existential problems in the face on a daily basis; that isn't really what most of us feel comfortable doing. Maybe worse, Epicurean hedonism has the nerve to tell us that pleasure is really an absence of pain and that most of our desires are in fact illusory, empty, and best abandoned. Most of us can't really accept that. Epicurus also doesn't offer us much in return for the successful abandonment of our illusory desires. We get to avoid pain, sure, but only by giving up most of our other aims.

It's easier, then, to avoid thinking altogether about the issues that Epicurus takes to be central. Most of us, when we think about them and take Epicurus' approach, find it unsatisfactory. This might explain something of the fact that most realistic 'naturalist' accounts of ethics end up endowing nature with a whole lot more value than most metaphysical 'naturalists' would ever allow. That's not to say, of course, that there aren't plenty of metaphysical naturalists who wouldn't find a broadly Epicurean approach somehow satisfying, but most metaphysical naturalists end up, I think, affirming ethical anti-realism, and therefore considering the treatment of issues like how we handle the fear of death to be outside the scope of philosophy.

Of course, strictly speaking, the Epicurean approach to death should be of interest to anyone who isn't already entirely persuaded that personal immortality is at least a guaranteed option, so that even people who favor fairly thick versions of moral realism and reject more reductionist versions of naturalism for that reason still have to face the fact that we do, all of us, die, and that simple fact is probably the most significant one when it comes to making us what we are.

Maybe another explanation is that the issue of how we deal with the fact that we die was assigned to psychology instead of philosophy, so that there have been treatments of it by psychologists but not by philosophers? Certainly Freud could agree with Epicurus on many points.