A recent WSJ piece seems to argue that our mad scrambles to hold onto life near its end are particularly inappropriate, implying that our desire to live is either a case of denial of reality, or perhaps even (as later letters argued) an example of status quo bias. The implications of this on bioethics and transhumanism will have to wait until a future post. But is our desire to live, particularly at death’s door, simply status quo bias?
Nick Bostrom spoke, in a 2012 Philosophy Bites podcast, in some detail about the human tendency for status quo bias (you can also find mention of it in Bryan Caplan’s EconTalk podcast on his book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter”). Briefly, status quo bias is preferring to keep what we currently have over any alternatives, if gaining the alternative means an obvious giving-up of what we have. Few people would turn down having an additional $1 million, but may pause if asked to give up their current homes to get it. This has implications for trade — are we actually overcoming an in-built bias or tendency when engaging in a market? — not to mention gambling, but there’s a philosophical angle as well.
Consider the following thought experiment.
You are on your deathbed, and not particularly sanguine about it. In fact, you are panicked. Someone comes to you, knowing about your condition and concerns, and you have the following conversation:
“Do you remember yesterday?”
You: “Yes, in some detail.”
“Do you remember both the good and bad parts of it?”
You: “It was mostly bad, given current circumstances, but yes.”
“And you recall the most significant events in your life?”
You: “Yes, of course.”
“And you recall the best and worst parts of your life, perhaps better than average days, correct?”
You: “That’s probably true for everyone.”
“Do you remember when you were born?”
You: “No, not at all.”
“But you would agree that it was a significant event, whether it was good or bad or a bit of both?”
“Do you remember before you were born?”
You: “No. How could I?”
“Well, would you agree that what you will shortly experience is no better and no worse than what was happening to you before you were born? After all, you remember the best parts of your life, and the worst. You remember the most significant events, yet can’t recall being born (a very significant event). So, one could argue that the experience of not-yet-being born is less significant than being born, and is neither among the best nor among the worst of your experiences. As your physical state after your death will be similar to not-yet-being-born, being dead is likely not terrible but not fantastic and is likely unremarkable. And, given your current panic and pain, could even be an improvement.”
Would you be at all comforted by this argument?
Assume that there isn’t a semantic problem here about being afraid of the death “process”, as some euphemistically call it. It’s being dead — the state — that causes worry. Your interlocutor isn’t arguing that an afterlife will be better than your current one, or even that an afterlife exists. He merely suggests that “it can’t be worse” than before you were born, and you can’t even recall that.
This equivocates on whether experience is possible before you were born or after you die, making comparison impossible. As Thomas Nagel noted, you aren’t there to have the experience. Then the real argument is over whether the permanent cessation of consciousness is the real fear, with the word “death” being an overloaded shorthand.
So, is the human desire to live simply wanting to keep what one has and knows?