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Perspectives On Death: Crash Course Philosophy #17

Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you
by Squarespace Squarespace: Share your passion with the world What are you afraid of?
Spiders? Public speaking? The dentist? Calculus? What about death? How you feel about death has probably been shaped by your beliefs about whether or not there’s an afterlife – and if there is, what it’s like. The ancient Egyptians believed that, at death,
your heart would be weighed against a feather, to determine if it was fit to enter the underworld. A heart heavy with mis-deeds would be fed
to a demon. Christians may envision Saint Peter, waiting
at the pearly gates to welcome you into heaven, unless your name doesn’t make his list. Imagine not only being turned away from the coolest club in town, but banished to the eternal torments of hell. As we learned in our discussions about the philosophy of religion, when the stakes are eternal, it’s only reasonable to get a little nervous about what’s basically the Ultimate Final Exam. But if it makes you feel any better, many
philosophers have believed, and still believe, that death is nothing to fear. [Theme Music] In 399 BCE, Socrates was sentenced to death
for, among other things, refusing to acknowledge the official deities
of Athens, radicalizing youth, and generally honking
off the people in charge. But even when he faced his own imminent death,
he remained calm and unafraid. He was a philosopher, after all.
And fear was no match for his ability to argue. Socrates didn’t think we could know if there’s
an afterlife or not, but he thought there were really only two
possibilities. And as far as he was concerned, neither of
them was anything to be afraid of. Here’s his argument: Either death is a dreamless sleep
Or death is a passage to another life Dreamless sleeps are nice, not scary
(Socrates said he could use the rest) And a passage to another life sounds good,
too, because he’ll get to hang out with cool
people from the past who have already died Therefore, either way, death is nothing to
fear Socrates’ idea of the afterlife was Hades, which he seems to have pictured as being a lot like Athens, except that no one had any physical bodies
– only disembodied minds. And frankly he thought that sounded awesome,
because bodies can be a real pain; they just need to be fed, and require rest.
Just, so much upkeep. So, in the afterlife, Socrates imagined he’d
get to have endless philosophical conversations, and continue learning new things, with the
greatest thinkers of the past. And they wouldn’t have to take a break to
eat or sleep or pee! Now, Socrates recognized that, although his favorite activity, philosophizing, didn’t require a body, some things do. And if all of your favorite pastimes are physical,
you might find the afterlife disappointing. That’s why Socrates recommended spending
your life looking after your mind, cultivating that part of you that you’ll
get to keep forever – if there’s an afterlife. If you do that, when the time comes for you
to die, you’ll actually see death as a benefit, because you won’t be troubled by bodily
things, while your mind will be in top form. But what if there isn’t an afterlife? What about that “dreamless sleep” that
Socrates spoke about? Isn’t total annihilation of the self, like,
the scariest thing there is? Ancient Stoic philosopher Epicurus didn’t
think so. He lived about a hundred years after Socrates,
and he rejected belief in an afterlife altogether. Instead, he said we’re just our bodies,
and nothing more. But still, he still didn’t find death scary. Here’s his argument.
Death is the cessation of sensation. Good and evil only make sense in terms of
sensation. So, Death is neither good nor evil. Epicurus was convinced that things are only
evil, or bad, if they feel bad. And he didn’t mean only physical feelings. Anyone who’s ever had a broken heart will tell you that it’s a lot more painful, and harder to heal, than a broken leg. But a broken heart is still a sensation – you
need a body to experience it – so as a materialist – someone who believed that You equal Your Body
– death just meant nonexistence. And there was nothing scary about that, because,
well, there won’t be any you to have any feelings
about not existing! Epicurus argued that fearing nonexistence is not only stupid, but it gets in the way of enjoying life. You are alive, and experiencing sensations,
now. So, he said, make those sensations as great
as possible, and don’t worry about when those sensations
are going to stop! YOLO! To help you understand Epicurus and his attitudes
about death a little better, let’s head over to the Thought Bubble for
some Flash Philosophy. Think about a hangover. If you haven’t had
one, imagine what they might be like. Hangovers aren’t bad for you before you
get one, right? In fact, the thing that comes before the hangover
is often quite pleasant, what with all the laughing, and feeling uninhibited, and working up the courage to talk to that cutie from your calculus class. No, the hangover is only bad while it’s
happening. And true: It might be bad after it’s over, like, if it kept you from doing well on your calculus exam the next morning, because you were too busy trying not to barf
in front of said cutie. But the point is, if something is bad for you, it’s generally bad for you at a particular time, the way a hangover is. But Epicurus said that death can’t be bad
for you at any time. Because once it arrives, you’re gone! The thing that eventually kills you? Yeah, that’s gonna be bad for you, before your death. But that’s not death. When you think about it, you and Death are
never present at the same time. And if there’s no you when death is present, then there is no time in which death is bad for you. Thanks, Thought Bubble! So, things like hangovers and charley horses and movie spoilers are bad, because you’re there to experience them. But as far as Epicurus was concerned, life
was like a night of drinking before a hangover, which – inevitable as it is –
you will never actually experience. Now, the 21st century has its own perspectives
on death. And one might be best described as a kind
of philosophical FOMO. Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel
points out that some people dread death because they’ll miss out on things that
they want to experience. If you died right now, you’d never get to finish the video game you’re in the middle of, or read the next George RR Martin book, or
see humans land on Mars. Which would suck, yeah. But think about it like this: Cool stuff was going on way before you were born. And you missed it! I’m gonna make some assumptions about your
age here and say that you weren’t listening when Orson Welles terrified the nation with the War of the Worlds. You didn’t march on Washington.
You totally missed Woodstock. So, Nagel asks: If you don’t feel some sort of deep sense of loss at what you missed before you were alive, why should you feel loss at what you’ll
miss after you die? Now, Nagel does point out that, if we believe
that life is essentially good, then there is something to mourn when a life
is cut short. Since humans can live, on average, for about
80 years, someone dying at the age of 20 is a tragedy, because that person missed out on 60 possible years of good times. But we should pause here to talk about what
you really value about life, because that will also have an impact on what
you think about death in general, or about the death of a particular person. If you say that life is just always, inherently, good, then you’re said to place a high value on the sanctity of life. It doesn’t matter what the content of that
life looks like, or what the person is like. The fact that they’re alive is just good.
So, losing it would not be good. But, if you think that quality of life is
what’s important, then you’re going to want to distinguish between lives that are full of good experiences, and those that aren’t. If you value quality of life, you don’t think that there’s something inherently valuable about merely being alive. So in these terms, some deaths might actually
be positive or valuable – like, if they bring about an end to a terrible,
painful existence. Now, of course, it might make sense to be
afraid of dying itself, because the process of dying can be painful and drawn out and involve saying a lot of difficult good-byes. But maybe Socrates and Epicurus have convinced
you that fearing your own death is absurd. Well then what about the death of others?
Is it equally silly to fear the death of the people you love? Probably so, say some philosophers, because
what you’re fearing isn’t actually death; what you’re afraid of is being left behind,
alone, when a loved one dies. And this is a good place to hear from ancient
Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. He lived about the same time as Epicurus, and believed that there’s no reason to fear the death of your loved ones. He asked, why would you fear the inevitable? We know death is going to happen, to everyone, and we also know that it’s a part of the life cycle. And we don’t see any other part of that
cycle as being bad. Wouldn’t it be silly, he said, if we mourned
the loss of our babies when they became toddlers, or our children when they became teens? We celebrate every other life milestone, with
birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and graduations, to mark the passage of time and the changes
that have come. Sure, your parents might shed some tears when
they pack you off to college, but they also knew that that day was going
to come – when you would move away from them and onto
your own life. So death, according to Zhuangzi, is just one
more change – why treat it differently? Instead, he said, you should celebrate the
death of a loved one just as you celebrated every other life change
that they experienced. You should think of their death as a going
away party for a grand journey. In his view, mourning can actually seem selfish. When it’s time for the people you love to
move on, Zhuangzi said, the last thing you should do is hold them
closer. Today we talked about death. We considered philosophical responses – from
Socrates, Epicurus, and Zhuangzi, about whether it’s logical to fear your
own death, or the deaths of your loved ones. And we talked about Thomas Nagel, death, and
Fear of Missing Out. This episode of Crash Course Philosophy is
made possible by Squarespace. Squarespace is a way to create a website,
blog or online store for you and your ideas. Squarespace features a user-friendly interface,
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for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out amazing shows like Brain Craft, PBS Game/Show, and Gross Science. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.
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