Annihilation and the Meaningfulness of Life Beyond Death

Annihilation and the Meaningfulness of Life Beyond Death
© Photograph by Geoff Livingston

There seems to be a narrow choice on offer: either agree with Epicurus et al. on the annihilation thesis and the impossibility of the posthumous harm, or circumvent the problem by posing ante-mortem harm (Feinberg–Pitcher).

To move beyond this dichotomy we need to think about the problem more broadly and reframe the terms upon which some assumptions about harm and death rest.

The notion that death should be “nothing to us”, as Epicurus puts it, is difficult to reconcile with desires that give meaning to our lives beyond our sense of self-satisfaction. That the meaningfulness of life extends beyond death is testified by our transcendent interests or desires. Or, as Belliotti puts it: “my biographical life transcends my biological life” (Belliotti 2013, p. 102).

Transcendent desires surpass the timing of our own death and, in a search for meaningfulness outside ourselves, we go beyond the self-satisfaction of meeting our needs and personal preferences in the present moment. Transcendent interests or desires include: the honouring of deathbed promises; the disposal of our property and belongings after death; the integrity of our posthumous reputation; the respectful disposal of our corpse according to religious belief and custom; the flourishing of children, relatives and friends; and the successful completion after death of creative endeavours or projects begun in life.

These desires resonate with the human aspiration “to mould objectively worthy lives” (Belliotti 2013, p. 103). As such they do not flow from internal satisfaction alone. The hedonistic thesis would have it that life is the sum of all worthwhile individual preferences satisfied. However, we also need our life to mean something beyond itself. Indeed, transcendent desires flow from a sense that a meaningful life has an “external vantage point” (Belliotti 2013, p. 103), one that contributes to a broader and deeper personal, human and cosmic perspective.

From a personal point of view, we care about those we leave behind when we die — children, family and friends. We want to be remembered faithfully, for what our life stood for. Moreover, it is natural that we might bequeath finances, property and belongings to ensure the welfare of significant others.

Less tangibly, we believe that our search for meaning is often carried over by our children and their children. In terms of our death, we care that our corpse is respectfully treated — remembered both literally and figuratively afterlife.

From a broader connection to humanity our life might mean something in respect to creative works we leave behind: uncompleted projects for the broader good of society, fictional, non-fictional works and/or practical projects like scientific endeavours that promote a sense of progress.

Finally, from a cosmic point of view, we may believe that our life means something beyond our material embodied existence. This has ramifications for how we treat the human body when dead. Many people throughout history have been socially conditioned in complex ways by religious and folkloric fears born out of a belief not to ‘harm’ the dead, lest it hinders safe-passage of the soul in the afterlife.

For those of us who have forgone religious superstition about a disembodied afterlife, it might be important for our lives to have counted for something greater than the sum of its remembered parts. For example: a view that a life lived expresses solidarity with others, or unity with a natural ecological order of things, all of which might be sensitively reflected in a burial ritual.

One way of assessing the possibility of posthumous harm is to reframe what it is meant by annihilation and existence.

The original formulation of the annihilation thesis is Epicurean: beings cannot be harmed posthumously because at death subjects are annihilated and are thus beyond all experience.

For the sake of this particular argument let us assume, alongside Epicurus, that a life after death is false (although it would be wiser to be agnostic about it). Then Epicurus’s assertion that death puts us beyond all experience is likely to be true, as it is impossible to imagine experience without existing in some sense or other.

Epicurus also asserts that all good and evil consist of experience. This assertion, by itself, is difficult to support and much easier to challenge. Epicurus here is running with a highly questionable hedonistic assumption: pleasure and pain define what is good or bad for us. This is true if we understand the harm in a very narrow sense of pain or hurt. However, harm may be distinguished from hurt (Belliotti 2013, p. 11). While hurt involves suffering to which we accrue a negative valence through the common place expression “it hurts”, harm is something that can happen without necessarily being consciously aware that it is happening.

The classic example that may be used to illustrate this is the case of a peeping Tom spying on our private life. While the peeping Tom may, undiscovered, never hurt us, his actions nevertheless harm a desire for privacy (Belliotti 2013, p. 11).

Likewise, while harming a dead body cannot physically hurt the deceased, it can harm the ante-mortem person who holds certain beliefs about how their corpse ought to be treated post-mortem. Whether these beliefs are credible or not is much less important than the fact that they can be harmed by not being respected.

One of the reasons why harms are so much more far-reaching than hurts is that they are not constrained by the immediacy of subjective experience and preference satisfaction. As already argued, for a life to be meaningful it often needs to be considered to have a meaning from an external vantage point beyond itself. Harms to the dead outstrip the experiential constraint of hurt for this reason. While it might be absurd to think that we might hurt the dead, it is possible to harm the interests of persons that once existed. It is this posthumous harm, involved in intentionally disremembering someone after they have died, that the Feinberg-Pitcher thesis cannot easily account for.

The Feinberg–Pitcher thesis is right to acknowledge the Epicurean limitation to the annihilation thesis by arguing that the end of the experiencing subject does not spell the end of discussion about the misfortunes of the dead. This is indeed an advance on Epicurus and his modern exponents, like Partridge, who do not seem to puzzle through the possibility of harming the interests held by persons that once existed.

Equally the Feinberg–Pitcher thesis is wrong to draw the distinction too tightly between the possibility of ante-mortem harm and impossibility of posthumous harm.

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