We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad?
In thinking about this question, I am simply going to assume that the death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. (If you don't believe me, read the first nine chapters of my book.) But if death is my end, how can it be bad for me to die? After all, once I'm dead, I don't exist. If I don't exist, how can being dead be bad for me?
People sometimes respond that death isn't bad for the person who is dead. Death is bad for the survivors. But I don't think that can be central to what's bad about death. Compare two stories.
Story 1. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship that is leaving for 100 Earth years to explore a distant solar system. By the time the spaceship comes back, you will be long dead. Worse still, 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between the Earth and the ship will be lost until its return. You're losing all contact with your closest friend.
Story 2. The spaceship takes off, and then 25 minutes into the flight, it explodes and everybody on board is killed instantly.
Story 2 is worse. But why? It can't be the separation, because we had that in Story 1. What's worse is that your friend has died. Admittedly, that is worse for you, too, since you care about your friend. But that upsets you because it is bad for her to have died. But how can it be true that death is bad for the person who dies?This is one of those questions that we once understood to have a clear answer. We've discussed a mild version of Avicenna's proof for a Necessary Existent:
1) Everything we know that comes to exist gets its existence from something else.
2) An actual infinite series cannot exist,
3) At least one thing exists of its own nature, rather than getting existence from something else.
Exactly what that thing is has been subject to much debate -- Allah, for Avicenna; God for Aquinas; perhaps some meta-laws that give parameters to the expression of quantum fields for contemporary physics (but where and how do these laws exist?). The point is that the first existent exists by nature; everything that follows from it exists contingently.
Thus to exist is to be like the first thing -- like God, like Allah, like the ultimate source of reality and therefore of all goods. Indeed, for Avicenna and Aquinas, existence and 'the good' were the same thing. To die, insofar as that means 'to cease to exist,' is to lose a likeness and a connection to that thing. To die is only a good if you die to actualize some perfect and lasting virtue, some beauty or some good so strong that it even more perfectly ties you to that everlasting source of good. So says the Havamal: 'Cattle die, kinsmen die, and you also will die: but the one thing I know never dies is the fame of the heroic dead.'
Once that was the easy knowledge of pagan and heathen, Christian and Muslim alike. Now a professor of philosophy from Yale seems not to be aware that the argument ever existed at all.