Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Death and presentism

By "death" in this post, I shall mean the permanent cessation of the existence of a person. I do not know if death occurs (it does not occur among human persons), or even if it is metaphysically possible (it might be incompatible with divine goodness). Presentism is the view that only presently existent things and present events exist. Eternalism is the view that there are pastly and futurely existent things and past and future events. Growing Block is the view that there are pastly existent things and past events but no future ones (there are two versions of Growing Block, depending on what one says about the present).

The following argument is valid:

  1. Death in and of itself is tragic. (Premise)
  2. Existing within one region in space-time and being wholly absent from another region or set of regions in space-time is not in and of itself tragic. (Premise)
  3. If Presentism is false, then Growing Block or Eternalism is true. (Premise)
  4. If Growing Block or Eternalism is true, then a person's being dead at t consists in his existing in the region of space-time prior to t and being wholly absent from the region of space time spanning from t onward. (Premise)
  5. Therefore, if Growing Block or Eternalism is true, death in and of itself is not tragic. (By (2) and (4))
  6. Therefore, if Presentism is false, death in and of itself is not tragic. (By (3) and (5))
  7. Therefore, Presentism is true. (By (1) and (6))

Now, one might worry that some deaths are tragic, such as those of good or happy persons, while others, those of bad or unhappy persons, are not. I am inclined to disagree, but I think the argument can be modified to handle this, for instance by modifying (2) to say that existing within one region and being wholly absent from another while being happy and good in the first region is not in and of itself tragic.

This seems to me to be a powerful argument for Presentism, as long as the Presentist can tell us what on her view makes death tragic that does not succumb to a similar argument. And I think she can do that. To be presently dead is tragic in that one does not exist even though one had existed. (This is not an instance of occupying one space-time region rather than another.) And that one will be dead is tragic in that its being the case that something tragic will happen is already tragic.

But I am still an eternalist B-theorist. So what do I deny in the argument? I have to admit that I have intuitions in favor of each of (1)-(4). But I think we can distinguish the intrinsic tragedy of death in two ways. First, we can think of the tragedy of death for the dead person, and second, we can think of the tragedy of his death for others or for the universe. When we talk of tragedy-for-others, I think we have reason to deny (2). For, yes, the total absence of a person from regions of space-time can be tragic for others, since it can entail that they cannot futurely meet this person, etc.

But the "in and of itself" in (1) and (2) probably signals that we're talking of the tragedy-for-self. But then we can actually build an argument against Presentism:

  1. It is tragic for the dead person that she is now dead. (Premise)
  2. Nothing is tragic for someone who does not exist. (Premise)
  3. If Presentism is true, someone who does not now exist does not exist. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, if Presentism is true, nothing is tragic for someone who does not now exist. (By (9) and (10))
  5. Therefore, Presentism is false. (By (8) and (11))
Now we have true paradox. We have premises (1)-(4) which are all plausible and entail that Presentism is true, and premises (8)-(10) which are all plausible and entail that Presentism is false. We need to resolve this paradox. I do so, rather cautiously and not fully satisfied with this, by denying (1) and (8). What matters vis-à-vis the person himself is not so much the continuation of existence (death being its opposite), but an internal temporally infinite existence, as I have suggested in some past posts (e.g., see this one). Let me end by summarizing (perhaps in different form) some of the ideas from these posts.

Suppose that I live alone. It is, then, no better for me to live a hundred chronometric years of fulfilling and blissful spiritual and mathematical activity than it is to live fifty years of the same activity sped up by a factor of two. Well, then, it is no better for me to live for an infinite number of chronometric years, than to live the same activity at an ever increasing pace over the period of a hundred years, by having one's functioning sped up by a factor of two for the first fifty chronometric years, another factor of two for the next twenty-five, another factor of two for the next 12.5, and so on. That at the end of a hundred chronometric years I will be dead is no tragedy for me, if I have lived this life of infinite internal temporal length.

Or suppose that I have a space-time travel machine, an elixir of eternal youth and our universe is infinite spatially. In 2030, I will use my space-time machine to travel to the year 2000 in some other galaxy[note 1]. There I will live thirty good and meaningful years, and then in 2030, I will move to the year 2000 in another galaxy. And so on. Note that I do not exist in 2031 or at any later date. So I die before 2031. (Necessary truth: If I do not exist at t, but existed earlier, then I died before t.) But this death is no tragedy for me, because I am assured of an internally infinite span of good and meaningful life.

So, I cautiously deny (1) and (8) in the case of tragedy for the person. Therefore, I cannot accept either the first argument, which was for Presentism, nor the second, which was against.

9 comments:

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's perhaps a better way out of the paradox. Distinguish two senses of "death", dependent on whether "cessation of existence" is understood in terms of external chronometric time or internal time. We can call these "external death" and "internal death". If we're talking of external death, then (1) and (8) are false, as per the arguments at the end of the post. If we're talking of internal death, then (1) and (8) are true. However, (4) is not true of internal death. Hence, in the case of internal death, the argument for Presentism is unsound, but the argument against Presentism still seems sound.

Tim said...

Alex,

You define death in a way that I wouldn't. I would think of death as a fundamental mutilation of a person (whereby the body and soul are separated). I think that death is tragic because any fundamental mutilation of a person is tragic. But I'm not sure that death in your sense is tragic. Or, at least, that the main reason I'm inclined to think that death in your sense is tragic is because I'm inclined to think that death (in my sense) is tragic. It might be your word choice that leads me to be sympathetic to premise 1.

Now if we define death in the way that I define it above, then the eternalist should deny 4. Death doesn't consist of existing at one time and not at another, death consists of being ripped (metaphysical) limb from (metaphysical) limb. Death consists of mutilation of a person, and that is always tragic. Sure, death entails existing at one time and not at another, but tragedy isn't closed under entailment; death also entails that 2=2=4, but that isn't tragic.

Later you write: "Note that I do not exist in 2031 or at any later date. So I die before 2031. (Necessary truth: If I do not exist at t, but existed earlier, then I died before t.) But this death is no tragedy for me, because I am assured of an internally infinite span of good and meaningful life."

I deny that this truth is necessary. In the case you imagine, you don't die before 2031, since you aren't mutilated body from soul before 2031. Or you both die and don't die before 2031, since the conditional is a counterpossible. :)

Best,
Tim

Alexander R Pruss said...

Tim:

I considered using the term "pdeath" in place of "death" to emphasize the stipulative nature of the first sentence of my post. I do think that death for human beings is something like the mutilation you mention (I'd prefer to talk about it as the complete destruction of the body(soma)--the corpse is not a body(soma).)

My initial intuition, eventually modified by the internal/external distinction, is that pdeath is worse than death in the mutilation sense.

Suppose George is dying. He thinks that he is about to undergo pdeath--cessation of existence (and there is no time travel here or anything like that). He is scared. He wants to continue living. But then he becomes convinced that he has a soul which survives death, so that what he is facing is not pdeath but death in the mutilation sense (separation of soul and body, or maybe destruction of body), and he will continue to exist afterwards.

Isn't that good news for George? (Unless perhaps he expects to exist in suffering afterwards.) Surely it is. But if it is, then death in the mutilation sense is not as bad as pdeath.

Enigman said...

Do (2) and (4) lead to (5)? Let "P" be short for "existing in the region of space-time prior to t and being wholly absent from the region of space time spanning from t onward," let "R" be short for "existing within some region in space-time and being wholly absent from some other region or set of regions in space-time," and let "D" stand for death and "T" for "tragic." Then you have (2) it is not true that if x is R then x is T, and the consequent of (4) if x is D then x is P. Does it follow that it is not true that if x is D then x is T?

Alexander R Pruss said...

How about this way of making that part of the argument go.

I think the right way to understand (2) is that for no regions A and B is it the case that it is intrinsically tragic to exist in A but be wholly absent from B. Then, let A be the region up to t, and B the region after t, and by (4) death at t consists in existing in A but being wholly absent from B, which is not intrinsically tragic.

Enigman said...

But then (2) is more obviously false, e.g. let A be some region wherein particularly tragic things occur - or are likely to occur - and let B be the region wherein they are not. It seems implsusible to me that there could not be any such pair of regions, even if that pair does not work for some reason...
I was thinking of (2) as saying that R was insufficient for T, which seems relatively plausible (whence my problem was that if x is P then x is R rather than vice versa).

More importantly I doubt that George would be scared of pdeath, but would rather be scared of what might be, of possible mutilations and associated agonies. He might be scared of feeling the total absences of reassuring things, or habitual pleasures, but that is just confused, and so would not make pdeath bad...
Pdeath is literally nothing to worry about, whereas (as you say) the prospect of continuing as a soul is only a happy one if one does not also anticipate further mutilation and associated suffering...
Or maybe he is scared by the meaninglessness of his life, which the prospect of pdeath is forcing him to consider. If so then, although pdeath would keep it meaningless, the problem is not pdeath (more of the same would be just as meaningless).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Enigman:

Think of a region of spacetime as just as set of spacetime points. Let us suppose A is a region where bad stuff happens and B one where things are really nice.

Is it in and of itself tragic that George exists in A but not in B, then? No. What is tragic here is only the conjunction that George exists in A but not in B and bad stuff also happens in A but not B.

Enigman said...

Hmm... similarly it is not R that is the problem, but P.

Enigman said...

...at least, for the Growing Block option (I think you may be right about the logic of (5) for Eternalism:)