Monday, July 24, 2017

Death, harm and time

For the sake of this post, stipulate death to be permanent cessation of existence. Epicurus famously argues that death is not a harm to one, because the living aren’t harmed by death while the dead do not exist.

As formulated, the argument appears to require presentism—the view that only presently existing things exist. If eternalism or growing block is true, the dead would exist, albeit pastly. This would give us a nice little argument against presentism:

  1. If presentism is true, the Epicurean argument is sound. (Premise)

  2. The conclusion of the Epicurean argument—namely, that death is not a harm—is absurd. (Premise)

  3. So, presentism is false.

But things aren’t quite so simple, because one can reconstruct an Epicurean argument without presentism.

  1. One is intrinsically harmed by x iff there is a time t at which one is intrinsically harmed by x. (Premise)

  2. One is intrinsically harmed at t by x only if one exists at t. (Premise)

  3. One is not intrinsically harmed by death at any time at which one exists. (Premise)

  4. One is not intrinsically harmed by death at any time. (5 and 6)

  5. One is not intrinsically harmed by death. (4 and 7)

This argument distinguishes intrinsic from extrinsic harm. Here’s an illustration of the distinction I have in mind: if I lose a finger, that’s an intrinsic harm; if people say bad things about me behind my back, that’s an extrinsic harm—unless it causally impacts me in some negative way. Epicurus didn’t seem to think there was such a thing as extrinsic harm, so he formulated his argument in terms of harm as such. But, really, his argument was only plausible with respect to intrinsic harm, in that a no longer existent person certainly could suffer extrinsic harms, say by losing reputation or having loved ones suffer harm. And the conclusion that death is not an intrinsic harm is implausible enough. Death seems to be among the worst of the intrinsic harms. (In particular, I think my little argument against presentism remains a good one even if we weaken the conclusion of the Epicurean argument to say that death is not an intrinsic harm.)

Of course, the conclusion (8) is still false! So which premise is false?

Here is a pretty convincing argument for (5):

  1. One is intrinsically harmed at t by x only if has or lacks an intrinsic property at t because of x. (Premise)

  2. One does not have or lack any intrinsic properties at times when one doesn’t exist. (Premise)

  3. So, (5) is true.

Premise (6) is also pretty plausible.

Premise (4) is also plausible.

But there is a way out of the argument. If four-dimensionalism is true, we have a good way to reject (4). Consider first the spatial analogue of (4):

  1. One is intrinsically harmed by x if and only if there is a point z in space at which one is intrinsically harmed by x.

But (12) is implausible. Consider a spherical plant that suffers the harm of being made cylindrical. To be distorted into an unnatural shape seems to be an intrinsic harm. But it need not an intrinsic harm locatable at any point in space. At any point in space where the plant is not, surely it’s not harmed. At points where the plant is, it might be harmed—say, by the stresses induced by the unnatural shape—but it need not be. We could, in fact, suppose that the plant is nowhere stressed, etc. The harm is simply the intrinsic harm of being deformed. For another example, suppose materialism is true, and consider an animal in pain. The pain is an intrinsic harm, plausibly, but there is no harm at any single point of the brain—only at a larger chunk of the brain.

What the examples show is that spatially extended objects can be intrinsically harmed in respect of properties that cannot be localized to a single point. If four-dimensionalism is true, we are also temporally extended. We should then expect the possibility of being intrinsically harmed in respect of properties that cannot be localized to a single instant of time, and hence we should not believe (4). And death seems to be precisely such a case: one is harmed by having only a finite extent in the temporally forward direction. This could be just as much an intrinsic harm as being spatially distorted.

In fact, once we see the analogy between harm not located at a point of space and harm not located at a point of time, it is easy to find other counterexamples to (4). Consider a life of unremitting boredom. Suppose someone lives from t1 to t2 and is bored at every time. At every time t between t1 and t2 she suffers the intrinsic harm of being bored; but she has the additional temporally non-punctual intrinsic harm of being always bored. Or suppose that materialism is true. Then just as pains do not happen in respect of properties at a single spatial point, they probably do not happen in respect of properties at a single instant either: pain likely requires a sequence of neural events.

In fact, the multiplication of examples is sufficiently easy that even apart from the more abstruse question of the harms of death, someone whose theory of time or persistence forces her to endorse (4) is in trouble.

But on reflection, the moves against three-dimensionalism and maybe even presentism were too quick. Maybe even the presentist can say that we have intrinsic properties which hold in virtue of how we are over a temporally extended period of time.


Red said...

Have you dealt with the argument for Presentism found in work of Craig(and others) that on Eternalism God can't ever really defeat or remove Evil from the creation?

Unknown said...

Of course (as you probably had in mind, considering your initial disclaimer), premise 1 requires that death be the permenant cessation of the deceased's existence, and until that's established as true or more plausibly true than false one must suspend judgement with respect to this argument against presentism. Great post either way, though!

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think that needs to be established. Rather, define the word "death*" to mean permanent cessation of existence. Then run the rest of the arguments using "death*" instead of "death". It is clear, I think, that death* is intrinsically bad for one -- and this is true whether or not anybody actually suffers from death* (I think no one suffers from death*).

Alexander R Pruss said...


I haven't written on this. I counter with the idea that if presentism is true, there are evils that are unjustified, because their justification has yet to occur. :-)