Ebert, Hume and Lucretius on death

Ebert

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris. – Roger Ebert

The devout can’t abide such sentiments: in the comments on Ebert’s article (republished by Salon following his death), some of them have chimed in, and kept digging (sorry, I couldn’t resist giving that latter one a well deserved kick). Ebert didn’t call himself an atheist, of course, but clearly saw no reason to believe in an afterlife.

Hume

This reminded me of Boswell’s visit to Hume as Hume was dying. Boswell writes:

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘Mr Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.’ ‘No, no,’ said he. ‘But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.’ In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history.

It seems Boswell suffered DOUBT (as the archivist at the National Library of Scotland has it) as a chronic sinus sufferer. Visiting an apparently contented unbeliever on their deathbed can’t be good for your sinuses: you’ll get a worldview defence reaction from all those thoughts about death.

Lucretius

I’ve been reading Lucretius after Ken MacLeod’s recommendation. Stallings‘s translation into rhyming couplets is quite jolly:

None’s consigned to the pit, to patch-black Tartarus, below –
Future generations need material to grow.
And they, when life is through, shall follow you into the grave,
As those that came before, no less than you, wave after wave.
Thus one thing arises from another – it will never cease.
No one is given life to own; we all hold but a lease.
Look back again – how the endless ages of time come to pass
Before our birth are nothing to us. This is a looking glass
Nature holds up for us in which we see the time to come
After we finally die. What is it there that looks so fearsome?
What’s so tragic? Isn’t it more peaceful than any sleep?

The death panel: Nagel

The Skepticon atheist Death Panel weren’t quite convinced by an argument that nothing has been lost: Julia Galef quotes Nagel (at around 28:22), who points out that we feel that someone who is reduced to the state of a newborn infant by a brain injury has lost something, even though that person was a newborn infant in the past. So I agree with Nagel (and Yudkowsky, who turns out to be a pretty funny speaker) that death is bad. But Lucretius is also concerned with the people who don’t want their corpse to be cremated because they think it might hurt, or who fear a Hell or somehow experiencing oblivion as being entombed forever: as he and Hume and Ebert knew, such fears have no foundation.