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On Not Being
Peter Cave discusses the idea that not existing has never hurt anyone.
Permit me to introduce Mademoiselle Gazelle, a desirable and desired young woman, so named because of her gazellish sleek glidings through Soho’s streets – Mademoiselle Gazelle, with hair cascading, red lipstick a-glowing, radiating youth and beauty. An unlikely candidate for deathly discussions, she may seem, despite high living yens for champagne breakfasts, snortles of coke and amorous encounters.
I: Good evening, Mlle Gazelle.
Mlle G: Good evening, I.
I: You are here because of your death experiences?
Mlle G: In a way – though they have been neither experiences nor instances of death.
I: That’s baffling, not least because you have – metaphorically speaking – everything going for you; but if you don’t mind telling our readers, there is one… er… great defect to your life…?
Mlle G: Fine! Tell the whole world, but, yes, I have a teeny defect. I fail to be. I do not exist. To that extent I am like someone dead. Mind you, in other ways I am far, far, far from being like someone dead. For a start, I am not dead. Furthermore, I have experiences and am a gazelle – as you affectionately call me – who delights in life’s bounty.
I: But your lack of existence is – dare I say? – lack of something significant.
Mlle G: Fine! Stress that, if you must. At least I do not fail to exist in a maximal way. My status is not as bad as a round square’s. I am, after all, logically possible.
I: Well, the descriptions which I have of you are perfectly compatible and so could apply to an existent.
Mlle G: Quite – but I accept that deaths of existent people mark out less sweeping non-existences than mine. When we speak of the dead in the real world, we speak of those who once were, but who are no more.
I: Indeed, and for the sake of our talk, let us ignore cases where death is a blessed relief because of sufferings on earth; let us speak of those who have valuable lives, valuable in that at some stages they value or would value their lives.
Mlle G: And if, as we do, we consider deaths of the aged amongst such people as misfortunes for them because of loss of life, how much worse, we feel, are deaths of adult young and even children…
I: Once we move closer to newness, to origin, we may feel less concerned about the loss of life. A foetus aborted or miscarried may well cause less justified regret or pity than the death of a young child. As for fertilized ova failing to implant or ova being fertilization deprived or spermatozoa and ova missing a meeting or not even generated, well, then our concerns for those individuals who fail to develop are themselves non-existent.
Mlle G: If that’s how you think, you may care not at all about my failure to be. Fine!
I: Well, ’tis nothing personal, Mlle Gazelle. I have heard it said that no deaths are misfortunes. Sophocles wrote of the happiest being those who were never born. Maybe yet happier are those who are delightful figments – or maybe figments of delight – such as yourself, Mlle G.
Mlle G: What’s all this about death being no misfortune?
I: Well, once dead, there is no subject and so no subject left to have lost anything at all. ‘When death is there, we are not; when we are there, death is not’ said Epicurus – sagely no doubt. Of course, this assumes death is eternal annihilation.
Mlle G: A big assumption! – to which the rational response is that of the Cambridge professor of philosophy, Charles Dunbar Broad, whose injunction was ‘wait and see’. Let us accept though the assumption. Death may still be a misfortune for the dead.
I: Well, once dead we no longer have experiences and indeed no longer exist as subjects of possible experiences. And while we experience the dying and may undergo the ending of the dying as in the moment before death, the key concern about the dying is that it leads to the state of being dead and being no longer around.
Mlle G: Yes, invitations to private viewings, seaside trips and marmite tastings no longer arrive; and if they arrive in error, we can make no use of them.
I: But if we cannot experience being dead, because we have neither experiences nor exist as subjects of experiences, then why should death be considered a loss and hence a misfortune?
Mlle G: Yet people do fear death – take our good friend Oscar.
I: But it is irrational to fear death for oneself; and indeed irrational for others to feel it for me – though they may of course fear being left alone, having lost loved ones. It is rational to fear something only if it is a misfortune. And an event e at time t and a state s with duration from time tn to tn+1 can be a misfortune for Oscar only if at time t and at some time between tn and tn+1 Oscar is a subject who could have experiences.
Mlle G: But from death onwards, all times are times when Oscar does not exist as a subject at all.
I: Hence, the event of death and subsequent events and the state of being dead are no misfortunes for Oscar.
Mlle G: Your reasoning is valid, but you have a false premise. Misfortunes do not need to be experienced.
I: Well, at some point the misfortunes must be experienced even if not experienced as misfortunes.
Mlle G: Look, before Oscar was born or even conceived, his mother-to-be may have conducted such an outrageous drugged life that she was harming him. That was a misfortune.
I: But what made it some harming, when Oscar was unconceived, was that Oscar duly came about and underwent resultant sufferings. For this to be a harming of, and a misfortune for, Oscar before he was born, it is essential that he eventually experiences the misfortune, though he may know no better and recognize it as no misfortune. Misfortunes can be cloaked.
Mlle G: But some misfortunes occur of which you have no experience. Suppose that Oscar, living in Hong Kong, is married to Melissa and has children. Oscar values his family life; it is his highest priority and what he lives for. It is hugely important to him that Melissa should love him, that she is faithful and it is hugely important that his children love him. Suppose that Melissa frequently jet-sets abroad – she is a philosophy professor – and she has raw and romantic loveaffairs during which she expresses her disgust for Oscar. Suppose too that the children dislike Oscar; but they creep up to him to ensure flavour-of-the-month toys. Oscar believes he has got what he wants: a loving, devoted wife, adoring and adorable children. But he is deceived; he is betrayed. Is not Oscar undergoing a misfortune even though he knows not?
I: Well, okay, but one day he will find out.
Mlle G: Hold on, I, this is my thought experiment. Oscar simply does not and will not find out. That is logically possible. Does he not still undergo a misfortune?
I: No. Convince me otherwise.
Mlle G: Suppose two situations, the possibility – the possible world – which I outlined and another possibility, a possible world in which Melissa really is loving; the children really are adoring and adorable and merit no injunction to go play in the traffic. Which Oscar would you choose to be?
I: Well, the non-deceived one, but perhaps that is because I cannot erase my background knowledge. From within, it would be all the same; so why does it matter?
Mlle G: But from without, the situations are radically different. We possess values in addition to those to do with how things experientially impinge on us. We want knowledge, not false belief, even though sometimes we cannot spot the difference. We want love, not love’s mere appearance – respect, not mere mouthing of respect.
I: Maybe this is only because we see, in practice, the possibility of discovering the difference.
Mlle G: That possibility exists, even though Oscar will not discover the difference. But why should this possibility be so important? You might be confusing the possibility which results from not knowing how things will turn out with the metaphysical possibility of things turning out otherwise even though we know they will not.
I: I’m not sure.
Mlle G: Try this other line of reasoning for my view. Let me stress that I keep with the deception case, in which Oscar never finds out. Suppose Oscar were to find out. He would be distressed, but he would not be distressed about the finding out unless there was something distressing about what he found out about, thus showing that some features of reality were important to him, even though he may never have found out about them.
I: Maybe, but it might still be better for him not to find out.
Mlle G: Obviously. I am not saying that being in touch with reality should always take top priority. Ignorance is sometimes preferable. What we value, though, involves non-experiential features of a life as well as the experiential. How do they intermesh to make a flourishing happy life? – that probably has no single correct answer.
I: Okay, you have made your point through this highly artificial example regarding Oscar and Melissa.
Mlle G: Fine! But you ought not to concede so reluctantly. There are many cases of our not wanting to undergo things, even though we neither know about them nor have any experience them. Suppose Oscar is exceptionally modest and would hate the thought of being peeped upon when naked. A peeping-tommess would be bad for him, even though he never discovered her a-peeping. Or suppose you go into hospital with embarrassing conditions about which you feel highly vulnerable; and the medical staff mock you behind your back. Have you still not been harmed, undergone things which it would be better not to have done – even though you have not experienced them?
I: I see. I’ve heard of such medical goings-on. Indeed, I believe you have some modesty, so as a life class nude model, you might consider it a misfortune if the painters did not look upon you with formal eyes for lines and tone, but gazed at you with hidden lusts and sought to eye with gynaecological intimacy. Of course, you may be completely unaware of this, yet still it could be a misfortune.
Mlle G: Fine! You don’t think people should be sexually attracted to me? But, no, I agree that in as far as I valued the so-called professionalism of such situations, then, yes, I should be being harmed, even though unaware of the transgressions.
I: All the same, these examples contain a subject of experiences. Once death occurs, there is none.
Mlle G: Why should the subjects’ being in existence make any difference if, as we have agreed, they undergo misfortunes with no experiences of them. You are being coincidentalist, believing that misfortune occurrences must coincide with stretch of individuals’ existences. Would you not be harming Oscar, if parading embarrassing photographs of him moments after his death – or spitting on his corpse or ruining his reputation?
I: Well, er… yes.
Mlle G: There are two possible worlds again: the one in which these things happen to Oscar after his death and the one in which they do not. If you were Oscar, which would you prefer? If, as is impossible, Oscar were to exist after his death, would he not be distressed at what was happening in the one case rather than the other?
I: Okay; but are not things different with the state of being dead? How can that infinite state of not being be given any value, negative, positive or zero, for the deceased? How can it be compared with the additional years which Oscar, say, would have had, had he not met with an early death?
Mlle G: You compare the wrong things. Compare, say, the world in which Oscar lives to 40 against the world in which he lives to 70. The latter is more valuable to Oscar than the former; so his death at 40 was a misfortune.
I: But the misfortune is the same for all, for all have the same eternal death.
Mlle G: Oh, but different degrees of pity are appropriate.
Mlle G: Well, it is to do with how close we are to possible worlds in which the deaths have not occurred.
Mlle G: Supposing, as a real person, I, a 21 year old go swimming off Bondi Beach wearing only Obsession perfume and supposing Suzi is in the water, with obsession for Obsession. Suzi is six; she heads my way.
I: What of it?
Mlle G: Well, that’s the end of me. Oh, I forgot to mention, Suzi is a shark.
I: A big pity to end that way, Mlle Gazelle.
Mlle G: Quite – because we could easily conceive of a possibility in which I lived for say another 60 years. We just need to redirect the shark or not have my wearing Obsession. The laws of nature remain the same – we are just altering some items.
I: Okay. Mlle
G: But suppose now you, o aged one, aged 96. You don Obsession; and Suzi – lacking discernment, I add – goes for you. Well, in a similar close possible world, you would still only have say another three years to go; so your loss is much smaller.
I: But I could live to 1099.
Mlle G: Yes, but such a possible world would be more distant, needing radical changes in the nature of human beings, in genetic make-ups or whatever.
Mlle G: But now, suppose I do my Bondi Beach baring, but unbeknownst I am suffering from terminal diseases; so Suzi only deprives me of six months of life. This is not such a great loss as in the previous case; yet we may still note that we could then skip from the Suzi-free possible world to a further possible world in which I am Suzi and disease-free.
I: Ah, I see.
Mlle G: If so, it must be because you do not see your poor eyesight, because there are huge complexities about how to measure the closeness of possible worlds and indeed what counts as a change. Are Suzi and the disease connected? Do I merit more pity because of two disasters in my life or less pity, given I have the disease?
Mlle G: Here’s an example of one issue. Suppose Hong Kong Melissa decides to kill Oscar. She should do it with two bullets, one fired immediately after the other.
I: I’m baffled.
Mlle G: Bullet A kills Oscar, striking his brain. Bullet B hits the blood supply to his brain and would have killed him, but for his being dead through bullet A.
Mlle G: The first bullet only caused a loss of one second of his life, given the potential efficacy of bullet B. Bullet B did not kill him. Firing A lost him little; firing B was irrelevant. A wise judge, if encountering such defensive reasoning from Melissa’s lawyers, would resist the division into two distinct events. There was one finger, one trigger, one motive.
I: I am starting to see the compexities. I accept that death is a misfortune, but I recall Lucretius arguing that were that so, we should be distressed about the years of not being before birth; but we are not.
Mlle G: But would it be us in such earlier birth scenarios?
I: What do you mean?
Mlle G: We can easily make sense of how I or you could have avoided our deaths and lived longer – witness its still being me, had I survived death by Suzi the shark – but what would it be to have some extra life at the beginning? The aim is not to have longer womb or test-tube time.
I: But I could have been born earlier.
Mlle G: That is rather glib; but if so, that makes you, say, aged 65 today instead of 45. Is that an improvement?
I: Well, perhaps I’d be my age 45, but it is somehow twenty years earlier, 1980.
Mlle G: For that to lengthen your life, you need to live for twenty extra years beyond when you would have died; and that is just adding more time which is easy to grasp.
Mlle G: No, not okay. There persists the problem of making sense of its being you, born in 1935 instead of 1955, having early memories of war, of sexual repression during teens, of Alma Cogan and Vera Lynn – instead of teen memories of Stones, Bowie, dropping out and trials of Oz.
I: Well, perhaps prenatal non-being is not akin to post death non-being; but, contrary to my earlier thoughts, as death of the young is a greater misfortune than death of the elderly, so abortion and miscarriages must be even greater misfortunes for those individuals. They fail to get beyond the foetal stage.
Mlle G: If that is the reasoning, then those individuals would be harmed if conception is not permitted, be it through contraception or sexual abstinence.
Mlle G: You are being space-ist, counting things as individuals only if there is not much space between their parts, in contrast to the space between a spermatozoon and ovum before fertilization making you discount that combination as no individual at all. Let me explain another time. To avoid such absurdity slides, we must attend to conditions for personhood in personal identity and whether there exists something which undergoes a loss through early death. Just because a foetus is destroyed, it does not follow that there was an individual who underwent that lost.
I: This is because of consciousness lack?
Mlle G: Maybe that is the way to go – to avoid pitying destroyed fertilized ova or ova and spermatozoa not getting things together. For such pity would be absurd – as opposed to pitying me for my non-existence. For contrary to my initial suggestion, I am not akin to an embryo failing to develop. As you can tell, I am well developed – and teaching you lots.
I: Well, Mlle G, you certainly manifest considerable spirited argument as well as much charm and beauty, if not intellectual modesty.
Mlle G: So you can see how much it is a loss to me, a misfortune, that I fail to be.
I: I’m not so sure, Mlle Gazelle, for you are creature of my reckless phantasizing. Even if there were someone so called, satisfying these internally consistent gazellish descriptions, it would not be you, my Mlle Gazelle. It would be but coincidence that what I had conjured in odd conjurings happened to have an existent counterpart. I conjured and so could make no mistake about your characteristics. Had I been seeking to refer to an existent, then such infallibility would not hold.
Mlle G: What are you trying to tell me?
I: In no possible world do you exist. And for it to be a misfortune for you, we need sense (as you have stressed) of its being you who gains the existence otherwise lost.
Mlle G: Fine! And do you know what I am going to do next as a result?
Mlle G: Need I say more?
© Peter Cave 2000
Apart from gazelle discoursing, Peter Cave, while being, lectures in philosophy at the Open University and City University. During his earlier not being – and his not being yet to come – little is known.
On the Nature of the Universe
“Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead. Is there anything terrifying in the sight – anything depressing – anything that is not more restful than the soundest sleep?”
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe , 960 seq.
“The fallacy lies in the confusion of thought which attempts to compare existence with non-existence. A person who is already in existence may feel that he would rather have lived than not, but he must first have the terra firma of existence to argue from: the moment he begins to argue as if from the abyss of the non-existent, he talks nonsense, by predicating good or evil, happiness or unhappiness, of that of which we can predicate nothing.”
H. Salt, ‘Animals’ Rights’, quoted in Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1979.