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Dworkin-Nagel 1

Aggregated here are several attempts to address that simple question. Why do you want to stay alive?

Though they arrive there from different byways, each thinker finally rests on the same idea: the reason why we want to stay alive is, simply, to perpetuate our existence. We want to stay alive to stay alive. Sound absurd, or absurdly tautological? It’s not, at least in my view. The value we place in life has little to do with projected positive experiences — the quivering line graph that registers whether we’re ecstatic one moment, unsatisfied the next. Rather, what we want is to continue the oft-banal experience of merely existing. Read on. See if you agree.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, speaking through the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov in Part II, Chapter 6 of Crime and Punishment:

‘Where is it,’ thought Raskolnikov. ‘Where is it I’ve read that some one condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!… How true it is! Good God, how true! Man is a vile creature!… And vile is he who calls him vile for that,’ he added a moment later.

In a recent interview with Jenny Attiyeh, Jim Holt, author of the existential mystery Why Does the World Exist?, reflected on the question and offered a level-headed and explicit answer:

Interviewer: Jim, in your work there are some themes that keep reappearing, notably religion and mortality… do you think that perhaps you’re getting a little bit worried about death?

Holt: Actually I think in many ways it would be a good career move for me [laughs], and it would solve almost all of my problems.

I think that life is — and I don’t know what your life is like — but mine sort of hovers around the zero point that separates pleasure from pain and happiness from misery. And every once in a while I’ll get a little spike into the happiness region, but then I’ll immediately go back down close to the zero point, or creep below that into the misery region. Yet I fluctuate around that point. And what I really cherish about life is being conscious. And to me that’s the subjective counterpart to the question ‘Why should the universe exist?’: ‘Why should consciousness exist? Why should my self exist?’

And what interests me is the way that philosophers have tried to take the sting out of death by various arguments that go back to the Epicureans. Lucretius and Epicurus himself said, ‘Well, don’t get so worried about death because your nonexistence after you die is just the mirror image of your nonexistence before you were born.’

And you didn’t worry about not existing the centuries before you were born, so why should you worry about not existing after your death?

The great Thomas Nagel rigorously deconstructed the idea in his magisterial book The View from Nowhere:

People are attracted to the possibility of long-term suspended animation or freezing, followed by the resumption of conscious life, because they can regard it from within simply as a continuation of their present life. If these techniques are ever perfected, what from outside appeared as a dormant interval of three hundred years could be experienced by the subject as nothing more than a sharp discontinuity in the character of his experiences. I do not deny, or course, that this has its own disadvantages. Family and friends may have died in the meantime; the language may have changed; the comforts of social, geographical, and cultural familiarity would be lacking. Nevertheless those inconveniences would not obliterate the basic advantage of continued, thought discontinuous, existence.

It is being alive, doing certain things, having certain experiences, that we consider good. But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or nonexistent, or unconscious, that is objectionable. This asymmetry is important. If it is good to be alive, that advantage can be attributed to a person at each point of his life. It is good of which Bach had more than Schubert, simply because he lived longer. Death, however, is not an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust. If death is a disadvantage, it is not easy to say when a man suffers it.

If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.

Saul Frampton reflects on Montaigne and the question of existence for existence’s sake in his book When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?:

Sometime towards the end of the sixteenth century, Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, reached up to the ceiling of his library and scratched off an inscription he had placed there some years before…

The inscription Montaigne erased was a line from the Roman poet Lucretius: Nec nova vivendo procuditur ulla voluptas — There is no new pleasure to be gained by living longer. It was a sentiment he had previously held dear to. Like most thinkers of his time, Montaigne followed a Christian and a Stoic philosophy, where life was seen as preparation for the afterlife and the task of philosophy was to harden oneself against the vicissitudes of fortune…

But Montaigne’s erasing of the words of Lucretius from the ceiling of his library also marks an amazing reversal in Montaigne’s outlook over the course of his writing – a shift from a philosophy of death to a philosophy of life.

And Montaigne’s writing overflows with life. In over a hundred essays and around half a million words he records every thought, every taste and sensation that crosses his mind. He writes essays on sleep and on sadness, on smells and friendship, on children and sex and death. And, as a final testament, he writes an essay on experience, in which he contemplates the wonder of human existence itself.

And, to close, Sam Harris nodded at the significance of life’s most mundane pleasures in a recent online Q&A:

Questioner: Is is not objectively better never to have been? What flaw is there in the nonexistent state?

Harris: It is impossible to eat pancakes there.


Have more to add? Send them my way: john[at]jrbenjamin.com.

The picture is of the headiest pancake breakfast of all time: Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel shooting the breeze at the local diner.

I’ve done this sort of agreement among geniuses thing before: