Review: Annihilation by Christopher Belshaw

Douglas Murphy explores the meaning of death

Annihilation: The Sense and Significance of Death
by Christopher Belshaw
(UK: Acumen; US: McGill-Queen’s University Press)

death200As the saying goes, death is one of only two certainties in life. Everything that has ever lived has died; you, I, and everybody we have ever known will one day die. For something that is all around us, we spend very little of our time thinking about death. In fact, we seem to spend an awful lot of our time trying not to think about it. But are we even sure just what, exactly, “death” is? Does death have meaning? And can philosophy help us try to understand death? Christopher Belshaw’s Annihilation sets out to address these questions.

This is not a study of the cultures surrounding death, or of the ugly process of dying, but a hearty jaunt through recent ethical thought, asking only a few simple questions: “What is death?”, “Is it bad that we die?”, “How bad is death?” Belshaw frames these questions with thoroughness, consistency and clarity, shedding light on other thinkers such as Derek Parfit, and the book is at its best and most informative when it is weighing up the various positions on its subject matter. Although the book is theoretical rather than immediately practical, there is much in it that can be applied to genuine ethical situations, especially medical and legal problems.

Before we can hope to think ethically about death, we must first try to make sure that we know what death itself is. Belshaw sets out his definition clearly, and it governs the book as a whole; for him, death is “the irreversible breakdown of, or loss of function in, the organism as a whole.” He opposes this view to, on the one hand, those who see death primarily in terms of the brain, and, on the other hand, those who hold that the disappearance of personality is commensurate with death. In this way, he avoids both a vulgar materialism of mere flesh, and a dualist view of the subject that would involve any kind of mind-body opposition. The sacrifice is that he has to give up an exhaustive account of death, leaving ambiguities remaining: how indivisible is an organism? Can we ever say with certainty that a death event is irreversible? How much physical and mental change can a human go through before their identity changes also?

To grapple with, if not answer, these questions the book deals with an impressive array of scenarios, including brains in jars, teleporting, transplants, posthumous betrayal and the obligatory whom-do-I-rescue? dilemma, and Belshaw elucidates these examples with a witty and conversational style. While mostly useful, the hypothetical future scenarios occasionally become too reductive to be informative, for example when Belshaw compares lives in terms of points scored for a good year, and decides that for some poor soul “it is evident that dying early has cost him 200 points.” For a reader seeking to deepen their understanding of human death, this approach is a concept of subjectivity that is far too simplistic to be useful.

The majority of the book deals with the “badness” of death: whether or not death can really be said to “harm” us, against the Epicurean position, whereby death, as non-existence, cannot be said to be in any way harmful to the person who has died, Belshaw suggests that death is harmful to us if it deprives us of future good in our lives. He justifies this by arguing that we need not be aware of a harmful event to be harmed by it, and that the lack of future good, even if we have returned to the void, is something that causes us harm. But this seems to necessitate a third angle to his hybrid-subject: our existence for the other. If there is harm, but the harmed no longer exist, there must be an observer to register this harm. Belshaw is reluctant to expand upon this, as it would necessitate a more cultural approach.

Overall the book is very enjoyable; Belshaw writes in a clear, informative and humorous manner, providing a worthwhile summary of a variety of positions on death, but at times his unwillingness to commit to strong positions makes for a somewhat timid read. Too often, when unable to decide between two competing arguments, he concludes that we are “as close as one can expect to get” to an answer, before swiftly moving on. This cautiousness means that the book is not as much of an outlandish read as David Benatar’s recent Better Never to Have Been, a bombastically deadpan argument that all life is invariably harmful and should never be begun in the first place. But also, with its narrow focus, Annihilation leaves much unsaid. A truly comprehensive study of the significance of death would have to deal with collective questions of extinction, political power over life, and what it might actually mean to be “alive” in the first place.

Douglas Murphy is writing his first book, The Architecture of Failure (Zero Books)

  1. Lately I’ve been thinking about the other end of this essay’s topic, viz. birth. I have come to the conclusion expressed by Benatar in the title of his book, Better Never to Have Been. I’m not bombastic about it; I don’t get much of a chance to express my opinions about the subject. But it is pretty clear that human life is extremely harmful to the planet and a danger to a great many species, including our own. And for those who have to go through the experience of life, it’s a constant battle to maintain any semblance of sanity, most of it waged against the reality of death.
    So, why live in the first place? Unfortunately, none of us had the slightest chance to voice an opinion about it, and I doubt if our parents considered their actions, that of producing a human life, if at all, in the light of what it means to bring something from nonentity to being. A human being, in particular. Sensible, intelligent people do consider a number of all the usual responsibilities of having children. They almost always convince themselves they will be excellent parents and bang, a new life is started. I’ve never heard of parents-to-be question what the morality of creating a being destined to die is. If you question yourself whether you would have preferred never having been born, don’t confuse it with whether you want to continue living. Now that we’re here, almost all of us want to remain put. Alive. But that’s not the same thing as being thrown into the unenviable position of facing death.
    I recently read a mid-19th century sci-fi novel, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille. In it is a race of people who cherish the idea of death and look forward to it as we might look forward to some tremendously wonderful event. Although the premise is problematic, I couldn’t help think it made more sense than what we have, the terror of death. These people could legitimately say they were giving a gift to the unborn since life had a purpose, one constantly look towards, happily.

  2. to r sabella.

    whilst im not going to disagree that weve had a negative effect on the planets natural state (i live on a very busy road) im not so sure about the rest. the morality of bringing a thing doomed to die to life, for me at least, is an utter moot point; any event that is destined or certain to occur cannot be a moral action, simply due to the time span involved. such a view would have (as an extreme example i guess) hitlers mother decried as one of the most evil people ever, since before he died he managed to burn all of europe up in flames and wipe out a lot of innocent people.
    as to the novel i cant comment beyond saying i prefer hate or terror of death to love of it, as ones death cannot be a true purpose in life as it is self defeating and contradictory, a purpose is something to attain, death is the end of being able to attain anything, and id say that those who seek death do so because they have no purpose, and dont have the strength to make one for themselves.

  3. Hey Andrew,
    Thanks for the response to my comment.
    As I pointed out the novel is sci-fi and the premise of a death loving race is layered with problems. Death to these people is their ultimate goal. If they go into a battle, everyone wants to lead the charge, and if they’re not killed they’re bummed out about it. Though senseless to us, they live their lives in eager expectation of death. Under the circumstances, they could say, when they procreate, they are giving the gift of this exciting anticipation to their child. We can’t make any such claim for our offspring.
    You say “any event that is destined or certain to occur cannot be a moral action.” I’m sure you’re right, but we’re not talking about something destined to happen. It (the birth of the child) only occurs because the parents bring it about. It’s the morality of conception which I question.

  4. hmm…i would say that so long as nothing untoward happens at a planetwide or cosmic level (another extinction event for example) that life is every bit as certain as death; it is literally hard coded into us that we procreate (not necessarily at an individual level, but at the level of a species as a whole we just cant seem to stop), as such procreation is not necessarily any more a moral event as (natural/accidental) death is. and on a slightly more flippant note death is only inevitable so long as there is something to die :)

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