What does it all mean? (II)
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sensation, and death is the privation of all sensation. [...] Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.Thus Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus. His arguments – there are others, too – prompt a standard reply: even if (what seems doubtful) pleasure and pain are the only things that matter in life, death may still come as a harm to us in depriving us of the pleasure we would otherwise have had.
Suppose that is right. Would it be enough to justify our attitude to death? If death is not bad for us, there is no reason to fear it. But the converse is less clear: not everything bad is worthy of fear. Fear has to do with the uncertain. It is just as irrational to be afraid of an inevitable harm as it is of something harmless. The proper emotion is dread, or resentment, or grim resignation. In any case, the violence of my terrified reaction to the prospect of death is completely out of proportion to the deprivation that orthodox philosophers describe. If I am not irrational in this, the answer to Epicurus must have left something out. But what?
Here is my conjecture, which takes us back to our original topic: if you know the meaning of life, you will not be afraid to die. If life has meaning, it must be something to reconcile us to extinction – even if it does so by denying that the death of the body is the death of the soul. That is why I was not satisfied, last time, by the teleological interpretation of the meaning of life, at least when it is unadorned. Even if I believed in it, I would still be frozen with anxiety at the thought of death. What justifies this fear (as it seems to me) is the thought that life is meaningless.
Wittgenstein made it fashionable to defend non-cognitivism about religious conviction: what we call "belief" here is a certain attitude, not the representation of a fact. Hence his impatience with The Golden Bough:
Frazer's account of the magical and religious views of mankind is unsatisfactory: it makes these views look like errors. Was Augustine in error, then, when he called upon God on every page of the Confessions?In his book, On the Meaning of Life, John Cottingham flirts with a version of this:
[Faith] is hard to describe in purely cognitive terms; for it is not primarily characterisable in terms of propositions assented to, but is a matter of a certain orientation in which emotions and beliefs and practices of worship and moral convictions merge together in what Wittgenstein called a 'passionate commitment' to a certain form of life.This approach to the spiritual can be tempting, but if I am right about death and the meaning of life, then it must be wrong. To grasp the meaning of life – which religion is meant to provide – it is not sufficient to undergo a non-cognitive change through which one ceases to fear death. (Therapy or yoga might do that.) Instead one has to know something that makes it wrong to be afraid. This knowledge may depend on emotional transformation; but it must be knowledge all the same.
To know an answer to the question 'What is the meaning of human life?' means to be religious.
So Einstein claimed. And while his statement must be qualified, at least this much is true: knowledge of God is sufficient for knowledge of meaning (if there is any such thing). Since knowledge of meaning is cognitive, so is knowledge of God.