Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument (LSA):

  1. My previous pre-vital nonexistence is not, and was not, bad for me.

  2. My previous pre-vital nonexistence is relevantly similar to my forthcoming post-mortem nonexistence—that is, just as it is true to say that my going out of existence sooner than I might have means that I will end up having done less, having experienced less, having accomplished less, etc. than I otherwise would have, so it is also true to say that my coming into existence later than I might have means that I will end up having done less, having experienced less, having accomplished less, etc. than I otherwise would have. 

  3. Therefore, my forthcoming post-mortem nonexistence is not, and will not be, bad for me.

This argument challenges the deprivation account of the badness of death, the view that holds that death is not intrinsically bad (as, say, suffering is) but is extrinsically bad, for it deprives us of the goods of life. The challenge arises, because it seems that my pre-vital and post-mortem non-existences are symmetrical with respect to depriving me of the goods of life.

Many philosophers are attracted to the deprivation account, as am I, and so must reject either premise 1 or 2 above. Many deny premise 2, arguing that it is metaphysically impossible for a person to come into existence substantially earlier (or later) than he or she actually did. Some argue that I couldn’t have come into existence substantially earlier, for anyone who came into existence substantially earlier would have arisen from different gametes and therefore not been me. Others argue that even if we’re talking about the same zygote (stemming from the same two gametes) being unfrozen and implanted at different times, we would still not have an example of the same person coming into existence at different times, because the products of those two implantations would be neither psychologically continuous nor sufficiently psychologically connected with one another and so can’t count as being one and the same person, and thus we would not have a case of the same person existing earlier than he in fact did. Here, the idea is roughly that if I was born at an earlier time, I would have had different experiences, memories, desires, etc.

It seems to me, though, that we can get around such worries about premise 2 with the following example. Let’s suppose that I find out that I might be leading one of two possible lives: A or B. Both A and B arise from the same (numerically identical) zygote and womb. Indeed A and B are identical lives in all but their mental properties. And from 2000-2010, they are even identical in their mental properties: their beliefs, emotions, desires, memories, psychological dispositions, etc. are all the same during that period of time. The only difference between the two lives is that whereas life A is a zombie life (a zombie being physically identical but completely unconscious) from 1968-2000, life B is a zombie life from 2010-2042. See the graph below. The pluses indicate that the light is on inside (i.e., consciousness is there) whereas the minuses indicate there is no light on inside (it’s a physically identical zombie there).

|1968               |2000   |2005   |2010               |2042

A         —————–+++++++++++++++++++++

B         +++++++++++++++++++++—————–

Given this sort of example, it seems to me that premise 2 of LSA is true. My pre-vital non-existence from 1968-2000 in life A is symmetrical to my postmortem non-existence from 2010-2042 in life B does. But, in this case, I think that we should deny premise 1. As a result of my not having come into existence in 1968 in life A, I missed out on a lot of experiences, many of them pleasant ones. (I’m assuming that I am an essentially conscious being and so didn’t come into existence until consciousness began.) Moreover, it seems to me that my being deprived of these pleasant experiences was bad for me. So I think that perhaps the best move for those who accept the deprivation account is to deny premise 1 rather than deny premise 2. What do others think is the best response to LSA?

7 Replies to “Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument (LSA):

  1. Some very rough thoughts:
    Many people judge “what’s good/bad for me” in terms like pleasure or consciousness or even what you’ve accomplished. A common feature of these is that they make the value of a time-slice of life dependent on intrinsic properties of the time-slice. For instance, the hedonist tells us to just sum up all the pleasure in a life: when or in what context it happens is irrelevant. If you take this view, then symmetry is appealing, and lives A and B look about the same.
    But there is a quite different approach to the value of a life. That is to think that there is some arc of development, or narrative, or what have you that a life goes through. The value of an earlier part of the life is, on this kind of view, functional: it has the value of playing a role in a larger drama that has yet to get worked out. It does not particularly matter when the life begins, but it does matter when it ends, in that things need to get wrapped up appropriately.
    An analogy: suppose you go to see a Shakespeare performance, and afterwards someone asks whether it was a good play. Answering this question does not depend on what time the curtain opened. On the other hand, if the play only went through the first three acts, no matter how good the actors were, the play stunk. Certain kinds of “death” are bad, and some are not so bad.
    One corollary, of course, is that there is room to say that your life could go on too long! I don’t find that as counter-intuitive as some others might.

  2. Heath,
    Good point! I’m actually quite sympathetic to the view that the welfare value of a life is not determined simply by summing up the momentary welfare contained within, that the narrative structure (or shape) of a life is relevant. Thus I agree that you could make this sort of argument against premise 2. So I should have claimed only that one ought not to deny premise 2 on the grounds that it is metaphysically impossible for a person to have been born earlier than he or she actually was. In any case, I would want to deny premise 1.

  3. Hey Doug,
    Good topic. Wow, you’re really getting you’re zombies on lately — I’m loving it.
    I think the LSA can be answered, and I agree that premise 1 can be denied, but I think it’s a bit more complicated. Which premise should be denied depends upon the life in question. For some lives, premise 1 is false, but for others, it’s premise 2 that fails. Moreover, in no case do both premises succeed.
    (In what follows, I ignore the essentiality of origins stuff. I’ll just assume any of us could have been born earlier.)
    Here is one way premise 2 could fail. To assess whether x’s not being born earlier is bad for x, we ask this: would x’s life have been worse if x had been born earlier? In many cases, the answer will be No. This is because, in many cases, earlier birth doesn’t affect length of life. So, in many cases, if x had been born 10 years earlier, he still would have lived to be 80. In cases such as these, premise 2 fails: being born later is different from dying earlier because the latter, but not the former, shortens the life.
    But as you point out, in some cases, being born later can be a harm. Suppose the sun will explode no matter what in 2010. Then, all else equal, it would have been better for me to have been born earlier. For then I would have gotten to live longer. Here, late birth is like early death. Symmetry is restored. But then premise 1 is false, since my life really would have been on the whole better if I had been born earlier.
    (Obviously there are a million ways to vary the cases. If being born earlier would have meant contracting polio, then it might have been bad for me to have been born earlier, despite the longer life. But I think there is no case in which both P1 and P2 are both true.)
    One last point. Rejecting the LSA by (sometimes) denying P1 raises the question, Are our asymmetrical attitudes towards not being born earlier and not dying later justified? (We never lament late birth, but do lament early death.) Following Parfit, I say this asymmetry is not irrational, since the “bias towards the future” is not irrational.

  4. Chris,
    Good points. There’s only one that I might take issue with: that we would never lament our coming into existence later. Now I agree that we do have asymmetrical attitudes, and I tend to think that the asymmetry in our attitudes can be justified on pragmatic grounds: we should worry more about the future than the past given that we can affect the future but not the past. Nevertheless, as I said, I don’t think that it’s right to say that we would never lament a late beginning to our existence. I tend to think that “I” have never been a zombie and have, in fact, been conscious since sometime around my birth in 1968. That is, I tend to think that I’ve been living life C, below. But if I found out that I’ve actually been living life A, I would lament not having experienced the Grand Canyon in 1999 (as I “remember” doing) and not having experienced all that pleasure that I thought that I had on 12/25/1976 when “I” (or, in this case, my zombie precursor) got a puppy for Christmas. Those would have been terrific experiences (had “I” not been a zombie back then), and I would lament not having had them. And so I would lament not having come into existence in 1968.
    A: 1968——————2000+++++++2006…
    C: 1968++++++++++2000+++++++2006…

  5. Hey Doug,
    Yeah, that seems reasonble. Of course, to the extent that we do or would lament being deprived of past pleasures, that’s all the worse for Lucretius, who is banking on our *not* having negative attitudes towards past deprivations.
    By the way, is your view that the only justification for our asymmetrical attitudes is the pragmatic one you mention? Surely you are still biased towards the future even when it can’t be affected (like you prefer that some unavoidable pain be in your past rather than in your future), no?
    Incidentally, Parfit argues (sec. 67 of R&P) that we would actually be better off without the bias towards the future, and so this bias can’t be justified pragmatically. This is, of course, a largely empirical question.

  6. I’m not sure what to say about the Parfit-type cases. I was merely saying that, contrary to Parfit, I think that we are better off with a bias toward the future for the pragmatic reasons that I cite. Whether this means that our asymmetrical attitudes are justified even in cases where we can no more affect the future than we can the past, I’m not sure.

  7. It seems to me that Lucretius was completely wrong in stating that I have an identity in a pre-vital nonexistence.
    It is only after I have an identity, that is, existence, can the idea of coming to be at an earlier point in time be given a reference.
    All the things that will not be are indistinguishable from all the things that will be in the future without the benefit of a fixed reference–they need a “my” to refer to their own existence.
    Therefore, there is no sense to the word “My” in “my pre-vital nonexistence” without first establishing that I exist (or existed, in the case of persons who are now dead but did exist).
    But it does make sense for any one who does exist to refer to a time previous to their existence, but not in the sense of a pre-existence identity.
    So it seems that this bogus symmetry argument of Lucretius is based on a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
    Identity cannot precede existence. And, if we are talking abstractly, then abstract identity cannot precede abstract existence: a thing without a name is no thing at all, for there is no way to make a sensible reference, and just saying we don’t know is no proxy for identity.
    Further, on the topic of zombies, I don’t see a symmetry argument there, either, for reasons of identity. That is, the identity of a zombie does not seem verifiable, because who can prove the difference between being conscious and being a zombie?
    Further, if consciousness is, as Dennett claims, an illusion of, by, and for the brain, then there is no symmetry argument at all any more: we have, instead, two distinct persons in time and space in your example, two persons who therefore have differing psychologies in at least two dimensions of identification from that fact.
    It should not be a difficult matter to imagine that various particulars of two separate lives are relatively similar; but they cannot be the same, and they cannot be shared, and they cannot be said to have something in common, for they are distinct beings, not parts of a larger thing.

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