Hey, perfect for the middle of the night. Shelly Kagan at Chronicle of Higher Education (May 13, 2012) offers,
But wait a minute, says Lucretius. The time after I die isn’t the only period during which I won’t exist. What about the period before my birth? If nonexistence is so bad, shouldn’t I be upset by the eternity of nonexistence before I was born? But that’s silly, right? Nobody is upset about that. So, he concludes, it doesn’t make any sense to be upset about the eternity of nonexistence after you die, either.
It isn’t clear how best to reply to Lucretius. One option, presumably, is to agree that we really do need to treat those two eternities of nonexistence on a par, but to insist that our prebirth nonexistence was worse than we thought. Alternatively, we might insist that there’s an asymmetry that explains why we should care about the one period but not the other. But what is that difference? Perhaps this: When I die, I have lost my life. In contrast, during the eternity before my birth, although I’m not alive, I have not lost anything. You can’t lose what you never had. So what’s worse about death is the loss.
But in that prenatal period, although I don’t have life, I’m going to get it. As it happens, we don’t have a name for that state. It is similar to loss but not quite like it. Let’s call it “schmoss.” Why do we care more about loss of life than schmoss of life? It’s easy to overlook the symmetry, because we’ve got this nice word “loss,” and we don’t have the word “schmoss.” But that’s not really explaining anything, it’s just pointing to the thing that needs explaining.
The graphic is worth the whole thing. After which, back to work.