Is life in a box is better than no life at all? Help and hope, so.

Last time I’ve introduced the principle of life’s default positivity, and the first formula provided was the one used by Thomas Nagel in his Death essay:

It is good simply to be alive.

Another way to phrase this is comparatively

It’s better to be alive than dead.

Let me introduce now a potential counterargument, extracted from the words of one of my favourite fictional characters, Rosencrantz, played by Garry Oldman in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Mind you, this is Stoppard’s but not Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz, speaking. How about watching it first:

Here’s the corresponding section from the script:

ROS: It could go on for ever. Well, not for ever, I suppose. (Pause.) Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
GUIL: No.
ROS: Nor do I, really…. It’s silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead … which should make a difference … shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air – you’d wake up dead, for a start and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it….
(GUIL stirs restlessly, pulling his cloak round him.)
Because you’d be helpless, wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that, I mean you’d be in there for ever. Even taking into account the fact that you’re dead, really … ask yourself, if I asked you straight off – I’m
going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather be alive or dead? Naturally, you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a
box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking – well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute someone’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (Banging on the floor with his fists.) “Hey you, whatsyername! Come out of there!”

Throughout this monologue, masked as a dialogue (see: Guildenstern: No) Rosencrantz goes through a complete little conceptual and imaginative Bildungsroman involving separate positions. At the end Rosencrantz is not arguing against the thesis of life’s default positivity but he seems to embrace it wholeheartedly. But let’s separate these Rosencrantz positions, stops of his spiritual trip. The argumentation takes the form of a thought experiment by assuming the hypothetical (counterfactual) scenario of lying dead/alive in a box with a lid on it.

Rosencrantz #1: Imagining oneself dead leads to troubles.

I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead … which should make a difference … shouldn’t it?

The starting point is an effort, a thought experiment candidate of thinking ourselves as dead, lying in a box … but this turns out to be an impossible endeavour quickly as instead of imagining himself dead Rosencrantz ‘thinks of it like being alive in a box’, so the opposite. Seems like Rosencrantz’s imagination is tricking him into using ‘being alive’, the ‘opposite’ of  ‘being dead’ as a proxy or analogy or metaphor of ‘being dead’.

Whatever concept of conceivability lies behind ‘imagining’ a scenario in a thought experiment, imagining ourselves as being dead is not going to qualify as conceivable. One can use a more stringent modal concept, like impossibility, but no need to go just there yet.

So Rosencrantz switches to ‘being alive’ in a box.

Rosencrantz #2: Sleeping as the proxy of being dead

I mean, you’d never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box.

One particular stage of life, sleeping seems like a state that is not entirely unlike being dead since it offers a much weakened state of consciousness and the fluidity of experience.

Rosencrantz #3: Dying as a proxy of being dead

Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air – you’d wake up dead, for a start and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it….

Rosencrantz introduces an important parameter tuning and assumes it is a closed box, so no air goes in and out, no air exchange between inside and outside. So Rosencrantz seals the deal by making the box at least a thermodynamically closed system, without matter exchange. But the point here is not to go into a physical interpretation. And the point is especially not go into a quantum physicial interpreatation as the relevance of that interpretation to our moral and human philosophical purpose is somewhat dubious.[1]

Assuming no air exchange being in a closed box is a certain death sentence in the lack of external assistance, which is also a tacit assumption at this point in order to ensure death.

So starting from an initial condition of sleeping (and having enough oxygen to breathe) Rosencrantz now is imagining itself as actually dying in the box with certainty. And dying leads him not want to think on the thought experiment further. Cause he does not like the result. Dying might be a good proxy of ‘being dead’ but ‘dying’ is not a good proxy of ‘being alive’.

Apropos of this section, I think I can introduce a potential important restriction to the principle of life’s default positivity I’ve been thinking on a while and will elaborate more in subsequent posts. The restriction says that one exception  of life’s default positivity in cases of terminally diseased people is the last stage of life called ‘dying’. ‘Dying’ and here I only count ‘dying’ that leads to actual death, is an actual transitional period to death and it might be argued that dying itself belongs more to death than to life. Two comments here. First, please note that dying only applies here to people who have been diagnosed with a terminal disease and know what’s coming their way. Dying does not necessary apply to people dying quickly without having time to reflect on it too much. If somebody had a deadly accident and died within a 1 minute after impact, without reflecting to this fact beforehand, then I’d say restriction does not apply. So am saying that dying is tied to an epistemological process considering upcoming and imminent death and it is a heavy baggage. Second, ‘dying’ can only be recognised post festa, after the person has actually died. Dying is only dying if it leads to death. If there’s a medical ‘miracle’, an outlier effect of a treatment that calls back somebody from apparent ‘dying’ well then it was not ‘dying’ and then it might not even have been a terminal disease. More on this later.

Rosencrantz #4: Helplessness, the real counteargument against life’s default positivity

Because you’d be helpless, wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that, I mean you’d be in there for ever.

Somebody can be helpless in 2 ways: overpowered with no option to help himself or nobody else in a position to help him. And the former, internal case of helplessness can be phrased as lacking agency to overcome an obstacle to reach a desired goal. Please see also my earlier Open lifespan as a coherent life plan enables super-agency

Rosencrantz’s counterargument against life’s default positivity reaches its climax with stating helplessness as a reason not wanting to be alive, rather, as opposed to being dead. The argument says that whenever agency is reduced to almost zero and/or whenever external help is not available, life is not preferred over death, by default. The argument introduces a quantitative element into thinking about life’s default positivity at different times and at different life scenarios. The monolith and unified life concept in life’s default positivity is chopped up into different periods of helplessness and ‘helpfulness’.

So we got stuck in a box and we cannot get out, what else we can do?

Rosencrantz #5: Chance and hope to save life’s default positivity

Naturally, you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a
box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking – well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute someone’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (Banging on the floor with his fists.) “Hey you, whatsyername! Come out of there!”

Rosencrantz’s brief answer: we can wait and hope for somebody else helping us out of our dire situation. According to this argument even when we cannot help ourselves and lacking agency to do so, we should still prefer to be alive as help can come our way through the agency of others. Self-agency might be lost, but other-agency can still be out there to save us. In real life (except dying as discussed above) we are hardly in a situation when there’s no hope left, in ourselves or in others. Chances are never zero. Life is worth something just by being alive.

In terms of the box you can also have a solution like this:

But as a home assignment I’d like to ask you to consider life’s basic positivity in the light (or shadow) of the situation Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) goes through in Buried.

Nevertheless I leave you here with this song

Notes:

[1] Obviously there’s a take on R&D and dead (or alive?) from the point of view of Schrödinger’s cat and the entanglement of dead and alive states.

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