Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Adviser: Margaret Scharle
Thesis: Death and Wellbeing—A Reply to the Epicurean Puzzle
What it’s about: Epicurus famously claimed that death is nothing because it has no time or person to harm; before death it is not yet, and after death it is no more. I argued that the standard account against Epicurus is flawed and presented an alternative view of human life and death.
What it’s really about: Man’s existence extends beyond his lifespan in the social and historical dimension.
Who I was when I got to Reed: I am a neurologist with an interest in bioethics and the neuroscience of mind. What I knew was science. Before going through MALS I thought philosophy was somewhat vague, floating around, inaccessible. Now, philosophy and science are tightly linked in my mind.
Influential book: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty.
Favorite spot: The library, where I can immerse myself into deep thoughts and daydreaming.
Cool stuff I did: I learned how to deal with real philosophers in terms of their thoughts, writings, and behaviors. I was also able to publish two papers based on the coursework at Reed in respectable medical journals.
Why I took the MALS program: Having been born in Tokyo and attended medical school there, I wanted to go through formal education in English. Philosophy is basically an art of language and many concepts cannot be successfully translated. You can communicate the message of the pieces in translation, but you lose the subtlety of the messages. Heidegger, for example, wrote in German, and in German you can combine words together to make a new word, which translators struggle to translate. So they paraphrase Heidegger’s words. The same is true if I read American philosophical writing in Japanese; they have to paraphrase in translation. You lose the direct power of the words that appear in the original writing.
Obstacles overcome: I had to make an enormous leap from my previous higher education, received almost four decades before in a different country, in a different area of study, and in a different language. In every subject I studied at Reed, I needed extra groundwork to brush up the very basics. I purposefully took many undergraduate courses and studied along with young students, who are younger than my own children.
How Reed changed me: I am now able to think, read, and talk more clearly and logically than before, particularly in the area of philosophy. This change helps my further pursuit in bioethics tremendously. After all, an old dog has proven, at least to some extent, to be able to learn new tricks.
What’s next: Teaching medical students about ethics, particularly in end-of-life issues, at Oregon Health & Science University.
Though Epicurus (341-270 BC) is often mistakenly associated with the notion “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” in reality, Epicurean philosophy advocates achieving tranquility by limiting one’s desires and banishing the fear of gods and death.
The Epicurean universe is composed of only atoms and space. The mind, like the body, is made up of atoms that disperse into the void at death. Death, then, equals annihilation, as no mind exists to experience this state of being. Simply stated, the puzzle is that you should not fear death, because when you die, the mind is annihilated and there is literally nothing that can harm you.
The standard response is that death is bad for the person who dies because he could have enjoyed more goods in a counterfactual world in which he did not die. The problem with this argument is that the subject who can evaluate this comparison is absent under the premise of Epicurus as well as that of Descartes, and thus the standard account basically faces the same problem as that of Epicurus.
But, if we understand human existence differently from this Cartesian (“I think, therefore I am.”) picture, we have a third dimension of human existence, which is social relationship. Social relationships continue with your loved ones and are also dependent on historical time. My argument against this standard account implies a protest against the Cartesian understanding of human existence as embodied mind. —SM