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Fischer, John Martin. Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will.

FISCHER, John Martin. Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. viii + 184 pp. Cloth, $65.00--John Martin Fischer is well known for his work on free will, the metaphysical issues surrounding death, and the value of life. His latest book continues his work on these themes and explores the connections among them. The book consists of ten essays, several written with coauthors. The first is an introductory essay that sketches Fischer's overall position and puts it in the context of his earlier work. The remaining essays fall into three categories. First, there are four essays that explore whether death can be bad for the person who dies. Epicurus famously argued that it cannot, since every harm requires a subject who is harmed, and death removes that subject. In contrast, Thomas Nagel's influential essay "Death" argues that death can indeed harm an individual by depriving him of the goods of life. Fischer endorses Nagel's position and refines it in light of recent criticisms by Harry Silverstein and Stephen Rosenbaum. The first four essays also examine the symmetry argument against the badness of death. This argument states that it is irrational to regret death, given the parallels between prenatal and posthumous nonexistence. Death may deprive me of the goods of life, but so may prenatal nonexistence. If I had been born earlier, I could have had more of the goods of life. I do not consider myself harmed by this lack of prenatal existence, and since death deprives me of goods in exactly the same way, I should not consider it a harm either. Philosophers typically respond to this argument by asserting that it is a brute fact that human beings have "asymmetric attitudes toward death and prenatal nonexistence"--we "consider the prospects of our future deaths as bad or unfortunate for us, whereas we do not regret the fact that we were born when we actually were born, rather than earlier." Fischer endorses this response but gives it an intriguing twist. With coauthor Anthony Brueckner, he argues that this asymmetry "is a special case of a more general asymmetry in our attitudes toward our past and future experiences." We value future pleasures a great deal, but care relatively little about past pleasures. Fischer toys with an evolutionary explanation of this attitude, suggesting that "creatures who care especially about the future" have a survival advantage.

The next two essays deal with immortality. Fischer's main interlocutor here is Bernard Williams, whose essay "The Makropulos Case" argues that immortality would necessarily be unattractive. Two conditions would have to be met for an endless life to be desirable to me. It would have to be the life of someone I can recognize as identical to me, and it would have to be enjoyable--not endlessly painful, for example. Williams claims that these conditions cannot both be met. In an endless life, my character would either remain constant, in which case my experiences would eventually become boring and cease to be enjoyable; or it would change radically, in which case I would no longer be me. Fischer disagrees with Williams, claiming that we can imagine an endless life that is varied enough to prevent boredom. He also argues that Williams misunderstands pleasure and that not all pleasures must wear out over time--even infinite time.

The last three essays explore the links among free will, narrative, and the meaning of life. Fischer has argued elsewhere that the value we attach to freedom is "a kind of aesthetic value ... When I act freely, I 'make a statement,' and the value of my free action is the value of writing a sentence in the book of my life" (p. 145). Our Stories expands on this idea. Fischer claims that, other things being equal, we want our lives to be structured in the ways good stories are. We value lives with fitting endings, lives in which success results from hard work rather than chance, and so on. Our lives have a distinct dimension of value, narrative value, that is not reducible to any amount of momentary well being. Fischer ties this insight to his work on death and immortality-arguing, for example, that an endless life might nevertheless possess narrative structure and narrative value. He also applies it, quite instructively, to ethical debates about the end of life.

Our Stories is a stimulating book that makes important contributions to several fields. Particularly valuable is its injection of the topic of narrative into debates over free will and the value of life. Regrettably, Fischer's understanding of narrative seems to come from just a few sources--chiefly two essays by David Velleman. It would be fascinating to see how his position could be enriched through an engagement with philosophers who have explored narrative more deeply: Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur, for example. Perhaps Fischer's story will change in his next book.--Robert Piercey, Campion College, University of Regina.
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Author:Piercey, Robert
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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