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Apeirophobia: Eternity is scary af

Note: This post was originally published on Monday, August 29th, 2022 at my other, now defunct, blog Bonne Raison. It has since been substantially revised and updated with an afterword.

The Scream by Edvard Munch (undated)


A phobia is defined as:

a fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; especially an extreme or irrational fear aroused by a particular object or circumstance (1)

Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and claustrophobia (fear of small spaces) are two, perhaps familiar, examples. However, in my experience, fewer people know about apeirophobia (fear of eternity). My aim with this blogpost is to change that. So I will now proceed to take apeirophobia out of a hitherto state of confusion and attempt to bring about some clarity on the topic.

First, to give you a taste of how this fear manifests itself, consider the situation that the main character in the movie Groundhog Day finds himself. Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) somehow gets stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of having to repeatedly live the same day--Groundhog Day--over and over. In his despair, he commits suicide only to discover himself awakening on Groundhog Day, again.


So, whether Connors likes it or not, it seems like there’s no escape! And for those with apeirophobia, the mere contemplation of such an inescapably eternal predicament can be absolutely terrifying.

Distinguishing two kinds of apeirophobia


The term apeirophobia comes from the Greek words for infinite (apeiros) and fear (phobos). There exist at least two kinds of apeirophobia, which I’m aware of: fear-of-eternal-death apeirophobia (FEDA) and fear-of-eternal-life apeirophobia (FELA). While it may be difficult to see how anyone can suffer from both kinds of apeirophobia at the same time, it is, needless to say, easy to see how someone could suffer from one kind at one time and the other kind at another time.

Fear of Eternal Death Apeirophobia (FEDA)


This seems like the more common kind of apeirophobia and, more generally, the fear of death seems instinctive to our species as it has appeared widely across time and cultures. It can appear very early on in life and, for some people, seems to go away, if not altogether disappear, over time. However, some people continue to be afflicted by this fear and it’s those people who seem to be at greatest risk of developing long-term or chronic FEDA.

Clarifications


There are at least three common confusions about FEDA that one is likely to encounter:

  1. FEDA is frequently conflated with another fear: the fear of missing out (FOMO). However, FEDA and FOMO are altogether different fears. FOMO is a fear of regret, whereas FEDA is a fear of eternal death. They are not the same!
  2. Another common confusion conflates FEDA with fears about the process of dying or the manner of one’s death. Again, these fears are not the same!
  3. Lastly, there’s confusing FEDA with interpersonal fears. For example, someone who has dependents may fear the well-being of those they leave behind after they die. Again, such fears needn’t be confused with FEDA.

Now let’s move onto the other kind of apeirophobia.

Fear of Eternal Life Apeirophobia (FELA)


This seems like the rarer kind of apeirophobia. However, before I say anymore, a further distinction must be drawn out between two possible varieties of FELA.

Distinguishing different types of FELA


  1. Type 1: Fear of finding oneself in a situation in which one must exist without end and is trapped existing as a single incarnation of being.
  2. Type 2: Fear of finding oneself in a situation in which one must exist without end but is not trapped existing as a single incarnation of being. Instead, one gets reincarnated infinitely many times.

For anyone still confused, an analogy to video games may help. You can think of Type 1 as sort of like playing a video game in which you die but then get to restart the same game (from wherever you left off) whereas Type 2 is more like playing a video game in which you eventually die and then get to start a new and totally different game. Either way, though, the playing never ends.

Some might wonder, between the varieties, which situation is better? In my view, they are both terrible! However, as others have pointed out (2), the situation of Type 2 seems preferable to Type 1; though, I’d argue a finite existence followed by eternal death (FEED) is preferable to either.


Popular Joker meme adapted for this blogpost; caption by author

Anyway, I don’t have time to make my case for FEED, that’ll have to wait for a future post. For now, I’ll just make two brief cases concerning the kinds of apeirophobia we’ve considered in this blogpost.

FEDA seems highly irrational


Death, as was pointed out more than two millennia ago, is nothing to us: when we are alive, death is not here. And when death comes, we no longer exist (3). When you think about, it’s hard to see what’s so scary about that? Consider what it was like before you were born. Seems like nothing. So why think that it will be any different after one dies?

Additionally, a contemporary argument by Galen Strawson, also seems to support the conclusion that death is nothing to us. If, on Strawson’s view, No Ownership of The Future is true, then one cannot even be harmed by an untimely death (4). So, at least, the only sensible conclusion I can think of is that a fear of eternal death seems rationally indefensible.

Other phobias don’t seem to have this fundamental flaw, though the risks are often exaggerated. Take a fear of heights. Falls can seriously harm you. So avoiding air travel or elevators would just be an irrational manifestation and exaggeration of an otherwise sensible concern. However, it's hard to see how death can constitute a harm for the person who dies. When you really think about it, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense.

FELA seems more rational


Unfortunately, we may already be eternal beings; albeit in a situation like that of Type 2. There are two reasons which together might support it: Penrose’s theory of cyclical cosmology and Huemer’s argument for reincarnation.

Firstly, though many people already know about the Big Bang theory of the cosmos, there’s another, though not as widely popular, theory of the cosmos we should consider. According to the Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose’s Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC): 

the universe consists of a (perhaps infinite) succession of aeons, where each aeon originates with its own big bang and has an unending exponentially expanding future (5)


New theories come and go but, unfortunately for those suffering with FELA, a couple of CCC's predictions have apparently been confirmed. Those interested to learn more can watch this accessible video in which Penrose introduces and explains CCC.

Secondly, there’s an argument for reincarnation by philosopher Michael Huemer, according to which, the probability that you’ll be reincarnated infinitely many times is a hundred percent (6). Those interested to learn more can watch this accessible video in which Huemer introduces and explains his reincarnation argument.

So, given Penroses’s CCC and Huemer’s argument for reincarnation, it looks like a case can be made that we may, in fact, already be in a Type 2 situation. If so, then FELA doesn’t seem so irrational.

Afterword


It's not been long since I published an earlier version of this post but, just recently, I got involved in a conversation about death on social media and, in the discussion, I brought apeirophobia up, so that’s why I came back to this topic so soon. This post was rushed and so I intend to return to it again in the very near future.

Notes & References

  1. OED Online (2022). Oxford University Press
  2. Huemer, M (2021). What’s the Best Afterlife? Fake Nous
  3. An ancient (Epicurean) argument that death is nothing to us
  4. Strawson, G (2017). I Have no Future. Chapter 5 in The Subject of Experience. OUP
  5. Penrose, R. (2018). The Big Bang and its Dark-Matter Content: Whence, Whither, and Wherefore. Foundations of Physics, 48(10), 1177–1190
  6. Huemer, M. (2021), Existence Is Evidence of Immortality. Noûs, 55: 128–151

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