The following is a very interesting naturalistic thesis on death and the fate of subjectivity. The author is Thomas W. Clark, a secular humanist among the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan. If you would like to skip ahead to the main points, begin reading from the second post. The paper spans two posts. After reading, post your thoughts, criticism and questions. Thank You. Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity Abstract. This paper critiques the widespread secular misunderstanding of death as a plunge into oblivion. It uses a thought experiment about personal identity similar to those concocted by British philosopher Derek Parfit in his tour de force Reasons and Persons. By degrees, the reader is supposed to see that the notion of a blank or emptiness following death is incoherent, and that therefore we should not anticipate the end of experience when we die. This conclusion has a bit of a mystical feel to it, even though the premises are naturalistic. This paper was originally published as a cover article for the Humanist, and is reprinted in The Experience of Philosophy, Wadsworth Publishing, Daniel Kolak and Ray Martin, editors. "For only death annihilates all sense, all becoming, to replace them with non-sense and absolute cessation." -- F. Gonzalez-Cruzzi, "Days of the Dead" in The New Yorker, November 1993 The words quoted above distill the common secular conception of death. If we decline the traditional religious reassurances of an afterlife, or their fuzzy new age equivalents, and instead take the hard-boiled and thoroughly modern materialist view of death, then we likely end up with Gonzalez-Cruzzi. Rejecting visions of reunions with loved ones or of crossing over into the light, we anticipate the opposite: darkness, silence, an engulfing emptiness. But we would be wrong. The topic of our fate after death is a touchy subject, but nevertheless the error of anticipating nothingness needs rectifying. This misconception is so widespread and so psychologically debilitating for those facing death (all of us, sooner or later) it is worth a careful look at the faulty, rather subliminal logic which persuades us that dying leads us into "the void." Here, again, is the view at issue: When we die, what's next is nothing; death is an abyss, a black hole, the end of experience; it is eternal nothingness, the permanent extinction of being. And here, in a nutshell, is the error contained in the view: It is to reify nothingness--make it a positive condition or quality (e.g., of "blackness")--and then to place the individual in it after death, so that we somehow fall into nothingness, to remain there eternally. It is to illicitly project the subject that died into a situation following death, a situation of no experiences, of what might be called "positive nothingness." Epicurus deftly refuted this mistake millennia ago, saying "When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not," but regrettably his pearl of wisdom has been largely overlooked or forgotten. In what follows I will try to refine this insight and, using a thought experiment, make its implications vivid. Not that there haven't been more recent attempts to counter the myth of nothingness, notably by the philosopher Paul Edwards in his classic 1969 paper "Existentialism and Death: A Survey of Some Confusions and Absurdities." Below I will produce my own examples of those bewitched by the vision of the void, but before continuing I must bow to Edwards' "who's who" of thinkers that have fallen into this particular conceptual trap. He quotes Shakespeare, Heine, Seneca, Swinburne, Houseman, Mencken, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, James Baldwin, and others, all to the effect that, as Swinburne put it, death is "eternal night." Those who anticipate nothingness at death are at least in some pretty exalted company. If, as I will argue, nothingness cannot be anything positively existent, that is, if it truly (as the term would indicate) doesn't exist, then the situation at death cannot involve falling into it. Those skeptical of the soul and an afterlife need not fear (or cannot look forward to, if such is their preference) blackness and emptiness. There is no eternal absence of experience, no black hole which swallows up the unfortunate victim of death. If we conscientiously eliminate the tendency to project ourselves into a situation following death, and if we drop the notion of positive nothingness, then this picture loses plausibility and a rather different one emerges. Do people still really believe, as I claim they do, in a kind of positive nothingness? I will present enough examples to show that, beyond Edwards' celebrities, many do harbor such a misconception. In developing a plausible alternative, my operating assumptions and guiding philosophy will be resolutely naturalistic, materialist, and non-dualist. I assume only a single universe of interconnected phenomena, a universe devoid of souls, spirits, mental essences, and the like. In particular, persons, on this account, are not possessed of any essential core identity (an indivisible self or soul), but consist only of relatively stable constellations of dispositions and traits, both physical and psychological. Although some conclusions I reach may end up sounding counterintuitive to those inclined to naturalism, it won't be because the argument departs from naturalistic assumptions. And for readers who are skeptical about naturalism, these conclusions may not be so unpalatable as my starting point might lead them to suppose. Anticipating Nothingness The late Isaac Asimov, interviewed in Bill Moyers' series "A World of Ideas," questioned the traditional religious picture of our fate after death: "When I die I won't go to heaven or hell, there will just be nothingness." Asimov's naturalistically based skepticism about heaven or hell is common among secularists (there is no evidence for such realms) but he commits an equally common fallacy in his blithe assumption about nothingness, namely that it could "be." By substituting nothingness for heaven and hell, Asimov implies that it awaits us after death. Indeed the word itself, with the suffix "ness," conjures up the strange notion of "that stuff which does not exist." In using it we may start to think, in a rather casual, unreflective way, that there exists something that doesn't exist, but of course this is not a little contradictory. We must simply see that nothingness doesn't exist, period. Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, in his book The Examined Life, expresses much the same view as Asimov, and in much the same context. He debunks, in a very respectful tone, the wishful thinking that supposes there will be an afterlife involving the memories and personality of a currently existing person. "It might be nice to believe such a theory, but isn't the truth starker? This life is the only existence there is; afterward there is nothing." Although he probably doesn't mean to, with these words Nozick may suggest to the unwary that "nothing" is something like a state into which we go and never return. But, as Paul Edwards explained in "Existentialism and Death," death is not a state, it is not a condition in which we end up after dying. Of course I'm not denying that we die and disappear, only that we go into something called non-existence, nothing, or nothingness. My richest example is offered by the late novelist Anthony Burgess in his memoirs, You've Had Your Time: The Second Part of the Confessions. The following paragraph from his meditations about death contains several nice variations on the "nothingness" theme. "Am I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of rereading rationalist authors can expunge it. If there is only darkness after death, then that darkness is the ultimate reality and that love of life that I intermittently possess is no preparation for it. In face of the approaching blackness, which Winston Churchill facetiously termed black velvet, concerning oneself with a world that is soon to fade out like a television image in a power cut seems mere frivolity. But rage against the dying of the light is only human, especially when there are still things to be done, and my rage sometimes sounds to myself like madness. It is not only a question of works never to be written, it is a matter of things unlearned. I have started to learn Japanese, but it is too late; I have started to read Hebrew, but my eyes will not take in the jots and tittles. How can one fade out in peace, carrying vast ignorance into a state of total ignorance?" Listing the thematic variations, we have: "darkness after death," "approaching blackness," "black velvet," "a world that is soon to fade out," "the dying of the light," "a state of total ignorance." All these express Burgess' expectation that death will mean entering a realm devoid of experience and qualities, a state something like losing all sensation (Gonzalez-Cruzzi's "non-sense"), all perception, all thought. He is raging against the imminent arrival of Nothingness, the eternal experience of no experience in which the subject somehow witnesses, permanently, its own extinction. But death rules out any such experience or witnessing, unless of course we covertly believe, as Burgess seems to, that in death we persist as some sort of pseudo-subject, to whom eternity presents itself as "black velvet." Burgess, as well as Nozick and Asimov, all deny that they continue on in any form, so their picture of the subject trapped in nothingness after death is rather contradictory. Since death really is the end of the individual, it cannot mean the arrival of darkness as witnessed by some personal remnant. Two more brief examples, which I believe are typical of those who face death without the traditional reassurances of an afterlife. Arthur W. Frank, author of At The Will Of The Body: Reflections on Illness, wrote about his heart attack that "Afterward I felt always at risk of one false step, or heartbeat, plunging me over the side again. I will never lose that immanence of nothingness, the certainty of mortality." And Larry Josephs, an AIDS patient, wrote in the Times that "...I hope that when the time comes to face death, I will feel stronger, and less afraid of falling into an empty black abyss." Although the fear of death is undoubtedly biological and hence unavoidable to some extent, the fear of nothingness, of the black abyss, can be dealt with successfully. This involves seeing, and then actually feeling, if possible, that your death is not the end of experience. It is the end of this experiencer most definitely, but that end is not followed by the dying of the light. Experience, I will argue, is quite impervious to the hooded figure who leads his unwilling charges into the night. Continuity and Being Present In order to make this clear it will be helpful to consider some facts about ordinary experience. First is the initially somewhat surprising fact that, from our point of view as subjects of experience, there are no gaps during the course of our conscious lives. Despite the fact that we are frequently and regularly unconscious (asleep, perhaps drugged, knocked out, etc.) these unconscious periods do not represent subjective pauses between periods of consciousness. That is, for the subject there is an instantaneous transition from the experience preceding the unconscious interval to the experience immediately following it. On the operating table we hear ourselves mumble our last admonition to the anesthesiologist not to overdo the pentathol and the next instant we are aware of the fluorescent lights in the recovery room. Or we experience a last vague thought before falling asleep and the next experience (barring a dream, another sort of experience) is hearing the neighbor's dog at 6 a.m. As much as we know that time has passed, nevertheless for us there has been no gap or interval between the two experiences which bracket a period of unconsciousness. I will call this fact about experience "personal subjective continuity". Next, note that this continuity proceeds from our first experience as a child until the instant of death. For the subject, life is a single block of experience, marked by the rhythm of days, weeks, months, and years, and highlighted by personal and social watersheds. Although it may seem obvious and even tautological, for the purposes of what follows I want to emphasize that during our lives we never find ourselves absent from the scene. We may occasionally have the impression of having experienced or "undergone" a period of unconsciousness, but of course this is impossible. For the subject, awareness is constant throughout life; the "nothingness" of unconsciousness cannot be an experienced actuality. But what about the time periods before and after this subjectively continuous block of experience, that is, before birth and after death? Don't these represent some sort of emptiness or "blank" for the subject, since, after all, it doesn't exist in either? To think that they might, as I've pointed out, is to confuse non-existence with a state that we somehow primitively subsist in, as an impotent ego confronted with blackness. Certainly we don't ordinarily think of the time before we come into existence as an abyss from which we manage to escape; we simply find ourselves present in the world. We cannot contrast the fact of being conscious with some prior state of non-experience. The same is true of the time after death. There will be no future personal state of non-experience to which we can compare our present state of being conscious. All we have, as subjects, is this block of experience. We know, of course, that it is a finite block, but since that's all we have, we cannot experience its finitude. As much as we can know with certainty that this particular collection of memories, desires, intentions, and habits will cease, this cessation will not be a concrete fact for us, but can only be hearsay, so to speak. Hence (and this may start to sound a little fishy) as far as we're concerned as subjects, we're always situated here in the midst of experience. Even given all this, when we imagine our death being imminent (a minute or two away, let us suppose) it is still difficult not to ask the questions "What will happen to me?" or "What's next?", and then anticipate the onset of nothingness. It is extraordinarily tempting to project ourselves--this locus of awareness--into the future, entering the blackness or emptiness of non-experience. But since we've ruled out nothingness or non-experience as the fate of subjectivity what, then, are plausible answers to such questions? The first one we can dispense with fairly readily. The "me" characterized by personality and memory simply ends. No longer will experience occur in the context of such personality and memory. The second question ("What's next?") is a little trickier, because, unless we suppose that my death is coincident with the end of the entire universe, we can't responsibly answer "nothing." Nothing is precisely what can't happen next. What happens next must be something, and part of that something consists in various sorts of consciousness. In the very ordinary sense that other centers of awareness exist and come into being, experience continues after my death. This is the something (along with many other things) which follows the end of my particular set of experiences. Burgess suggests, when facing death, that "concerning oneself with a world that is soon to fade out like a television image in a power cut seems mere frivolity." But we know, as persons who have survived and witnessed, perhaps, the death of others, that the world does not fade out. It continues on in all sorts of ways, including the persistence of our particular subjective worlds. Death ends individual subjectivities while at the same time others are continuing or being created. As I tried to make clear above, subjectivities--centers of awareness--don't have beginnings and endings for themselves, rather they simply find themselves in the world. From their perspective, it's as if they have always been present, always here; as if the various worlds evoked by consciousness were always "in place." Of course we know that they are not always in place from an objective standpoint, but their own non-being is never an experienced actuality for them. This fact, along with the fact that other subjectivities succeed us after we die, suggests an alternative to the intuition of impending nothingness in the face of death. (Be warned that this suggestion will likely seem obscure until it gets fleshed out using the thought experiment below.) Instead of anticipating nothingness at death, I propose that we should anticipate the subjective sense of always having been present, experienced within a different context, the context provided by those subjectivities which exist or come into being. In proposing this I don't mean to suggest that there exist some supernatural, death-defying connections between consciousnesses which could somehow preserve elements of memory or personality. This is not at all what I have in mind, since material evidence suggests that everything a person consists of--a living body, awareness, personality, memories, preferences, expectations, etc.--is erased at death. Personal subjective continuity as I defined it above requires that experiences be those of a particular person; hence, this sort of continuity is bounded by death. So when I say that you should look forward, at death, to the "subjective sense of always having been present," I am speaking rather loosely, for it is not you--not this set of personal characteristics--that will experience "being present." Rather, it will be another set of characteristics (in fact, countless sets) with the capacity, perhaps, for completely different sorts of experience. But, despite these (perhaps radical) differences, it will share the qualitatively very same sense of always having been here, and, like you, will never experience its cessation.