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Naturalist view on Death, Nothingness and Subjectivity

  1. Feb 7, 2009 #1
    The following link will direct you to a very well written essay of a naturalist's view on death:

    http://www.naturalism.org/death.htm [Broken]

    It is entitled: Death, Nothingness and Subjectivity

    Author: Thomas W. Clark

    It is the (untestable) theory of "generic subjective continuity". It proposes the possibility that experience of existence continues after death, but not in the traditional, religious or spiritual senses. It states that after death we continue to experience conscious existence being born as conscious beings. It may sound supernatural but it is surprisingly based on materialistic and naturalistic views. It DOES NOT base itself on supernatural things. Thomas W. Clark calls it "generic subjective continuity". It is a very interesting read. Once you have read the entire paper, I want to hear your thoughts on it.

    It is well worth your time.

    The concept of "generic subjective continuity" is basically that experience continues after an individual dies as long as there are conscious beings being born/created. If you do not understand I suggest you read the following 3 links:

    http://mbdefault.org/9_passage/default.asp (page 1)
    http://mbdefault.org/9_passage/2.asp (page 2)
    http://mbdefault.org/9_passage/3.asp (page 3)

    The above links are chapter 9 of a book by Wayne Stewart. He gives another thought experiment, much like Clark's. If you are short of time, I suggest you read these instead of Clark's. If you have enough time I really encourage you to read his entire book (Metaphysics by Default). After clicking one of the above 3 links, you will be directed to his book. If you are interested in metaphysics they are very, very interesting reads. Thank You.

    Don't forget to post back here when you've finished reading!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 7, 2009 #2
    Well, I'm not so sure about being reborn continuously as a conscious being. What I see is that the decomposition of what I am right now will return to the 'pool' that we call existence, and the constituent elements will be distributed for "general use." Maybe some portions will become nutrients for vegetation which may or may not be consummed by higher or lower organisms and work their way into some form of consciousness. But, I'm comfortable with the process, and it is somehow reassuring in my way of thinking, that it all continues in its infinite ways. I realize that I am just a speck in a vast ocean without any particular significance as far as existence is concerned, and that's fine. Just being here for awhile is an amazing and pretty neat thing to say the least.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Feb 7, 2009 #3
    As far as I can tell, Clark is just pointing out the absurdity as treating "eternal nothingness" as something and that start stuff will eventually return to being star stuff, rather than the mystical position you attribute him to.
  5. Feb 7, 2009 #4
    "It is possible that this view may make it easier to cope with the prospect of personal extinction, since, if we accept it, we can no longer anticipate being hurled into oblivion, to face the eternal blackness that so unsettled Burgess (and, I suspect, secretly bedevils many atheists and agnostics). We may wear our personalities more lightly, seeing ourselves as simply variations on a theme of subjectivity which is in no danger of being extinguished by our passing. Of course we cannot completely put aside our biologically given aversion to the prospect of death, but we can ask, at its approach, why we are so attached to this context of consciousness. Why, if experience continues anyway, is it so terribly important that it continue within this set of personal characteristics, memories, and body? If we are no longer haunted by nothingness, then dying may seem more like the radical refreshment of subjectivity than its extinction. " - Thomas W. Clark

    This is his "mystical" position if you would like to call it that. It's not very mystical if you really think about it. What IS mystical is the fact that consciousness exists in the first place. That is what is really mystical. We are unsure why consciousness exists, if there is even any purpose to it (I believe there is no purpose to it) and still even how it exists.

    The point Clark is making is that experience continues on throughout all conscious beings. It is universal. Think about it for a minute. We are proof that conscious beings exist. We don't know how or why but we are here. Now, since we are here now somehow, what is limiting us from being here again. By "being here" I mean experiencing existence. What is limiting us from experiencing again? Most probably nothing.

    Please read the following links:

    http://mbdefault.org/9_passage/default.asp (page 1)
    http://mbdefault.org/9_passage/2.asp (page 2)
    http://mbdefault.org/9_passage/3.asp (page 3)

    This is chapter 9 of a book by Wayne Stewart. His "existential passage" (EP) theory is the same as Clark's "generic subjective continuity" (GSC) theory. In this chapter he creates a thought experiment much alike Clark's.
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2009
  6. Feb 8, 2009 #5


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    Hi Avalon,
    Welcome to the board. Hope you stick around for a while, I enjoyed your post.

    Regarding Clark’s essay, I’m not sure how you’ve interpreted this. I’ll tell you what I understand he’s trying to say. You tell me if I’m mistaken or if you interpret the essay differently.

    Clark starts off pointing out he’s not a dualist, meaning he doesn’t believe there is some separate soul or entity which is different from the physical body or brain. There is no ‘you’ that can be identified which is separate or distinct from the physical body. The ‘you’ which we sense in the here and now is only a set of phenomena made up of the various functions within the brain, and once the brain ceases to function, that set of phenomena also ceases.

    I don’t think he’s suggesting for example, that there is some global entity which continues to exist after death (or before life) but is unaware of its non-existence. You’ve highlighted this particular sentence from his essay, but this might be interpreted in different ways:
    One might for example, interpret that as saying that this thing he calls “experience” is something more than the set of phenomena produced by a brain. One might interpret this for example as there being an ‘experience’ which becomes reincarnated the next time another brain becomes self aware. In Clark’s essay, he says:

    This particular passage, and some others, might be misinterpreted. I would assume that he doesn’t really mean there is a “subject” or entity which is separate and distinct from the physical matter on which conscious phenomena supervenes because if there’s a separate “subject” then that means Clark is espousing dualism, which he clearly denies. In this passage and passages in his essay similar to this, I think Clark is only referring to the physical body of the imagined “subject” as opposed to there being some distinct entity.

    I think all that Clark is really trying to point out is summarized when he quotes (possibly mistakenly) Cruzzi:
    All I think he’s really saying is that there is no ‘end’ (in the sense that we can’t experience ‘nothing’) but the phenomena of experience will continue into the future as long as there is some material thing which can produce this phenomena. As materialists, we can’t argue with this, since any physical phenomena (objective OR SUBJECTIVE) can be reproduced as many times over as we want simply by reproducing the same physical interactions (which always begs the question of why experience should even therefore exist if it is nothing more than physical interactions as pointed out by Jaegwon Kim for example).

    Is this the way you would interpret Clark?
  7. Feb 9, 2009 #6

    No. If you read chapter 9 of "Metaphysics by Default" (written by Wayne Stewart, a man Clark agrees has the same view of his "generic subjective continuity" which Wayne Stewart calls "Existential Passage") you will see that Clark holds precisely the position of which I have stated.

    Here is the proof, Clark writes the following at the bottom of his paper:

    "In a wonderfully written monograph (a book, really), Metaphysics By Default, Wayne Stewart presents an independently developed thesis directly parallel to the argument in “Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity” (DNS). Without having encountered my paper, he uses very much the same thought experiment to support the intuition of generic subjective continuity, what he calls “existential passage” (see in particular Chapter 9). The passage across birth and death, as he describes it, is “a shift of perceived existential ‘moment,’ a natural relocation of the awareness of existence.” This seems very close to the idea in DNS that what we should anticipate at death is the continuing “sense of always having been present.” I’m happy to report that Stewart’s thesis, like mine, is entirely naturalistic, in that the basis for consciousness and subjectivity is taken to be the brain (more generally, a suitably enhanced central nervous system), so that nothing mysterious is literally carried over between subjects. Yet subjectivity continues across objective gaps between physically instantiated subjects, and this is a psychologically important fact for us. Needless to say, it was very gratifying to learn of Wayne Stewart’s work, which I highly recommend to your attention. "

    Here is a part of an e-mail Wayne Stewart sent me, further confirming Clark agrees with Stewart's work:

    (btw and just for confirmation: I've had the pleasure of talking with Tom Clark many times over the years, and to this day he finds no inconsistency in the work. For the obvious reason.)

    [email deleted-MIH]

    These are the links to chapter 9 of "Metaphysics by Default" and some other chapters I think you should read (don't read the whole book as a lot of it just discusses personal identity and historical philosophers):

    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 9, 2009
  8. Feb 10, 2009 #7


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    Hi Avalon,
    I've read through Clark's essay but all that additional reading your suggesting is making my stomach churn. :yuck:
    If you could express your own thoughts on the subject instead of asking people to read huge amounts of material, it might be a whole lot easier. I don't see anything in Clark's essay that breaks new ground.
  9. Feb 10, 2009 #8


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    I agree.

    This is not a book review forum.

    Using the PF guidelines for posting in philosophy, please follow this outline for discussion.

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