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Death

Transforming consciousness: what to expect at death: video of talk for Buffalo State Freethinkers based on the paper below, plus slides of the talk.

Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity

 Introduction - Anticipating nothingness - Continuity and being present
Transformation and generic subjectivity - Death and birth

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 employed 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.  Wayne Stewart has developed, quite independently, a remarkably similar view, about which see this note.  Commentary on this paper can be found here.

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, Swinburn, 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.

Transformation and Generic Subjectivity

To help make this shared, continuing sense of "always having been present" more concrete, I want to embark on a thought experiment of the Rip Van Winkle variety. So imagine, in the perhaps not so distant future, that we develop the technology to reliably stop and then restart biological processes. One could, if one wished, be put "on hold" for an indefinite period, and then be "started up" again. (Some trusting and perhaps naive souls have already had their brains or entire bodies frozen in the expectation of just such technology.) In essence, one is put to sleep and then awakened after however many years, memories and personality intact.

From the point of view of the subject, such a suspension of consciousness would seem no different from a normal night's sleep, or, for that matter, an afternoon nap. The length of the unconscious interval--minutes, years, or centuries--makes no difference. There is simply the last experience before being suspended, and then the first experience upon reactivation, with no experienced gap or interval of nothingness in between. In principle a subject could lie dormant for millions of years, to awaken with no sense of time having passed, except, of course, the clues given by the changed circumstances experienced upon regaining consciousness. Personal subjective continuity would have been preserved across the eons.

Next, suppose that during the unconscious period (the length of which is unimportant for the point I'm about to make) changes in memories or personality, or both, take place, either deliberately or through some inadvertent process of degradation. I go to sleep as TC and wake up as TC/mod. (Readers are encouraged to substitute their own initials in what follows.) If the changes aren't too radical, then I (and others) will be able to reidentify myself as TC, albeit a modified version, whose differences from the original I might or might not be able to pinpoint myself. ("Funny, I don't remember ever having liked calf's liver before. Was I always this grumpy? I wonder if this suspension technique really worked as well as they claimed. Maybe some unscrupulous technician fiddled with my hypothalamus while I was under. Still, all in all, I seem relatively intact.") Assuming this sort of reidentification is possible, personal subjective continuity is still preserved across the unconscious interval. There would be no subjective gap or pause between the last experience of TC and the first experience of TC/mod. For TC/mod, TC was never not here. There is simply one block of experience, the context of which suffered an abrupt but manageable alteration when TC woke up as TC/mod.

An interesting series of question now arises, questions which may generate some visceral understanding of what I mean by expecting the sense of always having been present. First, how much of a change between TC and TC/mod is necessary to destroy personal subjective continuity? At what point, that is, would we start to say "Well, TC 'died' and a stranger now inhabits his body; experience ended for TC and now occurs for someone else"? It is not at all obvious where to draw the line. But let's assume we did draw it somewhere, for instance at the failure to recognize family and friends, or perhaps a vastly changed personality and the claim to be not TC but someone else altogether. Imagine changes so radical that everyone agrees it is not TC that confronts us upon awakening; he no longer exists. Given this rather unorthodox way of dying, what happens to the intuition that now, for TC there is "nothing"?

We have seen that, given small or moderate changes in memory and personality, there is no subjective gap or "positive nothingness" between successive experiences on either side of the unconscious period. Instead, there is an instantaneous transition from one to another. (TC/mod says "I'm still here, more or less like before. Seems like I went to sleep just a second ago.") Given this, it seems wrong to suppose that, at some point further along on the continuum of change (the point at which we decide someone else exists), TC's last experience before unconsciousness is not still instantly followed by more experiences. These occur within a substantially or perhaps radically altered context, that of the consciousness of the new person who awakens. These experiences may not be TC's experiences, but there has been no subjective cessation of experience, no black abyss of nothingness for TC. Destroying personal subjective continuity (i.e. ending a particular subject by means of the transformation envisioned here) doesn't result in the creation of some positive absence of experience "between" subjects into which the unfortunate TC falls or out of which the new person emerges. Rather, it just changes the context of experience radically enough so that we, and the person who wakes up, decide TC no longer exists. Death in this case is a matter of convention, not biology, and it hasn't interrupted awareness, only changed its context.

Although this transformation has disrupted the personal subjective continuity imparted by a stable context of memory and personality, there is another sort of continuity or sameness, that created by the shared sense of always having been present. Such generic subjective continuity is independent of the context of memory and personality (that is, of being a particular person), and it amounts simply to the fact that, whoever wakes up feels as if they've always been here, that there has been no subjective blank or emptiness "in front" of their current experience. We can, I think, imagine going to sleep, being radically transformed, and having someone else wake up, with no worry about falling into nothingness, even though we no longer exist. The first experience of TC/rad (a radically changed TC, no longer identifiable as the same person) would follow directly on the heels of the last experience of TC. If there are no subjective gaps of positive nothingness between successive experiences of a single individual, then there won't be such a gap between a person's last experience and the first experience of his or her radically transformed successor. That first experience occurs within a context of memory and personality which establishes the same sense of always having been present generated by the original person's consciousness.

But of course the difficulty here is that it seems arbitrary, or simply false, to say that TC/rad's experience instantly follows TC's last experience if there is no connection of memory or personality, but only some bodily continuity. (And if we wish, we can imagine that drastic changes in body as well are engineered during the unconscious period, so that TC/rad looks nothing like his predecessor.) The objective facts are that TC has a last experience, then sometime later TC/rad has a first experience. But despite the lack of personal subjective continuity, despite the fact that we may decide at some point on the continuum of change, (in memory, personality, and body) that TC no longer exists to have experiences, experience doesn't end for him, that is, there is no onset of nothingness. What we have instead is a transformation of the subject itself, a transformation of the context of awareness, while experience chugs along, oblivious of the unconscious interval during which the transformation took place. It's not that TC/rad's experience follows TC's in the sense of being connected to it by virtue of memory or personality, but that there is no subjective interval or gap between them experienced by either person. This is expressed in the fact that TC/rad, like TC, feels like he's always been present. However radical the change in context, and however long the unconscious interval, it seems that awareness--for itself, in its generic aspect of "always having been present"--is immune to interruption.

Death and Birth

Let us call TC's fate in becoming TC/rad "death by transformation". My claim is that awareness is subjectively continuous, in this generic sense, across such a transformation. Considered from "its" point of view, experience never stops even though objectively speaking (from the "outside") one context for it ends and later on, as much later as you care to imagine, another context picks up. The next step in my argument is to apply this conclusion to ordinary death and birth. Instead of being transformed into some sort of successor, imagine that TC is allowed by a careless technician to lapse from unconsciousness into irreversible brain death. Somewhere, sometime later, a fresh consciousness comes into being, either naturally or by artifice. Except that the physical incarnations of TC and this other consciousness have no causal connection, this situation is the same as death by transformation. That is, one context of awareness has lapsed and another very different one begins. During the objective interval there has been no subjective hiatus in awareness; only the context of experience has changed.

This thesis implies that even if all centers of awareness were extinguished and the next conscious creature appeared millions of years hence (perhaps in a galaxy far, far away) there would still be no subjective interregnum. Subjectivity would jump that (objective) gap just as easily as it jumps the gap from our last experience before sleep to the first upon awakening. All the boring eons that pass without the existence of a subject will be irrelevant for the subject that comes into being. Nor will they count as "nothingness" for all the conscious entities which ceased to exist. Subjectivity, awareness, consciousness, experience – whatever we call it – never stops arising as far as it is concerned.

At this point it is likely that our intuitions about experience "jumping the gap" have been stretched beyond the breaking point. We have moved from the fairly uncontroversial fact of the continuity of one person's experience (no subjective gaps in consciousness during a lifetime) to this seemingly outlandish notion that consciousness, for itself, is impervious to death or indeed to any sort of objective interruption. But let me quickly reiterate my main points in order to reinstate some plausibility. 1) It is a mundane, although contingent, fact of life that when I die other subjects exist, hence subjectivity certainly is immune to my death in these circumstances. 2) If I am unconscious for any length of time I don't experience that interval; I am always "present"; this is personal subjective continuity. 3) If, after a period of unconsciousness, the transformed person who wakes up is not me there still won't be any perceived gap in awareness. The person who wakes up feels, as I did (hence "still" feels), that they've always been present. There has been no prior experience of not being present for them, nor when I stop existing do I have such an experience; this is generic subjective continuity. 4) Death and birth are "functionally equivalent" to the sort of transformation in 3), so again there will be no perceived gap, no nothingness of non-experience into which the subject might fall. Generic subjective continuity holds across any objective discontinuities in the existence of conscious beings.

Points 3) and 4) are certainly the most difficult to accept, and accepting them really depends on whether we are willing to slide down the slippery slope of the transformation thought experiment. If you don't buy the idea of a soul or indivisible self it's an easy trip. From a naturalistic perspective the self is nothing more than a contingent collection of fairly stable personality traits, memories, and physical characteristics. Thus the difference between my transformation into someone still recognizably me and someone barely not me is not a difference which would prevent awareness from jumping the gap. If there is no nothingness between experiences in the first case, then there is no nothingness in the second.

The reason 3) may have some intuitive plausibility is that we can generalize from our own ordinary experience of subjective continuity to cases in which we may not be quite sure who it is that wakes up. We can then see that even significant changes in the context of experience won't create subjective gaps. It is the absence of such gaps, resulting in the continuing shared sense of always having been present, that constitutes generic continuity.

4) seems plausible only if we accept what I call generic continuity in the extreme case of 3) (a completely different person wakes up) and then buy the notion that there is no real difference between death by transformation and ordinary death. This equivalence is difficult to accept since in ordinary death there is no causal "successor" person which "takes over" the consciousness relinquished by the person who dies. But keep in mind that in our thought experiment the successor consciousness might be activated long after the original person was put to sleep, have very different physical and personal traits, and be somewhere else altogether. The only connecting link is presumably some bodily "shell," any of the parts of which (including the brain) might be changed or replaced. The most extreme case of 3) looks a lot, then, like ordinary death, except that there is a very attenuated successor that comes into existence by virtue of a radical transformation. Ordinary death and birth amount, I think, to such radical transformations of subjectivity, except that there is no obvious candidate for a successor. My point is, however, that we don't need such a candidate to insure the generic continuity of experience. We need only see that the continuity is that of subjectivity itself, abstracted from any particular context, and it finds concrete expression in the fact that none of us has ever experienced (or will ever experience) not being here.

Despite my naturalistic and materialist caveats at the beginning of this essay, such a conclusion may still seem to have a mystical ring. It may seem as though I give too much weight to the subjective sense of always having been present, and, in claiming that subjectivity, for itself, always "is," I ignore the vast times and spaces in which no consciousness exists at all. Nevertheless, I believe a materialist can see that consciousness, as a strictly physical phenomenon instantiated by the brain, creates a world subjectively immune to its own disappearance. It is the very finitude of a self-reflective cognitive system that bars it from witnessing its own beginning or ending, and hence prevents there being, for it, any condition other than existing. Its ending is only an event, and its non-existence a current fact, for other perspectives. After death we won't experience non-being, we won't "fade to black." We continue as the generic subjectivity that always finds itself here, in the various contexts of awareness that the physical universe manages to create. So when I recommend that you look forward to the (continuing) sense of always having been here, construe that "you" not as a particular person, but as that condition of awareness, which although manifesting itself in finite subjectivities, nevertheless always finds itself present.

To identify ourselves with generic subjectivity is perhaps as far as the naturalistic materialist can go towards accepting some sort of immortality. It isn't conventional immortality (not even as good as living in others' memory, some might think), since there is no "one" who survives, just the persistence of subjectivity for itself. It might be objected that in countering the myth of positive nothingness I go too far in claiming some sort of positive connection between subjectivities, albeit a connection that doesn't preserve the individual. I might be construed as saying, to borrow the language of a different tradition, that an eternal Subject exists, ever-present in all contexts of experience. I wouldn't endorse such a construal since it posits an entity above and beyond specific consciousnesses for which there is no evidence; nevertheless such language captures something of the feel for subjectivity and death I want to convey.

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

 

Note on a remarkable theoretical convergence: Wayne Stewart's "existential passage" and TC's "generic subjective continuity."

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.

For commentary on this paper, go here.

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