MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #24–The Concept of Death is Five Ways Ambiguous.
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains section IX.1.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
IX. The Nature of Death
Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.[i]
Look back at time … before our birth. In this way Nature holds before our eyes the mirror of our future after death. Is this so grim, so gloomy?[ii]
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
What is death?
Minimally, the English word “death,” and correspondingly the concept of death, mean “the cessation or end of life.”
But unfortunately for those of us who live and die, and are also conscious and self-conscious, therefore able to think about our own lives and deaths — that is, all human persons — the concept of death is crucially ambiguous, in at least five different ways.
The first crucial ambiguity about the concept of death concerns the type of life we are talking about when we say that life ceases or ends:
(i) inorganic life,
(ii) organic life,
(iii) sentient human or non-human animal life, and
(iv) sapient human personal life.
Correspondingly, there are four different sub-types of death:
(i*) inorganic death,
(ii*) organic death,
(iii*) sentient human or non-human animal death, and
(iv*) sapient human personal death.
Many things have inorganic lives.
This includes artificial or humanly-fabricated machines like automobiles, dishwashers, and refrigerators — indeed, these are often sold along with a legally binding “lifetime warranty” — but also more or less large scale non-artificial natural mechanisms like weather systems, tropical storms, mountains, mountain ranges, planets, stars, and galaxies.
Principles of physics — and especially the principles of non-equilibrium thermodynamics — and evolutionary theory apply to their cosmic emergence, development, and eventual destruction.
Such things therefore all encounter inorganic deaths at the end or cessation of their inorganic lives.
Indeed, even the universe as a whole can, at least in principle, have an ultimate inorganic “heat-death,” via entropy.
In this sense, death is the cessation or end of something’s characteristic mechanical operations or, more generally, the cessation or end of its inorganic non-equilibrium thermodynamics.
Let’s suppose that organic activity, and especially organismic activity, is distinct from the activity of natural mechanisms.[iii]
As Kant compactly puts it,
a mere machine … has only a motive power, while the organized being possesses in itself a formative power, and indeed one that it communicates to the matter, which does not have it (it organizes the latter): thus it has a self-propagating formative power, which cannot be explained through the capacity for movement alone (that is, mechanism).[iv]
Then all organisms have categorically and specifically organic lives, including micro-organisms, plants, and animals.
It is not inconceivable that there could even be entire planets possessing organic lives, like the one imagined in Stanislaw Lem’s brilliant science fiction novel Solaris, and represented visually in Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally brilliant science fiction film Solaris, the eponymous Solaris.
In any case, all sentient animals, as living organisms, have specifically organic lives.
And since all human persons are also sentient animals, so too do all human persons have such organic lives.
But, obviously, not everything that has an organic life — say, a unicellular micro-organism, or a plant — has either a sentient animal life or a human personal life.
So there is an important difference between, on the one hand, the cessation or end of an organic life, per se, and on the other hand, the cessation or end of either a sentient animal life or a human personal life.
In particular, the human personal life of a creature can temporarily or permanently cease or end, while its organic life or sentient animal life continues:
(i) temporarily, e.g., in cases of fainting, unconsciousness, or a coma,
(ii) permanently in one sense, while organic life but not minded animal life continues, e.g., in cases of persistent vegetative states produced by an artificially-induced or disease-based brain-trauma, as in the famous Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and Terry Schiavo cases, and
(iii) permanently in another sense, while organic life and sentient animal life both continue, e.g., in cases of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, as in the famous case of the philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch.
And on the other hand, at least in principle, human personal life can continue across even very long temporary gaps in organic life and sentient animal life, e.g., in cryogenic re-animation.
Inorganic death, organic death, and the death of the sentient animal per se, while philosophically important for various reasons, and by no means irrelevant to morality, nevertheless are not of primary moral importance for our purposes in this short course.
Only the deaths of human or non-human persons are of primary moral importance for us here.
The second crucial ambiguity about the concept of death concerns the temporal duration of the cessation or end of life, and in particular, whether it is
(i) temporary, or
Now it’s obvious that there can be temporary cessations or endings of rational human consciousness — e.g., fainting, unconsciousness, or a coma — that are not also permanent.
Correspondingly if, as seems easily conceivable, were the technology and science of cryogenics to be developed somewhat further, then there could be even very long temporary cessations or ends of the organic lives human persons — the temporary deaths of their living bodies — that are neither the permanent deaths of the sentient animals they are, nor the permanent deaths of the human persons they are.
For in these easily conceivable scenarios, when the body of the (temporarily) dead human person is reanimated, then the human person’s life is also resumed, just as it would be after a fainting fit, unconsciousness, or coma.
What seems far less easily conceivable is the supposed possibility of reincarnation, that is, the possibility of human person’s body’s suffering a permanent organic death, therefore also being temporarily dead as a real human person, but then resuming their human personal life in a new body.
For the purposes of our discussion in this short course, I’ll bracket any further discussion of reincarnation.
In any case, the basic point I am making here is secured by the real possibility of reanimation.
Again for the purposes of this short course, I’m going to concentrate almost exclusively on the permanent deaths of human persons like us; that is, I am going to concentrate almost exclusively on the annihilation or extinction of any such person as a rational, conscious, and self-conscious subject, forever.
I say “almost exclusively,” because in the next and final section we’ll critically consider the concept of immortality, or more precisely, we’ll critically consider the concept of an sempiternally endless (“sempiternal” means beginning at a certain point in time, but lasting forever) or infinite human personal life.
But aside from that discussion, and unless otherwise specified, we’ll be talking only about the permanent deaths of human persons like us.
The third crucial ambiguity about the concept of death is in many ways the most important one.
This concerns the moral and metaphysical distinction between
(i) the state of my actually being dead (which, for convenience I’ll call “deathS”), and
(ii) the process of my dying (which, again for convenience, I’ll call “deathP”).
The state of my actually being dead, my deathS, necessarily occurs immediately after the process of my dying, my deathP.
Now since I am concentrating almost exclusively on the permanent deaths of human persons, then my kind of deaths, once it has occurred, lasts forever.
The process of my dying, my deathP, by sharp contrast, necessarily occurs during my life as a human person.
Otherwise put, deathP is necessarily infra-life, whereas deathS is necessarily post-life.
Many serious philosophical, existential, and moral confusions have been created by failing to distinguish between deathS and deathP.
E.g., as per the second epigraph of this section, the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius argued that
since (i) the time prior to the beginning of my life and the time after the permanent cessation or end of my life are perfectly symmetrical and in effect metaphysical mirrors of one another, and
since (ii) we’re never (or at least almost never) concerned about the fact that we didn’t exist before we were born, then
(iii) we shouldn’t be concerned about the time after we die, that is, we have no good reason to fear our own deaths.
But Lucretius was simply wrong about the symmetry or mirroring thesis, so his argument is unsound.
The pre-natal non-existence of a human person is essentially different from her deaths, precisely because her deaths is necessarily post-life, and therefore it inherently presupposes her actual deathP, whereas her pre-natal non-existence is necessarily not post-life, and therefore it does not inherently presuppose her actual deathP.
But that’s by no means the worst of the confusions that have been created by failing to distinguish between deathS and deathP.
As we’ll see later in this section, the participants in some of the leading recent and contemporary philosophical discussions of the nature of death have consistently failed to draw the distinction between the state of actually being dead and the process of dying, and have therefore fallen into serious confusions about whether death is a always a bad thing for the one who died, or not.
Sometimes they are talking about deathS; sometimes they are talking about deathP; and sometimes it is crucially unclear precisely which kind of death they are talking about.
In any case, as we will also see, it’s entirely possible and perfectly coherent to hold
(i) that a human person’s deathS, by its very nature, is necessarily neither a good thing nor a bad thing for the one who dies (hence never a good thing and never a bad thing for the one who dies),
while at the same time also holding
(ii) that a human person’s deathP, by its very nature, is sometimes a good thing for the one who dies and also sometimes a bad thing for the one who dies.
These points lead on naturally to the fourth crucial ambiguity about the concept of death.
This concerns the fact that a human person’s permanent death, whether this is her deathS or her deathP, can be considered and/or evaluated
either (i) from the inside, that is, from the first-person point of view,
or (ii) from the outside, that is, from the third-person or impersonal point of view.
Following David Suits, who originally discovered this deeply important distinction — or in any case, who first formulated it clearly[v] — I will say that whenever human person’s deathS or her deathP is considered and/or evaluated from the first-person point of view, then this is considering or evaluating some fact that is for the one who died, and therefore an intrinsic or internal fact with respect to that human person.
But by sharp contrast, whenever a human person’s deathS or her deathP is considered or evaluated from the third-person or impersonal point of view, then this is considering or evaluating some fact that is only about the one who died, and therefore at best an extrinsic or external fact with respect to that human person.
The main reason this distinction is so important, as we’ll see, is that although a human person’s deathS or deathP can involve various good or bad facts about her, from the third-person or impersonal point of view, it does not follow that any of these facts is a good or bad fact for her.
So apart from Suits, few philosophers who have discussed the nature of death have been able to recognize that although there may be good arguments showing that the permanent deathS of a human person is always, or almost always, a bad thing about that person — because, had she lived, she would have had more good experiences, hence her permanent deathS, in a certain sense, is a “deprivation” for a counterfactual counterpart of that person — nevertheless it does not follow that the permanent deathS of a human person is ever a bad thing for that person.
This is simply because deathS has no personal subject for whom anything can ever be a good thing or a bad thing.
Moreover, not even Suits has recognized that although it’s quite true that the permanent deathS of a human person is never either a good thing or a bad thing for the one who dies, simply because deathS has no personal subject, nevertheless it does not follow that the deathP of that very person is not also a good thing or a bad thing for that very person.
By its very nature, deathP has a living personal subject who is also in the process of dying; and, as I will argue, very often or even usually, the deathP of a human person is, tragically, a bad thing for that very person.
And this brings us to the fifth and final crucial ambiguity about the concept of death.
This concerns the question of whose death is at issue, and in particular whether it’s
(i) our own death, or
(ii) someone else’s death,
that’s at issue.
The difference between our own death and the death of another human person is fundamental, whether we are thinking about deathS or deathP.
This, in turn, is because although we necessarily have first-person access to the contents of our own lives, we necessarily do not have first-person access to the contents of the lives of other human persons.
Otherwise, we would be those other human persons.
Differently put, what philosophers have called “the problem of other minds” applies every bit as directly to the deaths of human persons as it applies to the lives of human persons.
Necessarily, by the nature of our own conscious and self-conscious minds, we’re both consciously and also self-consciously directly aware of our own human personal lives, but not of anyone else’s human personal life.
It follows that our own death, whether it’s our deathS or our deathP, necessarily is no one else’s death.
In this sense, we necessarily die alone, just as we necessarily live our lives alone.
We are, to be sure, always living our lives alongside others’ human personal lives, and in more or less direct interaction and solidarity with others’ human personal lives.
So in that sense, we always live our lives with other human persons’ lives.
But we do not live those lives, only our own.
Similarly, we’re always dying alongside the deaths of other human persons like us, in more or less direct interaction and solidarity with those others’ deaths, and in that sense we are always dying with the deaths of others.
But we do not die those deaths, only our own.
[i] Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus. Available online at URL = <http://www.epicurus.net/en/menoeceus.html>.
[ii] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, as quoted in S. Luper, “Death,” section 3.2, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), available online at URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/death/>.
[iii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), ch. 2, available online in preview, HERE.
[iv] I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), p. 246 (CPJ 5: 374).
[v] D. Suits, “Why Death is Not Bad for the One Who Died,” American Philosophical Quarterly 38 (2001): 69–84.
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