Monday, 29 June 2015

Death, Philosophically

By Thomas Scarborough

'While I thought that I
was learning how to live,
I have been learning
how to die.'
Leonardo da Vinci
It would seem to be an all-important philosophical subject. Humans, wrote anthropologist Ernest Becker, contribute all of their waking actions to avoiding it or distracting themselves from the complete thought of it. No surprise, therefore, that philosophers tend to do the same.

The philosophical debate about death, whatever one might believe about it oneself, is most basically defined in terms of whether our present life is related to an afterlife, or not. The operative word is “related”. If indeed it is related to an afterlife, then we may ask on what basis this might be. And if not, then we may ask what the absence of such a relation might imply. With this in mind, we shall explore the subject of death from the point of view of Homo sapiens as a relation-tracing being.

Relation-tracing is what makes us human. We have the special ability to arrange our world, conceptually and materially. In fact, it is our relation-tracing ability which enables us to transcend space and time, to pursue ambitions and aspirations which lie completely beyond the scope of the animal kingdom. Such relation-tracing, further, has everything to do with motivation. Most basically, wherever we find that things are not arranged as we think they ought to be, we are motivated to act.

In thinking about death, it is important to understand that, if our relation-tracing has no reasonable prospect of fulfilment, this may ruin our motivation. Plans and ambitions generally need to have some prospect of completion, or we do not undertake them. And death, it need hardly be noted, may rob us of such fulfilment. While it may not take away every motivation in life, it would seem to take away any ultimate motivation we have. Philosopher Thomas Nagel writes, with this in mind, that we should best not let thoughts about such things enter our heads. 'The trick,' he writes, 'is to keep your eyes on what's in front of you.'

An important fact about death is that its moment is nearly always uncertain, more or less. As much as we might hope that we can control it today, we do not know at what point death will intervene in our lives. Therefore any arrangements which we make for the future (which is relation-tracing) will almost inevitably be cut short by death at some point. We are not going to finish all that we began. In fact, the bigger the ambitions we have, the more likely they are to be cut short by death. To this, philosopher Simon Blackburn comments: 'That might reasonably bother me a great deal.

Unless, that is, it should be possible in some way to continue our present activities after death. Rarely is it assumed that we will, but one does encounter the idea. More often than not, it is assumed that the story will continue in some other kind of way. Assume, for instance, that the real story of our life is not one of hopes and plans, but it is really one of sin and righteousness. What would matter then, for any continuation of the story, is whether I was a person of virtue in this life. Or, by way of contrast, the real story of our life may be one of faith and apostasy – and so on. Thus one may view continuation in a variety of terms.

This view would seem to present us with a respectable answer to the puzzle of death. With such prospects of continuation, we would retain our enthusiasm over the things of this life. Nothing would ever be lost – which is, nothing that really matters. It would not matter to us, therefore, if our hopes or our plans should be cut off in this life. However, there is an obvious difficulty with this view – for philosophers at any rate. There is no evidence – not that we can agree on anyway – as to whether there is continued consciousness after death.

But there may be other ways, in which we might find a continuation. Our plans and ambitions might leave a valuable legacy in this world. We might live on through our children, and their children again. And if we should want to be romantic about it, Edvard Munch (the Norwegian painter) wrote that we live on through the flowers which grow on our grave. This, too, might provide the motivation to carry on with the purposes of life, even though we might not personally survive to see them fulfilled. Of course one assumes – although it might seem presumptuous to some – that our purposes are worthwhile.

But perhaps we should not think too deeply on this option. No legacy lasts forever. No family line is eternal – and some have been short, with brutal ends. In fact, whatever might lie ahead of us, the stars, they say, will one day all go out. Realistically, we should think of our continuation merely for the time being, however long that might be. Yet this would seem to serve as a disincentive for anything that we might do. Let us perform a simple thought experiment. Would we continue to do what we do now if we knew with certainty that an all-powerful police state would frustrate and destroy it? Probably not.

We have a further possibility, however. Perhaps we may lose our own person, even while we are living. We may have no thoughts which are our own. We may lose ourselves in our society, or in our culture – to the extent that we do not exist. Our hopes, our desires, our intentions might not belong to us. The notion of death is, after all, a very personal thing, and would seem to be infinitely accentuated by our own self-awareness and self-importance. Might it not be possible to blend with a stream of consciousness from generations past to generations future? Or perhaps – it might not be culture with which we may blend, but the very universe. 'Forget yourself,' writes Yayoi Kusama. 'Become one with eternity.'

Is this a viable option? Is it potentially possible, not to take death into the heart of our reality? As Homo sapiens, we have said, we transcend space and time with our relation-tracing. We think all the time in terms which transcend our lives. We see beyond our beginnings and our ends. Not only this, but any escape from our individuality would seem to necessitate an exit from our society as we know it. Not only is our society dependent throughout on individualism: my rights and freedoms, my intentions and actions,seen apart from the group. It is so variegated and fragmented that any attempt to reunite it in a fusion of histories and beliefs and purposes seems beyond possible. The individual, say the philosophes, is prior to the group.

And then there is, of course, the option simply of living in tension – in terror, for some, of the end of all our dreams and designs. This is, after all, what many people do with death. 'Men fear it,' said Socrates, as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.' The fear of death may well be born of a rejection of death – in the sense that we decide to carry on with life with disregard, even defiance, in the face of death. The only way to carry on, we might say, is to forge ahead with all of our plans and ambitions, yet with terror, if we grasp the full reality of it. Unreconciled is how we should die, wrote philosopher Albert Camus.

Or perhaps there is a way – which the ancients could not fully have imagined. We may enter a phase of life, at the end of life, which we call retirement – in which there is nothing more to be done, nothing left to lose. This is the time of life where we deliberately set it all behind us, burn our bridges, and enjoy the afterglow. We have already died the coward's death – so that if we should die tonight, we might only miss a cup of filter coffee in the morning, or a game of golf in the afternoon sun.


  1. "Would we continue to do what we do now if we knew with certainty that an all-powerful police state would frustrate and destroy it? "

    Most basically, to borrow a phrase (!) , would a tree bother breaking into leaf knowing that the winter must come and destroy all it has done through the summer - would a parent have children knowing that they too must grow up and eventually pass away...? But they do, and we do... our horizons are rightly more limited.

  2. As philosophers, we are in a happy position today, which we were not in even a hundred years ago. Where philosophy of the past was far more prone to speculation – moonshine – it is tempered today by a proliferation of empirical research.

    We now know that we have various incentives or reasons for action. Jacquelynne Eccles and Allan Wigfield describe four: attainment value, intrinsic value, utility value, and cost. These are heavily dependent on task completion. Which is, if suddenly there should be no prospect of completion, our incentives or reasons would take a hard blow. Psychologist Brian Farrell sums it up: “Human functioning is much more goal-directed than we ordinarily suppose.”

    The failure of a goal before we reach it is ruinous to motivation. Alternatively, our default behaviour is to waste no time in reducing the goal – effectively scrapping the goal – to accommodate what is left of it. We do not seem to be very flexible in this regard: typically we do not replace a goal, for instance. My own line of work has meant that I have routinely dealt with death. Frequently, people prefer to modify their beliefs about their own dying than to modify their goals. It makes a tragic picture.

    A tree, to address your question, instinctively breaks into leaf – if we may speak here about instinct at all. A tree has no goals. But the point is taken, that humans may act instinctively, too. Instinct is a component of human action, which could have been acknowledged in the essay.

    With regard to children, supposing that they should represent a short-sighted form of escape from one's own death. Short-sighted, because children are a just puff of smoke in the history of the cosmos. It is a byword, as it were, that one may live vicariously through one's children. Psychologist Rocco Cottone observes: “We live on through our children … If you want to live forever, put your effort in the future.” Therefore you yourself, presumably, merely represent someone else's fancy about overcoming death. Sorry to break the news in a public forum.

  3. But I have to disagree with that fellah Thomas Scarborough. Goals are constructs. The fault lies entirely in the constructs. We have created, from an original state of nature, a world which is cluttered with goals, and this precisely is the problem. We need to return to a state of nature.

  4. I disagree with that fellah too - and Brian Farrell! I'd say that much action is not dependent on success, but merely the 'ideal' or theoretical possiblity of sucess. Indeed, we may know quite well we will not succeed. So what is really motivating us?

  5. It motivates us that we are born as a person but it's difficult to die as a person, that's what we're trying to correct during our life.

  6. I've taken some time to intervene in this discussion because it is, obviously, a tough one.

    One premise I disagree with is that there is no basis we can agree on as to whether there's an after life. The empirical research of our times also includes strict protocols on near death experiences (NDE) that allow to distinguish what is due to residual brain activity and what is not, what is a verifiable experience of our world experienced by someone is dead, not in our world, and what is not. We could agree on the fact that there is an afterlife, but we won't; not because the science if not ready yet but because most of the effort in the last two centuries has been devoted to develop philosophical and theological arguments that would take for granted that Science can't possibly provide evidence of the afterlife.

    So the paradoxical situation, as I see it, is that good ol materialist Science in the two last centuries has trained us to think of ourselves as atomic dust, grains of sand in the universe, but now we should adapt to those new findings -- mostly due to the miracles of resuscitation techniques in traumatology and cardiology -- that these doctors are compelled to accept, despite of years of materialist training.

    I have a genuine respect for science as an adventure, I am not mentioning these results just to prove it is contradictory and consequently can't be relied upon.

    So, Thomas, yes, the whole idea is to trace relations with the afterlife, and I think that those findings should help us trace even more relations. Scientifically and philosophically.