Jeff Mason argues that the concept of death has no subjective meaning.
Philosophers and non-philosophers stand on a level of equality with respect to death. There are no experts on death, for there is nothing to know about it. Not even those who study the death process have an edge on the rest of us. We are all equals in thinking about death, and we all begin and end thinking about it from a position of ignorance.
Death and its concept are absolutely empty. No picture comes to mind. The concept of death has a use for the living, while death itself has no use for anything. All we can say about death is that it is either real or it is not real. If it is real, then the end of one's life is a simple termination. If it is not real, then the end of one's embodied life is not true death, but a portal to another life.
Having no content, we must speak of death metaphorically. For those who think death is real, death is a blank wall. For those who think it is not real, death is a door to another life. Whether we think of death as a wall or a door, we cannot avoid using one metaphor or another. We often say that a person who dies is relieved of suffering. However, if death is real, then it is metaphorical even to say that the dead do not suffer, as though something of them remains not to suffer. As there are already many speculations about some sort of 'next life,' I will focus on the view that death is real and marks the final end of an individual's life.
Let us explore the metaphor that death is a wall a bit further. Each of us is born facing this wall. From that moment on, every step we take is towards it, no matter which way we turn. There is simply no other direction to take. Like a fun house mirror, the wall of death show us our living fears and distorted images of ourselves. All we see when we look at death is a reflection of our own lives.
Death has no subjective meaning at all. It will come to other people, but never to me. Of course, I know that I am going to die. Death means the end of my future. However, as long as I am alive, I will be living toward that future possibility of no longer having possibilities.
The unavoidable conclusion is that, if death is real, neither I nor you will ever personally taste death. I will cease to be conscious before the end. No matter how close I come to it, death recedes before me. I am actually dead only for others. When the end actually arrives, my dead body passes into the hands of the coroner. I will no longer be there. Death is always described from the perspective of the living. As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, “Death is not an experience in life.”
The concept of death is unlike most other concepts. Usually we have an object and the concept of that object. For example, we have a horse and the concept of a horse. However, the concept of death is absolutely without any object whatsoever. Thinking about the prospect of one's own death is a constant meditation upon our own ignorance. There is no method for getting to know death better, because death cannot be known at all.
One trouble with discussing this topic is the instinctive fear of death. We tend to avoid death in our thoughts and actions. However, if we could forget our fears for a minute, we could see more clearly how interesting the concept actually is from a more detached point of view.
Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Living towards death in time gives one's life a direction and framework within which to understand the changes that life brings. The world looks very differently to the young and the old. The young look forward. The old look back. What matters to us changes as we get older. The prospect of death informs these changes. The young have an intellectual understanding that death comes to us all, but their mortality has not become real to them. For the old, mortality starts to sink in.
For a long time, I have been puzzled by two famous philosophical ideas about death, one from Plato and one from Spinoza. The first is that a philosopher has a vital concern with death and constantly meditates upon it. The second is that the wise person thinks of nothing so little as death. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Ignoring death leaves us with a false sense of life's permanence and perhaps encourages us to lose ourselves in the minutiae of daily of life. Obsessive rumination on death, on the other hand, can lead us away from life. Honestly coming to terms with one's death involves reflection on its significance in one's life, and thinking about the larger values that give life its meaning. In the end, it is useful to think about death only to the point that it frees us to live fully immersed in the life we have yet to live.
JEFF MASON WAS A LECTURER IN PHILOSOPHY AT MIDDLESEX UNIVERSITY. HE WROTE THIS PIECE IN 2011 SIX MONTHS BEFORE A DIAGNOSIS OF TERMINAL LUNG CANCER.
Related Article: Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind (written by Jeff Mason two months before his death in August 2012).
In politics and popular culture the term ‘philosophy of death’ is sometimes used as a weapon in the grim battle over abortion and end-of-life policy. Some in the ‘pro-life’ camp say that its opponents hold a ‘philosophy of death’ that favors the demise of living things (for some examples of this use of ‘philosophy of death,’ google the combination ‘philosophy of death’ and ‘pro-life’). Of course, the other political camp refuses to be maligned in this way, and rejects the label ‘anti-life’. It calls itself ‘pro-choice;’ but employs similar nefarious tactics, as its self-description lends itself to the impression that its opponents are ‘anti-choice’—that they are against freedom.
The two camps are utterly deadlocked; they cannot reason with each other; all too often they instead use bullying, mud-slinging, and scare tactics. But political choices that are not based on clear reason are unstable. We need to try to reach a rational consensus if we can, or else acknowledge that we just don’t know what to say, and take our ignorance into account in creating policy.
The philosophy of death is the study of the nature and significance of death, and the philosophy of life is the study of the nature and significance of life
Unfortunately, a set of really tough and confusing philosophical issues lies at the heart of the debate. These issues are being investigated in two growing areas of research: the philosophy of death, which is the study of the nature and significance of death, and the philosophy of life, which is the study of the nature and significance of life. The book Cambridge Companion to Life and Death,which will appear later this year, offers a selection of new work in these areas. In what follows I will describe one of the issues in play, and point out some of the ways in which it bears on the debate.
The issue is this: what are we?
A simple and straightforward answer is that we are human animals—each of us is identical to an animal that is a member of the species Homo sapiens. Ironically, most of the people who call themselves ‘pro-life’ would reject this claim, even though it readily lends itself to the ‘pro-life’ opposition to abortion, given that the existence of a human animal begins at or soon after conception. If that is when human animals come to exist, and we are animals, then to kill such a being is to kill one of us. Since killing creatures like us would be hard to justify, abortion, too, would be difficult to defend. Many in the ‘pro-life’ camp would also oppose hastening the death of a victim of persistent vegetation, brought on by the death of the cerebrum (the higher brain), as in the cases of Karen Ann Quinlan and Terry Schiavo. Once again, the view that we are animals lends support to their opposition, for an animal in a persistent vegetative state is still a living animal.
If we are not human animals, what are we? Many philosophers say we are ‘Lockean persons.’ They follow John Locke, a 17th Century philosopher who understood a person to be something that is essentially self-aware. To say that something is essentially self-aware is to say that it cannot possibly exist without being self-aware. An updated version of Locke’s view is that persons are creatures for whom the capacity for self-awareness is essential. According to modern-day Lockeans, I am a person in this sense, and so are you.
Isn’t this the position taken by people in the ‘pro-life’ camp? One might have thought so, as a great many of them would say that we are wholly mental beings—beings whose essential attributes are limited to mental properties, such as the capacity for self-awareness. But theorists who say that we are Lockean persons usually note that the capacity for self-awareness is not acquired until after birth (around the age of two years), and is destroyed at the death of the cerebrum. This suggests that Lockean persons do not come into existence until after birth. So they do not die when fetuses are aborted. Nor are they harmed when the death of a human being in a persistent vegetative state is hastened. Hence modern-day Lockeans are rarely found in the ‘pro-life’ camp.
A difficulty confronting Lockeans is clarifying what sort of mental beings we are supposed to be, and how these beings are related to human animals. It is about as clear as can be that human animals exist, and also quite evident that, at a certain point in their lives, typical human animals develop a brain which, in time, begins to function. Can’t they use their brains to think? If so, why not say that these animals are the beings that are self-aware? Why posit the existence of some sort of mental being whose self-awareness is essential to it?
However, saying we are animals makes it harder to defend the ‘pro-choice’ position and the view that it is unobjectionable to hasten death in end-of-life cases. The claim can no longer be that our existence begins after birth and is ended by the death of the higher brain. Neither side, it seems—pro-life or pro-choice—wants to say that we are human animals.