Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. (Blaise Pascal. Penseés #434)
Ah yes, the Human Condition. I come from religious folk and have watched both of my grandparents die. My mother had a close call a couple of years ago, and experienced visions of Jesus while lingering close to death. And as we have all heard by now, death in our time is a sanitized, hospitalized affair. Not the daily intrusion that it was for most of the history of humanity. But the fact that we don’t have a hands on experience of death every day doesn’t diminish our awareness that the most momentous event of our life is yet to come.
We all would like a peaceful death; preferably one that comes to us in our sleep. Sleep being our natural metaphor for death, it makes sense that drifting off while already half-way there would be most desirable. Death is rationalized in multitudinous ways, not least of which is our species’ propensity for metaphysical fantasies: heaven, nirvana, rebirth and so on. I do not wish to insult my religious friends, but even these theories fail to provide much comfort if one contemplates their actual implications. Whichever “destination” we are bound for, it ought to be clear that the being that will be after death will not be the being we are now in any intelligible sense. What am I without body? You really have to go a long, long way with Descartes to make any sense of such a proposition.
A majority of the human population believes in some kind of life after death. Can billions of people be wrong? Of course they can, and almost certainly are. I am not of the view that it is irrational to subscribe to such beliefs. Beliefs are choices based on evidence. The evidence may be spurious or suspect, but when weighted against the consequences of an incorrect choice it is not surprising that many will take the “safe” route and accept the beliefs that posterity and culture have bequeathed them. With the death problem now safely partitioned, one can get on with the business of living. That approach seems perfectly rational to me. What has one lost? (This is the essence of Pascal’s famous wager; much maligned as a cynical ploy and routinely taken out of context).
For those of us who find the evidence lacking–and there have always been atheists among us–death must be understood differently. We are tempted to be flippant about it. “I didn’t exist before I was born, and it didn’t bother me. Why should it bother me to die?” they say. But it can’t be dismissed so easily.
Real contemplation of what death actually is to a self, to me or to you is a mind-bending exercise. How does one conceive or imagine the cessation of the self while one yet exists? This is where things break down. A being can’t conceive of its non-being. Whatever death is as an “event” it will not be one that any of us actually experience, for death is the absence of experience, sensation and being itself.
Yes, some of us say, as I have said many times, it’s not death we’re afraid of, it’s dying. I don’t find that very satisfying though. Of course I fear pain. (We can all be grateful to live in an age that has palliative care). Death is something more than dying. After all, when one is dying there is always the hope of a cure or a miracle.
Which brings me back to ontology. For those who equate brains and minds there is no existential question to address. The hunk of meat that is you decays and the epiphenomenal ephemera of a self evaporates. If that is so, what was lost? That’s a worthwhile question for philosophy in my view.