What Is Death?
In anticipation of my forthcoming book, Life in Light of Death, I have been asked to do something I didn't bother doing in the book: to define death. My editor had asked me if I should, and we agreed it was beyond the need and purpose of the book. (The book is about life, not death, after all.) This essay fills that unnecessary gap, though it will do so unsatisfactorily for many - those who want more than knowledge and authenticity allow. It is for this reason also, adding an unnecessary point of contention that would take away from the book's overarching purpose, that I decided against including this particular discussion anywhere between its covers.
So, what is death?
Death, defined narrowly, is the cessation of life. Defined broadly, it is the cessation of being. These are not quite the same thing.
Metaphysicians, by whom I mean theologians, immediately seize upon this distinction in completely the wrong way and thus force us into a diversion. For them, the distinction between the end of life and the end of being hints at some potential for "substance dualism." Philosophers, by whom I again mean theologians, can busy themselves with that distraction. What is relevant to them is the maintenance of a discussion about a claim upon the existence of a mental or spiritual "substance" (sometimes called the soul) that inhabits and animates the body and may survive the death of the human animal. This discussion lets them hide from death in high-minded language that seems to make a basic animal terror seem palatable and academically seemly.
From the theologian's perspective of high-minded terror, the cessation of life cannot be allowed to imply the cessation of being because that reality is too stark. Ignorance and its close cousin, speculation, make the pill seem less bitter, but that's just mental sleight-of-hand. They don't coat the pill so much as prevent it from being taken at all, the saccharine lozenge taken instead not even qualifying as a placebo.
Theologians appeal to tepid ignorance by banally insisting we cannot call death final because there can be no legitimate closure to a boring and unresolvable argument: that we might later be resurrected bodily from it by spiritual means, or that our said-to-be immortal souls transcend death itself. There is no proof of such things, of course, despite centuries of speculation upon the topic and every effort to have found it - the things only ever happen in old folk tales, where literally anything and stranger routinely happen. (Metaphysics, generally, can almost be defined by this fundamental invitation to misspent intellectual effort.)
Theologians cannot know about death any more than can those who horrify them by daring bald honesty about mortality. For theology, there is merely the "revealed" assertion otherwise. These assertions, though, arise from minds that cannot know death. They band-aid the gap with endless argumentation on behalf of notions that might lead a sharp mind to embrace the pretense that nonsense is "properly basic," or some such epistemic category. All they mean is that they don't know either but wish it so, and no amount of wishing can make a mind comprehend death. Minds, so long as they can think and speak, are never dead. Minds are, in fact, so removed from death that they cannot conceive of it. We can, on the other hand, conceive of charlatanry, wish-thinking, delusion, story telling, and, appropriately on this list, metaphysical speculation beyond the boundaries of the knowable.
Technically (the only kind of -ly that could possibly satisfy a metaphysician, so long as it leaves open a path to his way), there is some point buried within our impenetrable ignorance about death. In that technicality rests all of the theologian's high-minded terror. It is this. We cannot know death marks the end of life except in the most boring biological sense. We cannot know whether there is some mental substance that defines who we truly are. There are a lot of things we shouldn't care about specifically because we cannot know them, but let me at least address the question. Might death not be the end, then? This is what the metaphysicians and theologians really want to know, and it's what they want me to answer.
I find this question singularly uninteresting. (I didn't say I'd answer it, just that I'd address it.) In fact, it's astounding how much human time and energy this desperate question has wasted given what we know we do have: one life to live, after which we have no assurances. That is, I know I am alive now, that what I know of as life is fundamentally limited by my impending death, and that how I live matters, at least to me (and seems to also to some others). I cannot know whether dualism is right or wrong, and any stance on that unanswerable question bears no influence on how I should go about my life, even if it happens to be the case. My departed spirit, if such a thing is more than mere poppycock, cannot possibly regret my taking full advantage of the opportunities of life. That, though raises a more interesting question that strikes more nearly to the theologians' terror: why should our immortal souls, if such a thing is real, regret living life fully while we yet live?
Sophisticated metaphysicians in their pretense that they're not mere theologians would have us pause. We should want to know, just to have it right, they'd argue. They bring this high-minded case as though they aren't implying that there are some consequences tucked implicitly in the answer. The only way an immortal soul can regret having taken full advantage of life is if there is some underlying cost to having taken full advantage of life. That is, while pretending to float ethereally above their theological brethren, these metaphysicians are just as concerned about ultimate reward and punishment as the thoroughly religious, and high-minded as they seem, their concerns are ultimately morally authoritarian. Live your life this way, or there will be hell to pay! That's the real concern. If people live life like they've got but one chance to make something of it, they might act in ways other people's morals can't abide. Theology belies moral immaturity, then, and calls it an offense when psychologists thumb to the pages in their manuals labeled "Projection."
But if we will be more charitable, we can ask more gently what theologians (and metaphysicians) are really interested in. They, like so many over whom they command influence, seek an opportunity to hide from the central fear of life: the fear that we have lived life all wrong; that we have cared about the wrong things. The sophisticated metaphysicians mask this basic terror behind a superficial claim to rationality and open-mindedness while theologians call out to a silently disinterested deity, but their bellyaching is what it is: unwarranted speculation as a mental bulwark against the terror of death and existential dread. Worst of all, if we all just die and meaning is merely subjective, then all our self-denial has been a tremendous error and a waste of the only gift we really ever had.
This is the real terror of death, that its bleak reality reminds us that we might not be living the right way and only have so long ahead of us to correct course. Time already lost is, also, just time lost, and to admit that we have been caring about the wrong things is to have to reckon with that humiliation. To have spent our lives caring about the wrong things - or there being no right things to care about, as nihilism posits - threatens believing the unthinkable: that we live purposeless lives. The irony is tragic; there is no more seductive an invitation to caring about all the wrong things than getting wrapped up in thinking a life must find a purpose outside of itself. People truly squander their lives missing the purpose in life in a quest to find it somewhere other than where it obviously is (right in front of us). "Meaning is entirely behind our eyes, and it is immediately in front of our noses, especially when we're kissing someone we love," or so I put it on p. 41.
Enough of that. We're no nearer to knowing what death is, and I won't delay any longer save to point out that this sort of pointless distraction is the usual province of metaphysical speculation. It goes everywhere it possibly can except anywhere anyone wants to go.
So, where was I? Yes: Death, defined narrowly, is the cessation of life. Defined broadly, it is the cessation of being, and these are not quite the same thing.
From our own perspectives, however, they are. The subjective self, which we name "I," is never dead and therefore cannot conceive of death. It not only has no basis for comparison; it cannot have one. The best it can do is to proffer faulted analogies like to sleep or "how it was before you were born," which has a subjective meaning contained nowhere but within the empty set. In every moment that we are alive, we have not yet died. To "be dead" is a linguistic trick. It is to be no longer, and thus it is not to be. Conversely, to be, actively, is not to be dead, which is to say to have not yet died. Death is not a state of being, though it is a process that unfolds far more slowly than we will be around to experience.
We might pause to wonder what this thing we name "I" really is. Well, I am what I call my self, or more plainly, "I" is the syllable I use to designate my selfhood. The self is some aggregate of our subjective experiences of ourselves, including memories and expectations about what we will continuously become into our futures. It is the emergent and ultimately conceptual entity which defines itself as that which can identify itself as itself, which it does up until some moment somewhat prior to the pronounced time called "clinical death." This is a stark thought. When the self loses the capacity to identify itself as itself, the objective process of death begins and the subjective self simply dies. (This thought is more horrific than it sounds if you think on it a bit.)
For ourselves, then, there will come a moment at which we die, and that will be a moment that we will not be aware of because it is the very moment when our awareness first permanently fails. From the first moment that the self is irretrievably lost for the first time, death is final, and we all die. This happens before death as the cessation of life in most cases and, at the very latest, at the precise moment of clinical death. (Being completely obliterated in an explosion, for example, would be a circumstance that would cause those moments to coincide.) Once our awareness dies, then, that's the end of what we call "I." This is ultimately the moment that I refer to as "death" in Life in Light of Death.
At that moment, however, the broader understanding of death will not have occurred. It merely will have begun. Understood broadly, death is a process that unfolds, rather like a kind of entropy upon what defined our extended sense of our being. I am not speaking coarsely of the gradual termination of each cell in our bodies. When we have died, the thing we formerly identified as "I" will not have ended except to ourselves. Most of us will be remembered by somebody, and our legacies in the world will persist in some other way, for a time.
Time, though, is the great enemy of memory, and eventually it will conquer all. Given long enough - and long enough will surely come - memory itself will one day cease because there will be no rememberers left to do any remembering. How much do you know about your fifth-great grandparents? Not much, I'll bet. They've been forgotten. You will be too. And, as I say, that's some comfort. It takes the pressure off life and lets us focus back on what matters. All you need to understand this liberating fact is the ability to imagine a long-enough clock. That, more than anything else, we can be sure Nature will provide.
Death as the cessation of being, then, is a long, slow process by which entropy, time, and forgetfulness erase our memories and our legacies. First we die in the narrow sense; life ends. Then, bit by bit, that which we represented loses relevance or comes apart. Unless we're drastically wrong about the nature of the universe, time will at long whiles grind down all that is, was, and ever will be to a purposeless grist. Human vanities have far less time even than that, though, because the Earth, and any place else we may go, really is but a small place in the grand scheme of things. We are all Ozymandias, then, and all, we mighty, look upon our works and despair. Of course, we only despair because we care about the wrong things.
That feeling you might be feeling right now is called existential dread, and it's pretty nasty. It's Death's invitation to nihilism, a belief that nothing really matters, and the drear seduction of that invitation is a true shame. It seduced the existentialists, but it need not seduce you because it did not seduce me. It's my invitation to true humanism, to living for what matters. That's why I wrote Life in Light of Death.
How? Well, you'll need to figure that out for yourself, but here's what you know. You know you have a life to live that extends from the exact moment in which you are reading this until some later one in which you will die. At some later time still, all you've done will come undone, so our purpose can't be found there. We also know that for every living being that has conscious experiences, the quality of those conscious experiences somehow matters. There are better ones, and there are worse ones. There is also the possibility to affect the ratio of better to worse experiences for ourselves in the future and for those around us. That means that there is purpose somewhere. Our passions and our loved ones have more to do with impacting that ratio than anything else in our lives, so they're a good place to start looking for the purposes of our lives. If you would know the meaning of life, it comes to little more than recognizing those simple facts. Our purposes in life are local to us and all the more meaningful because of it.
What, then, is death? Death is an interminable end to something that cannot know anything but continuation, and it is unavoidable. It is a moment to us and a process that unfolds to anyone or anything that survives us, and yet it is an utter certainty. Death - or rather its acceptance - is therefore an invitation to reconsider life, and that's an opportunity to live, and to live better by figuring out what's worth caring about. And you should. Your life, if you will, depends upon it.
James A. Lindsay is the author of Life in Light of Death, among other books. You can get LiLoD here.