When can we be said to die?

Death is a peculiar thing. Most are scared of it, few embrace it, some tragically induce it. None know what it entails. All face it. In this essay, I would like to advocate for an alternate view on when exactly death happens, when it does not, what causes it and why.

Death is quite possibly the only thing we might be said truly to know. In fact, some often see this matter as the only matter for which there is indeed a definite answer to be found; the universal and unavoidable truth of the end of existence is that there is death. That things die is the most commonly held viewpoint on a single issue shared by the whole of humankind. I would like to propose the following: that death only occurs for the forgotten; that you only die when you are forgotten. This view is not a wholly novel one for which I can take credit, but it most certainly is a polemical one and thus one that I shall have to defend vigorously. This discussion will contain an elaboration on a number of fundamental notions: what death is, what it means to exist, when exists, and when existence ends.

So, then, what is death? This is as much a scientific question as a cultural and religious one, it seems. A survey on the history of the human understanding and perception of death will give rise to a plethora of seemingly contradictory and confusing accounts of what death is, how it occurs, how it can be prevented and, most crucially in such a survey, what happens afterwards. Some may say that death is the manifestation of the will of some omnipotent deity, which seems to contradict even most basic and obvious human instincts for ‘survival at any cost’, or indeed that there is and have always been medicinal practices (why should it be evolutionary to desire to survive when death is planned for all?). Others may suggest there is some sort of cycle to life, that death of a spirit-like or soul-like entity can never occur but instead that this ‘energy’ is transferred into different species of animal, perhaps transferring based on the benevolence or malevolence of the animal in question (although, what can the spirit of a worm do to be good enough to become a human? And what moral action could a squirrel undertake to be worthy of transferal to a slug?). Others still will point to that there may be some other form of existence or life after whatever death is (both of which are quite obviously hazy ideas).

This essay by no means represents an intent to degrade or undermine the religious views held by billions across the globe. To belittle religion is to disrespect, misunderstand and underappreciate the vital role that religious beliefs and values have played in the advancement of human civilisation, insofar as they give purpose to an otherwise seemingly meaningless world. On the contrary, here I shall contend only with the arguments that exist with regard to the notion of death, and not play some sort of entitled ad hominem game with the invaluable religious beliefs upon which our societies are based.

To isolate the notion of death, it must first be understood what it is. Such a massive task lends itself to a different approach for understanding: one that shows what death is not. To do this, I shall present a number of what would seem to be common sense arguments for ‘when death happens’, and I shall show these to be untrustworthy.

Firstly, one might argue that ‘if you cannot get it to talk back to you, then it is dead’. Most immediately, it would seem preposterous to base a definition of death, which we are to understand as a wholly universal idea, on linguistics, which restricts death to be a solely human phenomenon. A dog may be said to be able to communicate with you, but an oak tree certainly cannot talk back to you. And it would seem foolish to claim that oak trees are not alive. Following this, it might be argued that ‘if you cannot get a human body to talk back to you, then this human is dead’. This might seem like more effective argumentation: it limits the scope of the issue to humanity with a focus on language. Again, however, it is quite easy to refute: mutes, infants, the severely autistic and the non-linguistic (for example, perhaps, those that have been subject to language deprivation experiments) are irreconcilably still alive.

What can be said to be alive?

Secondly, it might seem to follow that ‘if it feels no pain, then it is dead’. Let us take, with this suggestion, that we do not talk about living things that do not have a nervous system equipped to feel pain (for, again, oak trees feel no pain but are not dead), but instead that we have a focus on mammals. With this mammalian focus, let us imagine a human, of otherwise no abnormal birth, but born instead without the capacity to feel pain. For whatever reason, perhaps as a result of some disadvantageous evolutionary adaptation (and regardless of whether this concerns some faulty nervous receptors or faulty neurotransmission of the feeling of pain to the brain such that it cannot be felt) this person is unable to experience pain. Does this seem farfetched? Is this philosophical argument reaching too far into complex science for it to continue to hold? Well, those suffering with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) would quite readily offer evidence in favour of this thought experiment, as people who literally feel no pain, or anything else really, for that matter. Surely, in cases of patients with CIPA, we could not say that they were dead. Thus, another suggestion for death’s definition fails.

Yet another definition might look to a person’s organic structure to determine vitality. If say, a being (which would normally have them to be said to be alive), does not have a heart, or a brain (or any other vital organ, really), then it can be considered dead. In this case, we seem to have reached a need to define exactly what life is, which potentially poses even more problems than a question on death. Questions of when exactly life starts are particularly pertinent in the modern day, with Alabaman politicians recently outlawing abortion. This extremely heated issue is not one that this essay shall enter, although it will be suggested that its roots lie more in social and political ideology than a debate solely about the sanctity of life or the female body. Regardless, this organic definition seems to fall short given its inherent imprecision in what exactly life is; and besides, it relies on having an organic structure in the first place — which we shouldn’t say is necessary in a strong sense for being alive. Going even further, transplants exist: it would seem like losing a kidney or even a heart might not spell the end of life, anymore.

How about a conscious view of life and death? Many computer scientists might want to consider some computers as ‘alive’ if they present in such a way as to mimic what we might call consciousness — perhaps by passing the Turing test. Leaving aside problems with the Turing test itself, determining consciousness might be a good way to decipher what exactly is alive; and thus what is dead is whatever has lost consciousness. But, again, what about trees? Well, the panpsychist (someone who believes all things have some form of mental states) argument might be useful here. If a tree had a mind, could it be killed and thus lose one? Could a tree be said to be conscious, rather than just having a mind, though? And besides, would not whatever the tree were turned into (logs, planks etc.) still be described as having a mind, and thus would it seem that the tree had died and somehow reborn, or that its mental states had split as if horcruxed? It seems as if the panpsychist view only poses more questions than answers here.

What can be said to be conscious?

“Well, fine…”, a protester might exclaim at this point, “but you are looking only at living things to determine what might be considered dead. What about taking into account what is actually dead? Surely it must be the case that a corpse is dead, and thus that would seem to provide a good definition of whatever death is: death is what has happened to a corpse.” This is an interesting rebuttal, and possibly, I imagine, quite a firmly held belief by a lot who have thought about death. It makes a lot of sense: death, as the irreversible process it is considered to be in a Western society, is what has happened to a corpse in order for it to be called one. So, let us think for a moment about what it means generally for something to be a corpse.

Is something a corpse if it has no blood flow? Potentially. But what about when one has gangrene; is my gangrenous foot a corpse? Surely it makes no sense for me to have said that my foot as ‘alive’ in the normal sense at all anyway — my foot had no mental states or friends, so how could having caught gangrene caused a part of me to ‘die’? Then, is something a corpse if the body could not possibly recover? Well, like with looking at organ transplants, it seems as if ‘unrecoverability’ is no longer such a concrete notion, and moreover, who is to say whether there is anything fundamentally bodily life-ending now that could not have a solution in a century, or a millennium? It seems as if even what a corpse is cannot be fully explained (at least causally) — so, perhaps we should abandon the whole thing altogether.

Up to here, I have considered five different potential outlooks on death, but I fear I will bore if I continue; you get the point. What all these conceptions of death have in common is that they either cannot encapsulate all (living) things, and/or they cannot give a precise point in space or time for when exactly a death happens. This essay will argue that its view can answer both these problems, for it considers that the solving of these two problems would solve the problem of death.

How can I defend my view that ‘one only dies when one is forgotten’, then? Well, we must start by accepting a single premise: that which is imperceptible is non-existent. For all intents and purposes, given how we go about acquiring knowledge (with our perception, for the most part), there would surely be nothing of which we could know that could not be perceived. And if we hold this, then, effectively, there is nothing that could exist for us that we could not perceive. It actually does not matter, for a human view on this issue, if other things do exist that we cannot perceive, because for us, they would not, and thus play no role in our conception of the world. As long as we hold this premise, we can begin to see why my idea of death begins to make sense. Let us start by analysing time in basic metaphysical terms.

One key issue in the metaphysics of time is when exists. A presentist wishes to argue that only the present exists, and that only the things that could be listed as being ‘in the present’ could be said to exist. This would be placed in contrast with, say, things in the past, which could not be said to exist anymore (e.g. Ancient Sparta, the dodo etc.). Taking the view of the imperceptible as the non-existent, this position would seem to hold at face value — I can no longer perceive of Ancient Sparta… right? Well, putting aside a debate on the metaphysics of identity, this essay argues that, in fact, Ancient Sparta does exist, just because it is not imperceptible — the fact that you or I can talk about it is enough to show this.

Now, at this point, the second premise of my argument should be clear. Although it is not a logically necessary consequent from my first premise, the second is that the perceptible is the existent; that is, all that is perceptible is what can be said to exist. This might seem controversial initially, but I pose a simple question as a first line of defence: ‘how could something not exist if it were perceptible?’. A rebuttal here might wish to say that I confuse what exists with what has existed, but under any other view, what has existed does not now exist, so I merely shed light on an alternate view and do not, in fact, confuse anything at all.

In this way, an underpinning assumption is made clear: the past exists. This is possibly the most controversial claim made here, but I do not think it is indefensible. If we have no problem with the second premise, then it is quite easy to justify: my reading of Herodotus on Ancient Sparta is enough for me to justify that Ancient Sparta exists, say. Going even further, and given the problems we have already addressed with the notion of death, who are we to say when the existence of an entity ends? Surely given even our lack of knowledge on what death is and what it entails, we are in no position to judge when it is that the end of existence (or, death) of non-living things occurs.

Of course, I may meet the objection here that the death of living and non-living things should be treated differently. I would ask, however, why? They can both be said in the same way, and to the same extent, to exist: I do not exist any more or less than the British government. There surely cannot be ‘degrees’ of existence, where one entity exists more than another; not metaphysically. So, why should anything be said to die any more, or even any differently, than anything else? The end of existence, phenomenologically, is just that — living things don’t die any more spectacularly, with any difference in end, than non-living things. This view seems to dismiss religious views on the matter of death — it only wishes to approach the topic from an undogmatic point of view. In this way, in our conceptualisation of the world where there are things that can be said to exist separately from other things (entities that are spatiotemporally separate from others, say), there must be no difference in when a living thing cannot any longer be said to exist from a non-living thing.

The next premise in this argument is as follows: if the past can be said to exist, then all that which exists in the past also exists. This follows on from our previous premises; the existence of things in the past is allowed by their perceptibility. That is, if we can somehow come to perceive in whatever fashion of anything, no matter when it might have traditionally been conceived to exist, then we can say that it does, in fact, exist. Ancient Sparta exists just as much as the British government, Socrates exists just as much as I.

What can be said to exist?

What does this all mean for death, however? Sure, I have just given an exposition on what I think can be said to exist, but what does this entail for when existence seems to end? Well, let us return to the first premise: the imperceptible is the non-existent; or, rather, if there is no way by which you can come to perceive of an object, then there is no way that it can be said to exist. This is the premise on which this theory on death trades: once there is no possible way that anyone can come to perceive of you, there can be no way by which you can be said to exist. Or, you are dead once you have been forgotten.

Of course, I cannot just end there without going further on some key points.

First, it is clear that I seem to amalgamate the notions of perception and memory; if we cannot be said to perceive of memories, then my conclusion no longer holds. To me, ‘experiencing memories’ counting as a form of perception is not controversial — we can certainly perceive of others’ memories (in listening to a story being told, for instance), and introspection should count as a form of perception if we extrapolate the concept of perception away from the immediate understanding of it as concerning sensory faculties.

Second, I seem to be denying a basic and natural process for the order of life. The idea of life and death existing as fundamental truths or parts of some fundamental process is perhaps the only thing of which people can be certain. Denying the existence of such a process in its current form would seem to disregard millennia of thought: what of the Dao, Yin and Yang? What of order and chaos? Understood as manifestations of this idea that there is something fundamental to life that exists as a balance, or a process, do these not all just pick out the idea that there is life and there is death and that is just the way things are? Well, perhaps, but note that I have not actually denied the existence of death. I have merely posited that when death happens and why is not as it seems, given some basic premises on what can be said to exist. Sure, it might seem to us that there is this eternal process of life and death, but why on earth should ‘what things seem like to most people’ be any sort of justification for a deeper understanding on existence?

Third, what of those things that might have been said once to exist, but are now imperceptible and thus, according to me, non-existent? Given that I have already claimed that things either exist or they do not, and thus there cannot be any ‘degree’ of existence, do these cases prove a problem for me? It appears I need to make a clarification: there are things that are non-existent now, but there must have been things that existed once and now do not, such that they cannot have ‘never existed’ but are now ‘non-existent’ — I am sure there are medieval peasants to whom I owe a great deal in some way, but unfortunately, as nobody remembers them, they do not exist.

Fourth, I seem now to be able to give a succinct answer to the problems of death that none of the previous conceptions could give: perceptibility encapsulates all things, and there must surely be a precise spatiotemporal point at which the last perception possible of us occurs (or, the point at which we are forgotten).

So, after all of this, why should you believe me? Looking at this logically, we can reiterate my argument:

Premise 1: The imperceptible is the non-existent.

Premise 2: The perceptible is the existent.

Premise 3: Entities from the past are perceptible, therefore they exist.

Premise 4: When an entity becomes imperceptible, it therefore no longer exists.

Conclusion: When you are forgotten, you die.

As I have already tried to go through various objections, it is hoped that this argument is now acceptable.

A less logically convincing, but perhaps most personally compelling, reason is that because, simply, it’s quite a nice way to look at the world. If we are suddenly freed of our existential fears and mortal depressions in a way that allows us to see a ‘life’ after we believe we have ‘died’, we might go about living happier. We might start to see a purpose to life and to living; one that is not provided sufficiently in any other philosophy: our purpose in survival is the creation of legacy.

This is the idea I wish to propagate: we need not worry about our bodily woes; as long as we are remembered, we can never die. Now, what matters most is that one is remembered for as long as possible: so give generously, philanthropically give. Make people remember you; who you were, what you did, why you did it. Act in a way that makes people want to remember you. But do not spoil your legacy: avoid being infamous. Do so your name lives on — do good so your name lives better.

linguist and philosopher | MPhil Cambridge | “digestible philosophy”

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