Lucretius found the fear of dying irrational. For billions of years we do not exist. Then we are born and live for a time, before returning to the eternal emptiness we once came from. No-one worries about their prenatal non-existence, so why worry about the one to come? I have never found this argument convincing. It reminds me of a Chinese proverb I read once, concerning a father who recently lost his son. ”Mourn not,” advised the Wiseman. ”First you had no son. Then you did, and now he is gone again.” There was no loss; things had simply gone back to normal. Instead of mourning his son’s death, the father was advised to be grateful the time he was alive. But of course he was grateful for that! That was the reason why he was now mourning.
The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, because we can find comfort in good memories when we lose a child, whereas memories are no good when you have just lost your life. To be grateful that at least you got to live doesn’t make much sense while alive either. (”I am lucky. Just think of all those never even conceived!”) But this wasn’t Lucretius’ point. His point, rather, was that nothing is nothing to fear. Death is like dreamless sleep; we experience nothing, no sweet dreams, no nightmares -- nothing. ”But if this is what death would seem,” says Socrates in the Apology, “then death would be a blessing…then it’s like a profound, dreamless sleep, and if so, then eternity would seem no more than a single night.” Apart from the fact that it is based on a slightly misleading metaphor -- sleep is something we expect to wake up from -- the thinking here seems contradictive. The gist of the argument is that being dead would be nothing if death were in fact the end; yet, at the same time, the sleep analogy tries to give us an idea of what this would be like. The result is a description of death as a (strange and only metaphorically conceivable) state of being. We die, but continue to ”live” on -- only as dead people.
A better way to visualise the nothingness of death, perhaps, is the following: Death relates to life as a full stop relates to a sentence. The sentence wouldn’t be complete without it, yet the full stop is not really a part of the sentence. Letters and words carry meaning; but a full stop signifies nothing -- it just ends it all. The good thing about this metaphor is that death no longer looks like an event in life. To die isn’t an experience I have at the end of life: death is the end of life. This is why Epicurus famously said that death is nothing to us: “When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not.”
But all of these attempts to characterise death and the fear of dying, are rather one-sided. They consider only one side of the problem. They all take for granted that it is only the experience (or the lack thereof) that concerns us. If this were so, we could stop right here. If death were nothing to us, we would have nothing to worry about, except for a terrible exit from life. But the fact that The Grim Reaper will get us all in the end, is something that keeps all of us up at night from time to time. Mortality is the object of much anxiety and despair, but also great expectations. The End occupies us. In short, the problem with the above paragraphs is that they do not take account of the meaning of death. This ties in with the question of the meaning of life. Some say that a full stop would render life meaningless. In order for this life to be meaningful, there has to be a next one too. Some believe in an after-life, others hope for it, while some are quite positive that there is no such thing and find that outrageous. Dylan Thomas wrote: ”Old age should burn and rave at the close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” On the other hand, there are those who say that life would be meaningless without death. Mortality, they claim, is a prerequisite for life being important to us. Only against an approaching horizon does it make sense prioritize. If life were forever, we could always postpone things. The distinction between important and unimportant would evaporate. The same is true if life continues on the other side too. If our time wasn’t measured, and death not the end, that would make life (on this side) meaningless.
To summarise: not everyone regards the moment of death as a full stop. Some view it more as a question mark. Others describe death as a colon: to be continued.
What evidence do they lean on? There are the familiar ”near death” experiences. People report having seen the light, having left their bodies, and so on, and many of them take this as evidence that the soul, spirit or consciousness flies off when the body dies. There are lots of philosophical problems with this. (I’m not denying the authenticity of the reported experiences; I’m just saying that it will take some philosophical work to determine what these reports actually show. That they prove or even suggest that body and soul are separate entities and that the soul will emigrate as the body stops functioning is far from evident.) I shall restrict myself to only one objection: These are all just near death experiences. That they tell us anything reliable about death proper is not obvious. Nearly having been in an accident isn’t very similar to having been in one for real.
Then there are people who claim they actually have died. In other words: they claim to have lived before. Obviously this was under a different name, in a different body, perhaps with another sex, some even report having been another kind of animal; but they all can ”recall” events form before they were born. (I put ”recall” in scare quotes. Again, not because I think memories like these must be false, but because I see uncertainties here. We do, for instance, differentiate between really recalling something and believing that we recall. How we are to make this distinction in cases like these, or, indeed, whether we ever can, is, again, far from obvious.) Many people are, because of such alleged memories, quite sure that they will be born again. But this isn’t something anyone can be positive about. Strictly speaking this must be treated as an open question, if nothing else, because statements about the future are always uncertain to some degree, even when they are based on solid records. You may have lived a number of times before, but perhaps this life is the last leg? As Moritz Schlick said once, whether life continues after death is an empirical hypothesis that possibly will be confirmed the day we die.
For argument's sake, however, I will assume that this is all true: we have lived before, and will again, indefinitely.
Reincarnation, I will presume, is not just for the chosen few (which would raise too many complicating questions), but for everyone. This obviously includes me. And here is my problem: I cannot remember anything. Nor do I know anyone who can. This doesn’t prove the idea of reincarnation wrong, but it does provoke some questions. If this is what reincarnations entails -- that I’ll be born again remembering nothing -- what good is it? If I don’t remember anything from this life, does it even make sense to say that I am born again? To call this ”survival of death” seems, to me at least, no better than to deny that I die when my body decomposes because this just means that the atoms that once made me will return to nature to create new living organisms.
Normally it is our thoughts and memories that are said to live on. Apparently it doesn’t always work like that, at least not in my case. But what if my soul is no more tied to my memories than it, supposedly, is to my body? If my soul were emptied or -- like Socrates’ picture -- if all knowledge was lost with each new incarnation, this could rescue the reincarnation hypothesis from the awkward fact that so few people have memories from earlier lives. Memories just wouldn’t be expected on this theory. But this theory isn’t flawless either. First of all, to test the truth-value of this theory looks even more hopeless than any of the before mentioned. Even Moritz Schlick’s solution (wait and see) would fail if everything is lost at the moment of death. Second: should this theory prove to be true, that would drain the reincarnation idea of all meaning. A soul that outlived my body in this way simply wouldn’t be “mine” in any meaningful sense. It looks very difficult to identify yourself with it, for example. I personally agree enough with John Locke on personal identity to regard it as crazy to think of this soul in the first person and call it ”me”. Whether this entity passes on or dies with me when I die, couldn’t possibly concern me less.
I haven’t proved anything here, in fact I haven’t event tried to prove anything, just to demonstrate certain difficulties with the idea that death is not the end. My intuitions may be wrong, of course, though I’m not willing to base my life on that possibility. The nature of the question forces us, like Moritz Schlick, to conclude that he who lives (ha, ha) will see.
But let’s say that my intuitions are wrong. The hypothesis that death is a doorway leading to another existence proves to be correct. What then? I am afraid this won’t give the answers that so many people hope for. Why? Because the question whether life goes on or not really isn’t an empirical question, but a question of meaning. As Wittgenstein once wrote: ”The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does, what problem this really solves.” If life continues on the other side, will that solve all our problems with life, or will it rather push the problems ahead of us into the next world? Won't life be difficult there too? Won't we still have to search for existential answers? Why assume it will be easier next time?
Personally I find the thought of everlasting existence little appealing. ”I don’t much relish the thought of everlasting consciousness,” as the main character in Rebecca Goldstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem says. ”At very black moments I could always comfort myself with the ever present possibility of self-annihilation. But there’s no escape if we’re immortal.” Whenever the possibility of being immortal strikes me (which, thankfully, isn’t very often), the thought really scares me. This, of course, says more about me than about anything else. Others, I know, find hope in it.
”The solution to the problem of life is to be seen in the disappearance of the problem,” Wittgenstein once wrote. That is a profound observation. And the same is also true for the problem of death (which really is just another side to the same problem). This means two things. First. These are personal questions. My difficulties are not necessarily the same as yours, so my solutions may not be yours either. Every man must fight his own battle. Second. We can never hope for a final victory. In mathematics there are final answers, but not in life. ”At any street corner,” so wrote Albert Camus, “the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” You can silence them, but the difficulties may strike back anywhere and everywhere -- on a street corner, in bed at night, on a mountain top, in church. The best we can hope for is perhaps temporarily truce?
As a boy I used to be terrified by death. Today, I can still catch a drift from the grave from time to time, but not as often and never as freezing as before. On most days I rather enjoy the idea that all my traces will fade with time and eventually disappear altogether. This change in attitude probably goes hand-in-hand with my growing environmental concerns ("Good if I leave behind as few and as small footprints as possible"). So when I, a few paragraphs ago, wrote that no-one would be reconciled with their mortality because of the fact that their body will decompose to create wonderful flower dirt, I wasn’t completely honest. I don’t expect this to appeal to everyone. A person who demands a metaphysical meaning of life (like Peter Wessel Zapffe or Arthur Schopenhauer) would hardly listen. Dylan Thomas would simply have frowned at the suggestion. Not even the younger me would have been calmed by this reminder – in fact, it was exactly this thought (that one day I will be all gone) that disturbed me the most. But today I can say that -- for the time being, at least -- I do find being a tiny part of nature’s grand metabolism (ashes to ashes, dust to dust) to be both a beautiful and sort of comforting thought.