The Unimaginability Of Death

When Descartes said that it is logically impossible to doubt that you are thinking, he meant that it was logically impossible to doubt that you are thinking at the same time at the same time as you are thinking. For I can quite easily doubt today that I was thinking yesterday. However, while there may in the same way be no logical impossibility involved in imagining now that you will be dead next week, there is nevertheless an emotional, and perhaps even a cognitive, impossibility.

We cannot experience what non-existence is “like”, since if we did not exist there would be no “us” to experience what it was “like”. Any attempt to do so intrudes the very subject whose non-existence is to be experienced. And the same goes for imagination; as Descartes pointed out, the one thing we cannot imagine is our own non-existence, because the moment we try, we ask ourselves – or ought to ask ourselves – just who is doing the imagining.

We may, at a pinch, conceive of our non-existence in the abstract; that is to say, we can flap our mouths and utter verbal symbols that are conventionally agreed to denote a picture without ourselves in it. But this is by no means the same as actually envisaging it. We can, of course, imagine our own funeral, we can imagine seeing our own bodies, but that requires some point of view from which the event or body is being perceived. Whose point of view is this? A moment’s reflection will show us that what we are actually doing is imagining ourselves as an observer floating above our own body or walking in our own funeral. That is, we are imagining ourselves twice, once as corpse and once as living observer. Try as we may to envisage a world that is going on entirely without us, the very act of envisaging still puts us so to speak “in” that world, as its envisager. And if there is no “us”, then there is no perceived universe either. This was pithily expressed in Sartre’s short story The Wall: one of the men awaiting execution says, “I see my corpse; that’s not hard but I’m the one who sees it, with my eyes. I’ve got to think… think that I won’t see anything anymore and the world will go on for the others. We aren’t made to think that, Pablo.”

For the same reason, the human mind is quite incapable of imagining that nothing exists. The world as we have always known it is our own representation, that is, it is by definition the-world-as-perceived-by-us. It is self-evidently true, because it is a great and thumping tautology, to say that we cannot possibly perceive the world-as-NOT-perceived-by-us.

Now, eternity extends in both directions from the present, and our non-existence before birth is subject to precisely the same inability to imagine it as our non-existence after death, namely that imagining requires a subject to do it. Christians are accustomed to conceive of their immortality in only the one direction, and do not expend as much energy wondering where they have come from as they do wondering where they are going. But if once we grant that we did not exist before our birth, even though we cannot imagine this state of non-existence, then the fact that we cannot imagine a state of non-existence after death ought not to prevent us granting that as well.

So, whenever we attempt to envisage the world that we shall, in the future, have died and thereby left, we have no alternative but to imagine it just precisely as we perceive it in the here and now. That is to say, we must imagine that we have not died after all, but are alive and perceiving it in the very same way as we do at the moment. And so we have not imagined that we have died after all; the closest we have come to it is imagining that our embodied perception has been replaced by a disembodied perception that is in all respects absolutely the same, without explaining how this can be the case when both our eyes and brain are quietly rotting in the casket. This is pointless cheating.

We often attempt to comprehend our own death by imagining ourselves as sleeping in the ground, because sleeping is something we have experienced and can understand. The fuss people make about where they want to be buried suggests that they are thinking of themselves as both asleep under the ground and at the same time able to enjoy the view. Even if they were still a consciousness, this is a flat contradiction: if you are asleep, you won’t notice the lake and woods, and how in any case can you see them from six feet under? Even Christians talk like this, although as well as a double nonsense it is poor eschatology: according to their own doctrine, they are so to speak paused until Judgment Day.

People also imagine being a ghost, that is, hanging around and being ignored by everyone, because hanging around and being ignored is something that many of us understand all too well. (It would be interesting to find out whether good-looking people are less able to imagine being invisible, because they were never ignored in life, but that is a story for another day.)

Given the logical impossibility of knowing or even imagining what it would be like for ourselves not to exist, therefore, we proceed to impute knowing and feeling to both our future selves and to other dead people. This is merely a trick of our own cognitive insufficiency and has no other significance. Reinforcing this attribution is the fact that human beings have learned to attribute ongoing activities and mental states to people whom we cannot see at the moment, a trick of which the animals are probably incapable. Other people’s being dead is thus conceived of as a normal sort of absence, in which they are continuing to do their thing. In other words, our minds have been hardwired by our evolution in social groups to keep track of absent member, and it would seem that this ability lacks an off-switch.

Looking at another person and imagining how he is the centre of his universe, as we are the centre of ours – so that to him we are the stage props – may induce a kind of existential dizziness. It takes some effort, and so we cannot be forever walking around in such a state, we would get run over by a bus. All we can do is follow some ground-rules of ethics and etiquette that instruct us to act “as if” the other person is just as existent as we are, and hope that he doesn’t notice the fakery.

Posted on May 7, 2009 at 09:33 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion And Conceptual Muddle

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