To live a happy life, you need to learn to accept death.
I like writing about death. Writing helps you think better, and thinking about death is good, even necessary. In a way, life is about learning how to accept death and die in peace with oneself. It takes us a lifetime to understand this, and many people never do. I haven’t learned this yet myself. I am afraid of death, terrified by it, so that’s why I like to think and write about it.
In You have been dead before, I shared some of my musings about death and why it isn’t that terrible after all. When we die, we’ll stop existing, we’ll stop experiencing, and we haven’t existed and we haven’t experienced for most of the time this universe has been around, so it shouldn’t be too bad after all.
The time we have left wasn’t about death per se, but it was related. In that post, I reflected on the finiteness of time we have left in this life, and how we will never get back the day that just passed, so we should make the most of the time we have. Before we die, that is; so it was about death as well, after all.
Today I wanted to write about death again, but from another angle. I will talk about the link between death and identity and subjective experience and the paradox of death when this link is severed. It is another step on the path of learning to accept death as something necessary and even good.
The Paradox of Death
An episode of Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense entitled the Paradox of Death made me think about it. Most of Harris’s reflections are based on the philosopher Tom Clark’s essay Death, Nothingness and Subjectivity. It is a bit complex, but I’ll try to explain it the best I can.
Both Harris and Clark mention a quote from the classic Greek philosopher Epicurus, which I think is an excellent starting point:
“Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness end with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.”Epicurus
When we die, experiencing ceases. We are no longer there to think, feel, see, hear, smell, touch… Since we were born, we have constantly been experiencing. Life is a continuous chain of subjective experience. You cannot stop experiencing while alive, except when you are heavily sedated (even when asleep, we do experience dreams and are somewhat aware of our surroundings, as we can be awakened by external stimuli such as noise, a pinch, etc.).
When you go into induced sedation for surgery, for example, the lights go out, and the next thing you know, you are awake and aware, experiencing again. You feel this as a chain of experiences: the moment before you are sedated and then immediately the moment you are awake again. Subjective experience never abandons us. It doesn’t matter if you are gone due to sedation or a coma for minutes, hours, days, or weeks: for the person doing the experiencing, one experience follows another one.
A thought experiment
Having established this, Clark introduces an interesting thought experiment. Imagine a person goes into a very long sleep (it could be a cryogenisation, for example) and wakes up centuries from now. They would still feel a continuous experience: they remember the time before going to sleep, and then they are experiencing again when waking up. They would have the feeling of always being there and being the same person. Now imagine the experimenter can change the memories of this person, their tastes and character, even their personality. The changes could be minimal or could be huge.
At what stage would you say that this is not the same person? How much would the person have to change for you to say they are another person altogether?
Regardless of where you put the cutting point, it wouldn’t matter for the person in question. For them, they would still have an uninterrupted experience and the feeling of always having been there, experiencing from their very personal perspective. You could change their memories (this would be equivalent to a person waking up with amnesia from a long coma, are they not the same person they were before the coma?), their personality, their gender, the way they look, but they would still be them. Subjectively, they would be the same consciousness that was constantly experiencing.
Clark argues that when we die, something similar happens. We go to sleep somewhere and stop experiencing, but someone new is born elsewhere and starts experiencing. It doesn’t matter that this person has another personality, physical appearance, or memories. New experiencing is born, like in the thought experiment. Subjective experience soldiers on and continues its existence.
He is not talking about reincarnation or our soul being born in another body or anything like that. What he means is that the fact that we are experiencing from this body doesn’t really matter; what matters is that there is subjective experience, and someone is doing the experiencing. It is a concept that is difficult to grasp, and I think I understand it, but yet, it’s of no consolation to me. My experiencing will cease when I die, and I don’t really care if someone else will be doing new experiencing. I don’t want to stop feeling, loving, laughing, dancing, or writing.
What makes you, you?
This is probably the key question and the main learning from Clark’s experiment: the link between death and identity and what makes us, us. So what makes you, you?
I have been thinking about this since I was a kid, and I guess I wasn’t the only one (or yes, maybe I was a strange kid). I always thought about what it would be like to be someone else, which naturally made me think: what made me, me? Why was I Iker, and not somebody else, like my brother, my friend, or a girl from my class?
I thought it was my personality, my memories, maybe something people called my soul, but what was it? Then I realized that if I were born in someone else’s body and were raised by other parents, my personality and way of behaving would be a bit different, my experiences would be different. Therefore, my memories would also be different. The only thing that would make me, me, is that the person seeing things, feeling things, thinking about them, and making sense of them would be me and nobody else.
What makes you, you, is that you see and experience the world from your own perspective. That’s it. Only subjective experience gives you your “youness”. The fact that you are inside your head looking at the world from that perspective is the only thing that makes you, you, nothing else. If you were in someone else’s head, you would be that other person.
What would be in that other person’s head? Your soul? I don’t think we need to enter metaphysical concepts such as souls to explain this. It is just your consciousness, your awareness, your subjective experience, that make you, you.
When you die, you stop being you
When we die, we just stop being. We stop being ourselves; you stop being you. There is no you anymore.
What is important for you is that your viewpoint, life from your perspective, your subjective experience, continues. You don’t really care if subjective experience, somebody else’s experience, continues elsewhere.
In that sense, Clark’s arguments don’t work for me. I understand where he is coming from and where he is going, but personally, it is no consolation for me.
When I was younger, I never thought about death. It was too far away, too distant in the future. I knew I wasn’t immortal, but I sometimes felt like it, so far was death from me. However, the older I get, the more I think about death. It sometimes scares me. Other times I’m starting to be OK with it and accept it.
I think it’s a process, and this is probably one of the most important lessons in life: to learn how to die in peace, accept death, and learn to live with death. Death is part of life, after all.
It helps to know that I won’t feel anything when my time arrives. Death is the absence of experience, and therefore it is the absence of feeling. I won’t know I’ll be dead. The suffering and pain will be for those I leave behind, those who love me. Unfortunately, it will be them who will suffer my death, not me.
Hopefully, there is still a long time left until that happens, so let’s first enjoy life, try to accomplish all the things we would like to achieve, and spend as much quality time as possible with those loved ones. There won’t be a second life to do it, yesterday has already passed, and it’s not coming back. Carpe Diem!