On the 'Inconceivability' of Death

Why should it be 'inconceivable'? Is it not just a natural event like any other?

Thomas Merton poses the problem in his Journals, vol. 6, pp. 260-261, entry of 8 July 1967:

Victor Hammer is critically ill . . . . Death is shocking in anyone, but most shocking in the case of someone of real genius and quality and someone you know and love well. The blunt fact is that it is just not conceivable that Victor Hammer should cease to exist. This is a basic absurdity which [Albert] Camus confronted, and which religious explanations may perhaps help us only to evade. [. . .] Yet what is man that his life instinct should translate itself into a conviction that he cannot really altogether die? Where is it illusory and where not? To my mind this is a great and pertinent question and one worthwhile exploring metaphysically -- not by abstractions but by contemplative discipline and by a kind of mystical "pragmatism" if you like . . . . (italics added)

I agree with Merton that the problem needs to be attacked via "contemplative discipline," i.e., in a non-discursive way by meditation. But I disagree with the "not by abstractions" bit whereby Merton advertises his poetic and literary and anti-philosophical bias. The problem has to be addressed both discursively via the discursive intellect and also by meditative Versenkung. (A marvellously appropriate German word that suggests a sinking below the storm-tossed surface of ordinary mind into its quiet depths.)

But what exactly is the problem?

Some will say that there is no problem at all. Death is perfectly natural and easily conceivable. We know that we are animals and we know that animals die. (And stay dead!) A loved one's death may be shocking, especially if it is sudden, but it is certainly not inconceivable. It is no more inconceivable than the death of a cat or a dog or a flea or a flower.  

Yet when we think concretely and personally about death, our own death, and the deaths of those we love, we find ourselves agreeing with Merton and with Schopenhauer: "The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true." ("The Vanity of Existence" in The Will to Live, ed. R. Taylor, Frederick Unger, 1967, p. 229)  Let us assume that you love and cherish your wife. Your loving her has conferred upon her uniqueness, at least relative to you. (Josiah Royce) Now imagine her lovable and loving unique personality blotted out of existence forever.  Or consider your own case. You have devoted a lifetime to becoming who you are. You have worked steadily at the task of self-individuation. Only to become nothing? Could things be arranged so badly for us? But then the whole thing would be a bad joke.

Of course, what I have written does not show that it is not a bad joke. Maybe it is! (That's an epistemic use of 'maybe.') But then are you prepared to appropriate existentially this putative truth? In plain English: Are you prepared to live as if your life is a bad joke, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?" Or will you live in denial of what you take to be true?

The problem in its sharpest formulation is that it is both conceivable and inconceivable that one should cease to exist.  Assuming that no contradiction  is true, the task is to remove it. The task, in other words, is to show that the apparent contradiction is merely apparent.  Expressed as an aporetic dyad:

A. It is conceivable that one cease to exist utterly.
B. It is not conceivable that one cease to exist utterly.

The problem arises in the collision of two points of view, one objective and external, the other subjective and internal. Objectively viewed, we cease to exist utterly. Subjectively viewed, we don't. The problem is genuine and worth pondering because it is not easy to see how either point of view could displace the other in a fair and rational accounting. For this reason it is not plausible simply to deny one of the limbs of the contradiction. The facile answers of the naïve religionist -- one has an immortal soul -- and the naturalist -- one is just a clever land mammal -- won't cut it. There is evasion of the problem on both sides. I will now try to argue this out. One needs to 'marinate' oneself in the problem and not reach for a quick 'solution.' That is the way of philosophy. The other is the way of ideology.

An Objectivist Way Out via Naturalism?

Consider naturalism, which is the dominant form of objectivism. Naturalism, for present purposes, is the metaphysical view according to which  causal reality is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents.  (On this latitudinarian understanding of the term one can be a naturalist while admitting so-called 'abstract objects.') A naturalist in this sense maintains that (1) all causes are natural causes involving only natural entities; (2) "the distribution of minds in the universe is late and local" in a sense that implies that minds are necessarily tied to highly evolved organisms; (3) "there is nothing that is divine, or sacred, or worthy of worship." (Quotations from the Graham Oppy essay in Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy, eds. Gould and Davis, Zondervan 2016, pp. 29-30) In other words: there is nothing concrete apart from the causal nexus of nature as understood by current physics; there is no God; there are minds (minded organisms) but they enjoy no higher (divine) origin but are merely products of evolution.

A naturalist would presumably just deny (B). The problem with this objectifying 'solution' is that it leaves out the first-person point of view and with it subjectivity. Or rather it either leaves it out, or, attempting to understand it in objective terms, fails to understand it adequately, or at all. Attempts at reduction typically collapse into eliminations.

True, I am an object in the natural world. But I am also a subject for whom there is a natural world.  I am a measly bit of the yeast of life, but I am also a "spectator of all time and existence." (Plato, Republic) Subjectivity or mind in the broadest sense includes all of the following: consciousness in the sense of sentience; consciousness in the sense of intentionality; self-consciousness as evidenced in the thoughtful deployment of the first-person singular pronoun; conscience or moral sense; the sense of being a free agent; sensitivity to reasons as opposed to causes, and to the difference between good and bad reasons, in a word, rationality; sensitivity to norms in ethics and in axiologyconcern for objective truth and for subjective-existential truthfulness.

Can each of the items on this (incomplete) list be adequately understood in an objectifying, naturalistic way?  No, not even the first rather paltry item.  It is widely recognized that it is a very hard problem indeed to fit so-called sensory qualia into the naturalist picture. It is so hard that it is 'popularly' known among the learned as -- wait for it -- the Hard Problem. We've been over this many times before at Maverick Philosopher, so I won't go over it again. See the categories Qualia and Consciousness and Qualia.

For present purposes, suffice it to say that a blisteringly strong case can be made against the conceit that everything can be adequately and exhaustively understood in naturalistic terms.

Naturalism is involved in a vicious abstraction: it abstracts away from the necessary conditions of anything's being cognized or thought about in the first place.  In trying to understand the whole of concrete Being, the naturalist must of course try to understand minds as well.  But what does he have to work with? Only more objects. For example, the functioning brain of a particular animal.  Could a brain be in an intentional state? No, it makes no sense. No physical state is an intentional state. No such state has semantic properties. No physical state can be either true or false. And so on. See the categories Intentionality and Mind.

Long story short, subjectivity or mind in the broad sense sketched above is not just real, but irreducibly real. It can't be eliminated and it can't be reduced.  Obviously, an adequate case for this cannot be made in a Substack essay.. Besides, as my metaphilosophy teaches, no substantive philosophical thesis can be proven strictly speaking. (And if you are not speaking strictly in philosophy, then you are just fooling around.) But the irreducible reality of mind and truth are reasonably believed.

This goes some way towards showing that our aporetic dyad cannot be easily solved. No doubt we are animals in nature. If that is all we are, then our ceasing to exist utterly at death is easily conceivable. But that is not all we are. We are also subjects with all that that entails: sentience, intentionality, self-awareness, moral sense, reason, etc.  We are not merely animals in a physical environment (Umwelt); we are also subjects for whom there is a meaningful world (Welt). (I am using 'world in the transcendental-phenomenological sense one finds in Husserl and Heidegger and their spiritual descendants.) A mere animal has an environment, but no animal has a world.   (This is not self-evident: perhaps in some low-level sense my cat inhabits a world of meanings meager and mousy as it must be: the dude is, after all, sentient, pace Renatus Cartesius, and it seems that we share a sort of emotional bond: he follows me around, sleeps with me, and looks into my eyes without fear.) 

We can sum this up by saying that man is a spiritual animal.  Neither angel nor beast, he is a riddle to himself. He asks himself: Could I be just a monstrous fluke of evolution?  But in asking this question he is spiritually outside of and above the horror chamber of nature red in tooth and claw.

But do I have any positive reason to think that my nonexistence as a subject or spirit is inconceivable? Well, everything objective about myself can be conceived not to exist include my body and its brain.  But the I in its ultimate inwardness as pure subject is not objectifiable. The ultimate condition of all objectification cannot itself be objectified. As transcendentally other than every object it is not itself an actual or possible object.  Only what I can think of as an object can I think of as nonexistent. But I cannot think of the transcendental I as an object among objects. Therefore, I cannot conceive of it as nonexistent.  I cannot think my own nonexistence as thinker. 

In short, there is something non-objective and non-objectifiable about me and it is inconceivable that it not exist.

But I hear an objection coming. 

"Granted, you cannot doubt the existence of thinking while it is occurring. But surely you and your thinking might never have existed! After all you have written about modal fallacies, I hope you are not confusing the necessity of the consequence with the necessity of the consequent! Surely you can't infer from 'Necessarily, if I think, then I exist' that 'Necessarily I exist.'"

I plead innocent of that particular fallacy. Both valid and fallacious inferences presuppose what I have called the Discursive Framework. The point I am trying to make lies deeper than the framework in question. The non-objectifiable is transcendentally prior to the Discursive Framework.

My claim is not that I necessarily exist as an object among objects, but that I -- in my inmost egoity if you will -- cannot be conceived by me not to exist. For to do that, I would have to think of myself as an object, either physical or meta-physical -- when that is precisely what I am not, but the transcendental I for whom there are objects.

So there is some sense in which there is something necessary about me that cannot be conceived not to exist.

An Objectivist Way Out Via Metaphysics?

We are in the conceptual vicinity of the Cartesian cogito. Does it follow that I am a res cogitans, a thinking  thing, a soul substance?  Not that either. For wouldn't that just be another object whose existence I could doubt? Not a physical object, of course, but a meta-physical object.  Husserl grapples with this problem but fails to solve it.

One cannot think without objectifying. If I try to think the I behind my thoughts I objectify it and make of it a meta-physical object, a thinking substance. This is what Descartes does.  But then it seems I can conceive its nonexistence.  Buddhists and Humeans have no trouble conceiving the nonexistence of a substantial self behind thoughts.

I cannot be identical to the (live) animal sitting in my chair and wearing my clothes. Let 'A' denote the animal in my chair wearing my clothes. 'I = A' is not a formal identity statement of the form 'x = x.' The latter is a truth of logic.  'I = A' is not a truth of logic. It is in some sense contingent, although not in a sense explicable by ordinary modal means within the Discursive Framework. The thought is not that there are possible worlds in which I exist, but A does not exist, or possible worlds in which A exists but I do not exist. On the other hand, the thought is of course not that in every world in which A exists, I = A.  The logic of objects breaks down at the transcendental boundary of the logical.

I get a sense of this strange contingency when I look into a mirror.  It seems in some sense contingent that I should be this particular man, with these particular features, and this particular ancestry and history and so on.  Again, 'I = A' is not a tautology; it seems to give some sort of information, namely, that this man in the mirror, and no other, is the man that I am.  You might think to make a Fregean move: 'I' and 'A' differ in sense but agree in referent. I can show that this does not work. But not now.

So one might be tempted to make an objectifying meta-physical move: 'I' refers to my soul; 'A' refers to my body.

But if I cannot be identical to a chunk of the physical world, how could I be identical to a meta-physical soul substance?  Doesn't the same problem arise again? Suppose I have such a soul, denote it by 'S.'  'I = S' is not a tautology of the form 'x = x.'  It asserts an identity between me and a metaphysical object, an identity that is 'contingent' in the boundary sense above alluded to.  But then my subjectivity is reduced to an object, and in being reduced, eliminated!  This object, in addition, could cease to exist or be annihilated by God.  So we cannot secure the inconceivability of death by identifying the ego with the soul substance.

A Dialectic Tapering Off into Mystery

Following out the dialectic we arrive at a Grenzbegiff, a boundary notion of transcendental subjectivity that cannot be objectively articulated in a manner to satisfy the discursive intellect. 

So is death inconceivable or not? Objectively, whether physically or meta-physically, death as utter annihilation is conceivable. But I cannot be reduced to anything objective. So there remains an element of inconceivability in the death of any person qua person.  

But this cannot be made clear in the objectifying terms of the Discursive Framework. One cannot have a 'theory' about it. Our aporetic dyad above is insoluble. It is a sort of marker, this side of the Boundary, of the mystery of death and of spirit. We cannot speak of it, and so we must enter into silence, or, like, a positivist, deny the reality of the Transcendent entirely.

Any further understanding will not be discursive in nature. And so Merton is in one sense right: "contemplative discipline" is needed. All philosophy can do is show the way to the Boundary. Crossing it is not in her power. And to make up objectifying theories about the Far Side is arguably profanation.