So, I’ve been thinking about death a lot.
Not in the sense of thinking about committing suicide, but more in the sense of the stereotypical mid-life crisis sense. As in, I’m feeling absolutely terrified about dying and simultaneously thinking about how death might be one of the ideas we literally can’t think about, and yet I am thinking about it a lot these days. Absurdity is the word of the day, folks.
As a person who rejects the reality of souls, gods, and all that nonsense and is therefore seriously skeptical of any possibility of life, consciousness, or awareness after bodily death, I am aware that death is literally nothing. Nobody has an awareness of their own death, once it happens.
One day, whether through horrendous accident, slow sickness, or quietly in my sleep after a long, happy life, I simply will no longer be. And that, I think, is both among the more simple and more difficult to comprehend concepts.
And it’s that which I want to try to articulate today.
After work yesterday, I took a nap. I was really tied, such that basic focus was difficult, and I just needed to rest for a while. Now, I’m often really good at power naps, and this particular nap lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and I awoke from it recharged, as I often do, and ready to be productive again.
But what about the nap itself? What was that like? If you’ve ever fallen asleep, and I’m assuming you have, then you have had the experience of drifting off. You are decreasingly aware of your surroundings, your body, and perception starts to dissolve and become more fluid, and as you approach sleep, there is this dreamy, non-linear, almost not real sense of reality. Then, well, nothing.
But doesn’t that “nothing” only take shape, and actually become something, after the fact? I mean, upon reflection, I can try to pierce the timelessness of the lack of consciousness that was the time I was not aware (or, at least, not forming memories I can now retain), but all I can do is sort of bracket it and place a label of “nothing” or “lack of awareness” upon it. It becomes something upon reflection, so it’s not even nothing, right?
It’s not completely undifferent, conceptually, from trying to imagine what it was like before the universe existed, north of the north pole, beyond infinity, or any concept which tries to point towards a barrier which, by definition, is impenetrable.
And so the question becomes this; was I alive during those times I don’t remember, while sleeping? Do I die every time I sleep? Do I die every moment, and the next a new person exists, momentarily, simply to then die a moment later handing off the shell of processes, parts, and perceptions in which it lives ever so briefly?
How many Shauns have existed?
And now, for the obligatory Star Trek reference
There’s a philosophical question which has taken many forms over the centuries, but which is perhaps best exemplified by the transporter problem as it is often referred to. It’s also related to, in the history of philosophy, as the problem of the ship of Theseus. Google it, because philosophy is cool and people will be impressed with this reference at parties.
So, Commander William Riker of the USS Enterprise (NCC 1701-D, to be precise) has to beam down to the surface of some planet to do some thing or other, because Riker is awesome and he knows how to handle shit. He steps onto the transporter pad, Scotty (sorry, more likely some random ensign or maybe Miles O’Brian) beams him down to the planet.
The transporter does something like the following; it scans every particle in the body of Riker, says damn that man is sexy, then in some way stores all of that information, transforms his molecular pattern into some form of energy, then transmits that energy to a spot on the surface of the planet below and then reassembles the energy into exactly (hopefully) the Riker that stepped onto that pad.
In other words, it kills Riker and makes a copy on the planet below. Right? Sure sure, the thing on the planet looks like Riker, talks like Riker, and probably fucks like Riker, but is it the same person? The body was vaporized by some computer, then the same computer made a copy of Riker as he was right before he was vaporized. Sounds nice for Riker 2.0, but what about the original Riker? Well, he’s no longer aware, or around, to care. So, it’s fine, right?
How different is this from me before my nap and me after my nap?
Before the nap, I have my predilections, memories, etc, but is it functionally any different than being faxed to some planet somewhere (preferably Risa)? And, if so, then why would this kind of death be scary? I won’t be aware of it, and then I pass the torch to some twin of mine who gets to go on doing things, at least until their next nap or transporter suicide.
What terrifies me, in the wee hours of the morning, or moments of existential dread while sitting at my desk, is the fact that one of those deaths won’t have a copy of me to remember it. And no matter how irrational this is, it scares me in a way I’m unable to articulate.
So, let’s try to articulate it.
But death, as we usually think about it, is quite different in comparison to being transported or an epic post-work nap. Because, in actual death, not only will the me stop perceiving, but there’s no copy. There’s no more versions of me to keep interacting with the world, writing overly cynical and depressing blog posts, and also no me to reflect upon the nothing or fuzziness of transport to label as part of the continuation of “me.”
Because if it is the case that I die at every nap or transporter trip, at least with those, so far, another copy of me gets to wipe of my brow and be glad to “still” be alive. And if I contemplate the possibility that, as I step onto the transporter pad, I’m about to die, but it’s fine because “I” will only bracket the nothingness of that death as a memory after the fact and go about my day. My day.
And this is where those who don’t view the transporter problem as a death step up and remind me that all that matters is that you keep going on. All you are is the pattern, so even if, in some way which we cannot pierce epistemologically, we die whenever we fall asleep, transport, etc, functionally we continue on in any way that has some continuing meaning. So it doesn’t matter.
For them, William Riker stays alive throughout all his transporter adventures (and, to make this all more complicated, in one case another Riker actually gets created and another, separate, person is created who we remember as Thomas Riker), and the only death to be concerned with is the final one. You know, the real one.
Some day, hopefully decades from now, I’m going to lose consciousness and never have it return. I won’t be able to reflect upon that. I won’t be able to reflect upon that, either. I just won’t be, anymore. The same is true for you, and every living thing that has any level of consciousness. Even if we find a way to stop aging, cure all disease, etc, there will be a time when eventually all conscious things will die, even if they die with the end of the universe itself.
And I have no basis in experience to contemplate that. And recently, it’s haunting me. But, it’s not a Hell I’m afraid of. It’s not the fact that I’ll look back after I’m dead and regret things. It’s the finality of it. The party will go on, but you are being asked to leave.* All of my experience is a memory of what either happened some days, years, or milliseconds ago, and one time there will not be that memory. There will be no prediction, reflection, or even boredom. It will just be over.
I’m staring into the abyss, and despite what Nietzsche said, there will be a time when it won’t stare back any longer. I’m terrified of the moment when the dark, terrifying abyss gazes elsewhere forever. I’m terrified of no longer being able to be terrified.
Now, most of my life, when I would think about this, it would motivate me. Go out and live. Fuck convention and cultural norms, because they are just games we play, worldviews we are chained to, and mentalities which are not worth spending too much time bogged down in. Enjoy this life as much as possible, because one day it will be gone, it won’t matter, and you might, towards the end, look back in regret at missed opportunities while you are still able to regret.
Yes…I’ve thought about that since I was around 13 or so. Does that elucidate me a bit more?
Perhaps. But more recently, another edge to this realization has crept into my thoughts, and I meditate on the question of the finality of death only to perpetually be faced with an impenetrable wall.
I become aware that I won’t be able to see how people react to my death. I won’t see those who love me grieving any more than I’ll see my enemies raising a glass to my demise.
All of my experience comes from being alive and remembering something, or simply being aware of my own mind and the world around me. And the analogy of sleep is impotent here, because sleep, from the point of view of the sleeper, is defined by its being bounded by awareness on each end. Death can best be described as oblivion. An eternity of not being aware.
So why is that scary?
Is it because I don’t want it to happen? Yes. But it’s more than that. And I recognize that at some point, ideally when I’m much older, I may welcome oblivion. But I’m not there, at this time. Now, on top of compelling me to gather experiences of the world and enjoy it, it’s adding a true existential dread that, while I read about it from various philosophers, thinkers, etc, I was not intimately surrounded by in previous years.
I think there is something inherently terrifying about not being able to conceive of a thing you know will happen to you. From one point of view, knowing that I won’t be aware of it means I won’t be potentially suffering, so it’s not suffering I’m afraid of, here. And while I am afraid of dying painfully, it’s not that either.
The image that comes to mind is the feeling of consciousness drift away, and screaming, somewhere in my fading mind, to not go. I don’t want to go. Please let me stay, is what it says, aware that nobody is listening. The desire to cling to life, and feeling it going away forever, screaming being replaced by silence, and then nothing forever, to be eulogized by those that remain to face their own subsequent oblivion.
I think it’s a fear of loss of autonomy, in some strange way, because the fear feels more like how I feel when I’m being controlled, manipulated, or compelled by another power than like falling asleep. It’s the inability to resist it which makes it the ultimate unpleasantness.
And yet I don’t think free will is real. I know I’m not in control of much of what and who I am, and I’ve known that for a long time. But with much of that, wherein I do have some control, I have at least a fight. With the fight against bad government, laws, or other people’s attempts to control me and the world around me, there’s the possibility of victory. In the fight with death, the inevitable loss is the ultimate nihilism.
And all I can do, in the meantime, is not think about it, because thinking about it only means I’m not living now, but rather living within the fear that takes so much away from life. And yet I know that these thoughts will persist, even if only occasionally, until the finality of death finally makes it impossible.
It’s almost funny. No, it actually is funny. It might be the funniest thing I have ever conceived of. And yet I’m not laughing. I think I will need to learn how to laugh at death, while I’m still alive.
*”It will happen to all of us, that at some point you get tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party’s over, but slightly worse: the party’s going on — but you have to leave. And it’s going on without you. That’s the reflection that I think most upsets people about their demise. All right, then, because it might make us feel better, let’s pretend the opposite. Instead, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder and told, Great news: this party’s going on forever — and you can’t leave. You’ve got to stay; the boss says so. And he also insists that you have a good time.” –Christopher Hitchens (transcript)