There is an ancient story of an Emperor who encountered a philosopher on the road. The Emperor threatened him, saying “What use are you philosophers with all your talk of truth? You eat our food but you do no useful work. For all your endless speculation, you cannot tell me one single thing that all men agree is always true under every circumstance. Unless you can do that, I’ll slay you on this very spot. Can you? No? Then prepare to die!”
The philosopher thought for a moment and then replied to the Emperor, “This too shall pass.”
“What?” yelled the Emperor, “You dare to mock me at a time like this?”
“No, your majesty! ‘This too shall pass,’ is what all men can agree is always true under every circumstances.” The Emperor reflected and spared the philosopher’s life.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is credited with the same insight. He is often misquoted as having said, “Everything flows.” As far as we know, he never said precisely that but it is certainly consistent with his views overall.
Even today, populist philosophers and business gurus are fond of saying, “Change is the one and only constant in our world.”
From our acceptance of this doctrine of universal change, it is a short step to our conviction that death is the other indisputable reality. Jokingly, we say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. What makes this funny, of course, is that we’re comparing something that is obviously not ontologically sub-structural (taxation) with something that presumably is (mortality).
I mean, what could be more of a change than death? If you accept that change is universal, then don’t you have to accept that in some instances a string of changes will lead to the ultimate change, death?
It seems logical…but it isn’t! Death is not a change at all; it is the cessation of all change. Therefore, the doctrine of universal change is actually inconsistent with the doctrine of mortality. If change ceases, then it isn’t universal, is it? Our Emperor could very well have decapitated our philosopher on the spot, shouting “Oh yeah, well let’s see if this too passes?”
Ignoring for now doctrines of reincarnation, resurrection and eternal life, we can all agree that death does not pass. We might say on a bumper sticker, “Dead for an instant, dead for eternity.”
Heraclitus is accurately quoted as saying, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” He did not say, “You cannot step into a river twice.” The point of his observation is that the river is in a constant process of change…but it remains a river. Change cannot entail the annihilation of what changes. If it did, then every change would actually be creatio ex nihilo. Something of what was must be conserved or it’s not change.
So it turns out that our two most cherished beliefs, universal change and inevitable mortality, are mutually inconsistent. We cannot logically hold both views. Our belief in change is strong. We ourselves experience change; we witness change every day. So maybe we need to take a second look at mortality.
Is death real? There are three ways to resolve a question like this. First, we can assert that something is real because we actually experience it. Second, we can accept that something is real based on the testimony of trusted sources, sources that presumably have directly experienced it themselves. (For example, I’ve never been to Tokyo but I accept that Tokyo is real based on the testimony of others.) Finally, we can argue that something is real because it follows logically from other things that we know to be true. (I’ve never visited a black hole but I accept that they are real based on logical inference from collected data.)
We will soon see that the reality of death cannot be established using any of these arguments; but we won’t stop there. We’ll also show that death is both a phenomenological and a logical impossibility. Death not only does not exist, it cannot exist.
This seems absurd on the face of it! Who hasn’t experienced death? How many of us lost a pet as a child? How many lost a much loved older relative shortly thereafter? Now at my age, it seems as though I know more people who are dead than alive. And who does not look forward to her own inevitable death with at least some foreboding? In fact, life could be described as a perpetual state of ‘just wait ‘til your father gets home’. So how can anyone say that death isn’t real?
Let’s start with the arguments from experience. I have not experienced my own death; but if anyone else has, please get in touch with me right away. (I don’t mean a ‘near death experience’…that’s not death; and even if you were clinically dead and then resuscitated, you didn’t experience the ‘being dead’ part.)
I don’t need to list my phone number because I am confident no one will call. The fact is that we cannot experience our own deaths because by definition death is the cessation of all experience. When we die, we cease to be an ‘experient’…so whatever death may or may not be, we certainly can never experience it firsthand and so we cannot accept the testimony of anyone who claims to have experienced it.
All of the experiences of death we suppose we have had turn out to be experiences of someone else’s death. But don’t those count?
When someone ‘dies’, we observe phenomena that we associate with what we call ‘death’: a person becomes non-responsive, stops breathing, loses her pulse; ultimately her body cools and later is embalmed or burned. Surely, she is dead, but did we experience her death? No, we experienced certain phenomena that we associate with death but we did not experience death per se.
Are we headed toward some sort of solipsism here? Not at all! I have a car; I experience myself driving that car. Alternatively, I do not drive but I can still imagine what it would be like to drive based on the testimony of others who do drive. My neighbor has a car. Without descending into the “Other Minds” problem, I may reasonably infer that my neighbor’s experience of driving his car is similar to what I experience when I drive my car or what I would experience if I actually drove.
Death is different. I cannot experience my own death and I cannot imagine what experiencing my own death would be like. Since I cannot experience my own death, or even imagine myself experiencing it, I cannot imagine what my neighbor’s experience would be. In fact, I may reasonably infer that my neighbor cannot experience his own death either. Therefore, there is no such thing as an experience of death and therefore the reality of death cannot be established either by direct experience or by the testimony of others.
Even though death cannot be experienced, it may still be real and I might be able to demonstrate that logically. To do that, we would need to understand more precisely what we mean when we talk about ‘death’. What dies? People, animals, plants? Yes. Bacteria, viruses, pre-biotic molecules? Not so much. Computers, even really smart ones? No. Inanimate objects? Of course not!
We do jokingly say that certain household appliances ‘die’ but here we are speaking metaphorically, often for comic effect.
So the universe of things that ‘die’ is quite narrowly defined and that alone should give us pause. Now then, what is it that we think we know about the world that would lead us to believe in the reality of death, absent even the possibility of experience? Well, we talked about that above. I had a pet and then I didn’t; my mother told me that my pet had died.
We all experience the fact that things have limits. Gismo, my pet cat, did not exist for me prior to a certain date and she ceased to exist for me as of some later date. We may correctly say that Gismo had her limits and we may be tempted to call one limit birth and the other death.
The existence of limits, however, does not prove the reality of death. My favorite Van Gogh, for example, is limited by the edges of its canvass and by its frame. But we don’t say that the painting dies at its edges. Likewise, a Beethoven symphony is limited by its first and last chords; but when that last chord fades away, we don’t say that the symphony is dead.
On the contrary, the limits of every painting and of every symphony are crucial to their characters. These works of art are as much defined by their limits as they are by their content. If paintings did not have borders and symphonies never ended, nothing that we recognize as art today would exist. Limits are an essential feature of ontology; death is not.
Paintings have their limits (primarily) in space; music has its limits in time. A painting occupies a region of space; a symphony occupies a region of time. While the media that make these works possible exist in the spatiotemporal world and are therefore subject to physical division, the essence of these works themselves, the patterns they trace, transcends that world.
Works of art per se are indivisibly whole; divided, they simply do not exist. Even so, if a painting is torn in two or if the performance of a symphony is interrupted, we do not say that the work of art has ‘died’.
There is a species of spacetime that does exist in works of art; we call it rhythm. There is a theory in contemporary cosmology that what we call ‘time’ is really just an abstraction from the overlap of multiple rhythms; but that takes us beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that rhythms do not ‘die’ and therefore do not support the argument that death is real.
Now works of art, more or less by definition, are prototypes for ‘events’. An event occupies a region of spacetime. It has extension (including duration). The spacetime region that an event occupies is divisible, of course, but the event itself is indivisible. Again, if an event in the process of becoming somehow gets interrupted, then it was not an ‘event’ after all. The event is supported by space and time but the essence of the event itself lies outside the realm of spacetime.
Just as the divisibility of space and time vanishes in the context of works of art, so it vanishes in the context of events. Events occupy regions of divisible spacetime; their elements may exhibit a certain spatiotemporal arrangement (rhythm) but the spacetime within such events is not divisible.
The notion of death implies discontinuity. According to the accepted model, my life has a degree of continuity and death is the radical disruption of that continuity. But events possess an intrinsic ‘continuity’, or better, integrity. The limited extent of an event in spacetime does not disrupt that intrinsic integrity. On the contrary it is an integral component of that integrity.
Do events exist? Are they real? Does the concept of ‘event’ pass our phenomenological test? Does it pass our logical test? In fact, it passes both. We clearly experience events in our own lives and others tell us about events in their lives. Upon reflection, I think we might even agree that events (and their features) are really the only things we do experience. The world of our experience is a world constituted exclusively by events. Externally speaking, events have limits (or borders); internally speaking, events have rhythm. But events do not ‘die’.
The concept of the ‘event’ also passes the logical test. If there were no events, no extensive ‘buds’ of experience, as William James would call them, then there could be nothing at all. Were it not for the power of events to bind time and space, perforating the timeline in the process, whatever might have been would be divided into indefinitely many infinitesimal points of zero content. Universe would be still born.
William Shakespeare posed the problem most eloquently in The Tempest:
“Our revels are now ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and, like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all that we inherit, shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Without concrete, physical events, every so-called ‘actor’ (subject) would melt into thin air, every so-called ‘thing’ would be a baseless vision and dissolve without a trace, and every so-called ‘life’ would be undermined by the infinite sleep that surrounds it. For Shakespeare, the play is a metaphor for life (“all the world’s a stage”). What we imagine to be ‘our little life’ is an island in an eternity of ‘sleep’. Furthermore, this life melts ‘into thin air’ because it is made of ‘baseless fabric…such stuff as dreams are made on’.
According to the ‘Standard Model of Life and Death’, we are born (or conceived), we experience and then we die. Sound familiar? But let’s examine this theory a little more closely.
First, this model is closely tied to the notion of linear time. The temporal dimension, the timeline, can be divided into infinitesimal or virtually infinitesimal points. We are tempted to think of these ‘points’ as ‘events’ along the line. But events by definition have content, they have information value. The points that constitute the timeline can by definition have no content, no information value, because they are infinitesimal. Therefore, they cannot correspond to events.
When we think of an event, we think of something that has duration. But there is no real duration along the timeline; time is indefinitely divisible into smaller and smaller units. Any notion of duration (along the timeline) is undermined by fact that any duration can always be further divided…at least down to Planck regions which by definition have zero information content.
Therefore, according to the ontology of the timeline, there can be only past and future. At most, the present is a single Planck unit with zero information content. It is not an event. If events exist, and hopefully we have demonstrated that they do, they must exist somewhere other than along the timeline.
Events do not separate past from future so much as they unite what would otherwise be past and future into something we may correctly call the “Present”. In fact, past and future only exist to the extent and in the way that they are incorporated into present events.
Every Present is an event and every event a Present. The Present binds a segment of the timeline into an atemporal event. Presents inherit material along two ‘dimensions’: (1) Later Presents inherit material from earlier Presents; (2) Ever broader Presents, binding ever longer segments of the timeline, inherit material from narrower constituent Presents.
All change occurs in the Present. Later Presents inherit material from earlier Presents, preserving that material but transforming it and projecting that transformed material forward for the benefit of Presents yet to come. The past is rigidly determined and unchangeable; the future is entirely plastic and therefore also unchangeable (per our earlier definition of change). If change is universal (Heraclitus, e.g.) then it is the Present that is universal.
Jean-Paul Sartre in this great novel, Nausea, wrote: “The present, nothing but the present…it was what exists.”
Broader Presents inherit material from narrower Presents, preserving that material, reconciling contradictions, harmonizing conflicts and making that material available for integration into to even broader Presents. That’s what change is! It is bi-directional. It is the transformation of the past into the Present for the benefit of the future and it is the harmonization of narrower Presents into broader Presents for the benefit of yet broader Presents.
This sort of change has absolutely nothing to do with mortality; in fact, it is the antithesis of mortality. According to the Ontology of the Present, everything is preserved, everything is transformed, everything ultimately is harmonized.
At first glance, a famous parable from the Gospel of John seems to challenge this analysis: “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” In fact, however, this text reinforces our analysis. A grain of wheat does not die, it germinates. It changes; and when it changes it generates a stock of wheat perpendicular to the surface of the earth, metaphorically perpendicular to spacetime.
Only now can we return to the previously suspended ideas of reincarnation, resurrection and eternal life. Now we see that of course all past events are reincarnated in Present ones, of course all present events are resurrected in ever broader Presents, and of course all events exist eternally in the ever expanding Present.
And death? Well, death is odd man out! It turns out that no non-trivial, internally consistent ontology can include mortality as one of its categories. Death is not real and it cannot be real. Mortality is phenomenologically and logically incompatible with the actual world.
Another pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, a close contemporary of Heraclitus, expressed a similar point of view 2500 years ago:
“…What-is is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single limbed, steadfast and complete; nor was it once, nor will it be, since it is, now, all together, one continuous…it must either be completely or not at all…Thus coming-to-be is extinguished and perishing not heard of.”
The views of Heraclitus and those of Parmenides are often considered incompatible. One is an apostle of change, one of permanence. But we now see that change and permanence are inseparable aspects of one reality — a reality that has no room whatsoever for death.