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Thread: Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity

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    Veteran Member PyramidHead's Avatar
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    Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity

    I came across a really cool paper that looks at death from a phenomenological perspective while adhering strictly to naturalism as a guiding principle. It's kind of a fusion between Epicurus' conclusion about death and the peculiar logic of subjective experience, namely its sense of always-being-here, always filling in objective time gaps to create an apparent stream of consciousness. All bolding is mine.

    There will be no future personal state of non-experience to which we can compare our present state of being conscious. All we have, as subjects, is this block of experience. We know, of course, that it is a finite block, but since that's all we have, we cannot experience its finitude. As much as we can know with certainty that this particular collection of memories, desires, intentions, and habits will cease, this cessation will not be a concrete fact for us, but can only be hearsay, so to speak. Hence (and this may start to sound a little fishy) as far as we're concerned as subjects, we're always situated here in the midst of experience.

    Even given all this, when we imagine our death being imminent (a minute or two away, let us suppose) it is still difficult not to ask the questions "What will happen to me?" or "What's next?", and then anticipate the onset of nothingness. It is extraordinarily tempting to project ourselves--this locus of awareness--into the future, entering the blackness or emptiness of non-experience. But since we've ruled out nothingness or non-experience as the fate of subjectivity what, then, are plausible answers to such questions? The first one we can dispense with fairly readily. The "me" characterized by personality and memory simply ends. No longer will experience occur in the context of such personality and memory. The second question ("What's next?") is a little trickier, because, unless we suppose that my death is coincident with the end of the entire universe, we can't responsibly answer "nothing." Nothing is precisely what can't happen next. What happens next must be something, and part of that something consists in various sorts of consciousness. In the very ordinary sense that other centers of awareness exist and come into being, experience continues after my death. This is the something (along with many other things) which follows the end of my particular set of experiences.

    [...]

    As I tried to make clear above, subjectivities--centers of awareness--don't have beginnings and endings for themselves, rather they simply find themselves in the world. From their perspective, it's as if they have always been present, always here; as if the various worlds evoked by consciousness were always "in place." Of course we know that they are not always in place from an objective standpoint, but their own non-being is never an experienced actuality for them. This fact, along with the fact that other subjectivities succeed us after we die, suggests an alternative to the intuition of impending nothingness in the face of death. (Be warned that this suggestion will likely seem obscure until it gets fleshed out using the thought experiment below.) Instead of anticipating nothingness at death, I propose that we should anticipate the subjective sense of always having been present, experienced within a different context, the context provided by those subjectivities which exist or come into being.

    In proposing this I don't mean to suggest that there exist some supernatural, death-defying connections between consciousnesses which could somehow preserve elements of memory or personality. This is not at all what I have in mind, since material evidence suggests that everything a person consists of--a living body, awareness, personality, memories, preferences, expectations, etc.--is erased at death. Personal subjective continuity as I defined it above requires that experiences be those of a particular person; hence, this sort of continuity is bounded by death. So when I say that you should look forward, at death, to the "subjective sense of always having been present," I am speaking rather loosely, for it is not you--not this set of personal characteristics--that will experience "being present." Rather, it will be another set of characteristics (in fact, countless sets) with the capacity, perhaps, for completely different sorts of experience. But, despite these (perhaps radical) differences, it will share the qualitatively very same sense of always having been here, and, like you, will never experience its cessation.


    To deal with the anticipated objections, the author provides a thought experiment where a single person (TC, himself) is radically altered in memory and personality while asleep, becoming "TC/rad". It's not a groundbreaking idea, but I like the way he uses it to isolate what he is talking about:

    Although this transformation has disrupted the personal subjective continuity imparted by a stable context of memory and personality, there is another sort of continuity or sameness, that created by the shared sense of always having been present. Such generic subjective continuity is independent of the context of memory and personality (that is, of being a particular person), and it amounts simply to the fact that, whoever wakes up feels as if they've always been here, that there has been no subjective blank or emptiness "in front" of their current experience. We can, I think, imagine going to sleep, being radically transformed, and having someone else wake up, with no worry about falling into nothingness, even though we no longer exist. The first experience of TC/rad (a radically changed TC, no longer identifiable as the same person) would follow directly on the heels of the last experience of TC. If there are no subjective gaps of positive nothingness between successive experiences of a single individual, then there won't be such a gap between a person's last experience and the first experience of his or her radically transformed successor. That first experience occurs within a context of memory and personality which establishes the same sense of always having been present generated by the original person's consciousness.

    But of course the difficulty here is that it seems arbitrary, or simply false, to say that TC/rad's experience instantly follows TC's last experience if there is no connection of memory or personality, but only some bodily continuity. (And if we wish, we can imagine that drastic changes in body as well are engineered during the unconscious period, so that TC/rad looks nothing like his predecessor.) The objective facts are that TC has a last experience, then sometime later TC/rad has a first experience. But despite the lack of personal subjective continuity, despite the fact that we may decide at some point on the continuum of change, (in memory, personality, and body) that TC no longer exists to have experiences, experience doesn't end for him, that is, there is no onset of nothingness. What we have instead is a transformation of the subject itself, a transformation of the context of awareness, while experience chugs along, oblivious of the unconscious interval during which the transformation took place. It's not that TC/rad's experience follows TC's in the sense of being connected to it by virtue of memory or personality, but that there is no subjective interval or gap between them experienced by either person. This is expressed in the fact that TC/rad, like TC, feels like he's always been present. However radical the change in context, and however long the unconscious interval, it seems that awareness--for itself, in its generic aspect of "always having been present"--is immune to interruption.
    He then uses this as fuel to make the same kind of conclusion about death itself, which I have come across before but never expressed in this way.

    This thesis implies that even if all centers of awareness were extinguished and the next conscious creature appeared millions of years hence (perhaps in a galaxy far, far away) there would still be no subjective interregnum. Subjectivity would jump that (objective) gap just as easily as it jumps the gap from our last experience before sleep to the first upon awakening. All the boring eons that pass without the existence of a subject will be irrelevant for the subject that comes into being. Nor will they count as "nothingness" for all the conscious entities which ceased to exist. Subjectivity, awareness, consciousness, experience – whatever we call it – never stops arising as far as it is concerned.

    At this point it is likely that our intuitions about experience "jumping the gap" have been stretched beyond the breaking point. We have moved from the fairly uncontroversial fact of the continuity of one person's experience (no subjective gaps in consciousness during a lifetime) to this seemingly outlandish notion that consciousness, for itself, is impervious to death or indeed to any sort of objective interruption. But let me quickly reiterate my main points in order to reinstate some plausibility.

    1. It is a mundane, although contingent, fact of life that when I die other subjects exist, hence subjectivity certainly is immune to my death in these circumstances.
    2. If I am unconscious for any length of time I don't experience that interval; I am always "present"; this is personal subjective continuity.
    3. If, after a period of unconsciousness, the transformed person who wakes up is not me there still won't be any perceived gap in awareness. The person who wakes up feels, as I did (hence "still" feels), that they've always been present. There has been no prior experience of not being present for them, nor when I stop existing do I have such an experience; this is generic subjective continuity.
    4. Death and birth are "functionally equivalent" to the sort of transformation in 3), so again there will be no perceived gap, no nothingness of non-experience into which the subject might fall. Generic subjective continuity holds across any objective discontinuities in the existence of conscious beings.
    I don't know if I accept this idea fully yet, although I have believed for some time now that subjectivity operates according to a different internal logic compared to the third-person view.

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    The great thing about nothingness is it is so relaxing. Not a care in the world.

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    When you die you die, End of story.

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    Mazzie Daius fromderinside's Avatar
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    Die is such a laden word. I think that condition is related to considering it in terms of objects such as you or her.

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    Senior Member excreationist's Avatar
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    https://jaced.com/2011/06/29/how-does-it-feel-to-die/
    How does it feel to die?

    Drowning
    The “surface struggle” for breath

    Heart attack
    One of the most common forms of exit

    Bleeding to death
    Several stages of haemorrhagic shock

    Fire
    It’s usually the toxic gases that prove lethal

    Decapitation
    Nearly instantaneous

    Electrocution
    The heart and the brain are most vulnerable

    Fall from a height
    If possible aim to land feet first

    Hanging
    Speed of death depends on the hangman’s skill

    Lethal injection
    US-government approved, but is it really painless?

    Explosive decompression
    It takes your breath away

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    Dying can be difficult.

    Death is a breeze.

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    Member aupmanyav's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by steve_bank View Post
    When you die you die, End of story.
    No, what constitutes you is recycled into millions of things.
    We do not know the relationship between existence and non-existence very correctly - Virtual particles.

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    Quote Originally Posted by aupmanyav View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by steve_bank View Post
    When you die you die, End of story.
    No, what constitutes you is recycled into millions of things.
    We do not know the relationship between existence and non-existence very correctly - Virtual particles.
    Whatever helps you sleep at night, that is what religion is for. And in modern times a mix of mysticism and science, New Age philosophy. 'Virtual Nonsense'.

    In the two rehab facilities I have been in death is a routine event. Not that people do not grieve when it is someone they have gotten to know but it is what it is.

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    Since the self is created by the brain and can easily be imbued with any sense of time the brain desires (as is proven every night in our dream states), I’m sure that in the moments just before death the brain probably grants us all chemical eternity and that this natural euphoric release is the basis for every story we’ve ever told ourselves regarding “life after death.” We probably do indeed see our dead relatives again, albethey figments of our brain’s imagination.

    Iow, “we” can easily seem to live an eternity in the drop of one tear since all “we” are is chemicals in a neuronal algorithm.

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    Contributor skepticalbip's Avatar
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    "Life after death" is simply a meaningless oxymoron.

    We all already know what death is like because it is exactly the state before we were conceived. Death is a state of nonexistence.

    Spiritual and religious claims and ideas about survival of consciousness is the result of nothing more than a desire to continue - wish fulfillment
    Last edited by skepticalbip; 09-29-2018 at 11:34 PM.

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