Is Death a Loss?

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Imagine you were to die tomorrow. Would you have lost anything? Galen Strawson doesn’t think so. In one of Strawson’s short essays, “I Have no Future”, which appears in his book, Things that Bother me Death, Freedom, The Self, etc., he makes a claim he calls No Ownership (of the future), that our future experiences don’t belong to us in such a way that they’re something that can be taken from us. In other words, we lose nothing if we die because we never had anything in the first place. In what follows, I will briefly outline Strawson’s argument before critically discussing it.

No Ownership

Typically, we think that if we die, we have lost something or been harmed in some way. What exact form might this harm take? One possible harm could be the act of dying itself. Of course, dying could be very harmful and the source of much physical suffering but this is tangential to Strawson’s claim. He dismisses it by suggesting that even when death is instant, painless, and unexperienced (IPU), we still haven’t lost anything or been harmed.

Another way we might think we have been harmed is that our future projects/desires will go unfulfilled; Strawson’s example is a book he won’t get to finish. His argument here is basically that we just aren’t the kinds of things that can be harmed if our projects/desires go unfulfilled in the future because we die. How could we suffer harm by being denied something (a future) we never had possession of in the first place? Without a claim to ownership of the future, we have no good reason to claim anything has been lost if that future is eliminated by our death.

It is important to note that Strawson doesn’t deny we can feel regret or sadness over a life cut short (ours or that of someone else) but maintains that it is a mistake to think this feeling is grounded in any genuine loss. An interesting example he gives is that of a man who, upon hearing of his wife’s death, goes home, doesn’t tell their three children about the death of their mother, gives them a drug which will painlessly kill them in their sleep, and then takes the drug himself. We reflexively feel sorry for the children in this case, feeling they have been deprived of something, but Strawson is adamant that this sentiment is false. We only feel sorry for the children because we are looking at the situation from a third-person perspective, seeing what could have been. From the first-person view, however; i.e. the view from inside the actual lives of the children, “all is well.”

There are two additional arguments for his position Strawson ignores because he feels No Ownership goes through even without them. The first is the Epicurean claim that you can’t be harmed by death because once it happens, you won’t be around to suffer that harm.[1] The second rests on a distinction between what he calls transients and endurers. The former, which includes Strawson, claim to have no direct, felt, sense of themselves existing over time. Of course, they know the child in their memory was, in some very real sense, them, and they also know the person getting married next year will be them, but these facts are abstract, intellectual ones. Endurers, conversely, have a felt sense of themselves existing over time. Strawson could rely on the idea that No Ownership only applies to transients, but he rejects this notion, insisting that even those who grasp themselves as beings with futures don’t actually have a claim to that future such that they could suffer from losing it or having it taken from them.

One final interesting, possible consequence of this position is the idea that one’s life cannot be said to have gone worse if it is shortened by IPU annihilation; in other words, more life is not better. (Strawson doesn’t explicitly argue for this but he does approvingly quote Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius making this claim and his thought experiment involving the father and his children draws pretty close). Note that the idea here isn’t that more life isn’t necessarily better; i.e. depending on what happens to you in the future – if you are going to win the lottery tomorrow, more life is good, but if you are going to be tortured for days on end and then killed, more life is bad. Rather, it is that more life, good or bad, simply doesn’t make a difference to the quality of your life; death (the loss of your future) doesn’t harm you or detract from your life in any way.

Analysis

The essence of Strawson’s argument is that death (i.e. the elimination of a possible future) does not constitute a harm because “I – what I am – is not deprived of anything.” There are two key concepts I want to focus on here; possession and self. No Ownership specifically claims that “my future life and experience… don’t belong to me in such a way that they’re something that can be taken away from me.”

In using words like “belong” and “deprived of” – terms which denote physical possession – when talking about our respective futures, Strawson is interpreting ‘my future’ under objective, naturalistic categories, as if it were a physical thing I could own. Upon discovering, quite rightly, that it doesn’t belong in this category, rather than re-evaluating it, he simply dismisses the whole proposition as absurd and concludes that since I can’t possess ‘my future’ (like a ‘thing’), it isn’t mine in any sense and therefore, isn’t something I should be particularly concerned about losing.

So, we might now ask, if I don’t own my future in the same way that I own my book, is it still mine? Unfortunately, this turns out to be one of those considerations that resists a rational, naturalistic dissection. We can’t analyse it adequately through rational discourse because there is nothing, literally no-thing, to discuss. The future, by definition, doesn’t exist. No matter how long I talk about it, if you continue to think in naturalistic terms; that is, by way of atoms and molecules, you will always come up empty handed. To get any traction on this topic, we need to move beyond the rational and the logical.

My future is not possessed by me and yet it is still mine. To understand this, we must dispense with a myth that has been peddled by New Age gurus, at least one religion, a number of philosophers, and many (maybe most) contemporary physicists. The myth comes in two main forms that amount to the same thing; the first says that only the present exists, and the second says that time is an illusion. What makes these myths so tempting is that they are true for almost everything in the universe. The only thing we are aware of for whom they are not true, is consciousness. Human life (being the best example, although not necessarily the only possible instance, of higher order consciousness we know of) doesn’t exist only in the present, and time (for it) is unequivocally not an illusion. Yes, physically and even, strictly speaking, mentally, human life is lived in the present; even when remembering the past or thinking about the future, we are still cognising in the present. However, the lives we live in this present moment are constantly being informed and influenced by both the past and the future. We, unlike any of the other non-conscious things that we share our universe with, live perpetually haunted by the shadows of our past and the spectres of our future. Human beings, at their core, are temporal. Any denial of this is quite simply a failure to have understood what it means to be human, what it means to be a consciousness.

The rigid, naturalistic, scientific mentality we tend to analyse everything with these days is not just inadequate, as I claimed earlier, but actually incapable of capturing this temporal core. So, when Buddhism (the most scientific of the religions) tells us the past and the future are illusions, and modern physics tells us that the variable ‘t’ can be eliminated from the mathematical equations that describe physical reality, the radically nonsensical conclusion that the future and the past don’t exist seems to make sense, despite the fact that conscious human life is inconceivable without them.

A human life, in radical opposition to other non-conscious things, is not solely present; it is also, necessarily (to be a human life in the first place), the past and the future… my past and my future. Now we can see in what sense my future is mine. It isn’t because I might own it like I own other things in my possession (the only position Strawson considers),  but because it makes up an undeniable part of my existence. It is a part which is not guaranteed (I may die tomorrow), not fixed (the specific future I desire may not come to pass), not tangible (I can’t see or touch it), and not present (by definition), but none of this precludes it from being a part of my life; a part which, like any other part, I can lose or be deprived of.

We can make much the same criticism of Strawson’s account of the self; “I – what I am – is not deprived of anything.” Strawson, in fact, sees himself as something like a fleeting, ephemeral point of consciousness, intellectually aware of himself as having existed at various past moments and as an entity which will exist at various future moments, but phenomenally, subjectively, only aware of existing now. This is the transient model of self I referred to earlier.

When considering the transient self versus the narrative self, I agree with Strawson (see my earlier article on this here) that the ‘deepest’, most authentic form of self isn’t a story we create, it’s the experiencing consciousness we all immediately recognise and subjectively identify with in the moment. However, as I argued earlier, this momentary ‘self’, which I am, incorporates my past and my future. It includes them, not as memories and expectations (as in when I think about the person I used to be or the person I might become), nor as a felt sense of existing over time (Strawson’s definition of an endurer), but as central components that make up who I am today, here and now. These elements exist prior to my subjective sense of self and the latter can only exist through the former. I am my past and I – who I am – would make no sense without this framework of experiences and events that have crystallised around me and, to some extent, define me, in just the same way that I am my future and I – who I am – wouldn’t be intelligible without this dimension of possibility into which I continually project myself. The only way Strawson’s claim makes sense is if we deny the temporal core of the self and lock ourselves into the present; in effect, once more reducing consciousness to the status of a mere object.[2]

Conclusion

Strawson claims that nothing is lost in death and we are therefore not harmed when we draw our last breath. I have argued this is not true. Even though we don’t possess our futures like we possess ‘things’, this is only because, at the very core of what it means to be a human being, we are our futures (and our pasts). Death terminates those aspects of us and therefore amounts to a loss and a harm (inasmuch as we wish to resist this loss).

One last point I would note is that if we carry this idea to its logical conclusion, we must concede that death (not just premature death) is, in fact, always a loss, no matter how satisfying or complete we feel our lives have been. This is because, as I’ve already argued, an essential part of what it is to be human is to have a future. However, death, while being a loss, may not necessarily always be a harm. It is quite conceivable that after having lived a long, full life, and enduring the inevitable physical decline that comes with that, one could be quite ready for death. The loss of that future, rather than being something I resent (which would make it a harm) may instead be something I welcome (making it a relief).

Miscellaneous Thoughts

In this final section, I want to briefly look at three things raised in the article proper but tangential to the main discussion; Epicurus’ argument that death isn’t bad, Strawson’s transient/endurer distinction, and Marcus Aurelius’ argument concerning death.

Recall Epicurus’ claim that you can’t be harmed by death because once it happens, you won’t be around to suffer that harm. This is obviously, trivially true. However, it doesn’t erase the loss that you have suffered. Epicurus’ argument doesn’t change the fact that your life has been cut short, your future has been taken from you, and you have been harmed, even though you are not around to feel bad about it. What his argument does do, however, is offer a consolation for death. He can’t take the sting out of death; it’s still the ultimate and irrevocable loss you thought it was, but you can at least take consolation in the fact that you won’t have to suffer that loss.

My attitude towards Strawson’s transient/endurer distinction is a little more complex. Strawson classifies himself as a transient, while acknowledging that perhaps other people are endurers. I’m not sure I’m prepared to be this generous. I don’t think anyone is really an endurer.

Although I rejected the notion of a transient mode of self earlier, I rejected it as a complete account of who we are as selves (an account which Strawson used to try to deny our temporal nature). Strawson’s transience is a phenomenal description of our selves; i.e. the self we subjectively feel ourselves to be. This, I argue, is the only genuine phenomenal account of self possible. While we all intellectually know we are diachronic beings, I don’t think anyone truly experiences themselves as a being existing over time. This narrative, or reflective, sense of self is one we build on top of our core understanding of ourselves as transient, as fleeting consciousnesses, here and now and never anywhere else. When we think about our past ‘selves’ (or you might prefer the phrase, the ‘self’ we used to be), I find it hard to believe that anyone genuinely feels identical with that person. I certainly don’t. Of course, I know he was me, or I am him, but when I reflect on past periods of my life, they often genuinely feel like past lives or even as if they had happened to someone else. I’m also often surprised by some of the things I have done (both good and bad), as if that person were completely separate from me.

So, we have covered the transient mode of self (or minimal self), which is how we phenomenally grasp ourselves; the temporal self, the self we have to be in order to be transient in the first place; the narrative self, a reflected, second-order construction; and the endurer, a fiction that occurs when we mistakenly take the narrative self to be our phenomenal experience of self.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius argued that more life doesn’t actually improve that life in any way; as Strawson quotes him saying, “…the longest life and the shortest come to the same thing…” Whether you die today or ten years from now, your life is neither better nor worse for it. I’ve argued that death is a harm because the loss of our future (as a part of our being) is a real loss. But what does this mean, if it means anything, concerning the length of our life?

While Marcus did share Strawson’s ‘presentism’ bias that only the present was real, and therefore whether I die at eight or eighty, my loss in both cases will be the same; i.e. limited to the present moment, he coupled this belief with a comprehensive dismissal of human existence as fleeting, insignificant, and ultimately meaningless. It is this, I maintain, rather than the ‘presentism’, which lets Marcus conclude as he does.

Presentism on its own says nothing more than that the loss in both cases (death at eight and death at eighty) is the same. The experiences which precede this loss, however, are not. Even if I grant that presentism is true, it seems eminently reasonable to presume that the eighty year old has had a much better life than the eight year old and that they therefore do not “come to the same thing”. Given the choice, I know which I would prefer. However, if we lift our gaze with Marcus to look upon the immensity of the universe, then reflect on the eons that preceded me as well as those that will follow me, and finally contemplate the legions of people who will never know, or care that, I existed, suddenly my life appears vanishingly insignificant and utterly meaningless. Now, whether I die at eight or eighty hardly seems to matter. What are a measly seventy-two years in the life of a single individual compared to eternity?

Given this additional belief, over and above his presentism, Marcus can legitimately make the argument that “…the longest life and the shortest come to the same thing…”. Strawson, and anyone else who stops short at presentism, on the other hand, cannot.[3]


[1] Obviously, other people can suffer from our death, but this is irrelevant to the current discussion.

[2] If you have read Jean-Paul Sartre, you might recognise Strawson’s mistake here as bad faith, the situation where we either deny the absolute freedom of consciousness and try to see ourselves as mere things, or deny our facticity (the unchangeable, fixed dimension of human existence) to pretend we are pure consciousness.

[3] Just to be clear once more, despite quoting Marcus Aurelius making this argument, Strawson himself doesn’t explicitly argue for the position.

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