The Irreconcilability of Death

They say that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Since I’m not much of an expert on accounting, that leaves me with death. My goal in this article, then, is to explain why I think, contrary to a lot of opinion on the subject, that our deaths are events we fundamentally cannot come to terms with. In the first section, I’ll argue that it is impossible to (truly) imagine our deaths, before arguing in the second section that the only possible attitude towards death is one of anxiety. Finally, I’ll outline a couple of possible exceptions (one more possible than the other) to my first argument.

Imagining Death

I was walking outside one day when I saw an elderly man in front of me valiantly, but slowly, making his way up a flight of steps. As I passed him, the proverbial hare streaking past the tortoise, I thought to myself: that will be me one day. The thought came easily and effortlessly: one day my joints are going to stiffen, my coordination is going to deteriorate, and walking up a flight of steps will become a battle. But even though I knew it, even though I intellectually recognised the inevitable truth in the words, I couldn’t feel it. The only reason I remember this moment was because it was quite a surprising thought. I can’t really, truly imagine myself old. I just lack a frame of reference that would allow me to adequately grasp this truth. Despite the certainty with which I know I am going to get old, aging is never more than a third-person fact, as opposed to a first-person feeling, for me. Getting old is something that happens to everyone. Everyone knows this. But getting old never happens to me… until it does, of course. Prior to that day, until I am the elderly man struggling up the stairs, getting old will always be a third-person fact about the world that is only tangentially related to my life.

Exactly the same thing holds for my death. Everybody dies. I know everybody dies, I can imagine anyone dying, but I can’t imagine my own death. I just can’t do it. The insight that I will die one day never rises above the status of a fact about human beings in general.

My death (‘my’ as in every individual’s ownmost, personal death) is something so outside the realm of anything for which we have a frame of reference that we just can’t properly grasp it as a genuine possibility in our lives. Death never appears for us as a reality, a real (albeit futural) event that could actually happen to us. This lack of a frame of reference for ‘my’ death is important because a frame of reference is precisely what we need for anything to acquire a first-person sense. I can imagine getting on the bus to go to work tomorrow, and this image is more than a mere intellectual exercise. Even though it won’t become a true first-person experience until it actually happens, it appears for me, prior to that actual experience, with all of the gravitas of a real, concrete event that will happen to me; in other words, it is dripping with first-person sense.

Another reason I think imagining your own death is impossible is because in your imagination, you are always there in the background as the imaginer. No matter how great your power of imagination, or how deeply you think you can meditate, to think your own death is to be thinking, ergo, to modify Descartes a little, to think is to be. The death I imagine is certainly my death in the sense that the person whom I am imagining to no longer inhabit this mortal plane, is me, but at the same time, the deception is built into the act itself; in order to imagine myself no longer in the world, I must already be in the world. The realisation can never be complete because the act of realisation automatically undermines itself. Thus, while I can imagine my death, the death I imagine will always have the remove of a third-person fact, an abstract truth, which can never truly penetrate to my first-person core.

One last point that, while not a reason itself, supports my argument that we can never truly imagine our own deaths, is belief in an afterlife. Although the scientific milieu in which we live has conditioned many of us out of it, if you talk to someone who does happen to believe in an afterlife, often the reason they’ll give is not that they’re afraid of death (although this is surely a part of it), but that they just can’t believe that death could be the end; in other words, they can’t imagine their own deaths. This is evident when they turn your incredulous query about an eternity in a magical place of perfection back on you with their own incredulous query: “So, what do you think happens when you die? The lights just go out, emptiness forever?!” They literally can’t imagine such a thing. The light of consciousness cannot really, truly imagine its own extinction. Of course, we know better. We know all myths of an afterlife are just that; myths, attempts to deal with an ending we literally cannot imagine, and yet this intellectual, abstract knowledge doesn’t, can’t, turn it into a tangible, felt truth.

———-     Jean-Paul Sartre     ———-

Death, for Sartre, was the absolute absurdity. It lies completely outside our control and renders all of our projects and expectations void, thereby stripping our lives of all meaning. Despite the absolute certainty of death, it is the one end towards which we can never project ourselves, the one thing that can never properly be accorded the status of a genuine possibility: “My project toward a particular death is comprehensible (suicide, martyrdom, heroism) but not the project toward my death as the undetermined possibility of no longer realizing a presence in the world, for this project would be the destruction of all projects. Thus death can not be my peculiar possibility; it can not even be one of my possibilities.” (Sartre, 1943/1956)

For something to be my possibility, it must take place in my life; that is to say, it must be enmeshed in a life that is being lived, an active situation, as it were. Death, as the termination of all projects and possibilities, the termination of all active situations, cannot itself be one of them. I can aim at a particular type of death, a noble death, a tragic death, but I can never aim at my death, even if the person whose death I aim to make noble or tragic is my own.

But Sartre goes even further than this. Although my death cannot be one of my possibilities, it is a possibility… for other people. While I am alive, I give my life meaning. Every act I perform, every decision I make, every thought I have, acquires its significance from me and my projects. Once I am no longer there to bestow meaning on my life, other people step in to fill the vacuum. Now my life becomes an object for other people to fit into their projects and possibilities. I acquire significance as having been a ‘good father’ or a ‘hard worker,’ not for myself, but for other people, my children, or co-workers, for example. Thus, Sartre calls death a dispossession of being – death doesn’t belong to the ontological structure of being-for-itself; ontologically-speaking, it is, in fact, being-for-others. For me, my death belongs to my facticity, not one of my possibilities. “Death is a pure fact as is birth; it comes to us from outside and it transforms us into the outside.” (Sartre, 1943/1956)

Reconciling Death

If I’m right that we can’t imagine our own deaths, one immediate consequence of this is that we cannot truly accept death or come to terms with it. As something fundamentally beyond our capacity to grasp in any way more than an intellectual, superficial, general sense, as something that never presents itself to me as one of my possibilities, my death is absolutely irreconcilable. How can you come to terms with something fundamentally outside your capacity to imagine as a genuine possibility? If anyone should tell you that they have completely accepted their death, or offer to show you how you can come to accept death, you know that at best, they are deceiving themselves, at worst, they are trying to deceive you.

———-     Albert Camus     ———-

French philosopher and novelist, Albert Camus, believed that human existence was fundamentally absurd. The absurd arises in the clash between our desire for meaning and order and a natural world that is essentially meaninglessness and disordered. As long as these two terms – human being and world – exist, the absurd can never be resolved. Like Sartre, Camus believed that death was the ultimate absurdity; a brute fact about the world that, in denying us a future, makes meaning fundamentally impossible. Thus, death, like everything absurd, is irresolvable.

Camus’ response to the irreconcilable absurdity of existence was threefold. First, we must revolt. The only way life can be authentically lived is in permanent revolt. This is a revolt that we have absolutely no chance of winning; indeed, the revolt must be enacted with full knowledge of the fact that we can never be victorious. To do anything else would be to countenance false hope. Second, we must embrace what he calls absurd freedom, the freedom that follows once we fully and totally accept the absurd, leaving us in a state of complete disinterestedness with regard to everything except the pure flame of life. Finally, the revolt must be lived with passion. We must learn to love the struggle… without ever turning it into a joyful event.

Relating to Death

Death, despite being something we can neither imagine nor reconcile, is nevertheless a fundamental part of our being. It is an unimaginable, absurd pseudo-possibility, an absolute certainty that will happen to me, even as it remains at the same time, a certainty that doesn’t belong to me. And yet, although it assails us “from outside” as Sartre says, in some way, we carry it with us in the very core of who we are. What kind of relation can we possibly expect to have with a spectre such as this; a spectre we know marks the end of all my possibilities, and yet one which never appears for us as one of them?

———-     Martin Heidegger     ———-

In Being and Time, Heidegger famously, and somewhat unsettlingly, remarked that a part of authentic human existence was, in fact, being-toward-death. What did he mean by this? Well, he certainly didn’t mean that we ought to dwell on our deaths. Being-toward-death is not some morbid obsession with death. It is, in fact, the exact opposite, a galvanising call to action.

Heidegger recognised that society (as the anonymous Das Man) attempts to deny the reality of death. It does this in three ways. First, it tempts us into covering over our own personal deaths. Death is acknowledged, but only as a statistic, a general fact about human beings. My dying is levelled down to an event which, although it concerns me, belongs to no one in particular. Second, it tranquillises us regarding death. Heidegger’s example was the way we deny death in those who are clearly dying, preferring instead to comfort them and assure them that they will get better. Finally, it estranges us from death by governing how we are supposed to behave toward it; specifically, by making it a taboo subject, a topic that, if thought about and discussed, indicates a gloomy moroseness in the individual that ought to be discouraged.

Entangled, everyday existence – what Heidegger called the they-self – can then be characterised as a flight from death. This will never amount to an authentic mode of being because death is an inescapable part of life. However, we now find ourselves with a problem; we can’t grasp death as an actual possibility (because death is precisely the impossibility of every mode of behaviour toward—), but at the same time, we can’t grasp the whole that is our life without somehow including death. Death, Heidegger concludes, must be graspable and manifest, but only indirectly, in relation to all our possibilities. Thus, death is not something waiting for us at some unspecified time in the future, something we will have to worry about sometime but not right now; rather, it is omni-present in our very being. This is why Heidegger calls it being-toward-death, because our lives, by the very nature of what they are, are always co-lived with death. Every possibility carries with it the possibility of death. I should note that, although Heidegger admits death as a possibility, he is clear that it is not a concrete possibility; i.e. one which appears as something that could ever be actualised: “As possibility, death gives Dasein nothing to “be actualised” and nothing which it itself could be as something real. It is the possibility of the impossibility of every mode of behaviour toward…, of every way of existing.” (Heidegger, 1927/1996)

Apprehending and acknowledging our deaths, even though only obliquely like this, has three effects. First, it bestows on us a full understanding of our lives free from illusions that, while comforting, are false. Second, it spurs us on to action. Honestly recognising that death is a part of our very being, lying coiled in every one of our possibilities, forces upon us the realisation that our lives are finite, and motivates us to do something worthwhile with them in the little time we have. Finally, the effect most relevant for us in this article, acknowledging death like this lets us be ourselves in “passionate, anxious freedom toward death…” (Heidegger, 1927/1996; emphasis added). That is to say, being-toward-death is always lived in anxiety. It is, in other words, something we never ‘get over’ or ‘deal with.’

—————               —————

So, what exactly does ‘anxiety’ mean in this context? Well, what it doesn’t mean is living every moment of your life paralysed with fear, nor does it mean constantly worrying about death. In actual fact, what we’re talking about here is existential anxiety, and this makes it qualitatively different from your everyday form of anxiety. “Worldly anxiety” (we’ll call it this to distinguish it from the existential variety) is an emotion; a concern or worry you might have about some event in the world. Existential anxiety, on the other hand, is not an emotion. It is an ontological structure, a part of your very being. You don’t ‘feel’ existential anxiety (which would make it an emotion, an ‘ontic’ event Heidegger would say), it is a part of the very fabric of your being, and rather than concerning an event in the world, it is about world itself; i.e. the very conditions on which there can be a world in the first place.

I think of existential anxiety as a kind of low-level tension in the back of your mind, perhaps not unlike a small pebble in your shoe. It doesn’t stop you from doing anything, but it’s a source of discomfort that you can’t get rid of. Some people claim to have gotten rid of their pebble, perhaps through meditation or belief in an afterlife – this is delusion. Others pretend they don’t feel the pebble anymore – this is denial. Still others acknowledge the pebble, but claim that it doesn’t bother them anymore – this is (self-)deception. The only authentic path forward is to acknowledge the pebble, acknowledge that it is discomforting, and accept that the discomfort is unresolvable because having a pebble in your shoe is just what it means to be human. This last step is the most important. If the pebble ever becomes something other than a source of discomfort deep within your innermost self, you know you’ve fallen into one of the three traps I outlined above. Anxiety towards death must always be a source of discomfort, an unresolved shadow you can’t quite get a hold of to banish. But, as I said, this doesn’t mean waking up in a cold sweat every night. I would even go so far as to say that it is possible to cultivate an attitude of calmness towards death, but this ontic feeling will never eliminate the existential anxiety that lies underneath. Anxiety is the only possible response to death because it’s just what it is to contemplate something that literally can’t be contemplated because it is the end of all possibility of contemplation.

It seems that in Sartre and Heidegger we have two opposing attitudes towards death. Sartre claims that death is actually a part of being-for-others, nothing to do with me or my possibilities, while for Heidegger being-toward-death does belong to our own ontological structure. The best way to understand the difference between the two is to start from the point where they agree. The overlap in their attitudes toward death occurs in the way they both deny that my death is ever one of my possibilities. For Sartre this is absolute, and it’s absolute because freedom (and by extension, possibility) is the central element in Sartre’s philosophy. Being something over which we have absolutely no control, death cannot be anything other than an entirely alien event; indeed, the expression ‘my death’ is an oxymoron for Sartre. Like Sartre, Heidegger acknowledges that death is not something we can conceive of as a genuine possibility for ourselves, but he also recognises the truth that death nevertheless has a deeply personal meaning for us in our lives, so much so that a full accounting of human existence could not possibly ignore it. Death, then, cannot be something totally foreign to us.

The genius in Heidegger’s position here is how he finds a way to take this event which I can never grasp like one of my normal possibilities, and nevertheless incorporate it into my life in such a way that it never loses this character of alterity and is therefore never reconciled. We might compare this to watching a movie where the change in music indicates that something unpleasant is about to happen. We don’t know precisely what will happen; maybe the villain will leap out from behind a wall, maybe the actor will fall through a trapdoor, maybe it will be something else we could never have imagined, but we’ll know it when we see it. Death is the same. We have the ‘outline’ of what death is; that is to say, we know about the fact of death, death as it occurs for other people or human beings in general, but we can’t properly comprehend what it is as a possibility in our lives, precisely because it is the termination of all possibility.

Before closing this section, it is also worth noting that there is an interesting parallel between Heidegger’s anxiety and Camus’ revolt. Despite the fact that the former has more of the feel of a subdued respect for the unknown of death while the latter inclines more towards a passionate defiance of it, both attitudes are characterised by the fact that they don’t admit of any resolution. As long as one lives, one lives in (existential) anxiety for Heidegger and revolt for Camus.

Possible Exceptions to the First Argument

While I was writing this article, a couple of outlying, extraordinary situations came to mind in which a genuine first-person sense of our deaths might possibly be experienced. The first is Cotard’s syndrome, a fascinating but disturbing disorder in which a person believes themselves to literally be dead. As with most psychological disorders, rational evidence that would appear to contradict the belief, such as the fact that the patient can talk, has no effect. As I understand it, people with this condition often like to lie as still as possible, in imitation of death, presumably because this most closely aligns with the way they see themselves as belonging in the world.

This seems to make a pretty good case for an experience of a personal death. There is one mitigating factor, however, which possibly makes this less compelling than it at first appears; Cotard’s syndrome is a psychological disorder and therefore, by definition, less experience and more delusion. By this, I’m not suggesting that people with Cotard’s don’t genuinely believe they are dead or that they might be pretending; rather, I mean Cotard’s is a delusion, a hallucination, and while a hallucination is a real experience, it isn’t an experience of anything real. Cotard’s syndrome is a breakdown of ‘regular’ mental functioning, so it just isn’t clear whether, or how far, any experience produced from out of such a state can be likened to a non-hallucinatory experience; i.e. one produced by people without Cotard’s.

The second possible group of exceptions are life-threatening circumstances. Now, I’m not talking about tunnels with bright lights and a cadre of deceased family members telling you that it isn’t your time yet; I’m talking about moments where an imminent danger forces on a person the sense that they are about to die. This seems a much stronger case for a genuine experience of my death than that which Cotard’s syndrome offered. I think this might be because of the abrupt and decisive way life-threatening situations wrench us out of our normal state of mind. I said earlier that we can’t grasp the notion of my death because we lack a frame of reference for the termination of all experience and possibility, but perhaps I should add ‘under normal life circumstances.’ A life-threatening situation seems able to tear us from our normal state of mind precisely by providing a new frame of reference. Although this frame of reference must, by definition, still refer to me as the viewing, or imagining, subject, the sheer suddenness, forcefulness, and overwhelming certainty with which one’s impending demise abruptly appears (the new frame of reference) seems to have the effect of thrusting all coherent thought from one’s mind, yielding what I think could quite conceivably be a genuine experience of my death.

So, a life-threatening situation seems to bestow on us a visceral sense of my death. Does this then mean that we can come to terms with death? Face it with something other than anxiety? I don’t think so. Having a clear, first-person, lived sense of your death, although certainly potentially life-changing, doesn’t change anything about the nature of death. It is still the possibility of the impossibility of every mode of behaviour toward —, the one possibility that can never be a real possibility because it is the end of all possibility, and thus, the one possibility we can never truly accept.

Permit me one last analogy. Imagine that you have a perfect theory of quantum gravity and understand precisely what happens if you fall into a black hole. Does knowing all of this mean that you will be able to use your torch to illuminate things around you as you fall towards the centre? No. A black hole is, effectively, the end of light (or at least, the usefulness of light). No amount of knowledge or running of simulations before you take the plunge can change this – it’s just what a black hole is. Similarly, even if you could perfectly imagine, in a first-person, lived sense, every facet of your death, it wouldn’t change the fact that death is the end of all possibility, including the possibility of resolutions. How could you resolve something that, by virtue of what it is, nullifies the very possibility of resolution? You might as well claim that you can think a square circle (I guess that’s my last analogy).

Conclusion

Death is the ultimate bogeyman; an apparition that promises oblivion, the absolute impossibility of any further experience. Even as I write those words, I find my mind recoiling before them, not so much in terror, but in the same way my mind balks at the vastness of the cosmos when I look up at the stars on a clear night. Just as the universe is too big to get one’s head around, death is too… negatory, or maybe, final to comprehend. Anxiety is the only genuine response to such an event. Of course, anxiety doesn’t mean abject, paralysing terror (or any kind of (ontic) emotional response for that matter). Rather, anxiety is existential in nature; that is to say, it is an essential ontological structure that we can only resolutely embrace, not conjure away with fantasies of blissful afterlives or delusions that we have ‘faced’ and somehow ‘conquered’ it. Death is the final unconquerable mystery, not because we don’t know what comes afterwards (sorry if you were holding out for an afterlife), but because it is the absolute end of all possibility, including the possibility of conquering mystery.

4 thoughts on “The Irreconcilability of Death

  1. When I was younger, I acted as if I was immortal. Took risks that could have killed me a number of times, and several times cheated death through sheer luck. But I never had any problem imagining my own death. Either the process of dying (saw that in various forms among relatives and friends) or the state of being dead. I may be missing something, but I don’t have any problem accepting that there will be a future point after which I simply don’t exist. Its exactly the same as before the point in time at which I started to exist (some time after conception). I have not existed for billions of years, I will also not exist for billions more.
    In addition, I have experienced what its like to be dead. Nothing to be afraid of. I was going down a waterslide too fast and my body started rocking violently and I hit my head on the side of the tube (this is my later reconstruction of what must have happened). I was knocked out, and went to the bottom of the swimming pool at the base of the slide, unconscious. My friend and I were the only people in the waterslide area, and he was walking back up to do it again. He looked back, saw me in the bottom and assumed I was fooling around. But later he looked again and I was still there. So he went back and pulled me out. I came to some minutes later and had complete amnesia about the event and the last few weeks. It was an existential shock to realize that if I had not been pulled out, but drowned, I would never have known. I would not have known I was about to die. Amnesia meant my mind was a blank in the minutes leading up to possible death. So that was profoundly disturbing to realize it was entirely possible I would die without ever knowing about it. But the state of being dead. I experienced “not being there” in any form and its nothing at all to be afraid off. You don’t exist, and there is nothing to experience the not existing. My amnesia gradually disappeared over a period of a day or so, until I could remember the initial part of going down the slide and starting to oscillate. But the actual blow to the head and the aftermath before I came to has remained a blank.
    The process of gradually losing function and experiencing pain and possibly loss of mental functioning, whether through ageing or illness, that is a completely different issue. And something that does worry me. And that I am working on accepting and letting go of the mental drama about it. And eventually when needed, do some contingency planning and living will etc etc.
    You say that if someone tells you they have completely accepted their death, they are deceiving themselves. Might be true in some cases. And might be true if you are referring to the process leading up to the point of death. But completely untrue for me, if you are referring to the state of being dead. I’ve experienced it, the state of not existing, and its nothing to be afraid of.
    Footnote: I’ve already been thinking about blogging about my near-death experiences. Apart from the one I describe above, I have several others of the type you mention as “life-threatening” but where one is conscious and aware they might be about to die. I have grouped them into two categories. In the first, the event was rapid (eg. fall off a 15m cliff) and happened too fast for any philosophical thought. In fact, in this type of event, I experienced no fear and was too busy thinking about the situation and what I could possibly do. In the other type, the event was extended (eg, caught in a massive surf and fighting for maybe 30 minutes to stay alive and get to shore). In this type of event, I had plenty of time to think about the consequences of dying. My life did not flash before my eyes, but I certainly spent time regretting all the stuff I had not got around to doing, like a will or leaving my various passwords and financial details somewhere. Burning my private journals etc etc.

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  2. Pingback: Near-Death Experiences – Part 1 | Mountains and rivers

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