By Tim Ruggiero
"...as a youth and even as a child, I remained unmoved when shown the most moving pictures of hell, for even then nothing appeared to me quite so horrible as nothingness itself."
-- Miguel de Unamuno
One of the most interesting questions about death has to do with the fate of ego-consciousness: is it extinguished with the body, or does it continue on in some way? The question is of course unanswerable, but those of us with a lively imagination can conjure up a scenario or two:
1. A young Buddhist once asked a master what happens when someone dies. The master asked, "Have you ever seen a snowflake hit the ground?" "Yes," said the youth. "That is what happens when you die," replied the master. The master might also have asked his student if he had ever seen a candle blown out or a sun suddenly disappear in the evening, or remember what it was like to listen to the very last note of a composition. The idea is roughly the same, and amounts to a materialist point of view: death is simply the permanent loss of consciousness, the cessation of brain activity, the passing out of being of a finite creature. Some might say coldly that from the point of view of the cosmos, of time and space, an individual death is quite insignificant. The loss of a single ant might disturb the equilibrium of a formicary, but to the rest of us on this planet -- dolphins, porpoises, rhinos, spiders, humans -- it doesn't matter either way.
2. Some thinking, feeling, remembering remains. An interesting question not often considered is this: assuming that a stream of consciousness follows the act of death, how does the dying person know that he has died? What would occur in the form of a distinction? And if there is some form of feeling or mentation, is it organized into the singularity of a will or a soul, or is it scattershot, much like the scurryings of mind in the dream state?
3. Something happens, but nothing that would comport with our wildest speculations. It is impossible for mere mortals to describe the realm of no-where and no-when. The most prodigious mind still only has metaphors and analogies to work with, and little or nothing else. People are disposed to thinking of an afterlife as a place, with human characters dotting the landscape, and with God naturally reclining on a high chair. This is, to be sure, a trite and puerile image, but from what source does the mind conjure up images if not from the natural world? And how much more sophisticated is it to say that "some thinking, feeling, remembering" occurs upon death? The mind has only moved up one level, passing from dull nouns and adjectives to verbs, renouncing storybook representations of God and heaven, but not offering much more. (Note the words "only moved up one level": how would I know? Might not every explanation here be equally fatuous?)
4. Intussusception. The soul doesn't fly out of the body into outer space (wherever that is). It realizes at once that it is "the One" -- the agency that is the You That Is Really You and the Me That Is Really Me. It realizes that its stint on earth was nothing but an elaborate costume party, in which it wore variously the masks of the athlete, the businessman, the slave laborer, the fashion model, the tatterdemalion. There is "no where to go to," because It is Reality. (This is similar to Erwin Schrödinger's view.)
5. There is a "God" after all, and this God is no more inclined to pass judgment on a departed soul than a playwright is inclined to judge her various characters. A being easily given to wrath or to parochial judgment, one might say, is no God at all.
6. Death comes, and nothing more happens, and all the questions a reflective soul would think to ask about life and death, truth and love, purpose and meaning, simply go unanswered.
(October 2, 2002)
Readings On Death
Jacques Choron, Death and Western Thought (1963)
Herman Feifel, ed., The Meaning of Death (1959)
Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian (1957)
Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life (1913)