DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

4. The mystery of death

A recurrent theme about death in popular thought (as well as in some philosophical circles) is the idea that death is mysterious. As we have seen, it is difficult to formulate a satisfactory philosophical analysis of the concept of death. If it is impossible to analyse the concept of death, then it is impossible to explain precisely what we mean when we say that something dies. It might be said therefore that, in virtue of this fact, death is mysterious. Of course, death is not distinctively mysterious – all other unanalysable concepts are equally mysterious in this way.

Yet it is widely thought that there is a special mystery about death. Some seem to take the mystery to be that we cannot know or even conceive of what being dead will be like. This might be thought to follow from the fact that most of us who are living have no recollection of ever having been dead, and thus we lack first-hand experience of what death is like. Furthermore, since there is considerable doubt about the veracity of the testimony of those few who claim to recall having been dead, none of us has a reliable second-hand report of what death is like.

A deeper reason for thinking death difficult to imagine becomes evident if we suppose that death is an ‘experiential blank’ – that is, if we suppose that the dead have absolutely no experiences. It has been claimed that being dead is impossible to conceptualize precisely because being dead is like this. However, while it must be admitted that it is quite difficult to form any clear conception of what an experiential blank would feel like, this may be a bogus problem. Perhaps it is difficult to imagine this feeling not because it is mysterious or hidden, but rather because there is no such feeling. If the dead have no experiences, then it is no wonder and no mystery that we cannot imagine what the experiences of the dead feel like.

Citing this article:
Feldman, Fred. The mystery of death. Death, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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