Version: v2, Published online: 2019
Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/death/v-2
Reflection on death gives rise to a variety of philosophical questions. One of the deepest of these is a question about the nature of death. Many philosophers nowadays interpret this question as a call for an analysis, or definition, of the concept of death. Plato proposed to define death as the separation of soul from body. This definition is not acceptable to materialists, who think that there are no souls. It is also unacceptable to anyone who thinks that plants and lower animals have no souls, but can die. Others have defined death simply as the cessation of life. This too is problematic, since an organism that goes into suspended animation ceases to live, but may not die. The same could be said of an organism that reproduces by undergoing fission. It ceases to be alive, but it does not die.
Death is described as ‘mysterious’. It is not clear what this means. Suppose we cannot formulate a satisfactory analysis of the concept of death. In this respect death would be mysterious – but no more so than any other concept that defies analysis. Some have said that what makes death especially mysterious and frightening is the fact that we cannot know what it will be like.
The death of a human being is typically regarded as a great evil for the one who dies, especially if it strikes someone too soon. However, Epicurus and others argued that death cannot harm those who die, since people go out of existence when they die, and people cannot be harmed at times when they don’t exist. Others have countered that the evil of death may lie in the fact that death deprives us of the goods we would have enjoyed if we had lived. On this view death may be a great evil for a person, even if the person ceases to exist at the moment of death.
Philosophers have also been concerned with the question whether people can survive death. The question is open to several interpretations, depending upon what we take people to be, and what we mean by ‘survive’. Traditional materialists take each person to be a purely physical object – a human body. Since human bodies generally continue to exist after death, such materialists presumably must say that we generally survive death. However, such survival would be of little value to the deceased, since the surviving entity is just a lifeless corpse. Dualists take each person to have both a body and a soul. A dualist may maintain that at death the soul separates from the body, and continues to enjoy (or suffer) various experiences after the body has died.
People often hate the prospect of early death; they think it would be better to go on living. Accordingly, some think that eternal life would be a good beyond comparison. But Bernard Williams has argued that eternal life would be profoundly unattractive. If we imagine ourselves perpetually stuck at a given age, we may reasonably fear that eternal life will eventually become painfully boring. On the other hand, if we imagine ourselves experiencing an endless sequence of varied ‘lives’, each disconnected from the others, then it is questionable whether it will in fact be ‘one person’ who lives eternally. Williams’s reasoning has been subjected to vigorous criticism.
Finally, there are questions about death and the meaning of life. Suppose death marks the end of all conscious experience. Suppose everyone eventually dies. Would the fact of inevitable death make our lives meaningless? Or would the fact that we are going to die help us to recognize the value of our lives, and thereby give deeper meaning to life?
Feldman, Fred. Death, 2019, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/death/v-2.
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