Death, Revisited

I am always skeptical of claims that humans are unique.  The facts that we use tools, and clothes, and language, have failed to differentiate us from other species.  The more we learn about nature, the less well defined seem to be the boundaries between natural domains.

Avoiding sweeping generalizations, I will still say that the human species has gone further than others in some directions, including preoccupation with the future and awareness of death.  I doubt my cat Charlie thinks further ahead than his next meal, and not even that far when his belly is full.  Charlie lives in the day, and in the hour: he hunts with ferocious intensity, and sleeps soundly afterwards.   I, in contrast, devote most of my energy to projects which may not yield results for weeks or years, results which in some cases (like the Phantom Self project) are highly uncertain.   Charlie lives mainly in the scene of his immediate experience; I concern myself mainly with the future portrayed in my imagination.  Charlie’s experience is, by and large, an accurate representation of the world he lives in; but the future events I imagine are often very different from events in the real future, as it finally turns out.

As early as young adulthood, some people feel a need to plan their entire lives.  Our society encourages them: to choose a career path, for example, that will finance a mortgage.   Before young people have paid off their student loans, ads exhort them to start saving for retirement.  Careful planning for the future is praised as prudent behaviour.

Such prudent planning allowed our ancestors to make the transition from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian societies – a transition that presaged a population explosion and the beginning of human dominance of this planet.  Success in farming required thinking about next year.  Migration to colder climates would have been impossible without the ability to think things through: to preserve and tan the hides of slaughtered animals with the intention of making clothes and footwear; to collect stones and sods in summer in order to build shelters for the coming winter.  Natural selection favoured the species – ours – with the greatest ability to plan for the long term.  And so it has continued to this day: our powerful imaginations allow us to coordinate our efforts, invent, design, and build, anticipate potential disasters and sometimes successfully avoid them.   Being so preoccupied with our futures leads inevitably to thinking about our deaths.

A Dilemma

We instinctively fear death, and most people try hard to avoid it.  Yet we recognize our eventual deaths as inevitable.  This creates a dilemma for every person: something he is very afraid of will certainly happen to him.  One response to this dilemma is to agonize about it.  But to agonize over the inevitable is counterproductive; we tend not to do it for long.  A more common way of coping is to think about death in a way that mitigates the fear.  Such thoughts often involve the notion that we will continue to live, in some form, after we die.  Whether they take the form of reincarnation, bodily resurrection, disembodied survival, or something even more vague, such thoughts are often housed in an intellectual region earmarked as ‘spiritual’, sanctioned by august authority, and protected against critical thinking.  Critical thinking is most useful in practical matters, where the consequences of a mistake may be costly.  Everyone understands that nothing practical can be done to avoid biological death forever.

People fantasize that they will continue – they invest self-concern in a future they imagine after the deaths of their biological organisms.  Some imagine themselves continuing to live on earth, but radically transformed into other human beings who have no memories of their present lives, or even into non-human animals (rarely into plants).  Some imagine themselves being brought back to life in the distant future, rebuilt in the flesh by an omniscient, omnipotent deity.  Others think of themselves continuing, somehow, without a body, but still able to see, hear, think, and have emotions.

These notions can be fairly described as unscientific.  They fail to meet the standards we demand of other claims on our belief.  There is no compelling evidence for such ideas;   they do not explain our experience, but only raise more questions.  They complicate, rather than simplifying, our understanding of the world.   Yet they fill a psychological need.  They give comfort.  They allow people to get on with their lives, and not agonize.

Many people, of course, preferring realism to comfort, reject ideas of life after death.  Their view of life is often of a time-limited quantity, that is constantly running out.  To requote Ian Brown:

Looking at it from the age of 55 – not that the number means anything, because death approaches when it wants to – getting older looks like a discouraging journey into loneliness.  Dying is the ultimate loneliness, the ultimate solitude.

And Derek Parfit:

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness.

Is agony, one might wonder, the inevitable price of realism about death?

Not necessarily.  What we have begun to see, in the Phantom Self project, is that the view of life which gives rise to such disturbing feelings may be as unrealistic, in essential respects, as ideas of a personal afterlife.   Brown’s journey into loneliness and Parfit’s glass tunnel ending in darkness are products of self-concern.  They are the result of attaching the special concern every person has for himself to a particular spatiotemporal region, spatially limited to his body and temporally limited by the event of his biological death.  Although this attachment is not arbitrary, neither is it required by the facts.

Self-concern is, first and foremost, a psychological and neurological phenomenon.  There is evidence of plasticity in self-concern; indeed, the wide variety of ideas people hold about life after death in itself strongly indicates plasticity.   The Catholic believes she will go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory; while the Bhagavad Vita tells observant Hindus they will be reincarnated:

Worn-out garments are shed by the body; Worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments. (2:22)

Such beliefs are different strategies of allocating self-concern.  And just as those beliefs go beyond scientifically admissible fact, so, it seems, does our ordinary self-concern, our ordinary expectation that we will live until our bodies die.

William Hazlitt saw this.  As a young man steeped in the skeptical spirit of 18th century empiricism, he conducted an openminded search for a rational basis of self-concern – for a special relation between himself at the time of writing, and himself in the future, which could provide him with a compelling reason to prefer his own interests to those of other people – and found nothing.  The only connections he found between his earlier and later selves that seemed to matter were the psychological links of anticipation and memory.  But psychological states can be replicated.  They are just attributes.  And attributes can be shared by other people.  Not only can be – many of our attributes, both psychological and physical, are shared by other people.

Hazlitt’s primary insight can be restated, borrowing Derek Parfit’s words, as “Ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a replica.” [RP p. 280] But it goes further.  If we allow that an exact copy of a person is enough for that person to survive, it is difficult to avoid concluding that an inexact copy may be almost good enough – or even better.  And the idea that survival consists in the preservation of some, not all, of our attributes suggests the still more radical idea that what matters about a person’s survival may admit of degrees, and even be distributed over other persons.

Death and Change

To all practical purposes, I survive if someone – either myself or a replica – inherits my attributes.  But not all my attributes need to persist; that would be to set the bar for survival too high.  People change constantly, and most changes they undergo do not threaten their persistence as the same individuals.  Tomorrow I may forget what I had for lunch today.  Another hair or two will fall out.   I expect to survive such changes.

Far from feeling existentially threatened by change, many people actively seek it.  They embrace, and strive for, personal transformation.  They invest heavily in changes ranging from losing weight to gaining strength, speed and endurance; from submitting to the plastic surgeon’s knife to taking antidepressant drugs; from making a career move to embracing a new language, culture and nationality.

The advent of human replication technology will facilitate the cruder forms of self-transformation.  In a few decades, it will be easier, cheaper, and far less painful to alter a person’s digital record in the process of making a copy, than to directly alter her body by surgery.  When replication technology is used for such mundane purposes as high-speed, low-cost transportation, many extras will be on offer.  Physical transformations such as weight loss, plastic surgery, even tattooing (and tattoo removal) will be handily accomplished by using software to manipulate a person’s file, much as we edit photographs today in Photoshop before printing or posting them.

If my survival is a matter of preserving some of my attributes, then how many, or which ones, must be preserved in order for me to survive?   There seem to be two main possibilities: either there is a core set of essential attributes which are necessary and sufficient for my survival, or there is not.  If there is no essential core, then survival would appear not to be an all-or-nothing affair.

Is there a core set of essential attributes?   When I looked for experiential evidence of personal survival, the most convincing examples I could find consisted in memories of anticipation.  Hazlitt made the same observation: the memory of past decisions that led to the situation in which he presently found himself gave him an overpowering impression of persisting through time.  And yet, many people, when contemplating a future in which they expect to suffer psychological changes such as total amnesia, feel concern for their future well-being – not just the concern they would feel for any unrelated sufferer from dementia, but the special concern they normally feel for themselves in the future.  Is someone who expects to lose his memory, but who retains self-concern for his amnesic successor, making a mistake?  Not clearly so, as Bernard Williams observed.  In general, it is difficult to convict someone of being mistaken in allocating self-concern, except by showing that doing so depends on holding mistaken beliefs.  We have no other standard on which to convict.  But it has not been proven that self-concern for an amnesic or otherwise radically transformed successor must rest on a factual or logical error.  No one has specified a core set of essential attributes which are necessary and sufficient for personal survival, and which could therefore provide a rational justification for self-concern.  The plasticity we have seen in the psychological phenomenon of self-concern makes it unlikely that any such specification will succeed.

We can approach the relationship between change and personal survival from another direction.  There are some grounds for thinking that the question whether a person survives radical change depends less on what the changes are than on whether or not the person chooses them.  This line of thought springs from the observation that contemplated changes which individuals report as existentially threatening are usually not chosen by those individuals, but forced upon them.  An example might be a career choice: a son whose father makes him give up his ambition of being a doctor in order to take over the family store may feel that his future is being stolen from him, his life is no longer his own, and that he is about to be transformed into someone he is not, someone from whom he feels alienated, as from a stranger.  He may, as a result, lose interest – normal self-concern – about his future, and respond to questions about it with an indifferent, “Whatever.”

The relationships between choice, agency and personal identity are interesting enough to warrant fuller treatment in another post.  For now, I will appeal to examples to support the claim that choosing how we change is neither necessary nor sufficient for survival.  We undergo countless small changes which we do not choose, but which do not threaten our survival.  A child grows taller, a man’s hair thins, willy-nilly; no one thinks such changes are like death.  Therefore it is not necessary for survival that we choose how we change.  Neither is it sufficient, since to commit suicide is to choose to die.

Partial Survival

If our survival does not consist in persistence of a core set of attributes, and there is no broad criterion, like choice, for distinguishing the transformations we survive from ones that kill us, then perhaps survival is not all-or-nothing – it admits of degrees.

The idea that survival is a matter of degree is so strongly counter-intuitive that it is tempting to say that, although thoughts about death and survival led to this conclusion, what we are now discussing cannot be survival, but something else.  Survival, after all, is the continued existence of a person.  A person at a time will survive at a later time just in case the same person is alive at both times; and identity does not admit of degrees.

This highlights once again the tension between the concepts of personal identity and what matters in personal survival.

From Locke until the present day, thought-experiments of personal identity have moved people in the direction of identifying with their attributes rather their substance, when the two diverge.  But if what matters in my survival is persistence of my attributes, can I avoid the apparently untenable conclusion that I may survive to a greater or lesser extent?

Parfit, Martin, Perry and others – all ‘radicals’ in the personal identity debate – dealt with this problem by divorcing personal identity from what matters in survival.   Allowing that a person’s survival is just his or her continued existence, they drove a wedge between ‘what matters in survival’ and survival itself.  This way of putting it is puzzling; nevertheless it is coherent.

What is ‘what matters in survival’?  The phrase seems to mean preservation of enough of a person to fill a specific psychological function: specifically, to support robust self-concern.  I have argued that ‘enough of a person’ should be understood in terms of the person’s attributes, or informational content, not substance.

Attributes can be preserved by copying a person and making a replica.  Attributes can also propagate to other people.  If other people acquire my attributes, can I extend my self-concern to them?

In the case of a replica of myself, the answer is clearly yes.  I have no psychological obstacle to identifying fully with a replica of me produced by teleportation, or by triggering a life insurance policy.  I have argued that most people are like me in this respect, and when the technology becomes available, they will use it.  They will invest their full self-concern in their replicas, and they will not be wrong in doing so. (I have also argued that such replicas should be considered the same persons as the originals, but that argument is independent.)

But suppose my attributes – the important ones, that I most care about in my survival, the loss of which would seem to me to be about as bad as death – will not be concentrated in a single replica, but distributed over a number of other people, including, perhaps, friends and family.  Suppose that after my death, many of my important attributes will persist in these other people.

That would not be my survival.  But it would still preserve much of what matters in survival.

It does not support what might be termed ‘classical’ self-concern.  When some of my attributes—ideas, for example—spread to other people, I do not suddenly develop a personal concern for their future well-being.  I do not dread their pains and look forward to their pleasures with lively anticipation.  I do, however, notice that I become more concerned about them.  I am more motivated to act on their behalf.  I tend to care more about people whose lives I have touched (at least, touched in a positive way).  Perhaps that is just the commonly understood phenomenon that people care about things in which they have invested effort.  That phenomenon is so well known as to seem hardly worth mentioning – but perhaps is worth mentioning because it is so well known, so widely assumed, that it might easily be overlooked.

In fact, our self-concern competes with our concern for people and things beyond the narrow confines of ourselves.  Concern is a limited resource, limited by our energies; the more of it we invest narrowly, in ourselves, the less is available to invest broadly, in other people and the world at large.

Propagation of some of my attributes to other people does, I think, help support my concerned engagement with the future following my death.  I suggest that it supports, not self-concern, but a gestalt of attitudes and emotions which can replace self-concern.  By ‘replace,’ I mean something like ‘occupy the same psychological space’.

The realization that what matters in my survival is nothing more than the preservation of some of my attributes, has the effect of changing what I value.  Realizing that self-concern is not rationally required, I hold it more lightly.  I am more inclined to weigh selfish values against unselfish ones on a common scale.  Aware that all values are chosen, that none has a pre-emptory claim on me, I can choose between selfish values, and unselfish or shared values, on their own merits.

Now, at the age of sixty-two, in good health, and coming from long-lived stock, although I too recognize that death can arrive unannounced, I am planning for another thirty-odd years of life.  I don’t worry much about my personal life, although I do not neglect it.  I am more troubled by political currents, conflicts rising from religious and ideological extremism, and human-caused climate change.  I also take ideas seriously.  Some of the ideas that seem to me most important are, if not original to myself, at least not widely held.  I try to communicate ideas to others, through this blog for instance.  Some ideas are a tough sell.  Nevertheless I persist, knowing that if ideas are illuminating, and are propagated widely enough, some will fall where they will take root.

Derek Parfit wrote that, before arriving at his radical position on personal identity,

I also cared more about my inevitable death.  After my death, there will be no one living who will be me.

After thinking through and changing his views on what “will be me” means, he was able to “redescribe” the fact of his impending death.  There will be human life and experience both before and after his death.  The difference is that some of the experiences that will occur before his death will be connected to his present experiences more strongly than any of the experiences that will occur after his death.  In particular, after his death there will be no memories of his pre-death experiences from a first-person perspective; and there will not be the sort of “direct connection” that is normally responsible for “the carrying out of an earlier intention.”  However, some experiences that will occur after his death…

…may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways.  There will later be some memories about my life.  And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice.  My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations.  This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me.  Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad. (RP  p281)

What matters in survival is just the persistence of attributes.  Our attributes can not only persist in ourselves, but can be propagated to other people.  In this light, death does not seem like such a big deal.  True, if I died tomorrow it would interfere with many of my plans which I care about.  But my plans and projects will not entirely expire when I do.  Some will be carried on by others.  Others – particularly the more personal projects – will not.  Unquestionably, if a person with active pursuits suddenly dies, he incurs a loss.  But not a total loss.

Death, Revisited

On the view developed here, we should not fear death so much as being isolated and ineffective.  Appropriate targets for our concern may be found in many places outside our own bodies – in the people whose lives we touch, in the projects we undertake.  As “a still-lively 80-year-old” told Ian Brown, the secret to enthusiastically living in the world as one gets older is “active engagement with the future.”

Brown seemed not quite to get this, and went on to ask, “If you physically don’t have much future left, what motivates you to engage actively in it?”  We are now in a position to answer that question in a way that is consistent with scientific materialism.  The effects of our actions extend far beyond our biological organisms.  My own body is not the only inheritor of my attributes.  We are not rationally required to focus the emotional energy that drives self-concern narrowly on ourselves.  Understanding that, it is not too difficult to broaden the focus – to invest in other people and in projects whose scope is bigger than our personal lives.   Motivation to engage in the future, even the future after one’s death, is not hard to come by once one realizes one has no better motivation to pursue one’s personal interests.  It seems more worthwhile, and can be more fun.  Broadening the focus makes it easier to find others who are willing to share in one’s endeavours.

The best exemplar I can think of, of this attitude and process, is Terry Fox.  A diagnosis of malignant cancer in his right leg was, for Terry, a call to arms.  But it was not the loss of his leg so much – he thought he had beaten the disease – as what he saw and heard during eighteen months of treatment in the cancer clinic that motivated his wild plan to run across Canada to raise one million dollars for cancer research.  As described by Leslie Scrivener in the Toronto Star, “He heard doctors telling youngsters in the nearby beds that they had a 15 per cent chance of living. He heard screams of pain. He saw strong, young bodies wasted by disease.”  He wanted to help.

There were many obstacles, including the fact that running on an artificial leg was nearly unheard of in the late seventies; the leg was designed for walking, and modifications were needed.   During Terry’s eighteen-month training program, he endured falls, pain, lost toenails, broken protheses, and other setbacks which might have discouraged him, as he was then unknown and, as far as the world was concerned, uncommitted.  Yet he persisted.  He ran, in a looping, painful gait, westward from St. John’s, Newfoundland, two thirds of the way across Canada to Thunder Bay, where the cancer, which had spread to his lungs, forced him to stop.  By then he was well known; millions of people had heard about him, seen the dogged optimism in his stride and in his face, and were moved.  They were moved to participate.  Terry’s “Marathon of Hope” raised $23.4 million for cancer research.  Subsequent Terry Fox runs, across Canada and around the world, have brought the total close to $500 million.  His marathon is still being run.

“I don’t feel that this is unfair. That’s the thing about cancer. I’m not the only one, it happens all the time to people. I’m not special. This just intensifies what I did. It gives it more meaning. It’ll inspire more people.” – Terry Fox

Significantly, the inspiration did not begin with Terry.  He got the idea for his run from a magazine article about Dick Traum, who ran the NY Marathon, and may have been the first one-legged long-distance runner in the world in 1977.  Traum still participates in the Terry Fox run.


Brown, Ian and Vanier, Jean, “Am I fearful of death?  No, I cannot say I am,” The Globe and Mail, Feb. 21, 2009.

Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press (RP)

Scrivener, Leslie, “Marathon of Hope,” The Toronto Star.

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One Response to “Death, Revisited”

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