A popular view is that when I die my consciousness will cease to exist. The resulting void would be imaginary as all voids are, and the imagination is a function of consciousness. So the theory's two claims--that consciousness will cease and that a void will consume everything--are inconsistent with each other. Moreover, the idea that my consciousness's end would blot everything out tacitly assumes the continued existence of my consciousness, for it is only from my own point of view that everything would cease to exist, and my own point of view is precisely what this theory wants to say will come to an end. Consequently, the position is either solipsistic--i.e. my point of view is the only one that exists--semi-solipsistic--i.e. there are other viewpoints but they are in some way dependent on mine--or just plain inconsistent with itself. In any case, it is wrong.
It is difficult to know what line of investigation is available for those wishing to know what will happen to them upon bodily destruction. Ordinarily, to learn what will happen in the future, you would turn to other people's testimony or undergo the experience yourself to find out firsthand what it's like. But when someone's body has been destroyed, they no longer seem to be in a position to detail their experiences. And I'm not about to go and get myself killed if I can help it.
The question, of course, has an assumption behind it, which is that the body can die. We, of course, know from personal experience that parts of our body can undergo destruction. But that doesn't mean the whole thing can be destroyed. It could be that there must always be at least one little atom of physical self left over.
There is some kind of relationship, of key importance to the question of death, between consciousness and the body. Generally, it is believed that certain states of the body correspond to certain states of the consciousness. This idea is supported by the fact that doing a particular thing to my body, such as burning my hand, brings about a somewhat predictable mental experience. It will probably cause me to suffer. But there is no reason I must suffer if I burn my hand. Perhaps I'm deranged and take some sort of pleasure from it. Or perhaps the nerves leading to the burnt hand are blocked or severed, and I feel nothing; perhaps I don't even notice I've been burnt. There are a million such cases, and in every one of them, one can see that looking at what is happening in a particular region of the body doesn't tell us anything definite about a person's mental state. Well, then, perhaps we have to look at the whole system at once to determine what the mental state will be. That's the only alternative to looking at things on the local level, which we have already seen fails to do the trick. A hand and a burn don't by themselves necessarily equal suffering, but a hand and a burn and a functioning nervous system and a particular signature in the brain equal suffering. No part of the system corresponds to pain, but the whole does; just as no pixel in the letter "T" corresponds to the sound made by that letter, but the whole does. But the letter "T" does not exist in a vacuum, and its surroundings change its significance. If I put an "H" after it, it stands for an entirely different sound. In the same fashion, depending on what is going on elsewhere in a person's body and brain, they may not be suffering in a specific, predictable fashion from the burned hand even though all of the right nerves are firing. The only way we could be sure they were suffering in X fashion would be if we could take account of every single mind-to-matter relationship involved in the person's consciousness. Only that would be able to tell us with any degree of accuracy what the person is actually feeling. That is, unless we suppose that it isn't like the letter "T", after all, but instead that, like the physical states that are said to correspond to them, the mental states are built up out of parts that can be interpreted in isolation. So, for example, if a person has this particular brain activity, there must be a certain definite kind of suffering mixed up in their broader mental state. In that case we have to explain why it is that some collections of matter must correspond to certain definite mental states--i.e. the burnt hand connected to the brain firing in a certain fashion always corresponding to suffering--while certain other isolated collections of matter sometimes do and sometimes don't, depending on what they're linked up with. In other words, we have to explain how it is that on one level the mental state is determined by looking at an object in isolation while on the other level the mental state can't be determined at all by looking at the object. We can't have it both ways unless there is some special mechanism that makes local considerations of total importance in one case and of purely relative importance, if any, in the other. I, of course, don't think there is any such mechanism. And from that, it follows that I can't say anything definite about what a dead person's mental state would be.
If we're going to learn anything about death, we're going to have to investigate the relationship between consciousness and its body. This relationship is not, as we have already seen, such that a specific mental state corresponds to a specific physical state. This means that doing something to the body, such as destroying it, can give us no clue as to what is happening on a mental level. It can, however, perhaps tell us some things about what is happening on a broader objective level.
Death is basically a more or less permanent cease of bodily function. It isn't a disappearance of the body. If I were to remove my hands from sight and never look at them again, they wouldn't have died because of it. This doesn't, of course, mean that a disappearance of the body does not accompany death. But the two are different things.
What does it mean when we say that death is a loss of bodily function? It means that a corpse--a totally dead body--no longer does anything; it has totally lost its power to act. A corpse can, of course, impact its environment. But when it does so, this impact is channeled through it by some external force. When it decays, it is because bacteria are acting on it. When it dries out, is because heat is acting upon it. So, when we say that death is a loss of bodily function, we mean that the thing that dies is no longer functioning as a prime mover. It is now fully embedded inside a causal chain outside of itself (it must be embedded in some causal chain through the simple act of existing, which necessitates that it has some influence on other things). This suggests that a corpse is really only a corpse when considered on the local level. A corpse is always, in fact, part of some larger living body. That is, if we define life as independently acting energy.
Where does consciousness enter this picture? What we really want to know--the key question--is what a person whose body dies will become conscious of. Could it be that they continue on as the prime mover that is utilizing their corpse? Answering that question will necessitate an investigation into the relationship, if any, between being a prime mover and being conscious.
In the previous post, I said that a corpse must be part of some causal chain outside of itself. This is only the case for a perfectly corpselike corpse, however. Such a corpse is perhaps unrealistic; it is likely that a dead body will always function to some degree as an independent mover. And if a perfect corpse is unrealistic or exceptional, it has limited power to tell us about actual death.
What can we learn about death, then, from the fact that it involves some degree of loss of bodily function? To the extent that the body is functioning correctly, it is a special kind of object, one that places me among other objects, puts them at my command, and renders me vulnerable to them. When a part of my body ceases to work, I actually become cut off from the world. If it's my hands that have stopped functioning, for example, I can no longer write or wield a spoon; a whole reality has become inaccessible to me. Now, an object exists for me only if I'm able to do something with it. If I can do nothing with an object--if I can't even examine it from afar--it simply doesn't exist. So there really must be, for the dead person, a partial or total loss of objective reality. What, in light of that, can be said about the the subjective reality of the dead person? When an object disappears, an impression of the object remains in the mind. This impression is basically something like a negative image of the object. When an apple disappears, we have a sense of the apple-as-absent. At first, this negative apple is usually attended by some mental imagery representing the apple. But in many cases the representation and all mental content in general that specify the apple disappears, and we're left with a pure apprehension of absence, as when we have the sense that we saw something but can't remember what it was. This absence is the residue that an object must always leave behind. The shape of an object, its color, its weight--these are all subject to disappearance. But an object's absence is eternal. This phenomenon of absence will, of course, be of central importance to the question of death, whether death means a partial or a total loss of the body.
In the previous post, we saw that an object, such as a body, leaves behind a void or, in other words, a tangible non-presence, when it disappears. The object's absence is, in fact, always involved in our experience of it, no matter what the object may be. When I encounter an object, it is always at some distance from me. That means there is always a position it is absent from and a resulting sense of it not being somewhere. Moreover, when I encounter an object, none of the impressions I have of it last but for the merest instant. The aspects of an object are always already slipping away and leaving behind a sense of absence. That an object endures at all is owing to the activity of the mind. The mind integrates the fleeting impressions with each other and in this way constitutes the object. One could not have an object without a mind to construct it.
Can one have a mind without an object? To answer that question, we will first have to consider what distinguishes the subjective from the objective. The difference is not a sensory difference. A mental impression can be wet or red just as easily as a physical object. It isn't that objective impressions are more intense than mental ones, either. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't. One thing that does distinguish the two is that the mental is eternal. There is no blotting out a consciousness. Now, the only thing that is eternal in our experience of anything is its absence. All of the sensory impressions we have of a thing are fleeting; but a thing's absence is permanent. So, by saying that the mind is eternal, we're saying that the mind must, in fact, be something that is absent. Do we ever experience a kind of absence that isn't the absence of an object? There are objects and there are absences. The only kind of absence other than the absence of an object would be the absence of absence itself. But that would mean a lack of consciousness, which we have already determined is impossible. So it would seem that consciousness must have an object, which means that consciousness must have a body, since all objects are either the body or accessed through the body.
What does this tell us about death? It tells us that death is not, as some might think, the total loss of a body. It doesn't tell us much more than that. To learn more about death, we'll need to examine the nature of bodily continuity across time.
We have established that a consciousness always possesses a body. What determines which body it is that my consciousness possesses? It clearly isn't the case that my consciousness is glued to a clump of matter and carried along with it wherever it may go, otherwise there would be no possibility of amputation nor would growth be possible.
One way in which consciousness comes to acquire bodily substance is by assuming control of external objects by means of the body it already possesses. When I take up a spoon, for example, the spoon becomes an extension of my body--in other words, a possession of mine that opens the world up to me in a particular fashion.
Is there any way to acquire bodily substance besides taking up objects with the body that one already owns?
A body is something that my consciousness always already had, right from the beginning; it wasn't acquired through my earlier body's contact with it. Or was it? When an object disappears--and an object is always already disappearing--it becomes situated in the past. Right from the start, there must have been a past for my body, then. That means my body came into existence with a history. When a thing has a history, it means that it has endured for a time.
How is it that the fleeting impressions of an object can give rise to a sense that the object endures? Consciousness is responsible for this. But what happens, exactly? An object presents me with fleeting impressions, and these fleeting impressions have something in common with each other. Basically, what they have in common is their disappearing. But they can have other things in common, too. When I encounter an apple, its redness, its sweetness, its size, its shape--these things all have not just disappearing in common but also, more specifically, the fact that they are related to each other as qualities of an apple. The factor that relates these qualities to each other as facets of an apple is what endures across the fleeting impressions and binds them together. The facets of an object need not be directly connected to each other. I can get the sense of an object when it is broken to pieces and dispersed. In fact, the facets of an object are never truly connected to each other except through the mind that integrates them. Without that act of integration there would be nothing to say that this impression and that impression present one whole.
The body is a particular collection of facets; it is the facets of consciousness itself. How do these facets come to be bound together and identified with consciousness? That will be our next line of investigation.
When we get the sense of an object, it is because we have encountered a series of impressions which have in common and are linked together by their being facets of the same object. What allows us to recognize that these facets belong to the same object? The fact that they have things in common with each other--some elements are static across the fleeting impressions.
Our consciousness is given to us in the same way as an object: as an underlying point of commonality behind fleeting impressions. Not all fleeting impressions directly give us our consciousness. Insofar as I'm absorbed in the process of examining an apple, I get a sense of the apple but not, in so being occupied, a sense of my consciousness of the apple. My sense of my consciousness of the apple is not given to me directly by the apple but rather by my body which stands in a certain relationship with the apple. External objects absorb consciousness while the body not only does that but, at the same time, involves consciousness in self-reflection.
What factor is it that makes some objects absorb the attention while other objects reflect the attention back on itself? If consciousness recognizes itself in the body, it can only be because the body is something that, like consciousness itself, is constant and static. We, of course, know that the body is an object that is there with us all the time, no matter where we go. An apple, on the other hand, is something we encounter but briefly. So it is perhaps a matter of constancy. But that can't be all it is, because not all constant things become integrated with the body. I see my bedroom walls more often than I see my own eyes, but it is only the latter that I experience as a part of my body. This is true if we consider constancy of presence. But consciousness is not presence; it is absence. And that's just what my body tends toward constantly being. My hands are perpetually vanishing from sight, my feet are usually concealed by socks, and I see my face only when I look in the mirror. All of these bodily structures exist in an almost constantly concealed fashion. They appear long enough to remind me that they exist and then they go out of sight. When they chance to appear, I recognize them as that which was absent--that, in other words, which was consciousness. My body's concealment is different from that of an external object's concealment in one sense. My body has to be concealed; as a facet of my consciousness, it can't appear before me or it would cease to be consciousness in the first place, since consciousness is absence. An apple, on the other hand, can be totally concealed or totally visible without ceasing to be what it is. So it is a matter of constancy, yes, but more deeply necessity. My body is a thing that must be concealed.
How can I ever see a part of my body, then? In reality, I never do see my body; as soon as I look at my hand, it becomes alienated from me. It starts to look foreign, like an external object. It is no longer what it was. And when it disappears from view, I feel like I've reclaimed it.
The relationship between my hand and my consciousness is not one of identity, then, but rather one of transformation. My consciousness becomes my hand when I hold it out in front of me; my hand becomes my consciousness when I put it out of sight.