Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Death

“When we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
-Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Death is one of the most mysterious things on the universe. It is asked by many people and many thinkers but a certain answer is never known. There are many questions left unanswered in curious minds of human. What is death like? Is there life after death? What will happen if you die? Do you suffer death or do you suffer just pain? Now, I will try to explore the most important questions about death in this paper. Is there life after death? My response will be “No”. I believe there is no life after death.

I even find the question itself is somewhat ridiculous. If we take the meaning of “death” in common sense, it means “the end of life.” Therefore, the question become “Is there life after the end of life?” (Rosenberg, 30) The answer will be obviously no. It is like saying “What happens in the movie after it ends?” which is nonsense. Even if we change the question to something like “Do I have life after death?” or “Will I live after death?” it is still a nonsense question. Therefore, we need to clarify the notions “I” and “death”. What do they exactly mean? What exactly is a person? How do we define death?

There will be two different views on these aspects. A materialist will say that a person is just a material or physical body. Materialism is a view that the world is composed of only material things that we can observe (Kagan). I would add that a person is not just a body; it is a body that can carry out certain functions. For example, a person can breathe, reproduce, play tennis, and play chess. Death, therefore, for a materialist, is when the body can no longer carry out those functions. If a person is a body that can do X-functions, we can say he is dead when the body can no longer perform X-functions.

In contrast, a dualist will say that a person consists of body and mind. Dualism is the theory that the mental and the physical—or mind and body or mind and brain—are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing. (“Dualism”, Stanford). It states that there exists a non-material thing besides body, which is called soul or mind. In dualism, mind is the more important component rather than the body. Mind is the one controlling the body. Or we can say at least there is a connection between mind and body. For example, soul can direct and control the body and emotions such as pleasure, pain, and love are attributes of soul. As long as there is a connection, a person is alive. When the person is dead, the connection is severed. That would be death of a person for a dualist.

In comparing these two views, we can clearly see that there will be no life after death in materialism but there is a possible chance of life after death in dualism. In materialism, there is only material body without soul. When a person dies, he ceases to exist. No further business happens. For dualism, there is soul and it is immortal, it can move to next body or next life. In other words, there will be life after death. So, another question arises. Do we have immortal soul? 

My answer will be “no” again. I believe materialism is a more adequate explanation of reality than dualism. I don’t believe we have immortal soul. It is because we don’t have a strong reason to believe that soul exists. To believe that something exists, it must provide a best possible explanation with a theory. Otherwise, we don’t need to assume that such thing exists. We believe atoms exist not because we can see them, but because Atomic theory can explain how things are happening in the physical world. We believe in solar system because we can make calculations by assuming it. In this way I would argue that we have no reason to assume that soul exists.

There is no reason to assume that soul exists because we can explain almost everything in mechanistic way. Even though materialism can’t explain everything, dualism couldn’t do any better. There is crude evidence and scientific data of how the world operates mechanically. For example, Biochemistry explains how chemical reactions occur in organisms’ bodies in very small scale. There are also microscopic evidences of how the tissues and cells operate. But there is no evidence on soul or any other immaterial substance in nature.

Dualists can use some mental or spiritual experiences in the arguments against materialism. For example, a dualist can say we need to accept the existence of soul because feelings and emotions are said to be its attributes. But modern science has found out that feelings and emotions are just electrical reactions of amygdala in the brain (Sousa, 19). Maybe dualists can say that if we are just material bodies, we would be acting randomly like any other material objects. The fact that we act purposefully is a proof that there is a soul that is commanding the body. But materialists can say that frontal lobe in the brain is the central command centre (Sousa, 16) that is controlling the movement of the body, just like the CPU controlling the movement of the robot.

Again, dualists can argue that human are not just mere machines. People have beliefs and desires. Based on their beliefs, they make plans to fulfill their desires. That is the difference between humans and machines. That is the difference between those who have soul and who do not. Then, materialists can reply this by saying that a robot can have beliefs, desires and plans too. Imagine a chess playing robot. It has a certain set of beliefs that if it makes a move to the enemy’s square, it will lose. It has a desire to win and make plans for the victory. Therefore, there is no difference between humans and robots. We don’t have soul.

Another argument from dualists is that materialism assumes physical things that are independent to mind. But how can materialists prove that objective things that are independent to subjective mind exist? How come different people have different subjective perceptions on one thing? Therefore, there must be subjective mind perceiving the existence of the objective things. Regarding this problem, Bertrand Russell explained that although different people see quite differently of a same object, they also see more or less similar things. Therefore, it is easier to suppose that there are objective things independent of our minds (Russell, 10). For example, if ten boys are looking at the same girl, they would have different perspectives on the girl because their positions are different. But their perspectives are also more or less similar. They would know that they are looking at the same girl instinctively. Therefore, we can assume that there is a girl, regardless of the perceiver.

Many other topics can be thrown in here, such as creativity, talent, etc. But all of them, I believe, are already explained by natural science and therefore we do not need to appeal to soul for explanation. From here we can draw a more or less conclusion that soul does not exist. Therefore there is no place for life after death.

Many religious theories are based on the assumption that there is life after death. By assuming there is life after death, we can make balance to the life. For example, an evil person who is not punished for his whole life is justified by assuming that he will suffer in the next life. That way, religion creates hope for justice in next life. Moral rules set by religion are also based on that assumption. We ought not to do evil because it is not good for our afterlife. 

When we rule out the possibility of life after death, moral rules of religion break down. So, the question of morality is only answered by Humanism. A person who does not believe in life after death creates his moral code based on the value of human. Since we have only one life to live, the value of human life is increased. (Sellars). Materialists have more respect on human life than those who believe in afterlife. It would be a greater evil to kill a person when there is no afterlife to continue. Therefore, we can be moral and just even thought there is no life after death.

Death is the greatest mystery to us. We do not have empirical knowledge about how it is like to be dying or what waits after death. As I shown earlier, we need more reasons to accept that there is life after death. Maybe Epicurus was right in saying that “death has nothing to do with us. As long as we exist, death is not there. And when it does come, we no longer exist.” (Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”) It is pointless to think and worry about things that do not concern us. 

Works cited and References

1. Epicurus. “Letter to Menoeceus”. Trans. Robert Drew Hicks. The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web. 24 April, 2012.
2. Rosenberg, Jay. "Life After Death: In Search of the Question." Thinking Clearly About Death. 2nd ed. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1998. pp. 30-34
3. “Dualism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 19 Aug, 2003. Stanford University. Web. 23 April, 2012.
4. Sousa, David. A. How the Brain Learns. 4th ed. California: Corwin. 2011. Print.
5. Russell, Bertrand. “The Existence of Matter” The Problems of Philosophy. PDF file. pp. 8-12.
6. Sellars, John. “Materialism and Ethics: Learning from Epicurus” The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXI No. 2. Web. 24 April, 2012. 
7. Kagan, Shelly. “The Nature of Persons: Dualism Vs. Physicalism” Open Yale Course. Yale University. Spring 2007. Lecture.
8. Kagan, Shelly. “Arguments for the existence of the soul, Part I” Open Yale Course. Yale University. Spring 2007. Lecture.

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