Wednesday, May 27, 2009

WHY WE FEAR DEATH

AN ESSAY

Everyone fears death. The word alone strikes fear in us. It is the worst thing that can befall us. When we die, we are no more. No one can talk to us; no one can hear us tell our stories. We see nothing more. We hear nothing. We taste nothing. We touch nothing. We smell nothing. When we die, we can no longer experience anything. Pain no longer terrifies us. But nor does pleasure beguile us. Death cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses. And we humans are overwhelmingly sensory creatures. When we die, our bodies cease to be—along with all our senses—leaving our flesh to slowly decompose and turn to dust. No one wants to die. No one wants to leave the world of earthly experience.

Or do they? If we assume that death merely cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses, then death is not a bad option to someone whose earthly experience is unbearable. Because death and experience intertwine, our attitude toward death should depend on whether our experience in life is largely good or largely bad. Yet very few people consider death with such measured detachment. Death is an intellectual roadblock. It befuddles us because we really do not know much about it, at least metaphysically. No one can tell us “what it is like.” We can only speculate. We cannot plan our response to death because no one can provide us with accurate information about it. Death casts us into uncertainty. Human beings always fear things they cannot know.

Beyond uncertainty, we always think that death deprives us of something. Death makes it impossible for us to see our loved ones again. Death takes away our ability to experience joy and contentment. Even if our lives have little joy, we always hold out hope that one day our fortunes will change. Death, however, robs that hope. It completely precludes us from future joy. No matter how bad our lives may be, if we die, we deny ourselves the possibility of a “dramatic turnaround.” Once we die, it is all over. Again, death terrifies and stultifies us because it drives us into uncertainty about our own decisions. Even if our lives truly will bring us no further joy, we cannot certainly know that at the moment we die.

We also associate death with pain. We live our lives to avoid pain. By avoiding pain, we necessarily try to avoid death. When it comes to pain, our fear increases with the quantum of pain we believe we will face. In other words, we fear serious pain more than minor pain. Similarly, we fear terrible anguish much more than serious pain. We know only what we see, and when we see others die, we typically see them experiencing pain before death. We cannot talk to them after they leave us. We cannot know whether that pain continues after death. Again, uncertainty plays a role in our fears: We associate death with pain, and we cannot certainly know whether death ends that pain. Thus, while it appears that death brings peace to the writhing body, we fear the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.” Hamlet, Act III, sc. i.

But are our fears about death entirely reasonable? Can we use our reason to stay our fears about death? I think we can, at least to some degree. Let us begin with Hamlet. Hamlet’s speech about death provides an excellent overview of the issues a reasonable man confronts when contemplating death. It also reveals that uncertainty plays a central role in any assessment about death.

Hamlet analogizes life—with all its “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” “heart-ache,” “whips and scorns of time,” “[oppressors’] wrongs,” “pangs of despised love,” and “the law’s delay,”—to “waking.” “Waking life,” in other words, exposes our senses to bad experiences, from sheer “bad luck” to every imaginable health problem, emotional hardship and degrading personal insult. Against “waking,” however, Hamlet contrasts the “sleep of death:” “To die,--to sleep;--/ To sleep! perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause.” Hamlet agrees that “sleep” metaphorically puts an end to all the evils that can befall us while we are “awake.” But uncertainty about “the dreams” that lurk in that “undiscover’d country” checks his enthusiasm for death. His uncertainty about death forces him to choose life, remarking that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” prompting us to “bear those ills we have rather than fly to others that we know not of.” See generally, Hamlet, Act III, sc. i, lines 56-90.

Hamlet decided against death based on an assumption. He used his reason to understand why he feared death. He allowed his fear to conquer him and he preferred to suffer the “ills we have” in life rather than accept “others we know not of” in death. I argue that his assumption was not entirely correct. While Hamlet understood that human beings are sensory creatures who experience pain, joy, humiliation and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” while they are awake, he did not grasp that their senses also function while they are asleep. We know from common experience that we are alive while we are asleep. We do not experience as much while we are asleep, but no one will dispute that our senses still function. We can still smell things. We still awake when a bug lands on our foreheads because our nerves transmit the stimulus to our brains. We still feel heat and cold. And we still see things in our sleeping minds, even if our eyes do not register them. Our dreams reflect our senses, even if they are not working at “full speed.” Put simply, we must be alive in order to dream.

But when we die, our senses completely cease to function. They do not function at “half speed,” or even residually. We cannot dream when we are dead. To dream, the body requires living brain tissue, living nerves and a living circulatory system. If we are dead, we do not have these things. In that sense, Hamlet is wrong to fear “dreams in the sleep of death.” Death may look like sleep to the outside observer, but the outside observer possesses his senses. The dead man does not. We cannot speak for the dead man, because we do not know what it is like not to have senses, nor has a dead man ever reported to us what it is like. Hamlet could well argue that we do not certainly know what awaits us when we die, so perhaps we truly can dream without the literal sensory capacity to do so. But this is pure speculation. Applying reason alone, we can say with some certainty that dead people sense nothing, and sensory capability is necessary to dream. Now, this does not completely resolve the question about “what awaits us when we die.” Still, it does provide us a reasonable foundation upon which to temper our fears about death. Hamlet’s reasoning only works if we assume that there is some otherworldly “sleep of death” that completely eludes human sense and inference. That requires some faith and speculation. Reason rejects such entreaties. A reasonable man may still fear death, but he certainly can rule out “dreaming” while he is dead.

So what is death like? And if we cannot dream “bad things” when we are dead, why do we fear it? I think that death is probably very much like dreamless sleep. When we sleep or fall unconscious, our sensory capacity drops to a minimum. Time loses all meaning because our senses convey nothing to us, nor does our brain transmit memories, impressions, emotions or impulses. We are essentially “inert matter” awaiting a sensory recharge. Dreams reflect at least some activity in the brain while we are unconscious. But if we do not dream while we are unconscious, we are truly “out of it.” Nothing frightens us. Nothing moves us. Nothing troubles us; nor does anything please us. All these emotions require functioning senses and living tissue. Sleep temporarily stays the senses and tranquilizes the tissue. Death does this permanently. Dreams may interrupt sleep because the senses and tissue reactivate in a reduced way. But death blocks all sensory function. In that light, we can safely infer that, as a matter of common experience, death and sleep reflect states of unconsciousness. We know what it is like to be unconscious. From a reasonable perspective, then, death only differs from sleep in the sense that we will never come to.

This is what we can reasonably fear: We will not wake up. In fact, this is less fear than bitter disappointment. If we know that we will never wake up from death, we will never get to experience all the good things life can offer us. Our fear stems from the certain knowledge that we will no longer experience anything with our senses. After all, death cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses. The earthly world can delight our senses as long as we are alive. Death eliminates that possibility. That disappoints us, because we like to delight our senses with earthly stimuli. It gives us joy. When we are asleep, we cannot see our loved ones or go on vacations. Neither can we see our loved ones or go on vacations when we are dead. Nonetheless, who really minds sleeping? People all enjoy peaceful sleep. Perhaps they enjoy it more knowing that their senses will reactivate in the morning. But when they are asleep they are not complaining about anything, especially if they are not dreaming. In a word, sleep—like death—cuts off our ability to experience things, both good and bad. This is not entirely a bad thing.

In past satires, I stressed that we should not fear death because eliminating our ability to experience earthly life with our senses rules out a lot of horrible things. First and foremost, death defeats pain. As mentioned, human beings fear death because they associate it with pain. But pain—like Hamlet’s “whips and scorns” and “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”—depends upon functioning senses, nerves and living bodily tissue. When the senses no longer function, pain disappears. Death cuts off the ability to experience everything, including the pain that flows from tortured nerves. Death defeats pain because pain depends on the senses, and death shuts down the senses. We can rightly fear pain if we know we will live to experience it. But we should not think that death is painful, because death precludes our ability to experience anything, including pain. In my view, anything that rules out our human capacity to experience bodily suffering is a good thing. While we might permanently forgo the opportunity to positively stimulate our senses when we die, we also permanently lose our ability to suffer negative sensory stimulation. If our lives are full of pain, worry, anxiety, agony, humiliation and hopelessness, death will deny our bodies the sensory capacity to continue tormenting us. In that sense, death is actually an outcome to be wished, not an end to be feared. Sensory experience is a two-edged sword. It can both delight and torture us. Death denies our ability to experience both. If sensory experience in life tortures us more than it delights us, then why should we fear death?

Reason tells us that death is a neutral event. Applying our senses, we can reasonably infer that death looks like sleep. We can also infer that we must be alive to dream. Thus, we can rule out any suggestion that we dream when we are dead. Continuing this reasoning, we also know that we must be alive—with functioning senses—to experience both positive and negative sensory stimulations, from inexpressible ecstasy all the way down to unimaginable agony. Similarly, we can infer that we can experience neither positive nor negative sensory stimulations when we are dead. We can conclude that death cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses. If reason is our guide, we are left with only two real reasons to fear death: (1) We permanently forgo the chance to experience positive feelings later in our lives, even if current circumstances are bad; and (2) Something happens after we die that eludes all reasonable explanation.

Ay, there’s the rub. Here we encounter the real problem; here we see the real uncertainty. Unless we truly believe that reason answers all our questions, we can never say with certainty whether anything exists or happens beyond reason. Some people believe we must choose between faith and reason. Personally, I believe in reason to the extent that human sense can answer a particular question. My senses tell me that corpses do not possess any sensory capacity. Medical science confirms that a dead brain has no function. My senses also tell me that the senses do not function without a functioning brain, and functioning senses are necessary to experience the earthly world. But my senses cannot tell me whether something happens to us after death, just as my senses cannot tell me whether God exists, or whether my life was fated to move down a particular path. There are unexplainable things in the world. Sense cannot grasp them. We fear them precisely because we cannot know them. Still, I am prepared to trust reason on all questions in which it provides a valid way to answer them. From an abstract perspective, that helps me cope with death.

But we can reasonably fear death if we posit that reason does not give us the whole picture about life. How can we know whether there is a state of consciousness beyond the senses? No living person has ever told us about it. When we die, perhaps we enter some hitherto unknown dimension in which our understanding about experience and sense no longer apply. I don’t know. I just don’t know. Nonetheless, now I am speculating. On this point, I take comfort. When it comes to pure reason, I can prepare myself for death. It is mere sensory shutdown. When it comes to faith, however, I am as lost as everyone else. If there is existence beyond sense and experience, I cannot comment about it. All I can say is that I do not know about it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here is a possibility to cope with fear from death.
These people gained some sort of "life after death"
http://www.whatwasdone.com/Age.php?&Age=-1

angelshair said...

Wow, this is the most beautiful and detailed thing I have ever read about death!!!
The reason why I fear death is that I will not be with my beloved one, especially my children and accompany them in life.
Is there something after? I believe so, but as you said, it is not dream.