I’ve tried to write on this topic before, and it usually fails. If there is a philosophical vocabulary designed to express this, I am certainly unversed in it, and if I were to become so, I doubt that my thoughts on the matter would be of much interest to the only people who could understand it. So I’ll just try saying it in ordinary words.
What is it like to be dead? Nothing, is my answer.
Since finally coming out as an atheist, I haven’t made any secret of the fact. Indeed, there are those who might suggest that I have been wearyingly tedious on the subject at some length, and I would have to blushingly accept the rebuke.
But when you are an atheist, you have to face questions like ‘So how do you get up in the morning, if you know it’s all for nothing?’ ‘If you know you won’t have to face divine justice, why don’t you just kill and maim and rape and steal, so long as you won’t get caught?’
Certainly the biggest sweetie that atheists have to give up, when they realise that intellectual honesty demands that they can no longer believe in the fairies of whatever religion they were born or inducted into, is the belief that ‘everything will be all right’ in some cosmic sense, that, in the words of Julian of Norwich ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Some of us are optimistic about the wit of humans, and believe, based on evidence – perhaps ‘hope’ is a better word than ‘believe’ – that science and wisdom will improve the lot of people to the extent that the species and its habitat will flourish, an idea upon which the religions of the world are usually witheringly sceptical, believing that without submission to the will of God, or His divine grace, humans are doomed to fall to where they were when cast out of Eden. But atheists, even if they lack that optimism, and agree with the religionists’ gloom at least as far as the doom part, cannot hope that death will free them from the miseries of the world, for there is nothing to free them into.
Most people who fear death do so because of what I call the Cold Grave Theory. They believe that death is like the end of the movie – the credits may roll, but after that, it’s a blank grey screen for the rest of eternity, with nothing to do but wait for the coffin to decay, and the worms to start munching. Of course they don’t think this consciously. Of course they know what oblivion means, and that there will be no consciousness or feeling in their lifeless corpses, but there is, I suspect, some sense in which they imagine they will be somehow both present and absent for the rest of time, a hiss of meaningless white noise. They do not fully consider what the consequence of oblivion is.
I suggest this as a thought: we are not only oblivious when we are dead; even when alive we are oblivious of almost everything that takes place in the world. We may later see the consequences of what has happened elsewhere, through film or recording or the description of eyewitnesses, but of what happens in the next room, or the next house or street, of the countless events and experiences that humans are having across the world, and indeed sentient beings across the universe, we remain always oblivious.
Another thought: we may consider dates in the future that we know who are too remote for us to survive to with some melancholy: ‘I won’t be here by then,’ we might say, self-pityingly, conscious that, as Christopher Hitchens once said, the party will be going on without us. What we never seem to do, however, is to apply a similar melancholy to thoughts of the time before we were born, of the time before our parents met, perhaps, when we were one tea-dance away from never coming into existence in the first place.
Why the asymmetry? Why does our non-existence bother us off one end of our lives, but not the other? Is it because we think that the near infinite past before our births must be pregnant with the expectation that we will one day come into existence, while in the vast stretches of time after our death we will be spent and forgotten? Isn’t the problem with both periods that we will not be experiencing reality during them, just as we cannot experience life in the next room or the next house? We don’t despair at the thought that Australia is going on existing without us knowing anything about it, that we aren’t on Bondi Beach right now, watching the waves and the surfers. Well, we might, but it isn’t for reasons of philosophical angst, just grumpy old-fashioned envy.
So to return to my original question, and my answer: What is it like being dead? Nothing. Cast this differently, and it has a different spin, however (and indeed sounds like we’ve lost our powers of grammar): no dead thing is being like anything. Or another: You can’t be dead.
Now here, if I’m not careful, I’m going to lose some of my readers. Of course you can be dead, they’ll say. ‘My father died last March, and he’s dead isn’t he?’, they’ll say. Ah, but I didn’t say that no-one else can be dead. I said that you can’t be. And what I mean by that is, I can’t be, but I didn’t want to sound so solipsistic.
Stay with me a minute. What’s it like being a paper cup? I’m hoping, unless you’re some kind of bizarre pantheist, that you’re going to agree that it’s not like anything. Without witchcraft, a paper cup has no means of cognition, no nervous system, no stimulus-response cycle. It can’t be like anything to be a paper cup. For the same reason, it can’t be like anything to be a corpse. Yes yes, you’ll say, we said we knew that several paragraphs ago, and we thought you got it.
But the only things it can be like being, then, are things which do have those qualities. When the subjective experience comes to an end in one shell, it must recommence in another one, and the only shells available are those where ‘being like something’ at least has the potential to occur in the future.
Here I have to be even more careful. I’m conscious of two apparently contradictory facts: that subjectively not existing is impossible on the one hand, and that there can be no continuity between one consciousness and the next on the other. I’m not proposing traditional re-incarnation here, no ‘me’ that ceases existing in one life and immediately re commences in another. I’m not even suggesting that there needs to be continuity in time. The ‘experience unit’ in which subjectivity is occurring (currently you in your case, me in mine) need not be adjacent in time, need not succeed your death. Being alive is the only thing restraining you from subjective experience in another period, or indeed, elsewhere in the galaxy, or in another part of the animal kingdom. Put it more plainly, but rather less subtly, your being you is the only thing stopping you from being me. Or anyone else.
Most of all, I am not suggesting that the new vessel is in any sense me: doubtless my memories and experiences cannot survive my death. The only thing reassuring is that the rest is not silence. It is me as someone or something else: you, maybe.
I detect I’ve lost you. Well, I did say.