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What I want to look at first is the suggestion that somehow, at some level, nobody really believes they're going to die at all. Now, having distinguished between what we've called the death of the body and the death of the person, the question whether or not you're going to die needs to be distinguished. The question whether or not you believe you're going to die needs to be distinguished. If somebody says, "You know, nobody really believes they're going to die," they could mean one of two things. They could mean nobody really believes they're going to cease to exist as a person, first possibility...
Is there any good reason to believe that we don't believe that we're going to cease to exist as a person? Well, the most common argument for this claim I think takes the following form. People sometimes say, since it's impossible to picture being dead, it's impossible to picture being dead--, That is to say, it's impossible to picture your own being dead. Each one of us has to think about this from the first person perspective or something like that. Think about your dying, your being dead--Since that's impossible to picture, that's impossible to imagine, nobody believes in the possibility that they're going to die, that they're going to cease to exist.
The idea seems to be that you can't believe in possibilities that you can't picture or imagine. Now, that hypothesis, that thesis, that assumption, could be challenged. I think probably we shouldn't believe the theory of belief which says that in order to believe in something, you've got to be able to picture it or believe it. But let's grant that assumption for the sake of argument. Let's suppose that in order to believe in something, you've got to be able to picture it. What then? How do we get from there to the conclusion that I can't believe that I'm going to die, I'm going to cease to exist as a person? Well, the thought, of course, is I can't picture or imagine my death. I can't picture or imagine my being dead.
It's important here to draw some distinctions. I can certainly picture being ill. There I am on my deathbed dying of cancer, growing weaker and weaker. I can perhaps even picture the moment of my death. I've said goodbye to my family and friends. I've the--Everything's growing greyer and dimmer. It's growing harder and harder to concentrate. And then, well, and then there is no "and more." The claim, however, is not that I can't picture being ill or dying. The claim's got to be, I can't picture being dead. Well, try it. Try to picture being dead. What's it like to be dead?
Sometimes people claim it's a mystery. We don't know what it's like to be dead, because every time we try to imagine it, we fail. We don't do a very good job. I'm inclined to think that that way of thinking about the question is really confused. You set yourself the goal of trying to put yourself in the situation imaginatively of what it's like to be dead. So I start by trying to strip off the parts of my conscious life that I know I won't have when I'm dead. I won't hear anything. I won't see anything. I won't think anything. And you try to imagine what it's like to not think or feel or hear or see. And you don't do a very good job of it. So you throw your hands up and you say, "Oh, I guess I don't know what it's like." So it must be a mystery.
It's not a mystery at all. Suppose I ask, "What's it like to be this cell phone?" The answer is, "It's not like anything," where that doesn't mean there's something that it's like to be a cell phone, but different from being anything else. So it's not like anything else; it's a special way of feeling or experiencing. No. Cell phones don't have any experience at all. There is nothing that it's like on the inside to be a cell phone. Imagine that I try to ask myself, "What's it like to be my ball point pen?" And I try to imagine, well, first, imagine being really, really stiff, because you're not flexible when you're a ball point pen. You can't move. And imagine being really, really bored, because you don't have any thoughts or interests. No. That's completely the wrong way to go about thinking what it's like to be a ball point pen. There's nothing that it's like to be a ball point pen. There's nothing to describe, nothing to imagine. No mystery about what it's like to be a ball point pen. No mystery about what it's like to be a cell phone.
Well, similarly then, I put it to you, there's no mystery about what it's like to be dead. It isn't like anything. What I don't mean, "Oh, it's like something, but different from everything else." I mean, there is nothing there to describe. When you're dead, there's nothing happening on the inside to be imagined. Well, should we conclude therefore, given that we've got the premise, "If you can't picture it or imagine it, then you can't believe in it," since I've just said, look, you can't imagine being dead, but that's not due to any failure of imagination, that's because there's nothing there to imagine or picture. Still, granted the premise, if you can't picture it or imagine it, you can't believe in it--Should we conclude, therefore, that you can't believe you're going to be dead? No. We shouldn't conclude that.
After all, not only is it true that you can't picture from the inside what it's like to be dead, you can't picture from the inside what it's like to be in dreamless sleep. There is nothing that it's like to be in dreamless sleep. When you're in dreamless sleep, you're not imagining or experiencing anything. Similarly, it's not possible to picture or imagine what it's like to have fainted and be completely unconscious with nothing happening cognitively. There's nothing to picture or imagine. Well, should we conclude, therefore, so nobody really believes that they're ever in dreamless sleep? Well, that would be silly. Of course you believe that at times you're in dreamless sleep. Should we say of somebody who's fainted or knows that they're subject to fainting spells, they never actually believe that they pass out? That would be silly. Of course, they believe they pass out.
From the mere fact that they can't picture it from the inside, it doesn't follow that nobody believes they're ever in dreamless sleep. From the mere fact that they can't picture from the inside what it's like to have fainted and not yet woken up, it doesn't mean that nobody believes that they ever faint. From the mere fact that you can't picture from the inside what it's like to be dead, it doesn't follow that nobody believes they're going to die.
But didn't I start off by saying I was going to grant the person who is making this argument that in order to believe something, you've got to be able to picture it? And haven't I just said, "Look, you can't picture being dead"? So aren't I taking it back? Since I say you can believe you're going to die, yet you can't picture it from the inside. Haven't I taken back the assumption that in order to believe it, you've got to be able to picture it? Not quite.
Although I am skeptical about that claim, I am going to continue giving it to the person who makes this argument, because I'm not so prepared to admit that you can't picture being dead. You can picture being dead, all right. You just can't picture it from the inside. You can picture it from the outside. I can picture being in dreamless sleep quite easily. I'm doing it right now. I've got a little mental image of my body lying in bed asleep, dreamlessly. I can picture fainting, or having fainted, quite easily. Picture my body lying on the ground unconscious. I can picture my being dead quite easily. It's a little mental picture of my body in a coffin. No functioning occurring in my body. So even if it were true that belief requires picturing, and even if were true that you can't picture being dead from the inside, it wouldn't follow that you can't believe you're going to die. All you have to do is picture it from the outside. We're done. So I conclude, of course you can and do believe you're going to die.
But at this point, the person making the argument has a possible response. And it's a quite common response. He says, "Look, I try to picture the world--admittedly from the outside--I try to picture the world in which I don't exist, I'm no longer conscious. I'm no longer a person, no longer experiencing anything. I try to picture that world. I picture, for example, seeing my funeral. And yet, when I try to do that, I'm observing it. I'm watching the funeral. I'm seeing the funeral. Consequently, I'm thinking. So I haven't really imagined the world in which I no longer exist, a world in which I'm dead, a world in which I'm incapable of thought and observation. I've smuggled myself back in as the observer of the funeral."
Every time I try to picture myself being dead, I smuggle myself back in, conscious and existing as a person, hence, not dead as a person. Maybe my body--I'm imagining my body dead, but I'm not imagining myself, the person, dead. From which it follows, the argument goes, that I don't really believe I'll ever be dead. Because when I try to imagine a world in which I'm dead, I smuggle myself back in.
This argument shows up in various places. Let me mention, let me quote one case of it, Freud. Freud says, this is, I'm quoting from one of the Walter Kaufman essays that you'll be reading, called "Death." He quotes Freud. Freud says,
After all, one's own death is beyond imagining, and whenever we try to imagine it we can see that we really survive as spectators. Thus, the dictum could be dared in the psychoanalytic school: at bottom, nobody believes in his own death. Or, and this is the same: in his unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality.
All right, there's Freud. Basically, just running the argument I've just sketched for you. When you try to imagine your being dead, you smuggle yourself back in as a spectator. And so, Freud concludes, at some level none of us really believes we're going to die.
I want to say, I think that argument's a horrible argument. How many of you believe that there are meetings that take place without you? Suppose you're a member of some club and there's a meeting this afternoon and you won't be there, because you've got to be someplace else. So you ask yourself, "Do I believe that meeting's going to take place without me?" At first glance, it looks like you do, but here's the Freudian argument that shows you don't really. Try to imagine, try to picture that meeting without you. Well, when you do picture it, there's that room in your mind's eye. You've got a little picture of people sitting around the table perhaps, discussing the business of your club. Uh-oh, I've smuggled myself in as a spectator. If, like you--, I think most of us picture these things up from a perspective in a corner of the room, up on the wall, looking down, kind of a fly's perspective. All right, I've smuggled myself in as a spectator. I'm actually in the room after all. So I haven't really pictured the meeting taking place without me. So I guess I don't really believe the meeting's going to take place without me.
If Freud's argument for death, that is to say, none of us believe we're going to die, was any good, the argument that none of us believe meetings ever take place without us would have to work as well. But that's silly. It's clear that we all do believe in the possibility, indeed, more than a mere possibility, the actuality of meetings that occur without us. Even though when I imagine that meeting, I'm in some sense, smuggling myself in as an observer. From which I think it follows that the mere fact that I've smuggled myself in as an observer doesn't mean that I don't really believe in the possibility that I'm observing in my mind's eye. I can believe in the existence of a meeting that takes place, even though I smuggle myself in as an observer when I picture that meeting. I can believe in the possibility of a world without me, even though I smuggle myself in as an observer when I picture that world without me.
Freud's mistake, and it's--although I'm picking on Freud, it's not only Freud that runs this sort of argument. One comes across it periodically. Within the last year, a member of our law school here put forward this very argument and said he thought it was a good one. So people think the argument's a good one. It strikes me as it's got to be a bad one. The confusion, the mistake I think people are making when they make this argument, the mistake I think they're making is this. It's one thing to ask yourself, what's the content of the picture? It's another thing to ask, when you look at the picture, are you existing? Are you looking at the picture from a certain point of view?
Suppose I hold up a photograph of a beach with nobody on it. All right, am I in that beach, as pictured in that photograph? Of course not. But as I look at it, whether in reality or in my mind's eye, I'm looking at it from a perspective. As I think about it, I'm viewing the beach from a point of view which may well be on the beach, if somebody draws a painting of a beach. But for all that, that doesn't mean that within the picture of the beach, I'm in the beach. Looking at a picture doesn't mean you're in the picture. Viewing the meeting from a point of view, doesn't mean you're in the meeting. Viewing the world without you from a point of view, doesn't mean you're in the world. So although of course it's true, when I imagine these various possibilities without me, I'm thinking about them. I'm observing them. And I'm observing them from a particular perspective, from a particular standpoint. For all that, I'm not in the picture that I'm thinking about. So I think the Freudian argument just fails. Now, maybe there's some other reason to believe the claim that nobody believes they will cease to exist. But if there is another argument for that claim, I'm eager to hear it, because this argument, at any rate, seems to me to be unsuccessful.
Now, at the start, I distinguished two claims people might have in mind when they say, "Nobody believes they're going to die." The first possibility was the claim was, nobody believes that they'll ever cease to exist as a person. And I've just explained why at least the most familiar argument for that claim, I think, doesn't work...
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