Shelly Kagan's Lectures on Death: Lecture 3 Transcript

January 23, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.

...In contrast to that, we've got the physicalist view, according to which there are just bodies. A person is just a body, as we might put it. Now, the crucial point here, the point I was turning to as we ended last time, is that although a person on the physicalist view is just a body, a person isn't just any old body. A person is a body that has a certain set of abilities, can do a certain array of activities. People are bodies that can think, that can communicate, that are rational, that can plan, that can feel things, that can be creative, and so forth and so on.

Now, we might argue about what's the exact best list of those abilities. For our purposes, I think that won't be crucial, and so I'll sometimes talk about this set of abilities without actually having a canonical list. Just think of them as the set of abilities that people have, the things that we can do that other physical objects--chalk, radios, cars--those things can't do. Call those the abilities that make something a person. To just introduce a piece of jargon, we could call those the P abilities, P for person. Or we could talk about the various kinds of ways--this is the physicalist way of thinking about it--according to the physicalist, a person is just a body that has the ability to fulfill the various P functions. And we can talk, then, about a person as a P-functioning body. Or we could say that a person is a body that is P-functioning.

It's important to see that the idea is, although it's a body, it's not just any old body. Indeed, it's not just any old human body. After all, if you rip out your gun, shoot me in the heart, I bleed to death, we still have a human body in front of us. But we don't have a P-functioning body. We don't have a body that's able to think, a body that's able to plan, to communicate, to be creative, to have goals. So the crucial thing about having a person is having a P-functioning body.


Lecture 14 Transcript

March 1, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.


All right, so having spent all this time getting clearer about the nature of personal identity, and getting clearer about what people are, and the possibilities of survival, and so forth, having argued against the existence of souls, and for a physicalist view--physicalism seems compatible with both the body view and the personality view, leave it to you to decide between them, I myself currently favor the body view--let's ask, "So just what is death, anyway, on the physicalist view?"

It might seem as though it's fairly straightforward. A person, after all, is just a body that's functioning in the right way so as to do these person tricks. It's P-functioning, as we've put it at one time or another. And so a person is just a P-functioning body, whether you emphasize the body side there or the personality side of that equation.

What exactly is it to die? When do I die? Let's turn to that question. When do I die and what is death? Roughly speaking, the answer, presumably, on the physicalist view, is going to be something like--if I'm alive when we've got a P-functioning body, roughly speaking, I die when that stops happening, when the body breaks and it stops functioning properly. That seems, more or less, the right answer from the physicalist point of view, although as we'll see probably later today, we need to refine it somewhat.

But first, let's ask a slightly different question. Which functions are crucial in defining the moment of death? After all, we've got the idea that here's the body, here's a functioning body. Here's one in front of you. Each one of you has got one. You're a functioning body. There's a variety of functions that your body's engaged in. Some of them have to do with merely digesting food and moving the body around, and making the heart beat, and the lungs open and close. Call those things the bodily functions. And there's also, of course, in each one of our cases, there's these higher mental cognitive functions that I've been calling the person functioning, there's the B-functions and there's the P-functions.

Well, roughly speaking, I die when the functioning stops, but which functions? Is it the body functions or the personality functions? So let's take a look at the normal situation. Here's the existence of your body. And during most of the existence of your body, it's functioning. The body functions. Over here, it's no longer functioning. It's a corpse. During some of the period when your body's functioning, it's doing the higher cognitive stuff. The personality functions. Now, this is the very early stuff when your body's still developing and your brain hasn't turned on yet, or your brain is turned on, but it hasn't actually become a person yet, right? At least in the case of the fetus, it's not self-conscious. It's not rational. It's not able to communicate. It's not creative and so forth. That comes later.

All right, so there's Phase A. There's Phase B. There's Phase C. [See Figure 14.1] That's the normal situation, the normal case. The body exists. It functions for a while before the P-functioning begins. And then after a while the body and P-functioning are both going on. And then after a while they stop. In the normal case, I'm in a car accident or whatever it is, and my body stops functioning, my personality stops functioning, and you're left with a corpse.

When did I die? Well, the natural suggestion is to say I died here. I'll draw my little star, an asterisk. In the normal case, I die when my body stops functioning, in terms of the body functions. And it stops functioning in terms of the personality functions. That's the normal case. But we could still ask the philosophical question. Since what we had here was simultaneously losing both the ordinary body functioning and the special personality functioning, which loss was the crucial one in terms of defining the moment of my death? Let's come back to that question in a minute.

First, I want to ask a slightly different question. When did I cease to exist? Or, to put it slightly differently, do I exist during Phase C, when the body has stopped functioning? Both in terms of body functions and personality functions, I'm just a corpse. Do I exist?

Now, let's suppose we believe the personality theory of personal identity. According to the personality theory of personal identity, for something to be me, it's got to have the very same personality, the same evolving, but still the same set of beliefs, desires, goals, so forth. Now, during period C, there's nothing with my personality, right? Nobody thinks they're Shelly Kagan. Nobody has my memories, beliefs, exact desires, goals and so forth. Pretty clearly then, on the personality theory, I don't exist at Phase C. That's why it's natural to point to the moment of star when we say that's when my death occurs. I don't exist at Phase C.

But interestingly, things look rather different if we accept not the personality theory, but instead, the body theory. After all, according to the body theory of personal identity, for somebody to be me, they've got to have my body. Follow the body. Same body, same person. All right, here we are. Here's my corpse. What is a corpse? It's a body, and indeed, my corpse is my body. So follow the body means follow the person. The corpse is still around. It means my body's still around. It means I'm still around. It's like, I mean, I'm dead, but I still exist. It's like a bad joke, right?

So here's the question we started the class off with. Will you survive your death? Will you still exist after death? Well, there's good news and there's bad news. Since I believe in the body theory, the good news is, you will exist after your death. The bad news is, you'll be a corpse. That seems like a bad joke, but if the body theory is right, it's not a joke at all. It's literally speaking the truth. I will exist, at least for a while. Eventually, the body will decay, turn into atoms or whatever it is, decompose. At that point my body no longer exists. At that point, I will no longer exist. But at least for a while,during period C, the body theorist should say, "Yeah, you will exist. You will exist, but you won't be alive."

It just reinforces the point that I was trying to make a few moments ago that the crucial question is not survival per se. The crucial question is, what did you want out of survival? And one of the things I wanted out of survival was to be alive. All right, so on the body view, I exist here, but I'm not alive, so it doesn't give me what matters. On the personality view, I don't exist when I'm a corpse.

Let's go back and ask the question, well, so which is it? Which is the one that's the crucial for defining the moment of death, right? Even on the body view, the fact that I exist isn't good enough, because I'm not alive. I want to know, when am I alive? When am I dead?

So what's crucial for defining the moment of death? Is it body functioning or personality functioning? Well, you can't tell by thinking about the normal case, because the B-functioning and the P-functioning stop at the same time. But suppose we draw the abnormal case. All right, here's C with the corpse again. Here's a period when the body's been functioning and goes like this. Here's the period back here, A, where the body's been functioning, but the personality hasn't started yet. And now imagine, so this is personality. Over here we've got body. We'll call this B again. [See Figure 14.2]

What I've done is imagine a case in which the personality functioning stops before the rest of the body functioning stops. Obviously, the phases are no longer in alphabetical order, but I introduced D in the middle so the other phases could keep their same labels. Well, here's a case where--When does the body functioning stop? End of D. When does the personality functioning stop? End of B. So we've got two candidates. Star one and star two. Star one says death occurs when personality stops functioning. Star two says no, no, death occurs when bodily functioning stops.

Well, again, the question is, what should we say? I think we're going to perhaps be drawn to different answers, depending on whether we accept the body view or the personality view. Suppose we accept the body view. Well, look, if the relevant question is "When do I die?" and I am a body, then presumably the straightforward answer at least is going to be "I die when my body stops functioning." When is that? Star two. During period D, I'm still alive, but I'm no longer functioning as a person. I am no longer a person. That's interesting. It's not just that I exist. In C, I can exist without being a corpse; or rather, without being alive, as a corpse. In D, I'm alive but I'm not a person.

You recall when we talked about Plato, we introduced the notion of essential properties. And it seems that if we accept the body view, we have to say being a person is not an essential property of being something like me. It's not one of my essential properties that I'm a person. I am, in fact, a person, but that won't always be true of me. When I'm a corpse, I will cease to be a person, but I'll still exist. And if we have this unusual case in which my brain has a stroke, loses its higher cognitive functioning, so that the body continues to breathe, eat, respirate, and so forth, the heart continues to pump, but there's no longer anything capable of thinking, reasoning, we say, look, I still exist. Indeed, I'm alive, but I'm not a person. Being a person is something you can go through for a period of time and cease to be. In the same way that being a child is a phase you can go through for a period of time and then cease to be. Or being a professor is a phase you can go through and then cease to be. You can still exist without being a professor. I can still be alive without being a professor.

Well, on the body view, we have to say the same thing about being a person. Being a person is something that I, namely my body, can do for a while. It wasn't doing it back here in A. It certainly won't be doing it in C. And it won't be doing it in D either. Being a person is something on the body view that I am only for part of my existence and indeed, only for part of my life.

Well, that's what it seems we should say on the body view. What if instead we accept the personality theory? Then--actually, one more remark about the body view. Notice that if you accept this account of what the body view should say about when death is, my death is when I cease to be alive. I am my body. So my death occurs at star two, loss of bodily function. And being a person is just a phase.

Notice that if we say that, then there's something somewhat misleading about the standard philosophical label for the problems we've been thinking about for the last couple of weeks. We've been worrying about the nature of personal identity. That is to say, what is it for somebody to be me. But notice that that label, "personal identity," "the problem of personal identity," seems to have built into it the assumption that whatever it is that's me is going to be a person. Is it the same person or not? Now, it turns out that that assumption, standardly built into the usual label, may be false. On the body view, it could still be me without being a person at all. So the problem of existence through time, or persistence through time, shouldn't be called the problem of personal identity, but just the problem of identity. You know, a footnote.

Turning now again to the personality theory. If we accept the personality theory of personal identity, then for someone to be me, they've got to have the same personality. And so for something, for me to exist, my personality has to be around. Well, that's why we said up here that in Phase C when there's a corpse, I don't exist. There's nothing with my personality. As a corpse, I no longer exist.

What should we say about Phase D, on the personality theory? Here, my body is functioning, but my personality has been destroyed. Nothing exists with my beliefs, memories, desires, fears, values, goals, ambitions. Well, if I just am my personality, then I don't exist in Phase D, because there's nothing there to be me, nothing with my personality. According to the personality theory, follow the personality. The personality ended at star one. So I don't exist at Phase D on the personality theory.

Okay good. I don't exist. But what should we say? Am I alive or not? Well, my body's still alive. So should we say that I'm alive? After all, my body's still functioning until star two. During Phase D, my body seems to still be alive. Should we say that I'm alive? That's rather hard to believe, right? Think about what it would mean to say that. We'd being saying on the personality theory, I don't exist, but I'm alive. That seems like a very unpalatable combination of views. How can I be alive if I don't even exist? So it seems we have to say I'm not alive during Phase D. Not only don't I exist during Phase D, I'm not alive either. Yet, my body is alive; that's the whole stipulation.

So it looks as though the personality theorist is going to have to introduce a distinction between my being alive, on the one hand, and my body being alive, on the other. In the normal case--up at the top, those two deaths occur simultaneously. My body stops being alive at the very same moment that I cease being alive. But in the abnormal case, the personality theorist needs to say, or so it seems to me, the two deaths come apart. The death of my body occurs at star two. My death occurs at star one. Notice that the body theorist didn't need to draw that distinction. Because if I just am my body, then well, I'm just my body. My death occurs at the death of my body.

But still, even the body theorist needs a different distinction. We already learned, by thinking about the corpse case, that existence wasn't good enough for the body theorist. He wanted to be alive. And when I think about Phase D, I want to say something more. It's not good enough that I'm alive. I want to be a person. So what matters to me isn't just being alive, but being back here during Phase B. So then it needs something like the same distinction. Not, my death versus my body's death, but perhaps the death of the person, if we could talk that way, versus the death of the body. My death, for the body view, occurs with the death of my body. But in terms of what matters, it's the death of the person and that's star one, not star two.


... I want to raise the following question. So look, what I've just been talking about for the last half hour or so is the fact that we've got to get clear, in thinking about the nature of death, as to whether or not the crucial moment is the moment when the personality functioning stops or the moment when the bodily functioning stops. As we saw by thinking about the abnormal case, these things can come apart and we can have Phase D. But in the normal case, they happen at the same moment. And I've drawn a lot of different distinctions about what would you say if you're a personality theorist to deal with this? What would you say if you're a body theorist to deal with this? Having drawn all those distinctions, I'm going to just ride roughshod over them and put them aside. And let's just suppose that we're dealing with the normal case, where the body functioning stops at the same time as the personality functioning stops.

So what is death? What's the moment of death? What is it to die, on the physicalist view? Well, at first glance, you might think the answer is, look, you exist, you're alive, whatever it is--;as I said, I'm just going to be loose now, I'm going to put aside all the careful distinctions I just drew--I'm still around as long as my body is P-functioning. And when my body's not P-functioning, I'm not still around. Either I don't exist or I'm not alive or I'm not a person, whichever precise way we have to put it. That seems like the natural proposal for the physicalist to make. To be dead is to no longer be P-functioning. But that can't quite be right. Because imagine, don't just imagine, just remember what happened to you last night around 3:20 a.m. Let's just suppose that at 3:20 a.m. you were asleep and indeed, you weren't dreaming. You weren't thinking. You weren't reasoning. You weren't communicating. You weren't remembering. You weren't making plans. You weren't being creative. You were not engaged in P-functioning.

If we take this simple straightforward view and say you're dead when you're not P-functioning anymore, then you were dead, on and off and on and off, last night. Well, that clearly doesn't seem to be the right thing to say. So we're going to have to revise the P-functioning or the end of P-functioning theory of death. We're going to have to revise that theory. We're going to have to refine it to deal with the obvious fact that you're not dead all the times when you're unconscious and not dreaming. But refining in just the right way is going to turn out to be a surprisingly not straightforward matter, at least that's how it seems to me. At any rate, that's the question we'll turn to next time.

Lecture 15 Transcript

March 6, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time we ended with the following puzzle or question. If we say that to be a person is to be a P-functioning body, it seems then as though we have to conclude that when you're not P-functioning, you're dead. That is, you're dead as a person. Previously, we distinguished between the death of my body and my death as a person; let's focus on my death as a person. If I'm not P-functioning, do we have to then say I'm dead?

Well, that may seem to be the most natural way to define death, but it's not an acceptable approach. Because it would follow then, that when I'm asleep, I'm dead. Well, not during those times, perhaps, when I'm dreaming while I'm asleep. But think of the various periods during the night in which you are in a deep, deep dreamless sleep. You're not thinking. You're not planning. You're not communicating. Let's just suppose, as seems likely, that none of the P-functioning is occurring, at some point during sleep. Should we say then that you're dead? Well, that's clearly not the right thing to say.

So we need to revise our account of what it is on the physicalist picture to say that you're dead. What is it to be dead? It can't just be a matter of not P-functioning. Well, one possibility would be to say, the question is not whether you are P-functioning. It's okay if you're not P-functioning, as long as your not P-functioning is temporary. If you will P-function again, if you have been P-functioning in the past and you will be P-functioning again in the future, P-functioning for person functioning, you will be P-functioning again in the future, then you're not dead. Well, that's at least an improvement, because then we say, look, while you're asleep, even though there's no P-functioning going on, the lack of P-functioning is temporary, so you're still alive.

But I think that won't quite do either. Let's suppose that come Judgment Day, God will resurrect the dead. And let's just suppose the correct theory of personal identity is such as to put aside any worries we might have along with van Inwagen, that we discussed previously, as to whether or not on resurrection day that would really be you or not. Suppose it would be you. So God will resurrect the dead. Judgment Day comes. The dead are resurrected. Well, now they're P-functioning. So it turns out that during that period in which they were dead, they were only temporarily not P-functioning. But if death means permanent cessation of P-functioning, then it turns out the dead weren't really dead after all. They were only temporarily not P-functioning, just like we are temporarily not P-functioning when we're asleep. Well, that doesn't seem right either. On Judgment Day, God resurrects the dead. It's not that He simply wakes up those in a deep, deep sleep. So the proposal that death is a matter of permanent cessation of P-functioning versus temporary, that doesn't seem like it's going to do the trick. But what else do we have up our sleeves?

Here's a different proposal that I think is probably closer to the right account. We might say, look, while you're asleep, it's true that you're not P-functioning. For example, you're not doing your multiplication tables. But although you are not engaged in P-functioning, it does seem true to say that you still can P-function. You still could do your multiplication tables. Although it's not true that you are speaking French--let's suppose that you know how to speak French--it's still true of you while you're asleep that you can or could speak French. How do we know this? Well, all we have to do is just wake you up. We wake you up and we say, "Hey John, what's three times three?" And after you stop swearing at us, you say, "Well, it's nine." Or we say, "Linda, hey, conjugate such and such a verb in French." And you can conjugate it. Even though you were not engaged in P-functioning while you were asleep, it's still true that while you were asleep, you had the ability to engage in P-functioning.

Abilities aren't always actualized. Your P-functioning is actualized now, because you're engaged in thought, but you don't lose the ability to think during those moments when you're not thinking. Suppose we say then that to be alive as a person is to be able to engage in P-functioning. And to be dead then, is to be unable to engage in P-functioning. Why are you unable? Well, presumably because whatever cognitive structures it takes in your brain to underwrite the ability to P-function, those cognitive structures have been broken, so they no longer work. It's--When you're dead, your brain is broken. It's not just that you're not engaged in P-functioning, you're no longer able to engage in P-functioning.

That, at least, seems to handle the case of sleep properly. Although you're not engaged in P-functioning, you're able to, so you're still alive. Take the dead who will be resurrected on Judgment Day. Although they will be engaged in P-functioning later on, it's not true right now that they can engage in P-functioning. Their bodies and brains are broken until God fixes them. So they're dead.

All right, that seems to give the right answer and, in fact, it gives us some guidance how to think about some other puzzling cases. Take somebody who is in a coma, not engaged in P-functioning. Their body, let's stipulate, is still alive. Their heart's still beating, the lungs are still breathing and so forth. But we wonder, is the person still alive? Does the person still exist? Well, they're not engaged in P-functioning. That's pretty clear. We want to know, can they engage in P-functioning?

Now, at this point we'd want to know more about the underlying mechanics about what's gone on in the case of the coma. If the following is the right description, then we perhaps should say they're still alive. Look, when somebody's asleep, we need to do something to, in effect, wake them up, something to turn the functioning back on. The cognitive structures are still there, but the on-off switch is switched to off. Perhaps that's what it's like when somebody's in a coma, or perhaps at least certain types of comas. Of course, to turn the on-off switch on is harder when somebody's in a coma. It's a bit more--to continue with the metaphor of the on-of switch--as though not only is the switch turned to off, there's a lock on the switch. And so we can't turn the switch on in the normal way. Pushing the person in the coma and saying, "Wake up, Jimmy" doesn't do the trick. But for all that, although the on-off switch may be stuck in off, if the underlying cognitive structures of the brain are such as to still make it true that, flip the on switch back to on and the person can still engage in cognitive P-functioning, maybe the right thing to say is the person's still alive.

Coma case two. I'm not sure whether this really should be called a coma. I don't know the biological and medical details. But imagine that what's gone on is there's been decay of the brain structures that underwrite the cognitive functioning. So now it's not just that the on-off switch is stuck in off, the brain's no longer capable of engaging in these higher order P-functions. This might be a persistent vegetative state with no possibility of turning it on, even in principle. Of such a person we might say, they're no longer capable of P-functioning. And then perhaps the right thing to say is the person no longer exists, so they no longer exist as a person, even if the body is still alive. So far, so good.

Here's a harder case to think about. Suppose we put somebody in a state of suspended animation, cool their body down so that the various metabolic processes come to an end. They stop. As I'm sure you know, we're able, with various lower organisms, to put them in a state of suspended animation and then, the amazing thing is, if you heat them back up again properly, they start functioning again. Now, we can't do that yet with humans. But it doesn't jump out at us, at least, that that should be an impossibility. So suppose we eventually learn how to do this with humans. And now, suppose we take Larry and put him in a state of suspended animation. Is he dead? Well, most of us don't feel comfortable saying that he's dead. Just like we don't feel comfortable saying that the--I suppose we could do this with a fruit fly. I don't know whether we can or can't. Suppose we can. Suppose we do it with a fruit fly. We don't feel comfortable saying the fruit fly's dead. Rather, it's in a state of suspended animation. Well, similarly then, perhaps we wouldn't want to say that Larry is dead. And the "brokenness" account of death allows us to say Larry's not dead. The structures in the brain which would underwrite the ability to engage in P-functioning, they're not destroyed by suspended animation. So perhaps in the relevant sense, the person can still engage in P-functioning, so they're not dead. Good enough.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem so plausible, it doesn't seem intuitively right, to say that they're alive. Is Larry alive when he's in a state of suspended animation? No. It seems like he's not alive either. Now that's a bit puzzling, right? It's as though we need--Normally, we think that look, either you're alive or you're dead. The two possibilities exhaust the possibilities. But thinking about suspended animation suggests that we may actually need a third category, suspended--neither alive nor dead.

Well, all right, if we do introduce a third possibility--I'm not sure this is the right thing. It's not clear what's the right or best thing to say about suspended animation. But at least that doesn't seem like an unattractive possibility. If there are three possibilities--dead, alive, or suspended--to be dead, we could still say you've got to be broken, incapable of P-functioning. Suspended isn't broken. It's just suspended. But then what do you need to be alive? In addition to not being broken, what do you need to be alive? Well, the initially tempting thing to say is not only aren't you broken, but you're actually engaged in P-functioning. But if we say that, then we're back to saying that somebody who's asleep isn't really alive. That doesn't seem right either. So we need some account to distinguish between suspended animation and out and out being alive. And I'm not quite sure how to draw that line. So I'll leave that to you as a puzzle to work on on your own.

License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA