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Tallis in Wonderland

Death & The Philosopher

Raymond Tallis on philosophical attitudes to non-being.

I have recently been rereading Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (1986). In the more than thirty years since its publication, the standing of this relatively slim volume has grown steadily. To borrow a metaphor that George Santayana applied to Spinoza, “like a mountain obscured at first by its foothills, he rises as he recedes.” Yet it is dispiriting how many contemporary intellectual trends – materialist theories of the mind and evolutionary epistemology to name only the most fatuous – have continued to flourish despite Nagel’s demonstration of their inadequacy.

At the heart of The View from Nowhere is one of the key issues in philosophy, and, indeed, in our lives. It is that of reconciling our necessarily local, even parochial, subjective viewpoints with the objective standpoint whose most developed expression is science. How do we square – or even connect – the view from within, according to which we are of overwhelming importance, with the view from without, which sees us as insignificant in a vast universe? Nagel pursues his response to this existential challenge, that “reality is not just objective reality” (p.87), with consummate skill, imagination, and much self-questioning.

That great physicist and subtle philosopher Erwin Schrödinger anticipated some of Nagel’s preoccupations. In What is Life? (1944), Schrödinger pointed out that a “moderately satisfying picture of the world has only been reached at the high price of taking ourselves out of the picture, stepping back into the role of the non-concerned observer”, adding that “While the stuff from which our world picture is built is yielded exclusively from the sense organs as organs of the mind… yet the conscious mind itself remains a stranger within that construct, it has no living space in it” (p.119, in the 1967 edition). This gives rise to a paradox that although “all scientific knowledge is based on sense perception… the scientific views of natural processes formed in this way lack all sensual qualities and therefore cannot account for the latter. In the picture, or model we form we usually forget about them” (p.163). In other words, if objective reality, and the world seen through the glass eye of mathematical physics, were really the full story, there would be no physics. There would be no world pictures, no ‘view from nowhere’, or indeed, from anywhere.

The View From Now Not Here

Even if we admit the irreducible reality of our subjective experiences of ourselves and of what is beyond ourselves, the tension between those experiences and the objective view remains. It becomes a source of anguish when we look at our lives from the Archimedean point of our own death. It is this to which Nagel devotes the final section of his masterpiece. He writes:

“The ultimate subject-object gap is death. The objective standpoint simply cannot accommodate at its full subjective value the fact that everyone, oneself included, inevitably dies” (p.230).

Nothing could matter to us more than our death, which brings all possibilities to an end; and yet nothing, so far as the universe is concerned, could be less important. As Nagel puts it, “the vanishing of this individual [for example, your columnist] from this world is no more remarkable or important than his highly accidental appearance in it” (p.229). Indeed, according to Anaximander, in the first preserved written fragment of Western philosophy, “Where things have their origin, they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay the penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.” It is our lingering not our transience that is a scandal. This scandal is expressed in the modern acknowledgement that life, particularly the complex life of human beings, exists in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics.

Philosophers have often been preoccupied with death. Acknowledging our finitude is the mark of Heidegger’s authentic consciousness, as being-towards-death. To look at ourselves from the ultimate outside of our non-existence may sometimes be curiously exhilarating. The darkness of death’s dateless (and dataless) night, the undifferentiated Nothing that awaits us – or rather, doesn’t even bother to await us – highlights, by contrast, the multi-layered richness of our ‘ordinary’ days. A glimpse of our objective insignificance enhances our awareness of the spaces, times, places, lights, and shades, the joys and sorrows, the n-dimensional complexity, of the life and world we are living. And the very knowledge that reveals itself as minute and short-lived is itself deeply mysterious, being sustained by unfathomable networks of concepts. How did we wake out of ourselves sufficiently to see what (objectively) we are?

The Deaths of Philosophers

Looking back from death towards life can, alas, do little to ease the pain of bereavement. The richness of a remembered shared life only exacerbates our sense of actual or impending loss. As for the miserable process of dying, philosophy seems to have little to offer.

Of course, some philosophers have had exemplary deaths. Socrates’ courage as the hemlock worked its way through his body has left a 2,500 year contrail of inspiration. His final words “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” expressed his wish that Asclepius, the god of medicine, should be thanked for curing him of the disease of life.

David Hume’s serene passing, beautifully recorded in a long letter from his friend Adam Smith, is even more impressive, given that his last days were troubled by “an habitual diarrhoea of a year’s standing.” While his life drained away in this most unbecoming fashion, and the very special ‘I am’ of David Hume was squeezed to extinction by the dysfunctioning ‘it is’ of his body, he received his friends, discussed philosophy, worried over the welfare of his family, and impressed all who met him with his dignity and courage.

Even so, cultivating awareness of mortality and the habit of ‘living each day as if it were thy last’, as the hymn exhorts us, tries to overlook the actual process of dying – that time when, more than any other, “our flesh/ Surrounds us with its own decisions,” as Philip Larkin put it in his wonderful poem ‘Ignorance’. To retain the metaphysical purity of the idea of death, we naturally prefer to think of the process of our extinction as a simple, if total, cancellation; a painless, even featureless, passage from RT to not-RT.

Some secular philosophers claim to find reassurance rather than a validation of our sense of tragedy in the thought that there will be no afterlife. Images of eternity may more often bring terror than consolation. Why fear being dead, the Stoic philosopher Lucretius famously argued, since there is no-one to experience the state?:

“Since death forestalls [grief and pain] and prevents any existence into which such misfortunes might otherwise crowd, we may be sure that we have nothing to fear in death, and that he who is no more cannot be wretched, and that there is not a scrap of difference to him if had never at any time been born, when once immortal death has stolen away mortal life.”
(On the Nature of Things, translated by Cyril Bailey, 1910)

Our non-existence after death, Lucretius further asserts in an argument discussed by Nagel, is a mirror image of our non-existence before we were born, and the latter is hardly something we regret. I am not concerned, even less upset, by the fact that I was not around when Shakespeare was writing his plays or dinosaurs were walking the earth.

Unfortunately, this mirror image analogy does not hold up. In my pre-natal existence, I am not in a state of privation, because there is not yet anything or anyone to house my lack of being. Before I am born, I am only a general possibility, not an individual to whom any subtraction – never mind the comprehensive subtraction of death – can be applied. My pre-natal, unlike like my post mortem, non-existence, is not the result of loss.

Besides, if death does not matter, then nor do our lives. And among those things that do not matter must be included our relationships with each other, most importantly, love and friendship. Lucretius, it seems, forgets that death breaks off all our connections with those who mean most to us, and also that the world does not come to an end as our participation in it does. While each of us may adopt a non-tragic attitude to our own death, and to the general fact of mortality, tragedy is still alive in those we have left behind. While I will not miss myself after I have died, there will (I hope) be others who will miss me.

After Death

If philosophers have sometimes guided us in the art of living, and have occasionally provided us with exemplars to inspire us in the art of dying, they have little to offer us on the art of outliving – on how to cope with the loss of others. Dr Johnson reflects on this in Rasselas (1759), the allegorical novel he wrote at high speed in a state of overwhelming grief after the death of his mother, to pay for her funeral. Rasselas is impressed by a philosopher preaching Stoic values. Imlac his mentor warns him that “they discourse like angels but they live like men.” Rasselas soon discovers how true this is when he finds the Stoic philosopher weeping in a darkened room, poleaxed by the death of his daughter.

A world in which none of us cared about death would be one in which none of us cared about each other. That would seem to be a victory for death, not a victory over death. And to fix our gaze on what a small figure we cut in the world as a way of blunting our tragic sense is a kind of betrayal of those to whom we matter. The sense of our own objective insignificance, and that, in the long run, nothing matters very much, even if it conquered horror of death, can bring only a Pyrrhic victory.

Lucretius offers another way of minimising death even for one whose life has been favoured by fortune:

“Why groan and weep at death? For if the life that is past and gone has been pleasant to you, and all its blessings have not drained away and not been enjoyed… why don’t you retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life?”

In short, why not accept that all good things must come to an end? Precisely because one is not “sated with the banquet of life”. Life is not a meal, and we who live are not mere vessels to be filled. Yes, there are some who are tired of life, and everyone may feel this sometimes. But which of us, facing the real and present prospect of extinction, will not suddenly become aware of its preciousness?

Living the truth about ourselves is not easy. Or as Nagel put it with characteristic lucidity and concision, “The objective standpoint cannot be domesticated.”

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2017

Raymond Tallis’ latest book, Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience is out now.

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