Dealing with Death: Western Philosophical Perspectives

Michael R Taylor. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1: The Presence of Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Seeking means to transcend death is a widespread, if not universal, inclination among human beings. The Western philosophical tradition has developed numerous viewpoints on, and fostered various attitudes toward, our mortal nature. In this chapter, I discuss five distinct strategies that have had significant impacts on how we think about and cope with death. I offer an explanation of how these ideas get developed by some of the major philosophers and their followers, followed by a consideration of the attitudes toward death that these views are likely to engender. For a discussion of reincarnation, Plato’s account is a good place to begin; I follow this with an overview of the medieval Christian understanding of death developed by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Attitudes and beliefs about death changed at the dawn of modern science, and I consider here both the dualistic theory of Descartes and the skeptical approach developed by David Hume, exploring some of the consequences of their views. Finally, the unique contribution of existentialism is exemplified by the distinctive way in which human finitude figures into the thought of Martin Heidegger. Some of the oldest accounts still have a great deal of influence; Saint Thomas and Descartes articulate ideas that still have impacts on the attitudes of many people. Plato’s account of the transmigration and reincarnation of souls has fallen out of favor in the West, but it has not entirely disappeared.

The Ancient Greeks and the Transmigration of Souls

Among the ancient Greeks, the most striking view concerning death is the idea that souls migrate into new bodies. This view was not widely held among the Greeks, but some religious sects and philosophical schools were committed to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Plato developed the most extensive account of these ideas in several of his dialogues. He probably borrowed some elements of his account from the Greek religions of his day, and he may also have incorporated some of the ideas of the Pythagorean philosophers (Bostock 1986:12).

Two fundamental beliefs are central to Plato’s thought about death: the doctrine of recollection and the transmigration and reincarnation of souls. The doctrine of recollection amounts to the idea that the soul contains within it knowledge of the most fundamental realities, which Plato calls “Forms.” The soul, according to Plato, exists eternally and is always in possession of this knowledge. The task of human beings is to recover this knowledge buried deep within the recesses of the soul. The knowledge must be recovered because it has been forgotten due to the shock of the soul’s entry into the body. The ultimate meaning of human life is, in this account, the recovery of the knowledge of the true nature of things that lies hidden in the souls of every human being. It is our ignorance concerning these ultimate realities that gives rise to human evil, misery, suffering, and injustice. Recovery of the knowledge forgotten by the soul leads to harmony and justice both within the individual and, under the right circumstances, in society.

The fate of the soul depends, in Plato’s view, on the success of the quest to recall the forgotten knowledge buried within each of us. This quest can succeed only if we adopt and practice the proper philosophical attitudes along with unremitting devotion to living the philosophical life. It is through the practice of philosophy that we recover from the soul knowledge of the Forms. The practice of philosophy is illustrated through the method, called dialectic, practiced by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Far from being a mere irritant (although he was surely that), Socrates attempted to motivate people to care for their souls rather than for the wealth and power they saw being coveted by those around them. He tried to do this by drawing out their ideas and then submitting those ideas to examination in order to see if they could stand the test of criticism. According to Socrates, it is only by ridding ourselves of our false beliefs that we will become motivated to search for the knowledge that we truly need if we are to set our souls in good order. The souls of those who engage in the philosophical life and who recover the soul’s hidden knowledge live eternally with the gods after the body dies, and their lot is immensely better than that of those here on earth.

What, then, awaits the soul when the philosophical life is not attained? Although Plato (1981:120) didn’t intend what he said about this matter to be taken as the literal truth, he asserts that it is reasonable for humans to expect something very much like the following: The fate of such souls is to be reincarnated, and the nature and quality of our future incarnations depends on our conduct in our current lives. Those who have discovered the truth concerning the eternal and unchanging realities go to a blissful realm and enjoy communion with the gods and contemplation of the Forms. If we have lived good lives by conventional standards but have not recovered the knowledge within us through the practice of philosophy, then we can expect to live again in the form of some social creature (as ants, bees, wasps, or as human beings again). If, however, we have not lived good lives, we can expect to return in some less desirable form, perhaps as hawks, kites, or asses (donkeys, I presume). Plato further suggests that those who live extremely evil lives may not return at all, but instead continue to exist in eternal torment (p. 121).

In the final book of the Republic, Plato introduces the “Myth of Er.” This is the story of a warrior, Er, who was apparently slain in battle. The bodies of the dead were collected and Er’s body was placed upon his funeral pyre, but he revived and reported an extraordinary experience that he had while “dead.” Er claimed to see souls coming up from the earth or down from the heavens. These souls were about to be sent back into the world and were in the process of choosing the patterns of their upcoming lives. The choices that they made concerning the lives on which they were about to embark turned out to be heavily influenced by the moral quality of their previous lives. Thus one’s past life has significant consequences for one’s future prospects, but it is still up to each person to decide what to make of the conditions imposed upon him or her by the upcoming life (Plato 1992:285-86).

Although I know of no evidence in support of this contention, it seems likely to me that the so-called Myth of Er is not, properly speaking, a myth. I think that it could be an account of what we today call a near-death experience (or NDE). A near-death experience sometimes occurs when a person is pronounced clinically dead or appears, given all empirically observable evidence, to be dead, but then regains consciousness. Occasionally a person who has undergone such an occurrence will report having had particular experiences while unconscious. Descriptions of NDEs reveal a recurring pattern, and Er’s story resembles many of these reports. The structure of NDEs often includes a sensation of leaving the body, traveling through a kind of tunnel, arriving in a place of light, and being in the presence of other (usually benevolent) beings, followed by (often unwilling) return to the revived body (Beloff 1992:263).

Most contemporary accounts of NDEs describe them in positive terms, but the further back in time we look, the more reports we find that include a requirement that the individual account for his or her life and how it was lived, along with judgment of that life. Carol Zaleski (1987) describes these older versions:

The soul is either embraced or disowned by its guardian angel and challenged by evil spirits who look for traces of their influence; its merits or demerits, hidden during life, are now disclosed. Again, at the divine tribunal, the soul’s deeds are displayed in the form of victims who come forward to testify against it. (P. 73)

NDEs have not always been perceived as entirely pleasant, and in the older accounts that Zaleski describes there is commonly a significant element of anxiety involved. Thus, although Er’s experience may seem to deviate from contemporary accounts of NDEs, which tend to be uniformly positive, it squares pretty well with the descriptions transmitted by inhabitants of the ancient or medieval world. Of course, Plato may have modified Er’s report to suit his own purposes.

Arnold Toynbee (1968) notes the similarity between the view of the soul as eternal and undergoing multiple incarnations and the conception widely held by Eastern philosophers, in which the soul is reincarnated in various forms until it achieves enlightenment:

One conception of the immortality of the soul has been that souls are not only immortal but eternal: i.e. that every soul has been in existence eternally before it ever came to be embodied, and that it will remain in existence eternally after becoming disembodied once [and] for all. Of all the divers conceptions of personal immortality of the soul, this is the one that comes nearest to the Indian conception of a supra personal or a depersonalized immortality. This belief was held by some pre-Christian Greeks, but never, so far as we can judge, by more than a small sophisticated minority. (P. 86)

It is not known whether there was some common root from which the belief arose both in India and among the Greeks, but it is a remarkable view, and the timing would have been right for there to be either a common source or some kind of cross-fertilization. We simply have no knowledge of the matter.

One Platonic dialogue seems to be much less decisive about our prospects for postmortem existence. In the Apology,which gives an account of the trial of Socrates, Plato portrays Socrates as unwilling to commit to any very definite ideas about what awaits us after death. Socrates holds at the end of the dialogue that the good man has nothing to fear from death, because either the soul will survive or death will amount to personal annihilation. If the latter, then there is nothing after death, and so there is nothing for anyone to fear. If this is so, then there is nothing for the good man to fear. If, on the other hand, the soul survives bodily death, then for the good person what comes will presumably be something good. It is not reasonable to fear an improvement in one’s condition, so, if the good man can expect something good after death, once again he has nothing to fear. In either case, death should hold no terrors for the good person (Plato 1981:43). Of course, that leaves the vast majority of us unaccounted for; few of us would think ourselves entirely good, and Socrates remains silent concerning the matter of what death may hold for the rest of us. There may be ample reason for most of us to adopt a fearful attitude toward death.

In the Apology, Socrates seems far from certain concerning the fate of the soul. Perhaps it continues to exist, and if the person has lived a good life, then something good can be expected. Or perhaps the death of the body amounts to the annihilation of the person. Socrates leaves the matter at that and does not attempt to decide between these alternatives. Perhaps Socrates and Plato held divergent views concerning what it is reasonable to believe about the fate of the person after the death of the body. Socrates may have been uncertain about whether the soul continues to exist, but Plato may have thought he had good reason to suppose that it continues to exist after the body dies.

Plato advocates an attitude that involves embracing our mortal nature. He defines death as the separation of the soul from the body, and he asserts that the body is a source of distraction from the pursuit of wisdom (understood as knowledge). Death thus removes a major obstacle to the pursuit of wisdom. Because philosophy is the love of wisdom, the philosopher should look forward to the time when the soul can engage in its pursuit of wisdom undisturbed by the perturbations of the body. Understood in this way, philosophy boils down to practice for death, because the philosopher attempts to pursue pure knowledge, and this pursuit can be successful only if the soul becomes separated from the body. So philosophers ought to look forward to death, not fear it (Plato 1981:100-103). An attitude of fearlessness and hopeful anticipation is, in Plato’s view, the appropriate one for us to adopt toward our future demise.

Although Plato’s views concerning death can be inspiring or consoling to those who have, or believe that they have, the high-powered intellect needed for grasping the Forms, they offer little solace to the rest of us. For people who are caught up in the daily business of survival there is little time left after working, paying the bills, and attending to family responsibilities to devote to achieving the contemplative philosophical life that Plato advocates. For those of us caught up in the concerns of everyday existence, Plato’s ideas concerning death may not seem very comforting. The only bright spot is that we will get another chance next time around on the cycle of death and rebirth, and yet another, until we finally achieve the knowledge harbored within our souls. Still, for those not philosophically inclined (probably the vast majority of humankind), the thought of the next life being one of philosophical contemplation of the eternal realities is unlikely to appear very attractive. Plato nowhere suggests that after death we will experience some of the things that many look forward to most, such as reunion with deceased loved ones. However, for those able to make use of them, Plato’s views can take, and have taken, a good deal of the sting out of our impending demise. Socrates died well, and the Christian philosopher Boethius found immense consolation in Plato’s views while awaiting his execution (see Boethius 1962).

Medieval Christianity and the Resurrection of the Dead

With the rise and spread of Christianity, Western philosophical ideas concerning the prospects for survival of bodily death underwent significant change. Medieval Christians believed not only that the soul continues to exist after the body dies, but that the body itself would, at some future time, be resurrected and reunited with the soul. This doctrine of the resurrection of bodies apparently did not originate with Christianity. If Toynbee (1968) is right, “This belief in the bodily resurrection of all dead human beings is common to Christianity and Islam, and, like the belief in judgment noted earlier, it seems to have been derived by both religions from Zoroastrianism via Pharisaic Judaism” (p. 90). Not only Muslims, Christians, and Zoroastrians held this belief; the Egyptians seem to have believed that at least some dead human bodies could be resurrected (Toynbee 1968:90).

The doctrine of resurrection receives its most sophisticated philosophical development in the hands of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who believed that in order to be a human being it is necessary to be a combination of body and soul. The soul is the principle of life and hence indispensable, but the body is also necessary if this life is to be the life of a human person. The soul by itself enjoys certain powers, such as understanding, willing, and considering, but in order to enjoy the powers of sensation, it must be united with a body. Taken together, soul and body united make up a complete human being (Aquinas 1992:93-96). In Thomas’s view, no postmortem survival of the person is possible without the body, because the soul by itself does not constitute a person. Anthony Kenny (1993) points this out:

Aquinas undoubtedly believed that each human being had an immortal soul, which could survive the death of the body and continue to think and will in the period before the eventual resurrection of the body to which he looked forward. Nonetheless, Aquinas did not believe in a self which was distinct from the body, nor did he think that disembodied persons were possible. (P. 138)

In other words, we will most assuredly undergo death, which we (in the sense of a self) will not survive. Our soul will survive this death, but our soul and our personal identity are not the same thing, and so the survival of the death of the body by the soul is insufficient for our continued existence as selves or persons.

The Thomistic picture looks something like this: When a person dies, the soul separates from the body and goes to its proper place; eventually, at the appropriate time, it is reunited with the resurrected body. The soul is, according to this account, created by God and conjoined with the body at some point during development; it is not eternal in the sense that it exists everlastingly, both before and after its embodiment. Rather, it is created and conjoined with the body. The soul remains in existence throughout the person’s life and continues to exist after the person dies. The body, on the other hand, undergoes death. At some time in the future, the body is resurrected and reunited with the soul, and at that time the person is reestablished and enjoys eternal life through the grace of God. It is in this way that Christians achieve their final end, happiness, which is unobtainable in the present earthly form of existence.

There are a number of problems associated with the idea of the resurrection of the body. Imagine, for example, that cannibals have eaten someone; how can that person’s body be resurrected when it is now part of other persons? Thomas assures us that “whatever is wanting will be supplied by the Creator’s omnipotence” (Aquinas 1992:99). This response, however, leaves unanswered a number of troublesome questions. Will my resurrected body be in the same condition as it was when I died? For some, that would be an unpleasant prospect indeed. Will it be the feeble, infirm, frail body of old age? Or will it be the body as it was during the prime of life? Attempts to answer such questions, and others like them, seem to have a strong element of arbitrariness about them.

More important, from a philosophical point of view, issues concerning identity arise when one entertains the idea of resurrection. At the heart of this issue is the question of whether the resurrected body will be identical to the body that was conjoined with the soul during the earthly existence of the person. In part, this amounts to the question of whether the resurrected body will be made of the same “stuff” as the earthly body. Will the new body be composed of the same atoms and molecules as the original body? Will it be made of the same flesh, blood, and bone? Subject to the same vulnerability, pain, pleasure, growth, and decay? Or will it be composed of some special, spiritual kind of stuff, less subject (or even immune) to degeneration, decay, and injury? If the latter, how can it be identical to the original body rather than merely a facsimile of it, made out of some other material?

We might also wonder whether the resurrected body could be the same as the original body if there is a break between the existence of the earthly body and the resurrected one. Suppose the body dies, decomposes, and is finally reduced to its most basic constituent parts. Come resurrection day, all these parts are rounded up by an infinitely powerful and omniscient God, who reassembles them in exactly the way they were arranged before the original body decomposed. Is the reassembled body identical to the original one? Some philosophers contend that a break in the existence of an object amounts to a break in its identity. According to this view, the total destruction of a body, whether through natural decomposition or some other means, undermines the idea that the restoration of that body through the collection and reconstitution of its constituent parts is capable of preserving identity. The body of the person will be, at best, an exact replica, down to the last detail (even the last atom), but it cannot be the same, identical body (van Inwagen 1992:244).

The resurrection of the body was the mainstay of Christian belief during the Middle Ages. It is still today the official doctrine of many Christian denominations, including Roman Catholic (Clary 1998:198), Assemblies of God (Horton 1998:6), Baptist (Hendricks 1998:44), Lutheran (Lee 1998:165), and Methodist (Warren 1998:228). Despite the philosophical problems inherent in the idea of resurrection, many of the faithful still appear to reap considerable comfort from this belief. It certainly seems to fit in better with the way many people conceive of the afterlife and what they hope to get from it than do Plato’s ideas about the contemplative disembodied soul.

In thinking of the world to come, few envision a soul eternally contemplating the Forms. Rather, they think of union with the divine; freedom from pain, suffering, decay, disability, and sin; and reunion with lost loved ones. In other words, they think of the afterlife as very much like life here, but freed from things that make earthly life a burden. Thinking about reunion with those loved and lost is usually imagined in bodily terms; those loved and lost people are recognizable in their bodily form. This imagined reunion is a great consolation for many people. So the belief in resurrection is, for many, more comforting than the intellectualism of Plato. It is not necessary, in the case of resurrection, to practice the life of the Platonic sage in order to achieve beatitude; a desirable form of eternal existence is available to all of the faithful. Faith does not require the great intellectual gifts necessary to apprehension of the Forms; rather, it depends on one’s belief in the saving power of the Divine, and such belief seems to be open to all. In fact, approaching faith in an overly intellectual manner often results in suspicion within the community of the faithful. Faith is supposed to be a matter of the heart, not of the head.

What the faithful picture when they consider the afterlife is a relation with a personal Divine Being, reunion with deceased friends and relatives, and freedom from sin and the sufferings associated with flesh-and-blood existence. These benefits are bestowed after death; the soul survives bodily death, and its conjunction with the resurrected body is anticipated at some future time appointed by God. One need not have a superhuman intellect or pass through more lives in order to look forward to the benefits of the life to come. Such a vision helps the faithful to maintain an attitude of hope while at the same time acknowledging the reality of death.

Keeping Mind and Body Together: Descartes and Modern Science

A different way of conceiving the relationship between soul and body developed as modern philosophy began to separate from its alliance with theology and place itself in the service of the emerging new science. The father of modern philosophy is generally held to be René Descartes. Descartes famously divides reality into mind and matter. Actually, according to Descartes, reality is made up of three separate substances—mind, matter, and God—each of which possesses a different essence. The essential property of divinity is perfection. In order for something to count as matter, it must possess the property of extension; that is, it must exist in space. The essential property of mind is thought (Descartes 1980:62-63). Mind and matter, having different essential properties, can be conceived apart from one another, and Descartes (1980:93) holds that what the mind can conceive as separate, God can make to exist separately in reality, so mind and body can actually exist apart, in separation from one another.

The Cartesian mind is conceived as a conscious ego that possesses capacities such as intellection, willing, imagining, affirming, and denying; Descartes uses the word thinking in a very wide sense to cover all of the activities of consciousness. The body, on the other hand, is matter, and its operation is fundamentally mechanical (Descartes 1980:96-97). It is the mind that possesses the characteristics traditionally ascribed to the soul; the body is basically a machine. The mind, or soul, can exist without the body, if God makes it so; as mind has an essence different from that of body, the two can be conceived separately, and what the mind can conceive as separate, God can cause to exist separately (p. 93). Given that the soul can exist in separation from the body, it can survive the death of the body, and so long as God continues to preserve it, there is no reason the soul should ever perish. So, in Descartes’s view, the soul can survive the death of the body and continue to exist eternally under the influence of God’s creative power.

Unlike Saint Thomas, who holds that it is essential to personhood that there be a union of both the soul and the body, Descartes associates the self—that is, personal identity—with the mind or soul. According to Descartes, I could continue to exist apart from my body, although I could not engage in a fully human existence, because the sensations that human beings undergo would no longer be fully available to me (Cottingham 1998:84-85). But, according to Descartes (1980:93), these experiences of sensation are not part of my personal identity, and given that this is so, their lack would not obstruct my continued existence as a self in the form of a disembodied soul. The soul, then, may continue to exist in the absence of the body while maintaining personal identity, and so we can think about existence after the body dies in terms of the existence of disembodied souls. What is important for my continuing existence is the survival of my soul, and the resurrection of my body is of secondary importance or may be entirely neglected. Because our souls are the bearers of our personal identities, their continuing existence is enough to assure us that we need not die when our bodies die.

A serious drawback of this view emerges when we start to wonder how the soul and body might be related to one another. Descartes (1980:98) asserts that they are causally connected, but he makes these two separate substances so entirely distinct that it is hard to understand how they could ever be closely bound together. How can an unextended thinking substance be conjoined with a material object to begin with? The nature of extended things is to occupy space, and the soul, not possessing the property of extension, cannot be localized in space. Where, then, will the conjunction of mind and body take place? Any specification of the point of conjunction would spatially locate an unextended thinking thing. The problem here is not that the soul might fail to survive the death of the body; rather, it lies in the difficulty of our trying to comprehend how it could ever have been connected with the body in the first place. Problems along these lines have led some to attempt to dispense with the two-substance account (dualism) altogether.

But if we are not the conjunction of body and soul, then what are we? We could try to answer this question by following the path laid out by an influential branch of modern science, which aims to reduce the soul and its mental activity to states of the brain and nervous system. If this reduction should prove successful, it will eliminate the need to explain the relation between the soul and the body, for in this account there is no soul to be related to the body. We can, of course, take up this project, and indeed many very capable people have taken it up. But even though there have been numerous attempts to carry out a successful reduction, and many expressions of faith that it can be carried out, there is nothing on the horizon that suggests an emerging consensus on a plausible way to reduce mental states to brain or nervous system processes.

Why does Descartes believe himself to be warranted in asserting that he is a mental substance, anyhow? It might be held that the most that Descartes is entitled to conclude is that there is thought (Copleston 1960:105). Descartes may have supposed that if there is an activity, such as thought, there must be something engaged in that activity; that something he calls the mind, or mental substance, and he understands it to be an unextended thinking thing. But why could it not be the brain that thinks? Descartes holds that, as the brain is a material object, its essence is extension, and because extended things operate in a purely mechanical fashion, an explanation that limits itself in this way cannot adequately account for thought. At best, it can offer an account of reflex behavior (Cottingham 1998:69).

The trend toward attempting to explain the mental by appeal to the physical is very much in the spirit of Descartes’s conception of what it means to be a science. Taking physics as his model, he insists on the reduction of scientific explanation to the mechanical operation of efficient causes. For Descartes, anything that counts as a science must be able to offer ultimate explanations in terms of efficient causality and mathematical laws. Given this conception of science, and the fact that the scientific enterprise soon expanded beyond the realm of physics to include biology, psychology, and social science, it is unsurprising that the new science should begin inquiries into the mind and try to bring it under the sway of scientific investigation. To accomplish this after Descartes meant that science would have to explain the mind in terms of the body, conceived as a kind of machine, and the most prominent candidate for such an explanation is the brain. There is, of course, a bit of irony here, given Descartes’s own conception of the mind as a thinking thing, by which he means an immaterial, unextended substance.

Although Descartes gives us what appear to be grounds for hope that we might survive the death of the body in the form of an immortal soul, the logic of his thought helps to undermine such a hope. As the scope of science expanded beyond the mechanical and geometric physics that Descartes had in mind, it eventually crept into the areas of life and mind. But the Cartesian conception of what counts as science was never given up, and that meant that these new areas of scientific endeavor had to be able to produce the same kind of mechanical and mathematical explanations that prevailed in physics. The disenchantment of life and mind are inevitable given this model of explanation and the expansion of science. And so the grounds for hoping that the Cartesian mind might outlast the corporeal husk begin to appear shaky. Science is increasingly taken to be the paradigm for knowledge, and what science investigates is the brain; but the brain dies along with the rest of the body.

Despite the many problems associated with Cartesian dualism, something very similar to it seems to enjoy widespread acceptance among those who believe in life after death. Even if the official doctrines of their churches accept the resurrection of bodies, some people are concerned less with their resurrected bodies than with the fate of their immortal souls. Whether they subscribe to a version of the doctrine of resurrection or not, they tend to think of their personal identities as being associated with their souls and not their bodies. So it is the fate of the soul that is of most concern; if the soul continues after the body dies, and the soul is the seat of personal identity, then the person continues. This provides an additional comfort for some, who believe that they don’t really have to die. They will admit, “Oh, yes! The body dies,” but then quickly add the qualification “but that isn’t really me; I am an immortal soul; and since the soul is immortal, I never really die.” The body is, from this point of view, a disposable husk, and little interest is shown regarding its fate.

I am not sure how widespread this pseudo-Cartesian belief really is, but I suspect it has a fairly large following. It is worth noting that the people who hold this belief usually emphasize different qualities of the soul than did Descartes; whereas his emphasis was primarily on the intellectual powers associated with the soul, they see the elements of moral character as more important. Still, their view is a Cartesian one in the sense that they (usually without self-conscious realization) subscribe to a version of dualism in which body and soul are conceived as two separate and distinct substances, and in doing so they inherit most of the problems associated with that view.

Descartes gives almost no attention to the ultimate fate of the soul or the nature of its disembodied existence, but to some contemporary religious believers, these matters are all-important, for they think that their souls are headed either for heaven or for hell, destined for eternal bliss or eternal suffering. Arnold Toynbee (1968) observes that these people should be among the most anxious of those who believe in any kind of personal immortality:

The believer in a personal immortality which he may be going to spend either in heaven or in hell, according to the verdict that will be passed, after his death, on his conduct while he was alive, ought, if he holds this belief bona fide, to be the most anxious of all; and his version of the belief in personal immortality ought to have the greatest effect of all on his present behavior. (P. 93)

And so it would seem, as such people understand themselves to live under the threat of eternal damnation. Yet they often do not seem anxious at all; rather, they are serene in their assurance that they will be the recipients of good offices in the appointments to come. This tension between what one might plausibly expect of them and their actual comportment suggests that the belief functions primarily to allay death anxiety by including the assumption that the believer will be among those destined for the heavenly side of the dichotomy. The attitude of such people toward death is generally sanguine, for they believe that they will never truly die and that good things await them when their bodies expire.

The hope that the mind or soul might be separable from the body was further undermined by the growing influence of the experimental method. In some (probably very complex) way, the experimental method relies for its results on confirmation through sense perception, and so much emphasis is placed on what is observable. An empirical experimentalism has come to be included among the fundamental ideas of science. But observability is precisely the property that the Cartesian mind lacks.

Skepticism and the Growth of Science

As modern science grows, accumulates experimental evidence, and enjoys increasing success in manipulating and predicting events, it becomes ever more entrenched as our paradigm for what counts as knowledge or even rational belief. Along with a growing tendency to rely primarily on observation and experience comes a rise in skepticism directed toward unobservable entities such as mind and soul. No one has epitomized this skeptical attitude more thoroughly, or employed it with more devastating results, than David Hume. Although there is a tendency among scholars today to avoid the image of Hume as an unrestrained and wholly destructive skeptic, certainly he remains a model of the skepticism characteristic of modern thought. His insistence that any expectation of survival after the death of the body can find no ground in reason or experience constitutes a serious assault on the complacency of those who seek refuge from threatened annihilation in the views of Plato, Saint Thomas, or Descartes. Hume’s skeptical analysis has two main prongs: an attack on the idea of substance followed by a series of arguments leading to the conclusion that expectation of survival after the death of the body is unreasonable and bootless.

Hume’s attack on the soul or mind, conceived as a separate substance, is grounded in his commitment to empiricism. Basically, his position is that our ideas are copies of impressions that we receive through the senses, or compounds and combinations of these sense impressions. If we lack a sense impression, we can have no corresponding idea (Hume 1977:13). Hume next points out that we have no sense impression of the mental beyond our experience of various mental states, such as intellection, judging, willing, doubting, and emotion. These kinds of experiences exhaust our impressions of the mental; we have no impression of a separately existing substance that supports all of these mental activities or in which they inhere. As we have no such impression, we have no such idea, and hence no ground for supposing that such a thing exists; nor can we have any idea of such a substance, because an idea is a copy of an impression, and we have no such impression. Thus Hume (2000:164-65) sets out to undermine the notion of a separable substance that might go on existing after death.

The second prong of Hume’s battery of arguments against immortality consists of a moral argument and a series of analogies. The moral argument examines the view that immortality is required in order for the virtuous and the vicious to receive their just rewards. In reply, Hume (1965:162-63) contends that, as every effect has a cause, and that cause has a cause of which it is the effect, so back until we reach the first cause of all, God. Given that God is, ultimately, the cause of everything, all things that happen are ordained by God, and so nothing can rightly be visited with God’s punishment or vengeance. Hume also puts into question the idea of eternal damnation by invoking our intuition that in cases of just retribution there should be some relation of proportionality between the offense and its punishment. He then asks how, given that we are so morally frail, human beings could commit any offenses warranting eternal damnation (p. 164).

Finally, Hume develops a series of analogies drawn from nature to discredit the idea that the soul might survive the death of the body. One of the more interesting is the idea that the waxing and waning of the soul parallel the growth and degeneration of the body: In infancy, when the body is weak, so is the soul or mind. As the body gains maturity and strength, so does the soul. As the body slips into the degeneracy of old age, so the mind begins its slide toward senility. Finally, the body dies; if the proportionality between mind and body holds, then the next logical step would be to suppose that the mind or soul dies as well. As Hume (1965) himself so bluntly puts it, “The last symptoms which the mind discovers, are disorder, weakness, insensibility, and stupidity; the forerunners of its annihilation” (p. 165).

Hume continues his attack on the idea of immortality by pointing out that no form of life survives in conditions very different from the original ones in which it is found; trees perish in water, fishes in the air, men in the earth. Why, then, think that a change so great as the death of the body, which is the environment of the soul, would have no significant effect on the soul? Surely it would be more just to suppose precisely the opposite: that when the body dies, the soul perishes as well (Hume 1965:166).

Hume concludes his series of arguments with a consideration of change as a general feature of the universe. Everything, no matter how firm it may seem at the moment, is subject to change. It comes into being and passes away. The universe itself shows signs of its possible decay. Why suppose that one thing, the mind or soul, apart from all else found in nature, is exempt from the principle that governs all else? We do not experience its stability or resistance to change. Experience points in precisely the opposite direction: The mind is subject to serious disorders, such as those brought on by stroke, mental illness, senility, or physical injury. Judging on the basis of experience, we ought to conclude that the fate of all else within the order of nature befalls what we call the mind or soul as well. When the body dies, according to Hume (1965:166-67), so do we, including our mind or soul.

One could object, with some justice, that Hume employs an empirical standard when dismissing the likelihood of the continued existence of the soul. It is, then, little wonder that the soul fails the test, because the soul, if it exists at all, certainly does not exist as the sort of thing that might be known through empirical investigation relying on the senses. Thus the idea that we have no impression of mental substance demonstrates nothing, because if there were such a substance it would be, by its very nature, imperceptible. There is something like this seeming arbitrariness in many of Hume’s arguments, and he deploys these arguments with telling effect in dismissing the intelligibility of the mind or soul and a good many other things as well. Perhaps what Hume does best is make us acutely aware of the limits of intelligibility within the framework of a thoroughgoing empiricism applied in a ruthlessly consistent way.

The appropriateness of Hume’s universal application of empirical standards to all things, including supposed metaphysical entities, has been the subject of significant criticism. It seems undeniable, however, that Hume expresses a powerful strand of the modern outlook formed by the rise of the empirical sciences, their ascendance and eventual edging out of the religious point of view, and finally their hegemony over the entire intellectual landscape. Some empiricist philosophers of the 20th century saw Hume as their forerunner, and there has been a resurgence of interest in his philosophical ideas over the past hundred years. His view is representative of much of the current philosophical thinking concerning the fate of the soul after the body dies.

What kind of attitude toward our impending death is appropriate? The simple and straightforward answer, of which I think Hume would approve, is that impending death puts us in a position to accept the plain, brute, and unalterable fact of our mortality. It isn’t that Hume denies the possibility of survival beyond the death of the body; he allows that anything other than an outright self-contradiction is possible. Rather, he denies that there is any basis in reason or experience for belief in survival beyond bodily death. We would do well, then, to accept our finitude and adjust our expectations to what we can reasonably hope for. What we can reasonably hope for is a relatively long, healthy, and vigorous life, and a death as free from pain as possible. If this seems like cold comfort, remember that Hume himself demonstrated the viability of his own view. By his conduct in the face of death, Hume showed us that we can live this attitude and that by doing so we can command the respect of those we love and who care for us (Mossner 1980:589-603). In Hume’s account, the appropriate attitude toward death is one of humility; if we successfully cultivate this perspective on mortality, we finally come to understand that the universe is not as horrified as we are by the idea that it might have to get along without us.

Existentialism and Death: One’s Ownmost Possibility that Cannot Be Outstripped

Human finitude, and particularly concern for our mortal nature, took a new turn in the 20th century, when it became a central theme in European philosophy. The German thinker Martin Heidegger made facing up to one’s own death a crucial element of his philosophy. Heidegger holds that a confrontation with one’s own finitude is an indispensable feature of the human project, and that without it one is unable to achieve an authentically human life. For Heidegger, many, perhaps most, of us will live inauthentic lives, mostly due to our evasiveness concerning our own finitude. Living an authentic, fully human life involves an unavoidable confrontation with the death that is one’s own.

According to Heidegger, generally and for the most part, Dasein (roughly, Heidegger’s term for human being) avoids facing up to its mortal nature by means of diverting its attention away from thoughtful consideration of its death.Dasein finds itself thrown into a world, into a situation that it did not choose and had no hand in creating, and immerses itself in the everyday objects and projects that it encounters. Its understanding of its own conditions and projects is provided by the “they,” an anonymous, public understanding that Dasein finds ready-made and that it is strongly encouraged to accept without question. A prefabricated understanding of and involvement in the objects and projects of the everyday divert us from confronting the nature of our finitude. By losing ourselves in everydayness, we shield ourselves from seeing that our own existence, as well as our way of existing, is not a mere given but an issue for us. Without such an understanding, authenticity, in Heidegger’s (1962:303) sense of the word, is unattainable.

We tend to lose ourselves in the everyday existence of the “they,” and this anonymous, public understanding discourages us from being attentive to our own finitude and the fact that we must (and will) die. This anonymous, public understanding insists that such concern is morbid, useless, or unhealthy, but it is not entirely successful in diverting Dasein’s attention (Heidegger 1962:223). The experience of anxiety calls us away from our involvement with the objects of everydayness and the concerns of the “they.” Anxiety is similar to fear, a strong emotion that is difficult to ignore, but whereas fear has an object, anxiety does not, so it takes our attention away from involvement with things and other people and throws us back upon ourselves. As Stephen Mulhall (1996) puts it:

In effect, then, anxiety plunges Dasein into an anxiety about itself in the face of itself. Since in this state particular objects and persons within the world fade away and the world as such occupies the foreground, then the specific structures of the they-world must also fade away. Thus anxiety can rescue Dasein from its fallen state, its lostness in the “they”; it throws Dasein doubly back upon itself as a being for whom its own Being is an issue, and so as a creature capable of individuality. (P. 110)

In this way, anxiety constitutes an opportunity for Dasein to divest itself of its involvement in the everyday, to rid itself (at least temporarily) of the understanding that is articulated for it by the “they,” and to confront its own finitude.

The encounter of Dasein with its own finitude is an indispensable element of authenticity. If I respond to the experience of anxiety, then I find myself facing “that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped” (Heidegger 1962:294), that is, my own upcoming death. It is one’s ownmost possibility in the sense that only I can die my death, and no other can substitute for me; in this sense, death is the ultimate form of individuation. Others, of course, can die in my place, but this does not exempt me from dying my own death, it only postpones the moment when I must die. It is also isolation, in the sense that I must die on my own; no one can accompany me into my death, although they may be there beside me as I die. And this possibility cannot be outstripped; I cannot successfully avoid it, and it is not an option that I could choose to reject. By threatening to bring to a close all of Dasein’s possibilities, it reveals that Dasein’s own existence is an issue for itself.

Dasein’s realization that its own existence is an issue for itself focuses attention on the fact that, for the most part, any issues that surround Dasein’s existence have been left in the hands of others; that is, Dasein has not authentically appropriated its own existence. This awareness opens up the opportunity for Dasein to make its existence its own rather than a mere reflection of understandings and engagements preapproved by the “they.” In order to do this, Dasein must choose for itself its own way of life, must endorse its own engagements selected from among its genuine possibilities. Authenticity, in this sense, involves the acceptance of responsibility for that into which one is thrown (for these conditions establish, in large part, what one’s genuine possibilities are), as well as for the projections one makes and the possibilities one chooses on the basis of that thrownness. This shouldering of responsibility, instead of relying on the “they” to provide understanding in these matters, is what makes authenticity a possibility for Dasein. Dasein becomes authentic when it resolves to endorse and make its own the choice of its possibilities on the basis of its own thrownness (Heidegger 1962:343-44). The attitude that we should adopt toward our own impending death is to keep it constantly before our minds, giving it the concernful attention it deserves if it is to play its role effectively in making a humanly authentic existence possible.

Heidegger incorporates human finitude, the death of the human person, into the life of Dasein by making death integral to authentic human existence and wholeness. He does not suggest that there might be something awaiting us after the body dies; he offers no hope of a continuation of Dasein’s existence after death. To find fault with Heidegger for this would be to miss the point; it is the fact of our finitude that gives us the possibility of being authentically human.

Heidegger’s view of death and its importance for an authentic form of human life has been criticized for being excessively focused on the self and the meaning that death has for that self. Although Heidegger acknowledges that a human way of being is always being among others, he largely ignores the importance of being with others in his consideration of the central role played by death in the achievement of authenticity. What is important is my death; the death of others is a secondary matter, and may even be part of that evasiveness that prevents me from facing up to my own finitude. In relation to his concern for death, Heidegger represents Dasein’s concern for and relationships with others mainly as impediments that obstruct Dasein’s possibilities for coming to grips with its finite nature. But the criticism loses some of its bite if Heidegger is right in his characterization of the “they” and everydayness as ways of fleeing from a confrontation with our own mortality.


All of the philosophical views that I have discussed in this chapter represent distinct ways of coming to terms with the fact that we die. Most Western thinkers have abandoned Plato’s account of reincarnation, but similar ideas are still a central feature of much Eastern philosophy. None of these ideas concerning our postmortem fate has achieved hegemonic status. Hume has his adherents, as does Descartes, and theologians and philosophers continue to debate and elaborate upon the issues surrounding resurrection. These, along with Heidegger’s strategy for making death meaningful even if we do not ultimately overcome it, all remain live options from the philosophical point of view. Not all philosophical problems are without solutions, but there is at present no prospect for a consensus concerning the matter of what is, ultimately speaking, in store for us when we come to our end.