To preface this, I’d like to reassure anyone reading this that my health is good and I have no expectation of dying soon. However, going by years, my life is more than half over. Barring a breakthrough in life extension, I probably don’t have more than three decades left. That means I think about death occasionally. Getting my thoughts into a public essay helps to clarify them.
I’m an atheist. I have no reason to believe that my personality will survive my body’s death. This is depressing but also reassuring. It must be a terrible thing to think that if God isn’t satisfied with how you lived, He’ll torture you for all eternity. When I’m dead, it won’t bother me any more than it bothers any other dead person right now. It’s dying — the knowledge that everything’s coming to an end and the suffering that usually goes with it — which is frightening. Sometimes I think the best thing would be to live in perfect health and then drop dead unexpectedly at an advanced age. But when I realize the best way to accomplish that is to be murdered, it doesn’t sound so attractive. There’s really no such thing as a pleasant end to life.
But what I want to focus on here is how to think of the time I’m alive, the time before I was born, and the time after I’m dead. I’ll use the first person singular here, because the third person has gotten so awkward in English, but it applies to me, you, and everyone else, and because “we” sounds so pompous. The time I’m alive feels unique in the universe, like something that’s never happened before and never will again. Yet every person who has ever lived has felt this way. It’s the way consciousness works. I have direct access only to my own consciousness and have only circumstantial evidence that others are conscious.
Please understand what I mean by circumstantial evidence. In detective stories it’s supposed to be dubious and untrustworthy. In fact, it’s a huge part of how we understand things, and it’s admissible in court. It simply means evidence which arises from the situation, as opposed to direct observation. I can’t directly observe another mind. (Observing brain waves isn’t the same thing.) I can’t experience what it is to be John Malkovich. However, I know that other people have minds and are in the same situation. My uniqueness is only the product of my perspective.
Before I lived and after I live, that perspective doesn’t exist. Only those who are alive at the time experience it. As long as the universe can sustain conscious life, the minds that exist at any moment experience it. Each one is an “I” experiencing concern that it will come to an end.
It’s the process of coming to an end which is hard. I want to go on and on, but I have to recognize that my experience is bounded by time. I’m reminded of the lines in Brahms’ German Requiem, though they put the issue in religious terms: “Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß, und mein Leben ein Ziel hat, und ich davon muß.” (But, Lord, teach me that I must come to an end, and my life has a goal, and I must depart from it.”) Goals are what give a life a point. One of the worst things must be to recognize that death is coming but nothing has been accomplished. Worse yet is to die having betrayed one’s goals. It’s better to die sooner than to bargain away central values for a little more time.
Goals give my life continuity. When others share them, my perspective continues to a certain extent through them. This is what my song “Bury Me Under a Star” (in The Retune of the Mad Scientist) is about: “The treasures I will leave behind / Are those which reach some other mind.” In a metaphorical sense, I’m reincarnated as those who share my values.
Does this mean I’ve reached philosophical equanimity about death? Far from it. These thoughts give me a certain amount of acceptance. That’s as much as anyone can hope for.