Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Death is the opposite of life; and by extension, death is the end of life. That is mainly a definition of physical death that Edmund Spencer would likely agree with. In his epic poem, "The Faerie Queene," Spencer put it this way, "All things decay in time, and to their end do draw." In contrast there is a metaphysical concept of death. Some religions view death as the beginning of life; this view is most evident in the Christian beliefs of resurrection and rapture. The emphasis for Christianity is on the spiritual rather than on the physical. But religions that believe in reincarnation seem to engender both the physical and the spiritual by  viewing the soul as migrating from one physical entity to another. There are also legal and ethical concepts of death. These depend simultaneously on specific definitions of life. For example, most people will agree that a zygote is a living organism. But some would argue that a human zygote represents the beginning of human life (it has a "soul") and should not be aborted; while others believe that human life begins only outside the womb. These differing views eventually inform the moral and sometimes the legal definitions of death.

In the United States, the legal and medical definitions of death were determined by The Uniform Determination of Death Act. This act was ratified by the American Medical Association in 1980 and by the American Bar Association in 1981. The Act states that: "An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards."

The subject of death has been both attractive and repelling to philosophers, poets, lyricists, clerics, and everyday human beings. For years authors, famous and not, have been writing on the subject of death. This literature sitting in pods storage or lining library shelves around the world to this day. Some are intrigued by the obvious "loss" of something ineffable, apparent for example in the stillness of a dead bird. Others are driven to madness by thoughts of their own the mere thought that once they are gone they may one day be forgotten until the end of times. Human responses to the subject of death have been studied by psychologists, scientists, and spiritualists. No matter what your personal relationship is with the subject, it's a sure bet that you are not neutral in your views about death. The question is how specifically do you relate to death.

This controversial subject is capable of bringing out extremes in human behavior. Some behaviors are socially acceptable while others are obviously so aberrant they qualify the individual for incarceration or execution. At ScepticThomas we are interested in exploring as many of these views and behaviors as we can find.

Saliba's Mechanics of Dying

At the simplest physical level, death is the termination of life. Physical death occurs when all bodily organs cease to function. This view takes into account the vegetative state known as brain death; the heart and other internal organs continue to function, but there is nothing left of the original personality or what we used to see as the person’s “identity.” All that is left is a seemingly empty shell.

That’s where I start when I consider what death is. That identity or personality that leaves the body behind is the same thing we call consciousness. I find it difficult to philosophize about death without first taking into consideration the nature of consciousness. I always find myself consulting the works of Carl Jung whenever I try to make sense of the ontology of "life" and "mind." The issue is that we cannot properly define death without first determining what it is that makes up the life of a human being (or even the life of an animal). And for me a natural starting point is the model of the mind that Jung describes.

Jung’s model of the mind is a balance between the conscious and the unconscious. Together these two aspects make up the total personality of the individual. The only real difference between the two is that the conscious mind manifests as the interface between the individual and the rest of the world. It is the part of the mind that ostensibly presents itself to the world as the outward personality or identity of the individual. The unconscious mind is the impulse behind the scenes. It is responsible for connecting the individual with the rest of humanity’s basic nature. It is part of what Jung calls the “collective unconscious” that shares a commonality with all minds that came before and all minds that will come in the future. We cannot interface with the unconscious mind directly or see all of its potential simply by using any of our five senses. It communicates in a completely different way from that of the conscious mind. In effect, it speaks a different language and telegraphs symbolic or archetypal images to influence the behavior of the conscious mind.

When a person is in a vegetative state (PVS) and considered brain dead, it is clear that the conscious mind no longer exists. But as long as the body remains alive, I believe that the unconscious mind is still functioning. That leads me to believe that true death is achieved only when both parts of the mind cease to function.

I focus on brain death because for me it is easier to philosophize about death if I attempt my own method of reengineering. Because I am still a conscious being I am limited to making assumptions and drawing conclusions only through some form of logical progression. However, I do believe that my logic is somehow influenced by input from my unconscious mind; I just cannot prove it or do much else than consider that idea a premise.

As a very young child I used to try to imagine what death might be like. I had the idea that it was probably akin to what life is like prior to fertilization. So I used to try to think really hard to see if I could sense who or what I was before I was conceived. My conclusion was that I was unaware or “unconscious” prior to existence, so I figured after I died I would experience the same thing. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the experience as a child to articulate my ideas. As an adult, I really don’t find much to disagree with about my original thinking. But thanks to the work of Carl Jung, I feel now that I can offer an articulate thesis on death based on my childhood ideas.

I begin with the premise that the “collective unconscious” exists. All human beings (and perhaps all sentient life) are connected by this essence—this essential prima materia of life. I don’t think it necessarily means anything beyond itself, but I believe it exists and is eternal. If we all share this common essence even before we are conceived, then what Sigmund Freud says about the emergence of consciousness is as good an analogy as any. Freud sees the newborn as pure “id.” As the child grows, his “ego” begins to emerge from the “id.” I view Freud’s “id” as roughly analogous to Jung’s “unconscious”; and Freud’s “ego” as roughly analogous to Jung’s “conscious.” Using this analogy all human beings start life as unconscious entities; their personalities emerge from an unconscious state to a fully conscious and unique identity. They are individuals with both unconscious and conscious aspects, but how they relate to the rest of the world is apparently through their conscious minds. Think of the unconscious mind as existing behind the scenes, much in the same way that any other hidden infrastructure works (the operating system in a computer; the mechanism of a watch; the electric, plumbing, and mechanical in a house; the vital organs of the body).  

Death is the natural reversal of life. Life emerges from the “collective unconscious,” forms into an “individual unconscious” at fertilization, and eventually fully blossoms into a “conscious” and vibrant existence; with its “personal unconscious” thriving in the background and balancing the individual’s personality. Death occurs in the opposite way. Death begins with the conscious reverting to its “individual unconscious” beginnings and eventually merging into its “collective unconscious” existence, thereby extinguishing all that was recognizable as the person or identity we once knew.

For "Saliba's Metaphysics of Death," click the Philosophy tab.

May we suggest that you start your exploration of the subject of death by visiting these curious sites: