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Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Definitions of Death

The "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy" in an article published on October 26, 2007, includes a comprehensive definition of death. The article is titled, "The Definition of Death," and addresses the following topics and offers additional research information in related bibliographic entries:

1. The Current Mainstream View: The Whole-Brain Approach

2. A Progressive Alternative: The Higher-Brain Approach

2.1 Appeals to the Essence of Human Persons

2.2 Appeals to Personal Identity

2.3 The Claim that the Definition of Death is a Moral Issue

2.4 The Appeal to Prudential Value

3. A Proposed Return To Tradition: An Updated Cardiopulmonary Approach

4. Further Possibilities

4.1 Death as a Process, Not a Determinate Event

4.2 Death as a Cluster Concept not Amenable to Classical Definition

4.3 Death as Separable from Moral Concerns

Bibliography

  • References Cited

  • Other Important Works

Other Internet Resources

Related Entries

Saliba's Metaphysics of Death

I base my views about the metaphysics of death on the ideas about the mechanics of dying (see "Saliba's Mechanics of Dying.") Even though I was formally trained in religion, I am not one who immediately gravitates to ideas based solely on faith. That’s probably because of my personal attraction to the scientific method. Though I rarely reject ideas out of hand, I prefer to ponder them at my leisure and get a feel for how well they hold up to my own scrutiny or doubting mind. One idea that has fascinated me for many years is the possibility of life after death. For that reason I organized and designed ScepticThomas to explore that and similar ideas.

The question about life after death is a complex one that has required a great deal of pondering, research, and analysis. But the question itself is overly general. There are really three questions of interest:

1.       Does something akin to life continue to exist after the death of the body?

2.       Does a recognizable identity of the human being continue after death?

3.       Does the individual’s consciousness continue after death?

After all vital organs cease to function and the body dies, it seems that something of the individual who possessed the body continues to exist. That something appears to be what remains of the life energy that flowed through the circulatory system, kept the heart beating, coursed through the nervous system, and powered the muscles. At the time of death that energy is released into the surroundings. In view of the Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy this idea seems plausible.

So given that some form of energy leaves the body after death, which can never be created nor destroyed, what if anything of the person who inhabited the body constitutes this disembodied energy? If you ask people who consider themselves “sensitives,” they attest to seeing or sensing that energy often in the form of the dead person; even dressed in the clothes they died wearing. Those “sensitives” who claim the ability to communicate with this energy often say that the energy communicates via the identity of the departed individual. But those cases are relatively few, given the numbers of people who have died through the millennia. And even if a “sensitive” claims the ability to communicate with a disembodied energy or spirit, it is difficult to prove that what the “sensitive” sees or hears is an actual remnant of a particular human being.

Ghost hunters who generally do not consider themselves “sensitives” or seers go to great lengths to prove or disprove the existence of spirits. They employ the latest technological devices to help study Electro Magnetic Fields, unusual temperature variances, or auditory peculiarities. They even distinguish between apparitions and hauntings, explaining that hauntings are imprints or recordings somehow left behind by some significant event that lacks the characteristics of true apparitions. They view true apparitions as energy that communicates to the living and is capable of receiving communication from the living. In such cases, the energy seems to retain some of the identity of the original deceased.

But of the millions of human beings who have passed from the living to the dead and who have never shown any unusual signs so typical of apparitions, what of their existence? Have they simply died and disappeared into a world described by classic religion or metaphysics? Do they retain their original identities and simply go to heaven or hell beyond view of the living? Do they transmigrate into a newly forming zygote or fetus to be born anew? Do they displace the “souls” of people who are already alive (spiritual walk-ins)? These are questions we cannot answer without the ability to communicate with those particular energies.

There is life after death. The same energy that flows through our living bodies continues to exist after we die. It permeates the world around us and perhaps travels through space. It mutates as it energizes inanimate objects or other living beings; it traverses the atmosphere whole or it dissipates into the heavens, but even in an entropic state it never ceases to exist. That life energy that once kept our hearts beating and our brains thinking ultimately, as the say, becomes one with the universe.

The question about whether or not an individual’s consciousness continues intact after death is central to understanding our inevitable fate. Who cares if we exist as disembodied spirits and retain our identities in the eyes of seers and other “gifted” people who have “special powers.” The answer to that question is true Transcendentalists. The problem is that most of us are not true Transcendentalists. What is vital to the mass of humanity is the reassurance that if our life energy continues to live after death it retain its consciousness and self-awareness. Why? Because conscious self awareness is what makes us human; consciousness and self awareness are what make us cognizant of our personal identities and those of others. Our basic instinct to survive is inseparable from our need to retain our identity. Our fear of aging and losing the vitality of our youth stems from that same drive. Perhaps we have invented our heavens and hells in a desperate attempt to protest to the universe that we somehow want to live forever and keep our awareness about it—“or what’s a heaven for?” Eternal life is meaningless without a faculty for conscious awareness. Meaningless. I will come back to this point.

Because consciousness and self-awareness are part and parcel of the physical body, once that body ceases to function no consciousness or self-awareness exists. The mechanism for the devolution of self and mind starts when the body dies and the brain loses its capacity to think. At that point consciousness fades and takes with it our self awareness. Consciousness sinks into a state of personal unconsciousness, where our initial and basic instincts reside. As the energy that once gave us vitality exits the body, what is left of our personal unconsciousness finally reverts to the condition of “collective unconsciousness.” And according to Jung’s theory of psychology, all that remain are the patterns, analogies, and archetypes common to all human minds.

As the life energy exits the body to pass into another existence, the conscious mind returns to its original and eternal state of unconsciousness. In its return to a collective unconscious state the conscious mind deposits something of its personal identity into that sea of collective unconscious. What the individual consciousness contributes is an imprint perhaps, or something akin to the same patterns, analogies, and archetypes that characterize the collective unconscious of humanity. It contributes some identity marker, like the fragment of a genetic code, to index its former existence. What is left of a former conscious existence returns to the unconscious where it can contribute to future emerging conscious beings. In that sense there is eternal life after death. The identity of the deceased exists only in the constellated memories of all the living who have been or, at some point in the future, will become aware of the deceased's identity.

I stated previously that eternal life is meaningless without a faculty for conscious awareness. By the same token, death is meaningless without the same faculty. If we are members among the ranks of the faithful, we can “believe” that when we die we will be aware of ourselves and our surroundings. We can believe that both life and death are meaningful. But we can only believe; we cannot actually know. If it turns out that our beliefs are misplaced and we are wrong about consciousness and self awareness after death, we can argue that eternal life and death are meaningless. But “meaningless” should not be considered a pejorative or fatalistic term. Life and death, like poetry, do not require “meaning” in order to possess worth, dignity, and relevance. They do not require meaning in order to torture us with pain or terrorize us with fear. They do not require meaning in order to stimulate the imagination or give pleasure. It is sufficient that life and death simply be.