On this philosophical episode of Lifespan News, Ryan O’Shea discusses the continuity of consciousness and asks what death is really like.
I want you to imagine, for a moment, what death is like. If you’re like many people, you may be picturing nothingness – an abyss, a void, or an eternal sleep – in essence, a permanent lack of consciousness. But does this make sense? We’ll explore this topic, and respond to a recent podcast from Sam Harris, on this episode of Lifespan News!
Sam Harris, the well-known neuroscientist, author, and podcast host recently released an episode of his Making Sense podcast titled “The Paradox of Death”. In it, he rearticulated and seemed to endorse the idea of “generic subjective continuity” described by philosopher Thomas Clark in an essay called Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity, which is written from the view of a naturalist and materialist.
According to Clark, this essay is intended to critique a widespread misunderstanding of death as a plunge into oblivion, and I think it does that quite well. But then it concludes with something that Clark admits feels mystical – and I think this is where the argument goes off the rails, and warrants a response from a life extension perspective.
I’m a frequent listener of Sam Harris’ podcast and even though I have disagreements with him I do think it’s typically worth a listen – but I can’t get on board with this take, and I’ll tell you why.
But first, let’s start with where I think that there’s agreement. At the beginning of this, I asked you to imagine what death is like. You may have pictured blackness. Nothingness. In a recent video, I discussed how William Shatner saw the blackness of space on a Blue Origin rocket launch, and described the experience to Jeff Bezos as seeing death, so you may have pictured something like that. But in reality, my request to you doesn’t even make sense. Absent some discovery that changes what we know about death, “dead” isn’t a state that you can be in, because death is the absence of you. It is not like anything to be dead. It’s not something you’ll ever experience, regardless of whether or not you die. You can experience dying. You can’t experience death, and it doesn’t make sense to try to imagine it.
I expect that many of you agree with this so far. And if you don’t, please let me know why in the comments below.
But now, let’s move on to where Clark and Harris lost me with an argument that is said to be derived from naturalism and materialism but does come across as mystical and supernatural, and, at least to me, not as helpful or uplifting as they intend it to be.
And it starts off in a very uncontroversial manner. We’ve all slept. Some of us have been knocked out, or under general anesthesia. So we’ve all undergone periods of altered consciousness or unconsciousness. And from the point of view of the individual consciousness was consistent. You didn’t experience unconsciousness, because that doesn’t make sense. You simply went from a state of consciousness at one time and place to a state of consciousness in another time and place, and you did not experience being unconscious in the meantime. If you did experience something within that gap period, then you weren’t unconscious. This, I think, is easy to understand.
Now, let’s complicate things a bit. During that period of unconsciousness, time passed. Your body aged. Changes, however imperceptible, occurred. In the event of general anaesthesia, perhaps you had a part of your body removed, or replaced with an artificial version, or version from a cadaver, or another still-living human. In this case fairly significant things about you have changed. But when you snap back into consciousness, you are still you. The self, or identity, that existed before unconsciousness is preserved after unconsciousness. This is what Clark refers to as personal subjective continuity.
But how far can we extend this? Let’s imagine that you sign up for cryonics, and are vitrified. Thousands of years later, perhaps on an entirely different planet, you are reanimated. But you didn’t experience those thousands of years. From your perspective, it would likely feel the same as falling asleep last night, and waking up this morning. That personal subjective continuity was preserved across time and distance.
But now let’s say that there were some drastic changes during those thousands of years. Maybe you experienced some deterioration, and memories faded and personality traits were lost. Perhaps you underwent genetic modifications. Maybe well-meaning future scientists removed all the traumas and sadness from your memories, and replaced them with happy fictions that never actually occurred. Maybe they removed old body parts, and replaced them with new ones. How far can we push these changes until whatever snaps into consciousness is no longer you, but someone or something else?
Now we can get into debates about the mind-body problem, and whether or not we are individuals, or if the self is an illusion, or if we even have any basis to claim that we still are the person we were yesterday, and perhaps to be thorough we should get into those things, but for the sake of time we have to pretty much set them aside.
And now, we’ve reached where I begin to disagree with Clark and Harris. It seems that they would argue that there is a point, where enough changes have been made, that that conscious being, post-vitrification, is no longer the identity, the self, that was conscious before – that that personal subjective continuity has been lost. And therefore, in essence, that person has died. And that a new consciousness has taken it’s place. We lost personal subjective continuity, but now we have generic subjective continuity. And Clark argues that this is essentially no different than going to sleep, and having another person wake up in your place. Just as when you fall asleep, there’s no experience of unconsciousness. There’s consciousness in one time and place, and then, at some point later, consciousness in another time and place. The difference here is that, with this awakened consciousness, we’ve lost that personal subjective continuity. From this point of view, consciousness didn’t stop, it just transformed. We have a transformation of the subject.
Perhaps there was a continuity of the physical body – the last link between the subject that was, and the subject that is. But that body doesn’t even have to remain consistent. We mentioned during my cyronics example that perhaps scientists replace a vitrified person’s body parts with new body parts. Let’s imagine that happened in this scenario. Now the memories are different, the perceived identity is different and even the body is different. What went to sleep last night is unrecognizable when compared with what woke up in it’s place. But there was still no experience of unconsciousness. Awareness was just as continuous for these two subjects as it is for you when you go to sleep and then wake up. At least, this is what Clark argues.
And now, we really get into the seemingly mystical.
Clark ends by arguing that this transformation, in which one context of awareness dies, and another arises, with no subjective hiatus in awareness, is no different than if you were to die, and a new human were to be born. One death, and one birth, is akin to the transformation from one subject to another that in our example, occurred during sleep. What’s more, the gap between that death and birth could be millions of years, and galaxies apart. Clark says that Subjectivity would jump that gap just as easily as it jumps the gap from our last experience before sleep to the first upon awakening.
Now, Clark admits that we’ve moved from the fairly uncontroversial fact of the continuity of one person’s experience to what he calls a “ seemingly outlandish”, but I would call fully outlandish, notion that consciousness is impervious to death or any sort of objective interruption.
Now, let me explain where and why I disagree with this. Clark, and by extension Harris, seem to argue that the loss of personal subjective continuity that would occur during the transformation process constitutes the death of one person and the birth of another. I don’t think so. I think that a single being, a single instantiation of consciousness, survived the transformation process. The memories and identity and physical form may be different, but the consciousness is the same. No consciousness died, and no new one was formed.
And here’s what I mean – railroad worker Phineas Gage had an iron rod destroy much of his frontal lobe in the 1840s. He survived, but there were reports that his personality and behaviors had changed, and that his friends saw him as “no longer Gage”. Now there are questions about the extent of that personality change, and of how long it lasted, but regardless of the facts of this actual case, we can imagine a person suffering brain damage to the point that they are indeed changed, their memories are gone, and they are no longer recognizable as the person they once were – neither to themselves, or to others. This doesn’t mean that they died and a new consciousness arose. They didn’t. Regardless of what they remember or what their personality is, a single instantiation of consciousness existed before and exists now. No death occurred.
Brain tumors, amnesia, hypnosis, mental illness – I imagine all of these could theoretically result in a change in memory, identity, or personality that Clark and Harris might be enticed to call a loss of personal subjective continuity, especially if there’s an intervening period of sleep or unconsciousness that separate one state from another – but they don’t constitute a death, or a birth.
My personal take at this point is that you are that single instantiation of consciousness, and it can die, and once that death occurs it does not jump a gap of time and distance to a new being. I want to preserve my personal subjective continuity, but if I wake up tomorrow fully believing that I’m someone else, and with none of my old memories, there was still no death. That’s still what I would call me – a single consciousness – even if what my friends and family knew as me was gone and never to return.
Just to clarify here – if during this period of sleep or suspension my brain were removed and replaced, or a new substrate for consciousness, perhaps an advanced computer, were put in it’s place, then I’d argue that it may be the case that there is actually a new consciousness, not present there before, occupying what was my body. However, I wouldn’t consider that newly awakened consciousness a continuation, in any sense, of the old. It is a separate thing. And my removed brain perhaps could continue elsewhere, with personal subjective continuity, but it’s not the one inhabiting what used to be my body. We’ve lost continuity there.
Clark ends by saying “To identify ourselves with generic subjectivity is perhaps as far as the naturalistic materialist can go towards accepting some sort of immortality. It isn’t conventional immortality (not even as good as living in others’ memory, some might think), since there is no “one” who survives, just the persistence of subjectivity for itself… It is possible that this view may make it easier to cope with the prospect of personal extinction, since, if we accept it, we can no longer anticipate being hurled into oblivion, to face the eternal blackness… We may wear our personalities more lightly, seeing ourselves as simply variations on a theme of subjectivity which is in no danger of being extinguished by our passing. Of course we cannot completely put aside our biologically given aversion to the prospect of death, but we can ask, at its approach, why we are so attached to this context of consciousness. Why, if experience continues anyway, is it so terribly important that it continue within this set of personal characteristics, memories, and body? If we are no longer haunted by nothingness, then dying may seem more like the radical refreshment of subjectivity than its extinction.”
This, I take it, is meant to be comforting. But it’s not. Believing that some consciousness will spring into being at a point in the future, and being told that that’s no different than me falling asleep and waking up as someone else doesn’t do a lot for me. First of all, I do think it’s different, but even if it weren’t, Sure, it might be nice to think about in the same way that knowing that the atoms in our bodies could be recycled time and time again, living on in some sense even in the event of our death. But a loss of personal subjective continuity is what I seek to avoid. It’s what I believe we should all seek to put an end to. Even if that loss of personal continuity isn’t equivalent to death, as I argue it isn’t, it is what makes each of us who we are and who we identify as. And though we will all change over time – your skills, interests, knowledge, and likely appearance will be very different at age 60 than at age 20, for example – even if we’re able to halt the physical aging process – there’s a continuity of consciousness, of a single experience, that we should seek to preserve. So, I’d argue that what proponents of life extension really want to extend isn’t just “life”, or “health”, but a single personal subjective continuity that preserves, at a minimum, memory and identity. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s one we should strive for, and I don’t think we should settle for less than that.
Thank you for watching. This was a very different episode of Lifespan News and I’m very interested to know what you thought, and to know your opinions on this topic. If you think I’m wrong, tell me in the comments, I can take it. Maybe you’ll convince me I’m wrong, and I’d love for that to happen because then I’d have a new, upgraded understanding.
I wrote this quickly after listening to Sam’s podcast and I certainly didn’t have the time to fully articulate and explore my thoughts, and there are so many tangents that I could have went down such as the self and identity, and free will, and the Ship of Theseus, and so much more. And I could go into those in future episodes. But first, I want some feedback from you. If this type of video was at all interesting to you, we can do a lot more of them. And if it wasn’t, we don’t ever have to do them again. So please let us know.
Regardless, we’re going to have a lot more content, and very different content, coming up. So whether you loved this or hated this, I think you’ll want to give the rest of our work a try. So please subscribe. This is Ryan O’Shea, and we’ll see you next time on Lifespan News!