So I was having a philosophical discussion The De Anza Philosophy Club with members Pedro Enriquez Alberto and Austin Riley Green, and a topic came up which, although I wish we had more time to discuss it, reminded me of how deceptively simple certain core features of life such as "death" and "existence" can be. For example, one can say with confidence that there comes a moment when a life form, such as a human, is definitely dead. Yet does this mean that death, as a meaningful concept, actually occurred? In this post I will examine this issue more in depth.
Consider first the cells of the body, which although they still die, we consider the human to still be alive; rather than saying "they died a little", or when they grow new cells, "they became a little more alive", we disregard the death and regeneration of cells as units which only have meaning in relation to the concept of "death" when they sustain the body as a whole. Thus, cells dying is not considered the death of the human, but a heart stopping, or a brain ceasing to function, might be considered definitive means of gauging death; furthermore, as Austin noted, eventually all the cells will totally die without a living body to support them, and the consciousness will fade into oblivion long before that.
But let's take things a bit further: If the body is a form by which we define matter that fulfills characteristics necessary for us to deem a thing "living", or more specifically, "human", then limiting what entity can experience "death", or the death of which can be experienced as such by others, is arbitrary. After all, we have already determined that although cells die, it is not cells that experience or relate to death, but humans. So expanding this further, we can say that if a person dies, but their ethnicity, culture, religion, or to be as comprehensive and biologically accurate as possible- their species- will continue to live. The species- for this is where the ultimatum of the unit of humanity is most complete- does not "die a little bit" or "live a little bit more" when the mortality rate, life expectancy, or birthrate change. The human species, if we were to directly compare to how we view the human body, simply exists or does not exist.
This does not of course say death does not exist, or has not occurred. Rather, it means that death does not have the meaning that people suggest it has. After all, people do not experience their own death- they are alive up until the moment they are not, and their death is not experienced or appreciated by themselves, but by other people. Thus, one cannot experience death in the individual sense, even though it occurs. This is the same as how one cannot experience the death of one's cells because you are not actively aware of their death, nor the loss of their parting, and you are not aware of their regeneration, nor appreciate the gain of the new life thereof. So essentially, when we speak of "death", we are speaking of a death that is not experienced, because we are not referring to the body dying at all- for which death is not experienced- but for the LOSS of a member of society, of family, of friendship, etc.
This is intriguing, because it follows from my hypothesis, introduced both at the beginning of this post, and also in the philosophy meeting, that death as actually experienced (the appreciable concept of death) does not actually refer to the ceasing of a discrete body, as people generally think of it as, and which is plainly obvious "common sense" to what Pedro referred to as the "Collective Subjectivism" of societies and cultures, but to the loss of a "cell" of society; thus, while people may perceive the person as dying in terms of a discrete body, the actual experience of death they are having is more akin to the death of a sociocultural cell than to the death of a body.
So why do we experience loss of a "cell" of society in this manner, when don't feel the same type of loss of our own bodily cells, given how appropriate the analogy is for describing the actual experience of death? The answer lies in communication: we aren't able to communicate with our cells, as they do not have consciousness, but we can communicate with other humans, as they have separate consciousness. As such, what we are actually differentiating, and thus the reason for giving privilege to the appreciation of the death of other humans, is the loss of consciousness, and thus of communication and interaction with other human beings which we previously benefited from sharing ourselves with, and became sufficiently attached to, resulting in the feeling of loss. When compounded to the sociocultural level, a collective subjective viewpoint on death based on the prevalent experiences of loss for people who have had loved ones die, conditions us to associate death in such a manner.
This perspective is further supported by the fact that people treat the death of other living things differently than the death of humans. Animals which humans perceive as being closer to them (such as cats and dogs) are perceived as dying more than animals which humans consume for meat, and plants are barely perceived as dying at all- often we only can conceive of a plant being "killed" when the death of plants is critically evaluated. Having established an alternative explanation for "what is death", and why we understand death differently than we actually experience it, I will now move to an evolutionary explanation for the paradox concerning the subjective interpretation and experience of death.Human beings are optimized for survival, as evidenced by our ability to thrive after millions of years of natural selection.
One characteristic which has proven more than any other to be critical to the success of the human species has been the ability to consciously communicate with each other, share experiences and preserve them through language; this was later expanded through technology to writing, and since then technology has accelerated our ability to communicate, resulting in the most amazing technological advances in the world. Drawing from these facts, I note that as death as-actually-experienced (not as a discrete body, but as a member of society) requires communication and the preservation (through memory) of the record of each others' ideas, beliefs, values, and character. This social memory of individuals, coupled with the need to recognize their death in order to motivate the preservation of the contents of their existence, is what makes culture possible. The collective experience of death as a loss of the community is thus the cornerstone of humanity.
I believe this explanation is good because it affirms what Pedro noted about the value of collective subjectivism, recognizes Austin's conception of a discrete unit (a human body) dying, while still holding to my own conception of death, which recognizes every layer of death as relative and objectively true, but only challenging the way that we understand death as-actually-experienced. The cell dies, the body dies, the culture dies, the species (though thankfully not human) dies, but we should recognize and appreciate death not how it is materially presented to us, which is superficial and misleading, but through the emotional response to a sociocultural loss, which is the true experience of death that we are actually identifying as death, even if we do not consciously affirm it as such.
To quote Plato on a topic which I resonate strongly with on this topic,
"He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is."
(From Plato's "Symposium")
Death is not an emotional reality, (*LOSS* on the other hand is a very real and devastating experience that I am very familiar with and has nothing intrinsically to do with death!); rather death is a culturally transmitted interpretation of the permanent loss of bodily functionality. I don't believe in death because what people describe as death isn't death at all but rather the loss of life, and what is actually experienced as a result of death has nothing to do with the end of bodily functionality at all, but the resulting social disconnect. In other words, people conflate death with loss, and as a result fear what is not and cannot be experienced (death) while not truly acknowledging and appreciating what is actually experienced (loss); additionally, this conflation causes people to take life for granted because they are more focused on fearing what they cannot experience (death) instead of savoring the limited time of what is experienced (life and the loss thereof).
In many cultures, they celebrate death because they recognize that to fear death or escape thoughts of it is distorting the nature of life and as a result causes people to take it for granted. I believe this is one of the reasons why there is so much violence and killing in the United States, because our distorted conception of death has caused us to lose our love and respect for life. Again, by understanding it as death instead of as loss, we misunderstand both, and that is what I take issue with.