Few phenomena lead people to philosophy (as the love of or search for wisdom, not necessarily as an academic discipline) like the fact of our own deaths. Most of the things we might seek in life – especially happiness – we will cease to have when we die, or so it seems. This fact is sobering; our choice is to be aware of it (and therefore be in some sense philosophical) or to be caught unawares, die unprepared and miserable. For that reason Plato said that philosophy is the practice of death; today, we don’t have enough of a culture of death, enough to prepare us for this fact.
What then should we do about our impending death? The most common answers typically involve the supernatural, with belief in an afterlife. Christians will speak of an afterlife in heaven, Buddhists of rebirth. So all we have to do is be good in this lifetime (or ask forgiveness for our sins), and we’ll be able to continue “living” well after death. Such a view is comforting. Unfortunately, I don’t have any reason to believe it true. I’ve heard it argued that we really don’t know enough about consciousness to say that it ends with death. That may well be so. But we also don’t know enough to say that anything else happens to it, either – certainly nothing like the graphic hells that, according to Śāntideva, await those with sufficiently bad karma. In terms of any sort of survival of the self after death, it seems to me, the very best we can do is agnosticism, and perhaps not even that.
But if death really is – or might be – the end of each individual, then what? Continue reading