Death, Time, and Other Minds


Death, Time, and Other Minds


It is often said that we are “social animals”. What seems to be intended is twofold: we have an emotional craving for human contact, and we are similar to other social animals in this respect.  [1] Both observations are surely correct, but could there be anything more to our gregarious disposition? Does it reflect any deeper need? I want to suggest that death comes into it—death and consciousness. We seek the company of others because of our peculiar relationship with our own consciousness and its extinction. Suppose you were the last man alive, indeed the last sentient organism alive: when you die consciousness dies too—all of it. Suppose also that it will not return: that will be the end of the line for consciousness, with the universe reverting to its pre-conscious state. That seems like a momentous annihilation. It is bad enough that you yourself will be gone—that localized center of consciousness—but in addition the entire field of consciousness will be no more. If the bleakness of your solitary existence inclines you to suicide, you need to consider that your decision also concerns consciousness itself. Presumably consciousness is a thing of value, maybe the only thing of value, so you will be putting this valuable thing out of existence for good—in addition to your individual self. This would not be so if there were other centers of consciousness in existence; then your death would not be the end of consciousness as such. And not only is the cessation of consciousness tragic; it is also mind-bending—hard to get your mind around. Suddenly there will be nothing but brute existence with no conscious record of it: and the idealist in you rebels and reels at the thought. The universe is now empty. The same feeling applies if you simply don’t know whether there is anybody else: so far as you are concerned, your death could be the death of consciousness as such. It will be worse if this is so than if other centers of consciousness exist. The case is like species extinction: the death of the last mongoose is worse than the death of one mongoose among other mongooses—and consciousness is far more significant than the mongoose species (sorry mongooses, I mean no disrespect). The extinction of all consciousness is a pretty big deal, a major cosmic catastrophe. A lot hangs on your continued existence.

            But isn’t our actual predicament disturbingly similar to this? There are two factors at work: first-person salience, and the problem of other minds. For obvious reasons our own consciousness seems the most real to us—the most in your face. It is right here, up very close and personal: we are saturated in it. The consciousness of others, by contrast, is remote and occluded. So when my consciousness goes the most conspicuous instance of consciousness goes: its absence will be all too evident, because there won’t even be a hint of it from my point of view (since my point of view is gone). This bias towards my own consciousness feeds into the second factor: I don’t really know that other people have consciousness. Maybe they don’t, in which case when mine disappears that’s it for consciousness in general. So my death is particularly critical so far as the existence of consciousness is concerned, since I am the only clear and indisputable case of it. For all I know, my death is the death of all consciousness—that is an epistemic possibility. It would be good to be assured that this is not the actual situation—other minds do exist. And it would be good to know this in the context of impending death—especially death by suicide. Then I could calculate the cosmic momentousness of my own death. Of course, given the difficulty of the problem of other minds, combined with first-person salience, I am not going to obtain the information I seek, so I have to go to my grave not knowing if my end is the end of everything worthwhile. But it would be natural for me at least to try to gain an impression of consciousness elsewhere—to feel the existence of consciousness in other beings even if I can never prove it. Thus I might naturally seek out the company of others: I might try to sense the existence of other minds as strongly as possible. This will be particularly true while I am on my deathbed, but it could also be a lifelong project. I want to believe in other minds because this will give me the feeling that my death is not the death of all consciousness, so I pursue social relations with a particular intensity. We are social beings in part because we are mortal beings haunted by the problem of other minds. Our access to our own consciousness, by contrast to other centers of consciousness, is what (partly) fuels our propensity to social intercourse (which includes sexual intercourse). We nurture a kind of cosmic altruism in relation to other instances of consciousness that conditions our attitude toward death. We want to go on individually, of course, but we also want consciousness to go on, and we can’t be certain that it will, given the problem of other minds.

            This consideration may seem a bit high-minded, as well as suspiciously abstract, but there is another more obvious way that the problem of other minds affects our attitude towards death, namely that we need other centers of consciousness to exist in order that we shall carry on. After all, if there are no other minds, then there is no one to remember me. If everyone is a zombie or a robot, then no one will grieve for you, or love you, or remember your precious self (as Achilles grieved so passionately for his murdered friend Patroclos). Imagine if you were to believe that at death your spirit literally flows into the minds of others; then if it turns out that there are no other minds, there is no such flowing going on. You can only have an afterlife if other minds exist—your continuing life depends on their having an inner life (or so you believe). But even if no such literal afterlife is possible, it is still true that each of us requires other minds to exist in order to affect their state after we are gone. If there are no other minds, then my death will be that much worse, because there will be no conscious beings to care about and remember me. Even the production of great works will be meaningless, because there will be no minds around to appreciate them. So I will naturally try to assure myself that other minds are real, insofar as I can—I will attach myself to a social group. I will try to feel part of a collective consciousness. My need for society is thus rooted (in part) in my existential fears and anxieties concerning my own death. I need to feel that I am not alone or else my death will be the complete and utter end of me, with nary a trace remaining. If only I could get hooked up to other minds by some sort of brain linkage and experience them directly! Then I could be sure that my mind is not the only one. As it is I must rely on whatever methods of social contact are available, even if they are not really satisfactory. The life of the hermit leaves me disconcertingly susceptible to skeptical fears regarding my own death: that it might for all I know be the end of all conscious life, and that my own life will definitively end when I die, because it will leave no remnant in the minds of others.  [2]

            It is instructive to consider the case of animals in this connection. Animals don’t ponder the meaning of their death. They don’t see themselves as living a finite lifespan at a specific moment of history, with a beginning and end. It is as if they are immortal from a subjective point of view; they don’t lament their mortality. They don’t regard themselves as part of natural history, as occupying a certain finite stretch of time. They have no conception of time at all as an all-encompassing medium. The relationship between their own short lives and eternity is not apparent to them (we on the other hand are consumed by this relationship). Nor are they afflicted with the problem of other minds, haunting their attitudes towards their eventual death. So nothing of what I said above applies to them. Thus they don’t have any of those reasons to seek the society of others: they don’t have any philosophical reasons to be “social animals”. They are social animals for purely pragmatic reasons: that is just the best way of living for them in the light of their reproductive and survival requirements. They have no need to consider what their personal demise means for consciousness as a whole, nor whether there are minds out there that will fondly dwell on memories of them. So they are social beings for reasons that fall short of our reasons (no doubt we have their kinds of reasons too): we are not social animals in the sense that we are social for no reasons that transcend animal reasons. For us the question of society is mixed up with existential questions—about consciousness, other minds, value, finitude, and the afterlife. This is why the scenario of the last man alive illuminates our actual predicament: it expresses a deep truth about our attitudes towards death. It is as if every human death is, for the subject of that death, the death of the sole example of consciousness. Death forces us to think about the value of consciousness and the reality (or otherwise) of other conscious minds. If the problem of other minds were more of an everyday problem, not just a philosopher’s conundrum, these points would be more evident to us. Suppose a disease came along that renders the victim a functioning zombie, but only with a certain probability: 50% of sufferers literally lose their mind while the remainder is not affected, but you can’t tell which is which. Thus you really don’t know whether your social group is conscious or not—it could be that your entire nation has been turned into zombies. Then your own death will seem like the all-too possible total end of consciousness, at least so far as your field of acquaintance is concerned; and you have no assurance at all that any conscious being will remember you. You will be effectively living a last-man-alive life, and social existence will seem largely futile (save for pragmatic reasons). You will not have the reassurance social life provides that you are not alone—that there are other sentient beings like you in the world. Epistemologically uncritical social intimacy is what softens the blow delivered by individual death (which is still a hard enough blow), but absent that your reasons for seeking a social existence are significantly diminished. You may as well live alone if everyone around you is a zombie! The costs of social life will begin to outweigh its benefits. You will not be living a genuinely social life if your “companions” are all mindless robots—your attitudes towards them will be quite different. And this will affect your feelings regarding your own death, making it seem more tragic, more of a loss, more catastrophic. The death of a diehard solipsist is the worst death of all.  [3]


  [1] It is less often remarked that we are also anti-social animals. We like to be alone too: then we don’t have to feel the burden of another consciousness. We can indulge our natural solipsism. It is when the thought of death intrudes on our solitude that we feel the tug of the social group (though not only then). We thus live with two countervailing impulses: to be alone and to be with others. I wonder if other animals ever feel the same tension.

  [2] This is the meaning of ostracism: social death. The fully ostracized individual is deprived of continued existence in the minds of others. Exile makes death sting more poignantly because there is no prospect of continuing in other minds. To be alone is to die without significant remainder or residue.

  [3] There is this consolation: the solipsist has no envy towards those who continue living while he perishes—for their “living” is no better than a rock continuing in existence. In fact, the solipsist has no envy at all.

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