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Posthumous Illusions

· 3 min read

Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.

-- Epicurus

Perhaps the greatest contradiction of our lives, the hardest to handle, is the knowledge "There was a time when I was not alive, and there will come a time when I am not alive."

-- Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach

Sadness about what happens after one dies makes sense when it is about the experiences of others, as in 'How will my grandchildren feel when I am dead?' Does it make sense in reference to one's self?

There are enigmatic assertions and feelings regarding death that initially seem to be about one's own experience yet evidently cannot be upon further inspection. Clearly, 'How will I feel once I have died?' is a nonsensical question. It has always somewhat confused me that people express sadness toward the fact that at some point they 'will have died' when that sadness is supposed to be on their own behalf.

Most adult humans have had a thought like 'At some point, I will have died, and isn't that sad!' This thought is only able to make us sad because it presents us with a convincing illusion. We imagine ourselves standing beyond our own death, still somehow having experiences, and thinking back with a feeling of loss and nostalgia at our own lives.

This feeling of loss, I will argue, evaporates under closer inspection. The following argument shows that sadness about one's own death on behalf of one's self is irrational or actually about others. I hope it lifts in the reader the convincing illusion that compels us to feel a false sense of loss on behalf of our future selves.

  1. Possible future retrospective sadness is only rational when it is about a state that is possible to be in.
  1. At no point can a person have experiences once dead.
  1. An individual’s being dead cannot cause that individual to have any negative experiences since they are not capable of having experiences.
  1. Being sad about possible future retrospective sadness one might have after having died, on behalf of oneself, is irrational or is actually about the possible future retrospective sadness of others.

When you are dead, I believe, everything that could meaningfully be called 'you' is gone. Until some such possibility as uploading one's consciousness to a computer or molecule-for-molecule clones, the existence of the self beyond death is only for the realm of thought experiments and science-fiction.

This conclusion should not be interpreted as bleak, however. Instead, it should focus our attention to the things that do actually matter after we die, which will be for those then living to experience. I am not a solipsist and I think some things matter even when we are gone. We should not think about the illusion of how our 'dead selves' will feel, but instead we should think about how we will leave the world for those who are still there when we are gone.