In medical science, there is a relatively agreed upon state in which living or previously living animals/organisms are dead. In humans, usually this is marked roughly by either the time a human's heart stops beating or by the cessation of brain activity, but can be unequivocally achieved through the sudden, complete destruction of the body such as through incineration. This is the cessation of life in a living organism in a strictly biological
sense which ultimately manifests as the destruction of the previously living body through decay if not by some other mechanism at the time of death or before the full effects of decay. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, let's refer to this as bodily death
This is very different from another concept, the death of the self
, which for the sake of simplicity and clarity I will refer to in this topic as mental death
. In this sense, mental death
is the cessation or destruction of the individual's mind or otherwise that which makes one oneself, i.e. what makes one a person. This is one's conscious identity. It's equivocal because the concept of self
is equivocal. It's also vague even more than just in being equivocal because the concept of self
still generally refers to an abstract thing that is often considered to be a psychological construct and thus arguably a sort of illusion -- perhaps a subconsciously formed metaphor used by a complicated brain.
I think we all accept that most humans are terrified of death, but I think this mental death
is more of what most people fear. I think that that means we can use one's or our own views of mental death
with the emphasis on death to investigate one's or our own view of the self. Instead of asking, 'how do you define yourself
,' and then using that to define mental death
(which I am using as shorthand for the death of the self or individual mind), we would do the inverse and ask one or ask ourselves what would we consider to be mental death
(the death of the self or individual mind, i.e. our respective individual identity) and then use that to figure out how one defines oneself
(i.e. one's individual identity). A good way to understand what is meant by this -- even if like me you don't believe in such a supernatural thing -- is to think of it in terms of what people mean by the so-called 'afterlife' in a supernatural sense: By this oxymoron, they mean to say yes their body has died, but their mind, i.e. who they are as a person, goes on existing in some way somewhere else.
If we assume a person will respond with a preference that they believe prolongs their own mental life longest, which is not always a correct assumption, then we can use some thought experiments regarding death to help figure out what each of us considers to be our mental death
and thus by extension we can figure out by what we respectively define ourselves
, i.e. our respective individual identities, or what makes each of us who we are.Thought Experiment One - The Teleportation Device
Consider a teleportation device a la Star Trek. Although at this time it's still science fiction and perhaps always going to be practically infeasible, this device isn't exactly supernatural. The device scans a person in full at the atomic level, then the device communicates this information to somewhere else, then re-assembles what is essentially an atom-by-atom, molecule-by-molecule copy of the person at that other place, and then finally vaporizes the original person. It's sort of like a 3-D atomic fax machine. It creates what could be called a clone of a person, but that clone is actually a perfect copy of a person including their memories, personality and so forth since every atom of their brain is still put together in the same way. The original body of the person has died in the bodily sense, but as we can see illustrated by Star Trek the person in the mental sense seems to be preserved and simply teleported. For the sake of argument pretend you have a terminal illness that for some reason you know with certainly will kill you completely in exactly 2 years but you have the option to teleport to another planet that is too far to travel normally and get cured and then you know you -- the recreated version of you -- will live for over 10 more years. A silly example but the point is you have a choice between living 2 years with no teleportation and die normally, or you can be teleported and live post-teleportation for at least 5 times as long. Which do you choose? In another example, imagine you live in a futuristic world and you need to travel to Mars for some reason. Imagine you can choose between taking a relatively dangerous flight in a spaceship with a 40% chance the spaceship is completely destroyed and you die in the normal bodily way, incinerated like someone quickly burning to death in a fast-paced house fire. Or you can choose to teleport there with an over 99.9% chance the teleportation goes smoothly but of course your original body will actually definitely be vaporized -- or for the sake of symmetry maybe let's say incinerated. Which do you choose?Philosophical Thought Experiment 2 - Special Brain Surgery
For the sake of argument, imagine this unrealistically over-simplified hypothetical: Imagine you get diagnosed with a brain tumor. Imagine that with certainty the doctor's predict that without action the tumor will be unnoticeable and symptomless to you on a day-to-day basis but that it will certainly kill you in 18-24 months. There is only one option for treatment. You can undergo a special kind of brain surgery that will make you live -- in the bodily sense -- for presumably decades longer, but the surgery will cause you to have a permanent case of amnesia. You will still be able to talk and remember basic impersonal facts (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4, dogs are mammals, how to ride a bike) but you lose all of your autobiographical memories: you will permanently forget your name, your childhood, who your friends are, what your occupation is, what your preferences are, your first kiss and so on and so forth. You will not recognize anyone you knew before the surgery. You can meet new people after the surgery and recognize people you meet (or re-meet) after the surgery and remember everything you learn (or re-learn) about them after the surgery. If you do the surgery you will almost definitely live for at least decades longer in the bodily sense but you definitely will suffer from this permanent amnesia. If you don't do the surgery, you get to keep your memories for now but you die completely in only 2 years or less. You have to choose now; you can't wait 2 years and then do the surgery at the last minute. Do you do the surgery or not?
What if we also say that in addition to the amnesia the brain surgery will likely alter your unique hormone-levels and personality: if you went in heterosexual maybe you come out homosexual or asexual, if you went in with an anger-problem you might come out more clam and patient or vice versa. This might be similar to the personality change between a drunk person and a sober person or vice versa. It might be like the personality difference between a prepubescent child and the same child well into puberty when hormones are raging. There is no certain way to say what your personality in terms of hormones and slightly vandalized brain parts will be like. It will be a new roll of the die. If you were going to do the surgery before, would you still do the surgery with this new twist?Philosophical Thought Experiment 3 - Brain Transplant
By current technology, we can already transplant many organs including the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, intestine and thymus and tissues including bones, tendons, cornea, skin, heart valves, and veins. Imagine we discover how to transplant the brain. Imagine you are in a terrible car accident and you are bed-ridden and slowly dying. You can live out a couple years in a hospital bed, watching TV, visiting family members and so forth, OR you have a one-time chance of having your brain transplanted into a body-donor. For the sake of argument, let's assume the operation is fairly safe and expected to be successful, at least as safe as current and common kidney transplants now. Your appearance in your new body would be completely different of course. If you were tall, now you would be short. If you were blue-eyed, maybe now you would be brown-eyed. If you were a very dark-skinned person, maybe now you would be very light-skinned. Your so-called 'race' would be different. But you would still possess your general personality, memories and knowledge. For inspiration on the fundamental result consider a non-supernatural, non-secret version of any of the many body switching movies like Freaky Friday
, The Change-Up
, and The Hot Chick
. Would you rather live 1 year in your old, broken body or would you rather live decades in a new body? What if you your new body was of the opposite gender, which would presumably also switch your sexual orientation by relation, i.e. if you were a heterosexual male you would become a homosexual female since your brain and thus preference in sexual partners would come with you. Would that affect your decision?Philosophical Thought Experiment 4 - Mind Uploading to The Matrix
Imagine that we developed the technology to build a virtual reality world that worked almost identically to the one depicted in the movie The Matrix minus the evil AI overlords. You can plug in and feel like you are living in the real world. If you die in the fake world, you die in real life. Now imagine something a little different. Imagine the contents of your brain can actually be uploaded to the world killing off your real-life body and making you exist permanently in this virtual reality world. From your perspective from inside this version of 'The Matrix,' not having your original body living and plugged in to The Matrix but rather destroyed would seem no different to you while inside. Your virtual-reality-self would still have all your memories, personality, tastes, appearance and so forth. Now imagine you have the option of living 1 year with your access to your body outside the Matrix -- with the ability to plug in and out as you wish to enjoy the benefits of being inside -- and then dying a certain complete death in 1 year OR you can upload your mind to The Matrix as described and live a full life inside The Matrix -- at least decades longer. You have to choose 1 option and you have to choose it immediately, i.e. you cannot wait for the year to be up on the outside and then upload later. Which do you choose? 1 year with your real life body or decades with only your virtual self? What if it wasn't just a full life but you could live indefinitely in the Matrix, for thousands of years or more, since you are now just a digital AI whose not the victim of human aging. So now you have the choice between 1 year with a real body or probably at least thousands of years in 'The Matrix' but you lose that 1 year with the real body. Which do you choose? Again, for the sake of argument, let's say you only get 1 chance to make the choice so you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You either lose the real-life-year and gain the-many-Matrix-years or vice versa.
For what it's worth, I personally would definitely choose teleportation, brain transplant and mind uploading over original body preservation. I'm conflicted on my brain surgery example because of the memories, hormones and other personality issues. Selfishly speaking, which is most relevant to the topic at hand, I would probably rather keep my memories for a year than live 10 without them (but more realistically I might be inclined to accept a longer-life with amnesia if it would be financially better for my family assuming I'm still of working age and would be in working and child-caring condition).
If anyone else has any philosophical thought experiments that would address other issues involving the definition of the self in regards to death, please explain them.