Many philosophers seem to think, you simply 'disappear' when you die, 'erased' from the framework of reality as one would rub out a drawing on the blackboard. I think it would be a serious mistake to think this way. Time magazine had it right when it represented the death of bin Laden, hence his 'nonexistence' with a picture of him on the cover, crossed out with a big X. If you’re lecturing on the capture and killing of bin Laden, you might draw a picture of him on the blackboard, and then conclude your lecture by drawing, as Time did, a big X across that drawing. That would be the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do would be to simply erase the drawing, to rub it out. A blank blackboard does not represent the death of bin Laden. On the contrary, it represents nothing. Bin Laden, on dying, did not become nothing, just as he did not come from nothing. (Ex nihilo, nihil fit.)
Just this, however, seems to have escaped many, if not most philosophers who’ve written about the metaphysics of death. Shelly Kagan, for example, writes in his popular study Death that “nonexistence is nonexistence. It’s no kind of condition or state that I am in at all [after I’ve died]." Kagan seems to believe that when you’ve died and ceased to exist, there’s “no one left” to be in any sort of state or condition. There’s no one left even to be in the state of nonexistence, to have the property of nonexistence. He seems to subscribe to W.V. Quine’s doctrine that “in our common- sense usage of ‘exist’, that [bin Laden] doesn’t exist, means simply that there is no such entity at all.” If there’s no such entity, obviously, there’s no such entity to occupy the state of nonexistence, to have the property of nonexistence.
“Death affects that you are, not what you are”
As I said, this is a widely held view among philosophers of death. To choose another prominent example, consider what Francis Kamm writes in Morality, Mortality: “Life can sometimes be worse for a person than the alternative of nonexistence, even though nonexistence is not a better state of being.” For Kamm, nonexistence is never a better state of being than is existence because for her, apparently, nonexistence is not a state of being at all.
Kamm and Kagan, however, are mistaken. What they say is true not of Socrates but of the tooth fairy. The tooth fairy is indeed not in a state of nonexistence for the simple reason that there is no such person as the tooth fairy. By contrast, there is such a person as Socrates. Nathan Salmon, in “What Is Existence?” puts the matter succinctly: “‘Kripke exists’ is true whereas ‘Napoleon exists’ is false. Kripke has existence. Napoleon has nonexistence.”
When you die and cease to exist, you aren’t 'erased', you aren’t 'rubbed out', nor do you turn into a different kind of being. You forfeit your existence, not your essence. Death affects that you are, not what you are. Thus, assuming, for the sake of argument, that persons are concrete objects and that that is part of their essence, when Socrates died he didn’t cease being concrete. He went from being an existent concrete object to being a nonexistent concrete object. And the same is true, analogously, of an inorganic concrete object like a rock. This will no doubt sound paradoxical (not to say, downright crazy) to many people. Surely, what’s not there can’t be concrete! After all, if something’s concrete, you can trip over it in the dark, whereas there’s no need to worry about tripping over the nonexistent. True enough, if we’re speaking about an actual, an existent concrete object. But here we’re speaking of concrete objects that have ceased to exist— i.e. that have lost their existence, but not their essence. (Indeed, what would it mean for something to lose its essence? What would make it that very thing that had lost it?
The moral, then, is this: Concreteness should not be confused with actuality.
Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? Read more This difficulty of speaking coherently of the dead is by no means confined to philosophers of death, nor, indeed, to philosophers of any stripe. It’s especially noticeable in book dedications, where authors simply cannot bring themselves to refer to the dead, themselves, substituting instead reference to the memory of the dead. When you think about it, however, this is absurd. Unlike the dead, our memories of the dead are alive and well, and in any case, are a poor substitute for the loved ones being honored in the dedications. It’s your mother who taught you to love music, not your memories of your mother, your father who first took you to a poetry reading, not your memories of your father, and so on. What could be more different from a dead parent than a living memory? The nonexistence of the dead should make us more attuned to what’s real, not less. For the dead relative is every bit as real as, though less existent than, the living memory. “Never . . . think of a thing or being we love but have not actually before our eyes,” Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace, “without reflecting that perhaps this thing has been destroyed, or this person is dead. May our sense of reality not be dissolved by this thought but made more intense. . . . Love needs reality”
This is an extract from the book 'Death and Nonexistence' by Palle Yourgrau (Oxford University Press, August 2019).