View Full Version : Continuation of Consciousness after Death

Intellectual Pirate
7th October 2010, 12:53 AM
Hey everyone. I recently read an extremely interesting essay proposing the continuation of subjectivity after the death of the individual, called "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity," by Thomas W. Clark, the director of the Center for Naturalism. The concept is called "generic subjective continuity," and another writer who independently came up with the same theory (Wayne Stewart in Metaphysics by Default) calls it "existential passage." The reason I didn't post this in the Religious Philosophy sub-forum is because the argument is framed in entirely naturalistic, materialistic terms.

Here is a link to the essay if you wish to read it for yourself: http://www.naturalism.org/death.htm. I'm not nearly as eloquent as Mr. Clark, but I will summarize the main points.

First, he refutes the conception of death leading to an eternity of "nothingness." He claims that all of our experience is one continuous block of experience - when we are in deep sleep, heavily drugged, knocked out or in any other various form of unconsciousness, we are not experiencing this lack of consciousness, and so our subjectivity has no gaps. So neither will we experience nothingness after death, because our experience is bound in the confines of our subjectivity.

The basis for his argument is a thought experiment: imagine you fall into a deep, unconscious sleep for a thousand years (think cryogenic time-travel, sci-fi style), or even a million or billions or for the duration of several cycles of the universe, and then wake up. From your perspective, you will still be alive and have the same sense of "you," or your self, always having existed, which you have through all your conscious existence.

Clark writes that "consciousness, as a strictly physical phenomenon instantiated by the brain, creates a world subjectively immune to its own disappearance. It is the very finitude of a self-reflective cognitive system that bars it from witnessing its own beginning or ending, and hence prevents there being, for it, any condition other than existing."

Now imagine that, during this monumental sleep, something happens inside of your brain, fundamentally changing your personality and other characteristics, to the point that you are not even recognizable. Imagine that you don't even have memories of your past self. Your past identity has been annihilated. "You" as you once were don't exist anymore, but a subjectivity still exists, and there is unquestionably a continuation of experience, which Clark calls "generic subjective continuity."

He uses this though experiment to propose the continuation of experience after death:

"Ordinary death and birth amount, I think, to such radical transformations of subjectivity, except that there is no obvious candidate for a successor. My point is, however, that we don't need such a candidate to insure the generic continuity of experience. We need only see that the continuity is that of subjectivity itself, abstracted from any particular context, and it finds concrete expression in the fact that none of us has ever experienced (or will ever experience) not being here."

I am not completely sold on this idea, for one. The thought experiment is very intriguing, and raises questions about the nature of subjectivity, self, and death, but I think Clark left a bit of a gap between the thought experiment and his conclusion. I am having a lot of difficulty conceptualizing both. I think the whole thing could be clarified more if the non-existence of the self and the imagined existence of consciousness were explored in relation to generic subjective continuity. I'd like to hear what you guys think.