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by Shelly Kagan

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There is one thing we can be sure of: we are all going to die. But once we accept that fact, the questions begin. In this thought-provoking book, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan examines the myriad questions that arise when we confront the meaning of mortality. Do we have reason to believe in the existence of immortal souls? Or should we accept an account


There is one thing we can be sure of: we are all going to die. But once we accept that fact, the questions begin. In this thought-provoking book, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan examines the myriad questions that arise when we confront the meaning of mortality. Do we have reason to believe in the existence of immortal souls? Or should we accept an account according to which people are just material objects, nothing more? Can we make sense of the idea of surviving the death of one’s body? If I won’t exist after I die, can death truly be bad for me? Would immortality be desirable? Is fear of death appropriate? Is suicide ever justified? How should I live in the face of death?

Written in an informal and conversational style, this stimulating and provocative book challenges many widely held views about death, as it invites the reader to take a fresh look at one of the central features of the human condition—the fact that we will die. 

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Copyright © 2012 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-18342-9

Chapter One

Thinking about Death

This is a book about death. But it is a work of philosophy, and what that means is that the topics that we're going to discuss are not identical to the topics that other books on death might try to cover. So the first thing I want to do is to say something about some of the subjects that we won't be discussing, things that you might reasonably expect or hope that a book on death would talk about, so that if this is not the book you were looking for, you'll realize that right away.

What I primarily have in mind are psychological and sociological questions about the nature of death, or the phenomenon of death. For example, a book on death might well have a detailed discussion of the process of dying or coming to reconcile yourself with the fact that you're going to die. We're not going to talk about that. Similarly, we're not going to talk at all about the process of grieving or bereavement. And we're not going to discuss the funeral industry in America, or the troubling attitudes that we take toward the dying, or how we tend to try to keep the dying hidden from the rest of us. These are all perfectly important topics, but they're not, as I say, topics that we're going to be talking about in this book.

So what will we talk about? We will be discussing philosophical questions that arise as we begin to think about the nature of death. Questions like, what happens when we die? Actually, though, to get at that question, the first thing we're going to have to do is think about this question: what are we? What kind of an entity is a person? In particular, do we have souls?

I might as well explain—right here at the start—that in this book I am going to be using the term "soul" as a bit of philosophical jargon. By "soul" I'm going to mean something immaterial, something distinct from our bodies. So one thing that we will be asking is, do we have immaterial souls, something that might survive the death of the body? And if not, what does that imply about the nature of death? What happens when we die?

Here's another question we'll be asking: what would it take for me to survive my death? Indeed, we need to ask more generally, what is it for me to survive at all? For example, what does it mean for me to survive, say, tonight? Here, roughly, is what I mean by that question. At some point tomorrow afternoon somebody is going to be sitting here at my computer, working on this book. I certainly presume (and hope!) that it will be me. But what exactly is it for that person, who will be sitting here typing tomorrow, to be the very same person as the person who is sitting here typing today? That's a question about the nature of personal identity across time. Pretty clearly, if we are going to think properly about death and survival, and the possibility of my continued existence after my death, we first have to get clear about the very nature of personal identity.

These sorts of questions—questions about the existence of souls and the nature of death and the possibility of surviving death—will occupy us for roughly the first half of the book. And then we'll turn to value questions. If death is really the end, can death be bad? Of course, most of us are immediately and strongly inclined to think that death is bad. But there are philosophical puzzles about how death could be bad.

Let me try to give you a quick feel for one of these puzzles. Suppose that after my death I won't exist. If you stop to think about it, then, it becomes hard to see how death can be bad for me. After all, it seems that death can't be bad for me when I am dead: how can anything be bad for something that doesn't even exist? But if death can't be bad for me when I am dead, how can it be bad for me at all? After all, it certainly doesn't seem that it can be bad for me now, while I'm still alive!

Don't worry. I am not going to try to convince you that death isn't bad. But as we'll see, it actually takes a bit of work to pin down precisely what it is about death that's bad, so as to see how death can be bad. (It's also worth asking whether there is more than one thing about death that makes it bad.) Now if death is indeed bad, then one might wonder, would immortality be a good thing? That's another question that we'll think about. And more generally, we need to ask: how should the fact that I'm going to die affect the way that I live? What should my attitude be toward my mortality? Should I, for example, be afraid of death? Should I despair at the fact that I'm going to die?

Finally, we'll turn to questions about suicide. Many of us think that given the valuable and precious thing that life is, suicide never makes sense. After all, you're throwing away the only life you're ever going to have. So we'll end the book by examining the rationality and morality (or, perhaps, the irrationality and immorality) of suicide.

That's where we're going. For those of you familiar with the relevant philosophical jargon, we can say that, roughly speaking, the first half of the book will be metaphysics, and the last half of the book will be value theory.

Now there are, I think, two different ways to write a philosophy book, especially an introductory book like this. In the first approach, you simply lay out the various alternative positions, pro and con, and you try to remain neutral. You don't openly take a stand; you avoid letting on which particular positions are the ones you actually accept. That's approach number one. But there is a rather different approach you can take instead, and I should warn you that in this book it is this second approach I will be taking. In the second approach, you do tell the reader which views you accept, and you argue for them—you do your best to defend them. That's closer to what I will be doing here. There is a particular line of thought that I am going to be developing and defending. That is to say, there's a set of views I hold about the issues that we'll be discussing, and what I'm going to try to do in this book is to convince you that those views are correct.

To help give you a quick sense of what those views are, let me start by describing a different set of views—one that many other people accept. As you'll see in a moment, this common point of view involves a number of logically distinct claims. Logically speaking, then, you could believe some of these things and not all of them. But lots of people do believe all of them, and I imagine that it's pretty likely that you too believe at least some of these things.

So here's the set of common views. First of all, we have a soul. That is to say, we are not just bodies. We're not just lumps of flesh and bone. Instead, there's a part of us, perhaps the essential part of us, that is something more than physical—it's the spiritual, immaterial part of us. As I say, in this book we'll call that a soul. Most of us believe in souls. Maybe you do too. Certainly most people in America believe in some sort of immaterial soul. And given the existence of this immaterial soul—the common view continues—it's a possibility, indeed a fair likelihood, that we will survive our deaths. Death will be the destruction of my body, but my soul is immaterial, and so my soul can continue to exist after my death. Of course, there is much that we can't know about death; death is the ultimate mystery. But whether or not you do believe in a soul, you probably at least hope that there's a soul, because then there would be a serious possibility of surviving your death. After all, death is not only bad, it is so horrible that what we would like is to live forever. Immortality would be wonderful. And armed with a soul, as it were, there's at least the possibility of immortality. At any rate, that's certainly what we hope is the case—that we are immortal souls—whether or not we know that it's the case. And if there is no soul, if death really is the end, then this is such an overwhelmingly bad thing that the obvious reaction, the appropriate reaction, the universal reaction, is to face the prospect of death with fear and despair. Finally, given how horrible death is, and given how wonderful life is, it could never make sense to throw your life away. Thus, on the one hand, suicide is always irrational; and on the other hand, it is always immoral as well.

That, as I say, is what I take to be a common set of views about the nature of death. And what I'm going to be doing, what I'm going to be arguing in this book, is that that set of views is pretty much mistaken from beginning to end. I'm going to try to convince you that there is no soul. I'm going to try to convince you that immortality would not be a good thing. That fear of death isn't actually an appropriate response to death. That death isn't especially mysterious. That suicide, under certain circumstances, might be both rationally and morally justified. As I say, I think that the common picture is pretty much mistaken from start to end, and I am going to try to convince you of that. That, at least, is my goal. That's my aim.

Unsurprisingly, then, I hope that by the end of the book you will agree with me about these things. After all, I think the views I will be defending are true, and I very much hope you will end up believing the truth.

But I should also say that the crucial point isn't really for you to end up agreeing with me. The crucial point is for you to think for yourself. Ultimately, the most important thing that I am doing is inviting you to take a good, hard look at death, to face it and think about it in a way that most of us never do. If you, at the end of the book, haven't agreed with me about this particular claim or that particular claim, so be it. I'll be content. Okay, I won't be completely content, but at least I will be largely content—as long as you've really thought through the arguments on each side of these various issues.

Before getting started, I need to make one or two more remarks. First, as I have already explained, this is a work of philosophy. What that means, basically, is that we'll just be thinking very carefully about what we can know or make sense of with regard to death using our reasoning capacity. We'll be trying to think about death from a rational standpoint.

So I need to make it clear that one kind of evidence or one kind of argument that we won't be making use of here is an appeal to religious authority. You may, of course, already believe in the existence of an afterlife. You may believe you're going to survive your death. You may believe in immortality. And you may believe in all of these things, of course, because that's what your church teaches you. That's fine. It's not my purpose or intention here to try to argue you out of your religious beliefs or to argue against your religious beliefs. But I do want it to be clear that I will not appeal to such religious arguments—whether revelation, or the authority of the Bible, or what have you—in the course of this book.

If you want to, you can think of this book as one big hypothetical. What conclusions would we reach about the nature of death if we had to think about it from a secular perspective? What conclusions would we reach making use of only our own reasoning powers, as opposed to whatever answers we might be given by divinely revealed authority? If you do happen to believe in divine revelation, that's a discussion for another day. It's just not a debate that we're going to be engaged in here.

Finally, I need to explain what it means to say that this is an introductory book of philosophy: it means that it doesn't presuppose any background in the subject. But it doesn't mean that it's easy. Indeed, some of this material is rather difficult. Some of the ideas may be hard to grasp the first time around. The truth of the matter is that, if you had the time to do it, reading some of the following pages through a second time would often be a helpful thing to do. Of course, I don't really expect you to do that, but still, consider yourself warned: philosophy can be hard stuff to read.

I should also emphasize that this book is introductory in a second sense as well, namely, that there is more that can be said about each of the topics that we will be discussing. Every single subject that we discuss here could be pursued at considerably greater length; there are always further arguments beyond the ones that we will consider here. And many of those arguments rapidly become extremely complicated—too complicated to discuss in a book of this sort. That's true for each of the topics that we'll be examining.

So please don't come away thinking that whatever it is that I've said here is the last word on the subject. Rather, it's something more like first words. But, of course, first words can be an excellent place to start.

Chapter Two

Dualism versus Physicalism

Asking the Question

The first question we want to discuss has to do with the possibility of surviving death. Is there life after death? Is there at least the possibility that I might still exist after my death?

Now on the face of it, at least, it seems that if we are going to answer this question we'll need to get clear on at least two basic issues. The first is this: what, exactly, am I? What kind of a thing am I? Or generalizing—because, of course, we want to know not just about my own chances of surviving death, but everyone's—what kind of a thing is a person? What are we made of? What are our parts?

It certainly seems plausible to think that before we could answer the question "Do I survive?" we need to know how I'm built. And so the first thing we're going to spend a fair bit of time on is trying to get clear about the fundamental "building blocks" of a person. We need to decide what a person is.

The second thing we have to get clear on is this: what exactly is it to survive? If we want to know about the possibility of my surviving my death, we had better get clear about the very concept of surviving. What exactly is it for something that exists in the future to be me?

Now this question—about the nature of survival, or continued existence over time—is something that can be discussed in quite general terms. We can ask it about chairs, and tables, and trees, or just about anything. We can ask: what is it for the very same thing to continue to exist over time? Or, put even more abstractly, what is the nature of persistence of identity over time?

But since we're especially interested in beings like us, people, we are especially interested in getting clear on what it takes for a given person to continue to exist over time. Philosophers call this the problem of personal identity—meaning the problem of identity of persons over time (being the same person at two different times). Next week, for example, there will be several people living in my house. I fully expect one of them to be me. But what, exactly, is it for one of those people next week to be the very same person as me, the person who is sitting here now at this desk? What makes that person the same person as this person? In short, what is the nature of personal identity? Or, if we prefer to raise the question in the language of survival: what does it take for a person to survive at all?

So on the face of it, at least, to get clear on the question of whether I do, or might, survive my death, it seems that we need to know what a person is, and we need to get clear about the nature of survival, or (more particularly) personal identity across time. Unsurprisingly, then, we are going to spend several chapters investigating these issues with some care.

But before we get started, there's an objection to the whole enterprise that we should consider. We're about to spend a lot of time asking the question: is there life after death? Or, could there be life after death? Might I survive my death? And according to the objection that I've got in mind, this whole complicated investigation is misconceived; it's based on a confusion. Once we see the confusion—the objection says—we can see what the answer to our question has to be. Could I survive my death? Of course not!

If that's right, that would certainly simplify our discussion. But is it right? Here's how the objection goes.

One way of stating the question we are trying to ask is this: is there life after death? But what does this question mean? Suppose we start by asking, what does it mean to say that somebody has died? A natural definition of "death" might be something like "the end of life." But if that's right, then to ask, "Is there life after death?" is just asking, "Is there life after the end of life?" And the answer to that ought to be pretty obvious. Obviously enough, the answer to that is no. Asking whether there might be life after death is just a confusing way of asking whether there is still any more life after you've run out of life. Well, duh! Of course not! That's like asking: when I've eaten up all the food on my plate, is there any food left on my plate? Or: what happens in the movie aft er the movie ends? These are stupid questions, because once you understand what they're asking, the answer is just built in. It follows trivially.


Excerpted from Death by SHELLY KAGAN Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Shelly Kagan is Clark Professor of Philosophy, Yale University. He is the author of Normative Ethics and The Limits of Morality. He lives in Hamden, CT.

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Death 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is based upon a Yale philosophy course talught by Professor Kagan. He lets the reader know right from the start that he does not believe that we have a soul or that there is immortality. Furthermore, he makes it clear that it is his intention to convince you of these truths. He also asserts that suicide, under certain condtions, is justified. The book provides great insight into the philosophical underpinnings of the academic Left that is dominant on many university campuses.