Death and the (Mistaken?) Privileging of Consciousness

I believe that one day in the next sixty years I will cease to exist. I will die. I don’t believe I’ve got a soul, immortal or otherwise. Perhaps a soul is possible—though the notion doesn’t make sense to me—but we shouldn’t confuse possibility with probability. My ceasing to exist one day causes me a fair amount of unease. It’s rather untoward of life to do such a thing as cease—human life, anyway: my life and those I love, anyway. But whence this unease? Well, I value my experiences and much else besides. Upon bodily death, those experiences (my consciousness and memories) will cease and I will exit the stage of my relationships.

But what if I am wrong to value my continued consciousness so highly? What if there was some other aspect of me that was more valuable and which might continue on in some fashion upon my bodily death? What more could I be though, besides my conscious body, which will expire? I have long given pride of place to my consciousness when thinking about death. No consciousness = no me = sad/terrified/uneasy me prior to death. But since the death of my former wife, Jennie Wrisley, I have been intensely interested in achieving a better understanding of what it is to be a person, to figure out whether I am contained between my hat and boots—whether any one is (though not between MY hat and boots). My anxiousness about death and my drive to understand personhood is why I am teaching a class called “Death and Awe” this fall. I plan to use it as an opportunity to get clearer on these issues.

It is my desire to understand the self, personhood, in relation to death that has motivated a number of essays in which I explore possible reasons for and ways of thinking that a person is more than body and consciousness (for example, here and here). However, one thing that has nagged me is that even if I am more than my consciousness and body, what’s really important to me, what I really value, is my consciousness. I’d gladly take on a new body if I could continue this stream of consciousness. Or so I think. So it doesn’t really matter, as regards my death, what else I might be constituted by beyond my consciousness. But there lies a mistake in this line of thought. That is, without knowing what other things might constitute me, I cannot know that I am right in valuing my consciousness most highly. Say, for example, that it turned out that my projects and the people I love also constituted me. It is more than conceivable that those things might be more valuable to me than my own consciousness. This would not negate the value of my consciousness; I might still feel pretty lousy knowing it’s going to cease to exist sometime in the next sixty years. However, I might be less concerned about that knowing that my projects and loved ones (at least some of them) will carry on and be well beyond my limited sixty years. Thus, even if we quite reasonably value our consciousness highly, we have good reason to be concerned, as regards death, to understand the full nature of the self, what goes into making a person a person. For it is only by achieving a better understanding of what constitutes the self that we can be in a position to assess what’s truly lost upon bodily death.

3 thoughts on “Death and the (Mistaken?) Privileging of Consciousness

  1. Interesting thought! I recently have been running into “consciousness” themes in my daily life. I wrote about a mans experience in my blog to provoke this though and evaluation of my existence. Thanks for your opinion, it’s helping me work out my fear of not death itself, but losing the life I currently love.

  2. You’re on the right track, George. Intellectuals particularly privilege consciousness because it’s what does the intellectualizing. If they could put their consciousness in a jar to be reembodied post mortem by a computer they would.

    Galileo pushed our planet out of the centre of the universe. Darwin pushed our species out of the centre of the biosphere and now people like you are questioning whether consciousness should be the centre of existence—like panpsychists or practically the whole tradition of idealist philosophy, not too mention the industries of psychology and psychiatry. Consciousness needs to get over itself. The universe has no centre.

  3. Hi Doug! Thank you! Sorry it took so long to approve your comment. So few people ever do that I hardly check anymore!
    This is an issue I struggle with still (of course), as one’s conscious perspective cannot seem to help but to default to the perspective that one’s consciousness is the center of reality. One reason why I think Buddhism, and in particular Dōgen’s Zen, is such an important corrective.

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