PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 15

 - The Nature of Death (cont.); Believing You Will Die


The lecture explores the question of the state of being dead. Even though the most logical claim seems to be that when a person stops P-functioning he or she is dead, a more careful consideration must allow for exceptions, such as when one is asleep or in a coma. Professor Kagan then suggests that on some level nobody believes that he or she is going to die. As a case in point, he takes Tolstoy’s famous character Ivan Ilych.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video


PHIL 176 - Lecture 15 - The Nature of Death (cont.); Believing You Will Die

Chapter 1. Introduction – Accommodating Sleep in the Definition of Death [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time we ended with the following puzzle or question. If we say that to be a person is to be a P-functioning body, it seems then as though we have to conclude that when you’re not P-functioning, you’re dead. That is, you’re dead as a person. Previously, we distinguished between the death of my body and my death as a person; let’s focus on my death as a person. If I’m not P-functioning, do we have to then say I’m dead?

Well, that may seem to be the most natural way to define death, but it’s not an acceptable approach. Because it would follow then, that when I’m asleep, I’m dead. Well, not during those times, perhaps, when I’m dreaming while I’m asleep. But think of the various periods during the night in which you are in a deep, deep dreamless sleep. You’re not thinking. You’re not planning. You’re not communicating. Let’s just suppose, as seems likely, that none of the P-functioning is occurring, at some point during sleep. Should we say then that you’re dead? Well, that’s clearly not the right thing to say.

So we need to revise our account of what it is on the physicalist picture to say that you’re dead. What is it to be dead? It can’t just be a matter of not P-functioning. Well, one possibility would be to say, the question is not whether you are P-functioning. It’s okay if you’re not P-functioning, as long as your not P-functioning is temporary. If you will P-function again, if you have been P-functioning in the past and you will be P-functioning again in the future, P-functioning for person functioning, you will be P-functioning again in the future, then you’re not dead. Well, that’s at least an improvement, because then we say, look, while you’re asleep, even though there’s no P-functioning going on, the lack of P-functioning is temporary, so you’re still alive.

But I think that won’t quite do either. Let’s suppose that come Judgment Day, God will resurrect the dead. And let’s just suppose the correct theory of personal identity is such as to put aside any worries we might have along with van Inwagen, that we discussed previously, as to whether or not on resurrection day that would really be you or not. Suppose it would be you. So God will resurrect the dead. Judgment Day comes. The dead are resurrected. Well, now they’re P-functioning. So it turns out that during that period in which they were dead, they were only temporarily not P-functioning. But if death means permanent cessation of P-functioning, then it turns out the dead weren’t really dead after all. They were only temporarily not P-functioning, just like we are temporarily not P-functioning when we’re asleep. Well, that doesn’t seem right either. On Judgment Day, God resurrects the dead. It’s not that He simply wakes up those in a deep, deep sleep. So the proposal that death is a matter of permanent cessation of P-functioning versus temporary, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to do the trick. But what else do we have up our sleeves?

Chapter 2. Specification: The Ability to Engage in P-Functioning [00:03:36]

Here’s a different proposal that I think is probably closer to the right account. We might say, look, while you’re asleep, it’s true that you’re not P-functioning. For example, you’re not doing your multiplication tables. But although you are not engaged in P-functioning, it does seem true to say that you still can P-function. You still could do your multiplication tables. Although it’s not true that you are speaking French — let’s suppose that you know how to speak French — it’s still true of you while you’re asleep that you can or could speak French. How do we know this? Well, all we have to do is just wake you up. We wake you up and we say, “Hey John, what’s three times three?” And after you stop swearing at us, you say, “Well, it’s nine.” Or we say, “Linda, hey, conjugate such and such a verb in French.” And you can conjugate it. Even though you were not engaged in P-functioning while you were asleep, it’s still true that while you were asleep, you had the ability to engage in P-functioning.

Abilities aren’t always actualized. Your P-functioning is actualized now, because you’re engaged in thought, but you don’t lose the ability to think during those moments when you’re not thinking. Suppose we say then that to be alive as a person is to be able to engage in P-functioning. And to be dead then, is to be unable to engage in P-functioning. Why are you unable? Well, presumably because whatever cognitive structures it takes in your brain to underwrite the ability to P-function, those cognitive structures have been broken, so they no longer work. It’s — When you’re dead, your brain is broken. It’s not just that you’re not engaged in P-functioning, you’re no longer able to engage in P-functioning.

That, at least, seems to handle the case of sleep properly. Although you’re not engaged in P-functioning, you’re able to, so you’re still alive. Take the dead who will be resurrected on Judgment Day. Although they will be engaged in P-functioning later on, it’s not true right now that they can engage in P-functioning. Their bodies and brains are broken until God fixes them. So they’re dead.

All right, that seems to give the right answer and, in fact, it gives us some guidance how to think about some other puzzling cases. Take somebody who is in a coma, not engaged in P-functioning. Their body, let’s stipulate, is still alive. Their heart’s still beating, the lungs are still breathing and so forth. But we wonder, is the person still alive? Does the person still exist? Well, they’re not engaged in P-functioning. That’s pretty clear. We want to know, can they engage in P-functioning?

Now, at this point we’d want to know more about the underlying mechanics about what’s gone on in the case of the coma. If the following is the right description, then we perhaps should say they’re still alive. Look, when somebody’s asleep, we need to do something to, in effect, wake them up, something to turn the functioning back on. The cognitive structures are still there, but the on-off switch is switched to off. Perhaps that’s what it’s like when somebody’s in a coma, or perhaps at least certain types of comas. Of course, to turn the on-off switch on is harder when somebody’s in a coma. It’s a bit more — to continue with the metaphor of the on-of switch — as though not only is the switch turned to off, there’s a lock on the switch. And so we can’t turn the switch on in the normal way. Pushing the person in the coma and saying, “Wake up, Jimmy” doesn’t do the trick. But for all that, although the on-off switch may be stuck in off, if the underlying cognitive structures of the brain are such as to still make it true that, flip the on switch back to on and the person can still engage in cognitive P-functioning, maybe the right thing to say is the person’s still alive.

Coma case two. I’m not sure whether this really should be called a coma. I don’t know the biological and medical details. But imagine that what’s gone on is there’s been decay of the brain structures that underwrite the cognitive functioning. So now it’s not just that the on-off switch is stuck in off, the brain’s no longer capable of engaging in these higher order P-functions. This might be a persistent vegetative state with no possibility of turning it on, even in principle. Of such a person we might say, they’re no longer capable of P-functioning. And then perhaps the right thing to say is the person no longer exists, so they no longer exist as a person, even if the body is still alive. So far, so good.

Here’s a harder case to think about. Suppose we put somebody in a state of suspended animation, cool their body down so that the various metabolic processes come to an end. They stop. As I’m sure you know, we’re able, with various lower organisms, to put them in a state of suspended animation and then, the amazing thing is, if you heat them back up again properly, they start functioning again. Now, we can’t do that yet with humans. But it doesn’t jump out at us, at least, that that should be an impossibility. So suppose we eventually learn how to do this with humans. And now, suppose we take Larry and put him in a state of suspended animation. Is he dead? Well, most of us don’t feel comfortable saying that he’s dead. Just like we don’t feel comfortable saying that the — I suppose we could do this with a fruit fly. I don’t know whether we can or can’t. Suppose we can. Suppose we do it with a fruit fly. We don’t feel comfortable saying the fruit fly’s dead. Rather, it’s in a state of suspended animation. Well, similarly then, perhaps we wouldn’t want to say that Larry is dead. And the “brokenness” account of death allows us to say Larry’s not dead. The structures in the brain which would underwrite the ability to engage in P-functioning, they’re not destroyed by suspended animation. So perhaps in the relevant sense, the person can still engage in P-functioning, so they’re not dead. Good enough.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem so plausible, it doesn’t seem intuitively right, to say that they’re alive. Is Larry alive when he’s in a state of suspended animation? No. It seems like he’s not alive either. Now that’s a bit puzzling, right? It’s as though we need — Normally, we think that look, either you’re alive or you’re dead. The two possibilities exhaust the possibilities. But thinking about suspended animation suggests that we may actually need a third category, suspended — neither alive nor dead.

Well, all right, if we do introduce a third possibility — I’m not sure this is the right thing. It’s not clear what’s the right or best thing to say about suspended animation. But at least that doesn’t seem like an unattractive possibility. If there are three possibilities — dead, alive, or suspended — to be dead, we could still say you’ve got to be broken, incapable of P-functioning. Suspended isn’t broken. It’s just suspended. But then what do you need to be alive? In addition to not being broken, what do you need to be alive? Well, the initially tempting thing to say is not only aren’t you broken, but you’re actually engaged in P-functioning. But if we say that, then we’re back to saying that somebody who’s asleep isn’t really alive. That doesn’t seem right either. So we need some account to distinguish between suspended animation and out and out being alive. And I’m not quite sure how to draw that line. So I’ll leave that to you as a puzzle to work on on your own.

Chapter 3. Nobody Believes That They Will Die: An Analysis [00:13:32]

That puzzle aside, it seems to me that once we become physicalists, there’s nothing especially deep or mysterious about death. The body is able to function in a variety of ways. When some of those lower biological functions are occurring, the body’s alive. When all goes well, the body is also capable of engaging in higher order personal P-functioning. And then you’ve got a person. The body begins to break, you get the loss of P-functioning. At that point, you no longer exist as a person. When the body breaks some more, you get the loss of biological or B-functioning, and then the body dies. There’s nothing especially mysterious about death, although there may be a lot of details to work out from a scientific point of view. What are the particular processes that underwrite biological functioning? What are the particular processes that underwrite personality or person functioning?

Still, there are a couple of claims about death that get made frequently enough, about death being mysterious in one way or another, that I want — or special or unique — that I want to focus on. In effect, from the physicalist point of view, although death is unique because it comes at the end of this lifetime of various sorts of functions, there’s nothing especially puzzling, nothing especially mysterious, nothing especially unusual or hard to grasp about it. But there are a handful of claims that people make about death suggesting that they think, and they think we all think, that death is mysterious or unique or hard to comprehend. I want to examine a couple of these.

One of them I’ll get to later; if not later today, then next lecture. Sometimes people say that we die alone or everybody dies alone. And this is something — This is supposed to express some deep insight into the nature and uniqueness of death. So although we’re able to eat meals together, we’re able to go on vacations together and take classes together, death is something we all have to do by ourselves. That’s the claim. We all die alone. That’s a claim I’ll come back to.

What I want to look at first is the suggestion that somehow, at some level, nobody really believes they’re going to die at all. Now, having distinguished between what we’ve called the death of the body and the death of the person, the question whether or not you’re going to die needs to be distinguished. The question whether or not you believe you’re going to die needs to be distinguished. If somebody says, “You know, nobody really believes they’re going to die,” they could mean one of two things. They could mean nobody really believes they’re going to cease to exist as a person, first possibility. Second possible claim, nobody really believes they’re going to undergo the death of their bodies. Let’s take these in turn.

Is there any good reason to believe that we don’t believe that we’re going to cease to exist as a person? Well, the most common argument for this claim I think takes the following form. People sometimes say, since it’s impossible to picture being dead, it’s impossible to picture being dead — , That is to say, it’s impossible to picture your own being dead. Each one of us has to think about this from the first person perspective or something like that. Think about your dying, your being dead — Since that’s impossible to picture, that’s impossible to imagine, nobody believes in the possibility that they’re going to die, that they’re going to cease to exist.

The idea seems to be that you can’t believe in possibilities that you can’t picture or imagine. Now, that hypothesis, that thesis, that assumption, could be challenged. I think probably we shouldn’t believe the theory of belief which says that in order to believe in something, you’ve got to be able to picture it or believe it. But let’s grant that assumption for the sake of argument. Let’s suppose that in order to believe in something, you’ve got to be able to picture it. What then? How do we get from there to the conclusion that I can’t believe that I’m going to die, I’m going to cease to exist as a person? Well, the thought, of course, is I can’t picture or imagine my death. I can’t picture or imagine my being dead.

It’s important here to draw some distinctions. I can certainly picture being ill. There I am on my deathbed dying of cancer, growing weaker and weaker. I can perhaps even picture the moment of my death. I’ve said goodbye to my family and friends. I’ve the — Everything’s growing greyer and dimmer. It’s growing harder and harder to concentrate. And then, well, and then there is no “and more.” The claim, however, is not that I can’t picture being ill or dying. The claim’s got to be, I can’t picture being dead. Well, try it. Try to picture being dead. What’s it like to be dead?

Sometimes people claim it’s a mystery. We don’t know what it’s like to be dead, because every time we try to imagine it, we fail. We don’t do a very good job. I’m inclined to think that that way of thinking about the question is really confused. You set yourself the goal of trying to put yourself in the situation imaginatively of what it’s like to be dead. So I start by trying to strip off the parts of my conscious life that I know I won’t have when I’m dead. I won’t hear anything. I won’t see anything. I won’t think anything. And you try to imagine what it’s like to not think or feel or hear or see. And you don’t do a very good job of it. So you throw your hands up and you say, “Oh, I guess I don’t know what it’s like.” So it must be a mystery.

It’s not a mystery at all. Suppose I ask, “What’s it like to be this cell phone?” The answer is, “It’s not like anything,” where that doesn’t mean there’s something that it’s like to be a cell phone, but different from being anything else. So it’s not like anything else; it’s a special way of feeling or experiencing. No. Cell phones don’t have any experience at all. There is nothing that it’s like on the inside to be a cell phone. Imagine that I try to ask myself, “What’s it like to be my ball point pen?” And I try to imagine, well, first, imagine being really, really stiff, because you’re not flexible when you’re a ball point pen. You can’t move. And imagine being really, really bored, because you don’t have any thoughts or interests. No. That’s completely the wrong way to go about thinking what it’s like to be a ball point pen. There’s nothing that it’s like to be a ball point pen. There’s nothing to describe, nothing to imagine. No mystery about what it’s like to be a ball point pen. No mystery about what it’s like to be a cell phone.

Well, similarly then, I put it to you, there’s no mystery about what it’s like to be dead. It isn’t like anything. What I don’t mean, “Oh, it’s like something, but different from everything else.” I mean, there is nothing there to describe. When you’re dead, there’s nothing happening on the inside to be imagined. Well, should we conclude therefore, given that we’ve got the premise, “If you can’t picture it or imagine it, then you can’t believe in it,” since I’ve just said, look, you can’t imagine being dead, but that’s not due to any failure of imagination, that’s because there’s nothing there to imagine or picture. Still, granted the premise, if you can’t picture it or imagine it, you can’t believe in it — Should we conclude, therefore, that you can’t believe you’re going to be dead? No. We shouldn’t conclude that.

After all, not only is it true that you can’t picture from the inside what it’s like to be dead, you can’t picture from the inside what it’s like to be in dreamless sleep. There is nothing that it’s like to be in dreamless sleep. When you’re in dreamless sleep, you’re not imagining or experiencing anything. Similarly, it’s not possible to picture or imagine what it’s like to have fainted and be completely unconscious with nothing happening cognitively. There’s nothing to picture or imagine. Well, should we conclude, therefore, so nobody really believes that they’re ever in dreamless sleep? Well, that would be silly. Of course you believe that at times you’re in dreamless sleep. Should we say of somebody who’s fainted or knows that they’re subject to fainting spells, they never actually believe that they pass out? That would be silly. Of course, they believe they pass out.

From the mere fact that they can’t picture it from the inside, it doesn’t follow that nobody believes they’re ever in dreamless sleep. From the mere fact that they can’t picture from the inside what it’s like to have fainted and not yet woken up, it doesn’t mean that nobody believes that they ever faint. From the mere fact that you can’t picture from the inside what it’s like to be dead, it doesn’t follow that nobody believes they’re going to die.

But didn’t I start off by saying I was going to grant the person who is making this argument that in order to believe something, you’ve got to be able to picture it? And haven’t I just said, “Look, you can’t picture being dead”? So aren’t I taking it back? Since I say you can believe you’re going to die, yet you can’t picture it from the inside. Haven’t I taken back the assumption that in order to believe it, you’ve got to be able to picture it? Not quite.

Although I am skeptical about that claim, I am going to continue giving it to the person who makes this argument, because I’m not so prepared to admit that you can’t picture being dead. You can picture being dead, all right. You just can’t picture it from the inside. You can picture it from the outside. I can picture being in dreamless sleep quite easily. I’m doing it right now. I’ve got a little mental image of my body lying in bed asleep, dreamlessly. I can picture fainting, or having fainted, quite easily. Picture my body lying on the ground unconscious. I can picture my being dead quite easily. It’s a little mental picture of my body in a coffin. No functioning occurring in my body. So even if it were true that belief requires picturing, and even if were true that you can’t picture being dead from the inside, it wouldn’t follow that you can’t believe you’re going to die. All you have to do is picture it from the outside. We’re done. So I conclude, of course you can and do believe you’re going to die.

Chapter 4. Can Imagining Death Work? Flaws in Freud’s Argument [00:27:49]

But at this point, the person making the argument has a possible response. And it’s a quite common response. He says, “Look, I try to picture the world — admittedly from the outside — I try to picture the world in which I don’t exist, I’m no longer conscious. I’m no longer a person, no longer experiencing anything. I try to picture that world. I picture, for example, seeing my funeral. And yet, when I try to do that, I’m observing it. I’m watching the funeral. I’m seeing the funeral. Consequently, I’m thinking. So I haven’t really imagined the world in which I no longer exist, a world in which I’m dead, a world in which I’m incapable of thought and observation. I’ve smuggled myself back in as the observer of the funeral.”

Every time I try to picture myself being dead, I smuggle myself back in, conscious and existing as a person, hence, not dead as a person. Maybe my body — I’m imagining my body dead, but I’m not imagining myself, the person, dead. From which it follows, the argument goes, that I don’t really believe I’ll ever be dead. Because when I try to imagine a world in which I’m dead, I smuggle myself back in.

This argument shows up in various places. Let me mention, let me quote one case of it, Freud. Freud says, this is, I’m quoting from one of the Walter Kaufman essays that you’ll be reading, called “Death.” He quotes Freud. Freud says,

After all, one’s own death is beyond imagining, and whenever we try to imagine it we can see that we really survive as spectators. Thus, the dictum could be dared in the psychoanalytic school: at bottom, nobody believes in his own death. Or, and this is the same: in his unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality.

All right, there’s Freud. Basically, just running the argument I’ve just sketched for you. When you try to imagine your being dead, you smuggle yourself back in as a spectator. And so, Freud concludes, at some level none of us really believes we’re going to die.

I want to say, I think that argument’s a horrible argument. How many of you believe that there are meetings that take place without you? Suppose you’re a member of some club and there’s a meeting this afternoon and you won’t be there, because you’ve got to be someplace else. So you ask yourself, “Do I believe that meeting’s going to take place without me?” At first glance, it looks like you do, but here’s the Freudian argument that shows you don’t really. Try to imagine, try to picture that meeting without you. Well, when you do picture it, there’s that room in your mind’s eye. You’ve got a little picture of people sitting around the table perhaps, discussing the business of your club. Uh-oh, I’ve smuggled myself in as a spectator. If, like you — , I think most of us picture these things up from a perspective in a corner of the room, up on the wall, looking down, kind of a fly’s perspective. All right, I’ve smuggled myself in as a spectator. I’m actually in the room after all. So I haven’t really pictured the meeting taking place without me. So I guess I don’t really believe the meeting’s going to take place without me.

If Freud’s argument for death, that is to say, none of us believe we’re going to die, was any good, the argument that none of us believe meetings ever take place without us would have to work as well. But that’s silly. It’s clear that we all do believe in the possibility, indeed, more than a mere possibility, the actuality of meetings that occur without us. Even though when I imagine that meeting, I’m in some sense, smuggling myself in as an observer. From which I think it follows that the mere fact that I’ve smuggled myself in as an observer doesn’t mean that I don’t really believe in the possibility that I’m observing in my mind’s eye. I can believe in the existence of a meeting that takes place, even though I smuggle myself in as an observer when I picture that meeting. I can believe in the possibility of a world without me, even though I smuggle myself in as an observer when I picture that world without me.

Freud’s mistake, and it’s — although I’m picking on Freud, it’s not only Freud that runs this sort of argument. One comes across it periodically. Within the last year, a member of our law school here put forward this very argument and said he thought it was a good one. So people think the argument’s a good one. It strikes me as it’s got to be a bad one. The confusion, the mistake I think people are making when they make this argument, the mistake I think they’re making is this. It’s one thing to ask yourself, what’s the content of the picture? It’s another thing to ask, when you look at the picture, are you existing? Are you looking at the picture from a certain point of view?

Suppose I hold up a photograph of a beach with nobody on it. All right, am I in that beach, as pictured in that photograph? Of course not. But as I look at it, whether in reality or in my mind’s eye, I’m looking at it from a perspective. As I think about it, I’m viewing the beach from a point of view which may well be on the beach, if somebody draws a painting of a beach. But for all that, that doesn’t mean that within the picture of the beach, I’m in the beach. Looking at a picture doesn’t mean you’re in the picture. Viewing the meeting from a point of view, doesn’t mean you’re in the meeting. Viewing the world without you from a point of view, doesn’t mean you’re in the world. So although of course it’s true, when I imagine these various possibilities without me, I’m thinking about them. I’m observing them. And I’m observing them from a particular perspective, from a particular standpoint. For all that, I’m not in the picture that I’m thinking about. So I think the Freudian argument just fails. Now, maybe there’s some other reason to believe the claim that nobody believes they will cease to exist. But if there is another argument for that claim, I’m eager to hear it, because this argument, at any rate, seems to me to be unsuccessful.

Chapter 5. Nobody Believes in Bodily Death: The Death of Ivan Ilyich [00:36:11]

Now, at the start, I distinguished two claims people might have in mind when they say, “Nobody believes they’re going to die.” The first possibility was the claim was, nobody believes that they’ll ever cease to exist as a person. And I’ve just explained why at least the most familiar argument for that claim, I think, doesn’t work. The second possible interpretation was this. Nobody believes their body is going to die. That is, the more familiar humdrum event of death where your body ceases functioning and you end up having a corpse that gets buried and so forth. Sometimes it’s suggested that nobody believes that either. Of course, often, I think, people run together these two questions. When they say you don’t believe you’re going to die, do you mean, you don’t believe your body’s going to die? or you don’t believe you’re going to cease to exist as a person? Maybe when people make the claim, it’s not clear which of these things they’ve got in mind.

But let’s, at least, try to now focus on the second question. Could it be true, is there any good reason to believe it is true, that nobody believes they’re going to undergo bodily death? Now, after all, even if you believe that, well, your soul will go to heaven so you won’t cease to exist as a person, you might still believe that your body will die. Most of us presumably do believe our bodies will die. At least, that’s how it seems to me. So it’s a bit odd to suggest, as it nonetheless does get suggested, that no, no, at some level, people don’t really believe they’re going to die.

Let me point out just how odd a claim that is. Because people do all sorts of behaviors which become very, very hard to interpret if they don’t really believe their bodies are going to die. People, for example, take out life insurance so that — well, here’s what seems to be the explanation. They believe that there’s a decent chance that they will die within a certain period of time. And so, if that happens, they want their children and family members to be cared for. If you didn’t really believe you were going to die, that is undergo bodily death, why would you take out life insurance? People write wills. “Here’s what you should do with my estate after I die.” If you didn’t really believe that your body was going to die, why would you ever bother writing a will? Since many people write wills, many people take out life insurance, it seems as though the natural thing to suggest is that many, or at least perhaps most, at least many people believe they’re going to die.

Why would we think otherwise? Well, the reason for thinking otherwise, the reason for not being utterly dismissive of this suggestion, is that when people get ill, terminally ill, it often seems to take them by surprise. So I’ve been having you read Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich falls, he hurts himself. The injury doesn’t get better. He gets worse and worse and eventually it kills him. The astonishing thing is that Ivan Ilyich is shocked to discover that he’s mortal. And of course, what Tolstoy is trying to convince us of, what he’s trying to argue, by illustrating the claim, I take it, that Tolstoy is making, is that most of us are actually in Ivan Ilyich’s boat. We give lip service to the claim that we’re going to die, but at some level, we don’t really believe it.

And notice again, just to emphasize the point, the relevant lack of belief here has to do with the death of the body. That’s the thing that Ivan Ilyich is skeptical about. Is his body going to die? Is he mortal in that sense? This is what takes him aback, to discover that he’s mortal. For all we know, Ivan Ilyich still believes in souls, believes he’s going to go to heaven and so forth. So it’s not his death as a person that he’s puzzled by. He may not think he’s going to die as a person. It’s his bodily death that surprises him, his bodily mortality that surprises him. Tolstoy draws a highly realistic and believable portrait of somebody who is surprised to discover that he’s mortal. As he puts it, there’s a famous syllogism that people learn in their logic classes from Aristotle. All men are mortal. Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal. Ivan Ilyich says, “Yes, yes, I knew that. But what did that have to do with me?” Well, it may be a kind of irrationality. It may be a kind of failure to conduct the logic. But we’re not asking, is it rational or irrational to not believe that your body’s going to die, we’re simply asking, noting the fact that, there to seem to be cases where people are surprised to discover that they’re mortal.

Now, for all that, notice, I presume that Ivan Ilyich had a will. And for all I know, Ivan Ilyich had life insurance. So we’re in the peculiar situation where on the one hand, some of Ivan Ilyich’s behaviors indicate that he believed he was mortal, that his body was going to die. And yet, the shock and surprise that faces, that overcomes him when he actually has to face his mortality, strongly suggests that he’s reporting correctly. He didn’t believe he was going to die.

How could that be? There’s a kind of puzzle there as to — even if, before we move to the question, how widespread are cases like this? there’s a puzzle as to how are we even to understand this case? We need to distinguish perhaps between what he consciously believes and what he unconsciously believes. Maybe at the conscious level he believed he was mortal, but at the unconscious level he believed he was immortal.

Or maybe we need to distinguish between those things he gives a kind of lip service to, versus those things he truly and fundamentally believes. Maybe he gives lip service to the claim that he was mortal. If you would have asked him “Are you mortal?” he would have said “Oh, of course I am.” And he buys life insurance accordingly. But does he thoroughly and truly and fundamentally believe he’s mortal? Perhaps not. We need some such distinction if we’re going to make sense of Ivan Ilyich.

Well, let’s suppose we’ve done it. Still have to ask, not, are there are ever cases of people who don’t believe they’re going to die? but rather, is there any good reason to think that we’re all or most of us are in that situation, are in that state of belief where, although we give lip service to the claim that we’re going to die, is there any good reason to believe that fundamentally we don’t actually believe it? That’s the question we have to turn to next time.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]