How should we think about death? Philosophers have been thinking about this for two and a half millennia. For a topic that’s so elusive, they’ve had a lot to say. Let me focus on just a couple of themes. What’s called for here is what we might call a way of thinking rather than knowledge in any strict sense of the word, a way of making sense of death and of facing up to it without making claims to knowledge that are impossible to justify. We don’t need to know or to have beliefs about everything. What we do need is a way of thinking about death, a sense of it that runs alongside knowledge and that doesn’t lose sight of its limits.
Let’s begin with mystery. Death is the mystery of mysteries, in the sense not that no knowledge is possible here but that, from a philosophical point of view, death isn’t a merely intellectual puzzle or a theoretical problem in need of solution but a mystery in need of a certain kind of reflection. To speak of death as a mystery doesn’t mean that it defies knowledge utterly but that to question it is to question ourselves and how we’re living. A mystery is a part of our existence. It’s a mystery that is universal at the same time that it’s profoundly personal. For it isn’t only death in general that’s unknown but precisely one’s own death, this most urgent of questions, where the desire for knowledge is as absolute as its unattainability. In the encounter with mystery what’s called for is openness along with a certain restraint, a refusal of all rashness and of taking positions where no position and no belief is more defensible than any other.
The temptation to speculate is great at times, and nowhere more so than on the question of death. Is there a life beyond this life, some manner of personal survival that we can believe in or at least hope for without surrendering our reason? It’s more than tempting to believe, but is it intellectually responsible? Hope remains even when there is no belief. To say we have hope doesn’t entangle us in the epistemological problem that belief does or assent to an intellectual position, but to many this is unsatisfying. Is hope ever a reasonable position, and is it a position at all? Where there is no knowledge there is always the possibility of speculation, but do we have a right to this? The problem with speculation, most philosophers would say, is that it isn’t knowledge but a pale substitute for it, little better than the flipping of a coin. Serious thought is knowledge, and where there is no evidence and no rational argument, there is no right to believe.
A different argument, and one I have some sympathy with, goes like this. We are, as Aristotle said, beings that by nature desire to know. However, we are also beings that desire some other things: to live in a world of meaning, to understand not only what is but what may be, and to make ourselves at home in such a world. We can’t live by knowledge alone, for this affords too slim a basis for life. We require an existence that is not only knowable but meaningful and purposeful. Our very way of being is a search for understanding, for ways of coping that hold meaning for us, and where coping doesn’t mean getting by on beliefs that are false but gratifying but becoming at home in a world of unlimited complexity and mystery. A way of life that’s restricted to knowing truths that can be demonstrated is an impossible and inhuman existence. Knowledge, whatever it is, doesn’t by itself afford a basis for life, nor is it a compartment separate from the rest of what minds do. It is more like a way of doing things, a possible and reasonable way of speaking, but not a total way of life. Try as we might to make fast the life of the mind by tying it to the secure post of reason, the post itself isn’t as secure as philosophers have often imagined. It’s no absolute, but a way of finding our way about the world. At the most fundamental level of analysis, thinking is coping—solving problems where we can, posing questions, reflecting on meanings and mystery, wondering, speculating, and imagining what’s around the corner. Most of it doesn’t involve linking a proposition to an absolute.
The way of life of our species is defined by thinking, and in a sense that’s broader and richer than knowing. The object of thinking is our condition in general: what is true, what is good, what is important, what things mean, who we are, and what may be. All of this is the business of human life, and if we’re to live as rational beings we must have something intelligent to say about each of these matters. Try as we might to limit ourselves to saying only what we know, we don’t succeed and nor is this a goal worth seeking.
William James believed that we face a basic choice between desiring truth and desiring to avoid error. James and the speculator both opt for the first. They take a risk, and are sometimes to be faulted for doing so, but in the end they tend to understand more and to see more deeply into life. Were I on my deathbed, I’d sooner talk with a thinker of the first kind than the second, maybe a storyteller or a poet. What would matter isn’t what they believe but whether their conceptual vocabulary includes hope and wonder, whether they have the boldness to take a chance and to contemplate the mystery.
Knowledge is never more than the tip of the iceberg of the kind of being that we are. The human being and everything that pertains to it is finite, and this includes knowledge. The speculative mind is venturesome, not especially disciplined, and above all free. There are times when it’s clearly out of order, but when we’re not solving a problem but encountering a mystery, not investigating so much as reflecting, and when there’s an urgency to the matter that makes it intolerable that we should have nothing to say when our very being is at stake, then we may speculate without philosophy giving us a bad conscience.
I want to talk about one more theme, which is hope. Hope isn’t the same as belief, and you can have the first without the second. May we hope that something of ourselves will persist after death? In thinking about this, we need to decide what matters most: the self itself or that which one has cared about in life. Suppose Saint Peter himself offered admittance either to you or to what you love, but not both, which would you choose? For what do you hope most fervently? If the latter then there is certainly hope that our family and community, our ideas and undertakings, will remain after our death. This modest hope is what our conception of immortality might have been had human beings never dreamed up stories of heaven and hell or the reincarnation of the soul. For many, the survival of what one loves is immortality enough. If we insist on taking this question metaphysically, it’s best not to answer it, for there’s no answer that can withstand scrutiny. We don’t know, we will never know, whether there is in a literal sense a life beyond this life. There is hope, full stop. Blaise Pascal, in the seventeenth century, argued that while there’s no convincing evidence of an afterlife or of the existence of God it’s best to believe anyway. If the Biblical story is true, he reasoned, we are better off believing and living our lives accordingly since we stand to gain an eternal reward. If it’s false, we’ve lost relatively little. Either way, we must take a chance. It’s unlikely that many have been converted to a religious worldview by Pascal’s wager. His effort to bring hope within the orbit of reason is commendable in a way but ultimately it’s unsuccessful. There are no rational beliefs to be had here. The only sensible position is neither to accept Pascal’s wager nor to refuse it; one walks away from the table. This isn’t the same as saying one is out, for one was never in.
The corruption of hope is belief. When we hold beliefs, we must produce reasons, and on the question of immortality there are none to be found. One of the tragic realities of human existence is that we often encounter the limits of what is knowable precisely where the desire for knowledge is most urgent. In the encounter with death there’s nothing we desire more than some definite conviction about what happens to the human being after death, but the fact remains that here we’re brought up against a wall before which the only intellectually responsible position is the non-position of the “who knows?” Intuitions we have aplenty, and not one of them is a basis for belief. If there’s no topic on which we’re quicker to abandon our wits than the afterlife, what is needed are not fresh efforts to know the unknowable but a measure of intellectual honesty.
Living in the face of death means living in the face of mystery and accepting the mystery for what it is. If in the encounter with mystery there is neither certainty nor even reasonable belief, there remains the imperative of hope. Time and again, philosophical reflection on death leads us back to life and how we are living it. Are we able to accept what our life has been, to make peace with both the past and the present, and to uphold the conviction that through even the worst of it there was some discernible meaning? To cite my old friend and advisor Gary Madison, “The specter of irremediable loss hovers continually over everything in our lives…. It is only when we realize how thin the threads are that bind us together with those we love that we are in a position to truly cherish and value them. Or as Seneca [in the first century A.D.] expressed the matter: ‘We ought to love all our dear ones, … but always in a realization that we have received no promise that they will be ours forever, no, not even for a length of time…. The heart … must not forget that those we love will leave, indeed are already leaving.’” A good part of Seneca’s project, particularly in his book On the Shortness of Life, was precisely to remind us that “there is nothing that the passage of time does not demolish and remove,” but that in spite of this, “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”
To think about death—or about anything—is to make a beginning only. On the subject of death, there are no veterans and no experts. It demands to be thought even where no knowledge is to be found.