Life and Existence. No one can be dead.

I am alive and you are alive. So far so good. But when does our life end? If we assume our life ends when we are dead, we end up in a philosophical quagmire. For if we are dead, we are not. The common usage of “to be” is misleading. If I say “My neighbour is dead“ I involuntarily ascribe a property to him whose having ceased to be I wanted to express by using the word “dead“.

            Obviously the auxiliary verb “to be” does not convey what I want to express when I say somebody is dead. If we are looking for an alternative, the verb „to exist“ comes to mind. Instead of saying “My neighbour is dead” I would rather say: “My neighbour does not exist anymore”. Let us check this expression. The very question “Where is the dead?” seems apt to refute my assumption that he does not exist anymore. No doubt, there is a corpse in my neighbour’s flat. Upon further consideration it becomes evident, however, that there is the body of a deceased, the body of my neighbour who, he himself, does not exist anymore.

            What has to happen to me in order for me to cease to exist? And what might happen to a living being like me without provoking my ceasing to exist? Take away one foot, a leg, all my limbs, the whole body. As long as my brain – perhaps assisted by intensive care – continues to produce consciousness I will continue to exist. If, as in the case of Alzheimer’s, the condition of my brain deteriorates, I might cease to be a self-conscious being; I might be diminished to a selfless being. In spite of this it will be me who continues to exist. I do not exist as long as my brain supports an intellect but as long as it supports sentience.

            If we cease to exist in that very moment when our brain ceases to realise consciousness, it might well be that we exist intermittently. For if we assume that our brain does not produce consciousness while we are in deep sleep or while we are in a deep coma – and if we endorse that what we are essentially is a mind produced by a brain –, then it is true that sometimes we do not exist. As a matter of fact, there is no unanimity among neurologists as to whether or not our consciousness ever fades completely without at the same time vanishing forever. If it was true that our consciousness never fades completely before fading forever, then we could ascribe to ourselves what one might call continuous existence. If it were so that our consciousness fades completely every night, our existence would be an intermittent existence. There would be times at which we did not exist in order to exist anew as soon as our brain starts producing consciousness again.

            Let us imagine a reader being very upset by these words. He enters my flat with the intention of killing me and aims at my head. He destroys my brain when it does not produce consciousness. He destroys my brain at a point in time when I do not exist. I ceased to exist when my brain, some time after falling asleep, ceased to produce consciousness. I was convinced, before I fell asleep, that my non-existence would be but intermittent. When my brain was destroyed, it did not kill me – as I did not exist. However, the reader who was upset made sure that I, who did not exist at that point in time, would never exist again.

            As there is no subject that “is” dead, since dead means the end of the existence of that very subject, we will never be dead.