Commentary on "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity"

Commentary and dialog on "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity" from Michael Shleyfer, John Urban, and Wayne Stewart.

Comment from Michael Shleyfer

....I view your (and formerly my) scenario of death as only one of many subjective possibilities of our ultimate fate. However, I am willing to play materialist for now and to look at the views presented in your article from that perspective. I think that, given materialism as a starting point, your scenario is, for the most part, logically sound. There are two issues though that I wish to critique and possibly modify.

First, there seems to me to be a problem both in TC’s metamorphosis into TC/rad and in treating it as a parallel to the death/birth paradigm. TC’s death is not a problem: as unorthodox as it may be, it is definitely a death. The appearance of TC/rad, however, is not a birth in any sense of that word. In terms of consciousness, birth and death are not symmetrical: a dying man’s state of consciousness is not much different from mine or yours (in terms of the big picture, at least); on the other hand, the state of consciousness of a newborn infant is nowhere near that and, thanks to the unexplained phenomenon of early childhood amnesia, remains a mystery. Death is a relatively sudden cessation of consciousness, while birth is a slow and gradual coming-into-being of conscious experience. It is that feature of birth rather than an inherent feature of consciousness itself that may be responsible for our feeling that "we have always been here." Given that feature of birth, TC/rad was not "born," but created: his consciousness was thrust on him complete with memories (possibly of things that never really happened), attitudes and values based on no prior experience (but possibly on illusions of prior experience), etc.. Thus the analogy between TC’s transformation and a person dying and another person being born is incomplete.

Another aspect of your views that I find problematic is the difficulty in interpreting the implications of continued experience as another being. TC/mod and TC/rad can be considered TC’s natural successors if TC’s last experience is immediately followed in their minds by their own first experience, i.e. there must be memory in order for the idea of "following" to make sense. Since no such memory exists in any regular death/birth scenario, we are led to two possible interpretations of continued experience: 1) The last experience of a man who will die in the year 2050 will be followed by the first experience of an arbitrary individual of an arbitrary species in an arbitrary location at an arbitrary future time, and 2) That man’s experience will be continued as experience of everyone everywhere and always until the annihilation of the universe. Both scenarios are equally absurd.

However, we can eliminate that absurdity by dispensing with the idea of chronology in conscious experience. While I believe in the existence of objective chronology, subjective chronology is a product of memory, and where there is no memory of prior events, there is no chronology, and it makes no sense to say that an experience of one person "immediately follows" an experience of another. Therefore (and I apologize for the necessary use of a poetic metaphor, but I hope you will understand me), my experience after my death will not be the experience of SOME conscious being or ALL conscious beings, but of ANY conscious being, regardless of whether that being’s life spans a period before, after, or during my current life. (Remember the quotation that started this whole discussion of selves: "We all have the same ‘I.’ ") Conscious experience is not bound by time, and the end of the universe is no more a deterrent to further experience than an individual’s death.

I like to toy with the idea of deriving an ethical system from this premise: since there is only one experiencer in the universe that "takes turns," so to speak (I do not mean chronologically, of course), at being every conscious creature in the universe, then all the suffering we cause to others will be felt by us at some point in that non-chronological dimension of conscious experience. But, as I stated at the beginning of this correspondence, I no longer consider the afore-mentioned as the only possible scenario of death, so the ethics may be a long time in the making.

Michael Shleyfer


Response to Shleyfer by Wayne Stewart

[A note on the acronym, "EP/GSC": In the response below, I treat Thomas W. Clark's "generic subjective continuity" as being functionally identical to my own conception, "existential passage". "EP/GSC" will here signify the joint concept.]

Michael Shleyfer has attempted an objection to EP/GSC. As stated, his objection is entirely inconsistent. I'd like to point out the inconsistency.

Michael wrote:

While I believe in the existence of objective chronology, subjective chronology is a product of memory, and where there is no memory of prior events, there is no chronology, and it makes no sense to say that an experience of one person "immediately follows" an experience of another.

Michael has used the word "chronology", without providing its definition. The word “chronology" has at least two definitions, actually: two distinct meanings which Michael has conflated in his attempt at an objection. The two meanings of "chronology" are:

(1) Chronology: the arrangement of events in time.


(2) Chronology: a record of events in the order of their occurrence.

These are the essential definitions. Beyond this, each definition of chronology does have, as Michael suggested, both objective and subjective aspects -- roughly, the "thing-in-itself" and "our relation to it".

So we must be careful: when we talk about "chronology", we must keep the appropriate definition (and the appropriate aspect) clearly in mind at all times. And this is not easy to do. As it happens, Michael has confused himself.

Michael's mistake:

When Michael says that he believes in “the existence of objective chronology”, he’s only saying that he believes there is an arrangement of events in time, per definition (1). Objectively, "out there", exists an arrangement of events in time.

And then he says:

"subjective chronology is a product of memory"

This is a use of definition (2), the record of events, which is by no means the same as definition (1), the events themselves. It is an entirely different concept. Highlighting the difference:

Events are arranged in time, objectively, and a man encounters a series of those objective events as his unique viewpoint moves through time and space. This is his subjective chronology -- in the sense of (1): his subjective experience of events in time. This subjective chronology (1) maps to the objective chronology (1), in that he perceives all events in the same chronological order in which they really do occur.

Now, a man's brain may record a portion of his subjective chronology (1) as episodic memories -- memories of events. That is to say, as subjective chronology (2). If his brain associates these memories in a temporal chain, he will later recall the memories in temporal order. The remembered order is dependent upon the subjective association of event memories, rather than the objective order of the original events themselves. The remembered order (2) is distinct from true chronology (1) – distinct from time and events themselves – and may be faulty, just as a story in a history book will be faulty when it differs from the true historical events.

To illustrate: The Battle of Gettysburg occurred, through chronological events, irrespective of how or whether a historian recorded those events. The historian can make mistakes. The historian's faulty memory imperils only the record of battle, not the battle itself. That is to say, it imperils only chronology (2), not chronology (1).

And what is the relevance to EP/GSC?

EP/GSC deals with amnesiac conditions. So in close analogy let's apply definitions (1) and (2) to a man suffering the clinical condition of anterograde amnesia (a man who remembers old events but who cannot record new ones). Through this exercise we can see the relevance of (1) and (2) to EP/GSC.

The anterograde amnesiac is injured, but he is not entirely helpless. He is aware of his immediate situation. He experiences subjective chronology (1). He can verbally report his experiences as they happen. He says, "I am seeing people. I am speaking. I am resting." And so on.

Of course, soon the amnesiac will forget these experiences utterly. (Being anterograde amnesiac, he simply cannot record new event memories.) Will this condition invalidate his prior verbal report of chronology (1)? Will it render that report... meaningless? Nonsensical?

No. That report is and always will be a faithful statement of subjective chronology (1), reported in the event itself. It remains meaningful, sensible, real. Here chronology (1) exists prior to memory and independent of chronology (2), which is just unavailable to the anterograde amnesiac.

The inference:

The inference is that memory is not necessary for subjective chronology. The amnesiac does encounter subjective chronology in the sense of definition (1) -- just as the subjects of EP/GSC should be expected to.

But can an unnecessary thing produce a prior and necessary thing? Again, no. So, returning at last to Michael's objection:

Michael has said that "subjective chronology is a product of memory." Now we can see why his statement is untrue. One cannot truthfully say that memory produces chronology, since we've just determined that memory is really unnecessary for chronology (1). Chronology (1) occurs without regard for memory, or chronology (2).

Likewise, Michael cannot say that “where there is no memory of prior events, there is no chronology”. Where there is no memory, there is no chronology (2), only. The prior and necessary chronology (1) is unaffected.

Finally, Michael cannot say that “it makes no sense to say that an experience of one person ‘immediately follows’ an experience of another”. To the contrary, it does make sense, per above, and per the greater arguments set down by Thomas W. Clark and myself.


EP/GSC arguments require only the existence of (1); they make no appeal to (2). Michael’s objection, which conflates definition (2) with definition (1), is inconsistent by definition -- and harmless.

Wayne Stewart, November, 2004

Tom Clark comments re the above

Michael Shleyfer says there can't be a subjective sense of "immediately following" if there is no memory of an earlier experience. He's talking about the subjective sense of experiential chronology: the memory of having had prior experiences. Since, as we all (Wayne, Tom, Michael) agree, the subject who comes into being has no memory of another's experience, from the subject's point of view there is no feeling that his present experience "immediately follows" a prior experience, rather it just seems to him like he's always been present. Yet we can see that there's been no subjective gap between subjects, and in this sense the experience of the new subject "immediately follows" the original. The thought experiment generates this intuition by taking the subjective sense of experiential continuity across objective gaps in the consciousness of a single subject (sleep, slight transformations) and showing that waking up a someone quite different doesn't produce a prior subjective gap.

Commentary by John Urban

Clark writes:

“Rejecting visions of reunions with loved ones or of crossing over into the light, we anticipate the opposite: darkness, silence, an engulfing emptiness. But we would be wrong.” “…the error of anticipating nothingness needs rectifying”.

The error: reifying nothingness, and then to place the individual in it after death. Death, said Swinburne, is “eternal night”. And then your essay builds a concurrence by an impressive company of poets, writers, and philosophers.

A substantial part of the difficulty consists of the words which come to hand. Asimov, for example, writes “nothingness”, Nozick just “nothing”, and Burgess with his “darkness" after death and “black velvet”. And so on.

It seems to me that your exemplars, in anticipating death, are trapped by language, not by concept. For there are no precedents, no valid percepts, no units of experience in our breathing, pulsing existence to cope with conceiving of the state that we anticipate after death. All possible terms are essentially poetic efforts to snatch some kind of useful analogy from the world of life, for the mind’s satisfaction. One cannot cross the abyss and be in the slightest literal. Heaven, and hell, for a Christian, nirvana for a Buddhist, paradise for a Moslem – all these are composed of interwoven strands of wish, faith, hope, and fear abstracted from the realm of life.

Nothingness, the void, emptiness, the eternal silence – all are concepts which arise from the same matrix of existence, in which death has no antecedents. The difference? For the believer it’s a way of devising a future; for the humanist, a way, however inadequate, of denying a future.

But wait, you say, that’s exactly wrong, and that’s what I’ve been trying to point out. Of course there’s a future; after all, you and I exist despite the myriad of deaths which have preceded us. That makes us the future for all the deaths of the past. How to resolve this conundrum? We can speak of ending individual subjectivities. We can invoke the mind’s “subjective sense of always having been present”. This leads to a series of sentences that I find almost impossible to untangle. I quote, ‘So when I say that you should look forward, at death, to the “subjective sense of always having been present” I am speaking rather loosely, for it is not you – not this set of personal characteristics – that will experience “being present”. Rather it will be another set of characteristics (in fact, countless sets) with the capacity, perhaps, for completely different sorts of experience. But despite these (perhaps radical) differences, it will share the qualitatively very same sense of always having been here, and, like you, will never experience its cessation.’

I find the thought experiment which follows to be a kind of verbal shell game, from which we emerge with an interesting phrase, “generic subjective continuity”. And the terms “awareness” and “subjectivity” are now given properties, by inference, to give a kind of universal sheen to the totality of existence. I have serious problems with the chain of the argument enumerated with the four points that follow. 1) “subjectivity is immune to my death…” Subjectivity is an aspect of an individual consciousness, not an independent process. Reification? Sure feels like it. 3) If…. the transformed person who wakes up is not me, there still won’t be any perceived gap in awareness.” Again, awareness is an aspect of an individual consciousness, not an ethereal property of the universe, across which one can skid from one consciousness to another.

The transformation thought experiment is, of course, the crux of the shell game, and difficult to accept. Let me quote Francis Crick: “We believe that while gedanken experiments are useful devices for generating new ideas or for suggesting difficulties with existing ideas, they do not lead, in general, to trustworthy conclusions.” My feeling is that, by and large, thought experiments are devices for doing end runs around conceptual blockages, and must be treated more as fantasy products than solutions that relate to nature. Which is to say mental gymnastics cannot find in the mind something that had a prior existence only in nature. Whatever that is.

John Urban, December, 2004

Wayne Stewart replies to John Urban

John Urban misrepresents Thomas W. Clark's views on subjectivity. Mr. Clark can speak for himself of course, but I feel comfortable in providing a brief correction to the misrepresentation, given my history as a proponent of existential passage/generic subjective continuity (EP/GSC).

The misrepresentation:

Mr. Urban sets himself against Mr. Clark's EP/GSC argument by saying:

Subjectivity is an aspect of an individual consciousness, not an independent process.


Again, awareness is an aspect of an individual consciousness, not an ethereal property of the universe...

Readers might infer from those assertions that Mr. Clark has somewhere spoken of subjectivity as an "independent process", or as an "ethereal property of the universe". And this is not the case.

The correction:

In his paper Mr. Clark speaks of subjectivity simply as the "center of awareness". Elsewhere he elaborates this view, as in one of his other online papers: "Function and Phenomenology: Closing the Explanatory Gap". There he writes of subjectivity as "physical, functional, informationally rich, and behavior controlling (cybernetic) processes".

This is a thoroughly naturalistic view of subjectivity, and entirely consistent with Mr. Clark's stated naturalistic program. More importantly, it is this naturalistic view which makes EP/GSC a comprehensible idea. Any taint of "ethereality" would render the idea nonsensical, and Mr. Clark wisely avoids incorporeal poetics for this reason.

Mr. Urban has jumped too quickly to an objection that misrepresents Mr. Clark's view.

Now, regarding universality...

Mr. Urban's strike against the "ethereal" is therefore off-the-mark. However, his objection has helpfully exposed an underlying tension: that which lies between the individual and the universal in conscious life. If I could offer another comment, I'd like to say this:

Mr. Urban is quite correct in pointing out that each subjectivity entails "an individual consciousness". Subjectivity exists, so far as we know, only in the context of an individual consciousness. Where there is subjectivity, there is an individual, always.

*** Point goes to Aristotle. ***

But when we ask just what properties define human subjectivity, we find always the list to be invariant. There are several ways to compile the list, but it always includes things like:

  • the separation of thought from the sense organs
  • simultaneous integration of sensory modalities
  • awareness of environment
  • the ability to coordinate mental activity towards a purpose
  • temporal experience
  • and other introspective and clinical properties which can be winnowed from philosophy, literature and cognitive science.

These are properties of subjectivity -- and none are unique to any particular individual. Interview an individual of any culture, ethnicity or personality type, and the properties of that individual's subjectivity will always be found to match the standard list. And certainly, no one would imagine that these properties really would apply only to some individuals, and not others. They are very reliable: that is why subjectivity can be studied and described scientifically. And in general, we accept that the properties of subjectivity must be universal.

Mr. Urban characterized subjectivity as "an aspect of an individual consciousness." More correctly we might say that subjectivity is the requirement of an individual consciousness. That requirement being universal, individual consciousness finds itself beholden to universals, unavoidably.

*** Point goes to Plato. ***

...and EP/GSC:

Mr. Urban also writes:

And the terms “awareness” and “subjectivity” are now given properties, by inference, to give a kind of universal sheen to the totality of existence.

Subjectivity's universality cannot be granted by a writer, through wordplay. Really, there is no need. For subjectivity's universality is evident in the phenomenon itself, as exhibited through its invariant natural properties.

It is in this sense that we can say subjectivity is truly universal, and it is only in this sense that the subjective mechanism of EP/GSC can be rightly understood.

Wayne Stewart, January, 2005