Douglas Murphy explores the meaning of death
Annihilation: The Sense and Significance of Death
by Christopher Belshaw
(UK: Acumen; US: McGill-Queen’s University Press)
As the saying goes, death is one of only two certainties in life. Everything that has ever lived has died; you, I, and everybody we have ever known will one day die. For something that is all around us, we spend very little of our time thinking about death. In fact, we seem to spend an awful lot of our time trying not to think about it. But are we even sure just what, exactly, “death” is? Does death have meaning? And can philosophy help us try to understand death? Christopher Belshaw’s Annihilation sets out to address these questions.
This is not a study of the cultures surrounding death, or of the ugly process of dying, but a hearty jaunt through recent ethical thought, asking only a few simple questions: “What is death?”, “Is it bad that we die?”, “How bad is death?” Belshaw frames these questions with thoroughness, consistency and clarity, shedding light on other thinkers such as Derek Parfit, and the book is at its best and most informative when it is weighing up the various positions on its subject matter. Although the book is theoretical rather than immediately practical, there is much in it that can be applied to genuine ethical situations, especially medical and legal problems.
Before we can hope to think ethically about death, we must first try to make sure that we know what death itself is. Belshaw sets out his definition clearly, and it governs the book as a whole; for him, death is “the irreversible breakdown of, or loss of function in, the organism as a whole.” He opposes this view to, on the one hand, those who see death primarily in terms of the brain, and, on the other hand, those who hold that the disappearance of personality is commensurate with death. In this way, he avoids both a vulgar materialism of mere flesh, and a dualist view of the subject that would involve any kind of mind-body opposition. The sacrifice is that he has to give up an exhaustive account of death, leaving ambiguities remaining: how indivisible is an organism? Can we ever say with certainty that a death event is irreversible? How much physical and mental change can a human go through before their identity changes also?
To grapple with, if not answer, these questions the book deals with an impressive array of scenarios, including brains in jars, teleporting, transplants, posthumous betrayal and the obligatory whom-do-I-rescue? dilemma, and Belshaw elucidates these examples with a witty and conversational style. While mostly useful, the hypothetical future scenarios occasionally become too reductive to be informative, for example when Belshaw compares lives in terms of points scored for a good year, and decides that for some poor soul “it is evident that dying early has cost him 200 points.” For a reader seeking to deepen their understanding of human death, this approach is a concept of subjectivity that is far too simplistic to be useful.
The majority of the book deals with the “badness” of death: whether or not death can really be said to “harm” us, against the Epicurean position, whereby death, as non-existence, cannot be said to be in any way harmful to the person who has died, Belshaw suggests that death is harmful to us if it deprives us of future good in our lives. He justifies this by arguing that we need not be aware of a harmful event to be harmed by it, and that the lack of future good, even if we have returned to the void, is something that causes us harm. But this seems to necessitate a third angle to his hybrid-subject: our existence for the other. If there is harm, but the harmed no longer exist, there must be an observer to register this harm. Belshaw is reluctant to expand upon this, as it would necessitate a more cultural approach.
Overall the book is very enjoyable; Belshaw writes in a clear, informative and humorous manner, providing a worthwhile summary of a variety of positions on death, but at times his unwillingness to commit to strong positions makes for a somewhat timid read. Too often, when unable to decide between two competing arguments, he concludes that we are “as close as one can expect to get” to an answer, before swiftly moving on. This cautiousness means that the book is not as much of an outlandish read as David Benatar’s recent Better Never to Have Been, a bombastically deadpan argument that all life is invariably harmful and should never be begun in the first place. But also, with its narrow focus, Annihilation leaves much unsaid. A truly comprehensive study of the significance of death would have to deal with collective questions of extinction, political power over life, and what it might actually mean to be “alive” in the first place.
Douglas Murphy is writing his first book, The Architecture of Failure (Zero Books)