I've been struggling to articulate my question for quite some time so this may or may not be coherent.

Philosopher Shelly Kagan, a Yale professor who has an Open Course on 'the philosophy of death', begins the course summary with the claim: "There is one thing I can be sure of: I am going to die."

My question involves an epistemological and an ethical question about this claim.


Is it empirically possible to know what an 'after life' is like? A lot of philosophizing about 'death' depends on the definition of what is meant by 'death'. Let us say we mean by death 'the end of consciousness'. Then it would seem to follow by definition that we cannot know what it would be like to be dead since to be something dead is to not have consciousness. So it would be impossible to study something if it's necessary that you are not conscious at the same time to study it.

What I am more interested in is the possibility of studying an 'after life' from a third-person perspective. For example, let us say something like materialism, and more strongly functionalism, is true in philosophy of mind. That is, assume that all that is necessary for a conscious being to retain its consciousness (including both 'qualia' and capacity for rational thought) is that it preserve some information-theoretic/Turing-computable structure that is substrate independent. So while under the hypothesis of materialism our brains are required in order for us to have qualia and to think, it would be possible that a computer-program, a silicon-brain, or even rocks in a pond, would be capable of creating a conscious being much like myself (so long as all the functional relations and metaphysical causation holds).

Assuming all of this, my question is would it be empirically possible to monitor the information-theoretic relationships that our matter takes on after we die? For example, neuroscience is slowing gaining the capability to be able to predict the 'qualia' of a subject based upon the subject's brain states. Perhaps in the future, if cognitive scientists and philosophers can construct a solid information-theoretic model, one could be able to have a 'consciousness meter' that can detect the kinds of consciousness that entities have. In this way, one would be able to know what it is like to 'be' someone else's matter after they die.

I say 'entities', and not merely creatures, because of the ideas in this paper by Eric Schwitzgebel entitled 'If Materialism is True, then is the United States Conscious?': http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzPapers/USAconscious-130208.pdf

Galen Strawson has also written a paper on panpsychism, which is akin to what I have been discussing in this post: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:ET1HaZ9OShgJ:www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~seager/strawson_on_panpsychism.doc+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ca


One of the primary motivations behind an act such as euthanasia is to end the suffering of someone we care about. Similar reasons apply to any act done under negative-utilitarian principles. My question is if one believes that 'suffering', however that is manifested, is an intrinsically negative thing, does one have a duty to ensure that the death of someone who was suffering actually occurs? Ostensibly, if the heart stops and the brain is dead then the person is biologically not alive. But if the aforementioned functionalist theory of mind is true, it is possible that the person continues to persist as a conscious entity albeit in a completely different way than the consciousness of a human. If this is true, then they could possible be in even worse states of mind than as a human. So if motivation for euthanizing someone is to end their suffering, do we have a duty to make sure their suffering is not worsened by ending it?

  • We can already detect brain activity in people who are in a persistent vegetative state. Is that what you're talking about? When someone's brain dead, they're brain dead. We can tell. When their body is seemingly lifeless but their brain's working, we can tell that too. Is that what you're talking about? Are you asking about end of life ethics? Maybe it's just me, I could use a more clear statement of what you're asking.
    – user4894
    Mar 13, 2014 at 3:58
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    I don't share your certainty when you claim that "when someone's brain dead, they're brain dead." It depends on what you mean by "dead" - if you mean 'brain dead' - then it's a tautology and follows by definition. But the question I have raised is that if something like a substrate-independent functionalism is true, and that all that matters to create a conscious entity is that it preserve certain functional relations, then what seems "obviously dead" may not be so certain under closer analysis. My post is to question the alleged obviousness that we think death occurs after the brain passes. Mar 13, 2014 at 7:50
  • "There is no such thing as death; life is a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves." I (as an individual) cannot say that this is true, but it is only the body that dies (not the soul or life-force that powers it). Energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed. Mar 13, 2014 at 10:17

3 Answers 3


Let's try this with computers. "When you smash your CPU, maybe it continues to exist as a computational entity." Say what?

We don't know very much about the implementation of consciousness, but in all cases we know of (which is a lot of cases), it requires brain activity. Of course you can always hypothesize that there are various inaccessible states that exist and are affected by what we do but can't be measured (e.g. heaven), but in general parsimony (and sanity) requires one to reject random flights of fancy about nominally possible yet unmeasurable things.

So, anyway, we already know the answer to a high degree of certainty. Our certainty comes not from obviousness but rather enormous amounts of experience with various medical conditions.

(I should point out that it's not so hard to argue that we have some duty to verify that a person is actually brain-dead; given that a functioning motor cortext is not required for the brain to be alive, "does not respond to stimuli" is already known to be inadequate. But equating non-responsiveness with brain death is a different issue--medical practice taking shortcuts (or relying on historical norms) instead of following evidence.)

  • I find it question-begging when you say that consciousness requires a brain. It is an open question whether or not consciousness can be grounded by a functional-equivalent of a brain. I think it's empirically possible that any physical system that preserves the functional relations of a brain (e.g. that simulates neurons and synaptic connections) would be capable of creating consciousness. This system could involve even the people of china using walkie-talkies (see Ned Block). Indeed, one can simulate all operations of a Turing-machine on pen & paper, and by hypothesis, perhaps even the brain. Mar 14, 2014 at 0:12
  • @letsmakemuffinstogether - Sure, but we don't actually have conscious-brain-emulation-via-walkie-talkie working. We do have brains doing it (consciousness), and we have damaged brains not doing it, and undamaged brains in certain states not doing it. That's all we need to answer this question.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 14, 2014 at 0:17
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    I'm pretty sure the computer analogy overlooks some things.
    – dgo
    Oct 1, 2014 at 20:48
  • @user1167442 - As far as I can tell, for the purposes of this argument it's pretty much dead on. However, if you think it does overlook something, saying what it overlooks is more helpful than expressing nonspecific doubts. (A solid argument is not a popularity contest.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 1, 2014 at 21:36
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    um..I'm not sure why you said what you did about the popularity content...No matter. Look. A human being is made up of parts even down to the smallest cell that contain within them a type of intelligence more sophisticated than the most technologically advanced CPU that has ever been built. If I am just my brain, I sure value the other parts of me that hang around. Not enough space to finish that thought, but that's just some of it.
    – dgo
    Oct 2, 2014 at 14:54

Your fundamental suppositions such as materialism have been firmly rejected by meta-physicians of Peripatetic-Neoplatonic tradition. That human consciousness is an incorporeal substance has been long regarded as an indubitable truth by meta-physicians. And various arguments have been offered to back up the theory. The problems of mind-body relation, mind’s nature and origin, and the fate of man after death were ultimately solved in the philosophy of Mulla Sadra, a 17th century persian philosopher . Here I tried to summarize the nature of human consciousness and its relation to the brain according to Mulla Sadra's school of Transcendent Philosophy. All notions mentioned in the summary are independently discussed and logically substantiated by Mulla Sadra in his works after proper examination of existing and rival theories of his time. You might have the enthusiasm to read a more detailed exposition of his theories in the source I suggested.

But as for your specific question, according to Sadra's theory of gradation of existence, all phenomena enjoy a level of life and consciousness, however matter enjoys the faintest level. But Life and consciousness themselves are in essence incorporeal qualities that emanate from the intellectual realm and permeate down into the natural world and thus can never be reduced to matter. After death human consciousness and life subsist in the supernatural realms and the body loses its owed consciousness and decomposes. Therefore there will be no consciousness in a dead body to study, although in case of a brain dead, the body is still governed by the vegetative faculty of the departed soul. And euthanasia would be considered an unethical act as bodily pain is not regarded as the worst thing in the world for a person who views life in the natural world as an opportunity for his/her spiritual/intellectual actualization which according to Sadra underpins the doctrine of eternal bliss.


I think one problem I find in your theory is equating life-force and consciousness. We really don't know enough as to the nature of life and its relation with consciousness. A fetus in the womb is "alive" but does it have consciousness? What state is that, and when is it acquired? If it is "acquired" then is brain-death an un-acquiring event? If abortion is OK then so should be euthanasia. If euthanasia is not OK then should abortion be OK? (Except for when the mothers life is in danger)

To continue for the sake of speculation; If it is possible that the person continues to persist as a conscious entity, it may or may not be worse, indeed it may be better. I would imagine it to depend also on the new physics of the incorporeal that such an entity would be subjected to. If it is true that spirits ("is this close to your concept of conscious entity?") can move around freely, a crippled soul might enjoy the post-death realm. A dictator would feel helpless, unless if there is a way to subjugate other entities.

Perhaps in future it is possible to communicate with the paranormal and study an 'after life' from a third-person perspective. What qualifies as pseudo-science today may become a serious scientific discipline in future.

Do we have a duty to make sure their suffering is not worsened by ending it? For one, prolonging itself may be inflicting suffering? The new state may even be better, but to ascertain it, would open up the Pandora's box of judgement in the world - "Was he good? Do we or do we not pull the plug?". Secondly, I think the real question is whether we have a duty to prolong the inevitable? And how does that fare given astronomically large span of universal time? The closest estimates for the universe to cease to exist are at least billions of years. Again, if an abortion is decided, it better be sooner than later?

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