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The Concept of Death in Philosophy and Experience: Martin Heidegger, Thomas Nagel and Philip Gould

Mike Sutton
University of Edinburgh


This paper examines three approaches to the concept of death: an existential approach by Heidegger, a pragmatic evaluation by Nagel, and an experiential account by Philip Gould (who was not a professional philosopher but who wrote a detailed description of the time before his death). I compare and contrast these different approaches and use Gould’s account as a ‘real-life check’ on the two philosophical analyses.

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger’s evaluation of death comes from his main work, Being and Time (Division II, Chapter 1, §46-53).

People in general—Heidegger calls them ‘The They’—do not want to talk about death. It is the last obscenity. Death ‘cannot be outstripped’ and is beyond the scope of experience or phenomenological investigation. What can be experienced is being-alongside-death (i.e. other people’s death) and the ‘respectful solicitude’ of the dying, which is the mode of behaviour called for on such occasions. More usefully, we can experience our own being-towards-death. This is not just in the last years of life: from our birth, our being is directed towards death; but the process of it is not, for example, like the ripening of fruit. A person may die with unfulfilled potential of all sorts, in both their own view and in the view of others. When Heidegger seeks to investigate death, he concludes that only investigations of our being-towards-death is possible.

At this point in Being and Time, Heidegger is starting to examine how one grasps one’s human nature as a whole. He wants to know if death can in some way permit us to view our existence in its totality. Studies of one person dying by another living person are of limited use here. We are addressing the subjective experience, so we must look at our own being-towards-death. We can see death as certain at some time, and always possible at any time. We live in the face of the end; death is part of our being. Rather than treating it as an event to be ignored, Heidegger says that a more thoughtful, honest and logical approach (he calls it ‘authentic’) would be for a human being to use death as a means of concentrating on his own existence. Death puts our existence into perspective.

We need to look at Heidegger’s argument in more detail:

He looks at our finitude, or the way in which we see ourselves as having boundaries to our experiences. Death, like birth, sets a boundary on our lives, and this setting is a major factor by which death affects our attitude to life. We know that the holiday will come to an end but we do not know when; only that it can happen at any time. We therefore feel finite, limited in what we can do or will get done before we die. Whatever we think will happen to us in the future, death is the only thing that is certain. In Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, when Ivan realises he is mortally ill, he becomes obsessed with the way he has lived his life, and what he can do to make amends for what he sees as his mistakes. Ivan leaves this reckoning until the very end of his lifetime. But Heidegger asks for a much earlier ‘anticipation of death,’ a realistic inclusion of the death-factor in our projects and the way we evaluate them. We must be aware of the boundaries of our existence. Then, at the hypothetical point of death, we will have known of death’s possibility all our lives. It will have affected our projects and what we have done throughout our lives. Indeed, all of the time, in the present, we are aware of death’s possibility. We can try to forget it; we succeed most of the time; but overall, Heidegger sees death as an ‘integrating factor’ in what he terms an ‘authentic existence.’

Heidegger is not gloomy about death: it is only in relation to being-towards-death that one becomes passionately aware of one’s freedom.

Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel’s analysis forms Chapter 1 of his book Mortal Questions.

Nagel takes a view of death somewhat different to that of Heidegger. He is concerned with axiology, that is, the evaluation of death. Essentially, he is asking whether or not death is a ‘bad thing.’ He believes that the valuation of death as bad comes about only because of that which death deprives us. More life, says Nagel, like most goods, is better than less. But it is the loss of life rather than the state of being dead that is objectionable. Being dead is no worse than suspended animation, or that period of time before we were born. So why do we regard the state of death as objectionable? We cannot mind what is going on in the situation; we can suffer no misfortunes when dead; and there is a symmetry between posthumous and pre-natal non-existence.

Time is a factor in all questions regarding death. Here Nagel and Heidegger are on common ground: good or ill fortune is associated with our history and possibilities rather than the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the moment. According to Nagel, if we lose our minds (but do not die) we lose our sense of history and possibility; we enter a state of reverse childhood. Is such a state to be pitied? It may not be. It is may be loved ones and carers who are the main sufferers. Hopes and possibilities are as important as pain and suffering. We do not wish to lose the former time-acquired attributes any more than we want to suffer in the moment. But if we are in a state in which we can appreciate neither, then it is of no consequence. An embryo, an unborn child, a dead person: all are in such a state.

We nonetheless cling to life and the prospect of advantages and enjoyment to come. These anticipations carry a heavy weight in our evaluations. We may endure great suffering but not want to end our lives because of these possibilities. It takes great age—when hopes and possibilities may be almost non-existent—or great suffering to make us wish for death, or in extremes to commit suicide. In that sense death is a ‘bad thing,’ even though, as argued above, so far as our awareness is concerned its status is identical with the period before we were born.

Towards the end of this chapter Nagel makes the following (somewhat cryptic) observation: ‘[…] death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of infinitely extensible goods. Normality has nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer […] If there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.’

An Interim Assessment of Heidegger and Nagel’s Approaches

Heidegger and Nagel seem both to agree that the problem of philosophical investigation into death stems from death’s having no empirical reports. It is simply the end of life: we shall know nothing of death, especially when we are dead.

What we do know of death is that it is inevitable. We approach death via life. Sometimes, such as in the event of terminal illness, we have an idea of when it is likely to come; at others, such as in sudden accidents, we do not. Normally, given good health and no fatal accidents, we might now expect to live for eighty to 100 years in the West. We can only contemplate death from the standpoint of being alive, approaching its possibility, and what we can glean from observing the lives and deaths of others.

Both Heidegger and Nagel assume the finality of death—with no afterlife—and that the only possibility for investigation is to approach death from the standpoint of life. Heidegger sees death as the culmination of the process by which we live our lives, particularly our attitude to our own finitude. His chief concern is death in relation to time on the adoption of what he calls an authentic view of life, particularly how we go about our various projects in the light of death’s aforementioned inevitability.

Nagel’s approach is axiological. Does death have a value? It is ‘evil,’ according to him: it ends our aspirations. Unlike Heidegger, he seems to see death as only a ‘bad thing,’ not as an ultimate destination by which we steer a course through life.

So Heidegger wants us to live and approach death authentically; Nagel sees it that as ending our aspirations. They both agree on the importance of time; but their accounts of how we view the approach of death through time are at variance. Heidegger sees death as a marker in our approach  to our own finitude and how we live our life in light of that; Nagel refers rather to our valuation of our hopes and potential, and what we lose when we die.

The Experiential Approach: Philip Gould

Philip Gould, a.k.a Lord Gould of Brookwood, was not a philosopher. His career was spent as a political analyst, and he was instrumental in the conduct of focus-group research for the Labour party, which contributed substantially to Tony Blair’s landslide win in the UK 1997 General Election.

In January 2008 a diagnosis revealed that Gould was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. By 2011 it was clear that surgery and other treatments had failed, and that Gould was, as he said, entering the ‘death zone.’ He was quoted thus:

‘This time it was clear…I was in a different place, a death zone, where there was such an intensity, such a power. And apparently this is normal. And so, even though obviously I’d…rather not be in this position, it is the most extraordinary time of my life, certainly the most important time of my life’ (Independent, 19 Sept 2011).

He proceeded to turn this late period of being-towards-death into a project by writing about his situation. His memoirs were published in 2012 in a book entitled When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone.

One of the things that happened to him in the earlier stages of his cancer was his beginning to take more interest in religion and philosophy. In 2010, after initial treatment, it was found that his cancer had returned. He recalls a conversation with Tony Blair in which the former Prime Minister inspired him with the words, ‘You have to use this recurrence to find out your real purpose in life.’ Gould took his advice: in those early stages of his cancer he quite naturally wanted to cling to life; but eventually it was clear that his sickness was terminal and at that point he observed that ‘in truth, having an idea of the likely timescale of your life is a privilege not available to many.’ He also reported feeling confused, however; the need for a purpose, the feeling of a new reality together with a loss of influence on events, but still the determination to continue treatment with no thoughts of suicide. This mood develops. Later, he observes that death is regarded as ‘decline, of growing irrelevance, ending of growth, cessation of contribution. But for the dying it is a time of assessment, a pre-death moment of judgement.’ He speaks to David Sturgeon, a consultant psychiatrist, who told him that for a good death there is a need for acceptance of death and to see the dying process as the most important time of one’s life. Gould speaks of ‘reckoning’: he talks at length and in detail to his wife, children and sister. He makes sure of his family’s security after his death. He speculates on the different attitudes available to someone faced with imminent death. Both acceptance or denial are natural reactions. Gould opts for acceptance. As time goes on and the point of death nears he says he has found a courage that he did not know he had. He comments that the possibility of human error causing his death (bad decisions about his surgery, for example) have to be lived with in the run-up to death.  Eventually he enters a period of ecstasy, and intense enjoyment of life, the arts, and what he comes across in everyday life. He has closer relations with his loved ones, and an intensity of feeling that he did not have in his earlier life. He observes that life is about change, becoming a different person. Life is your actions, what you do, and that is all it consists of. Towards the end, he also speaks of losing a sense of a linear time.

At the end of the book, after his death, comments were added by his daughters and his wife. His daughter Georgia in particular comments on his singular drive and purpose, and his desire to give meaning to the experience of dying.


Philip Gould’s candid observations and reportage give us an experiential check on the speculations of Heidegger and Nagel: in many ways his is a richer account of the relevance of death to life.

Nonetheless, we need to be aware of category confusion. Gould is reporting on the last stages of his life, and how in his particular case he reacted to it. Heidegger and Nagel are writing of the ordinary everyday view of death. Our attitude to death at the age of, say, fifty—when we feel unlikely to die before we are eighty—may not seem to have much in common with Gould’s sense of imminent demise. But it could be that Gould feels more intensely the kind of emotions associated with such an event and engages in a logic we cannot grasp when we are far from death.

This is not to say that Gould’s experiences are necessarily typical of every human being; they are subjective reportage, though honest and candid. As he himself says, he eventually accepted death. Others may not. Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, mentioned above, tells of a man who takes an attitude to death very different from Gould’s. He bewails his shortcomings, he panics, screaming and crying for several days in the face of death until that very last minute. Death for Ivan Ilych is nonetheless a reckoning, as it was for Philip Gould, but their reactions to that reckoning are dissimilar.

With those two caveats, what useful conclusions can be drawn from this collection of speculation and evidence?

Heidegger’s advice to live authentically—that is, thoughtfully and with the finitude of life—is surely a good place to start. Here, death at the very least gives life the concept timescale. Attitudes to death will vary the closer we are to it, but our attitude to life would be much different if we lived much longer or much shorter. If for example our expected lifespan were fifty years, we would arrange our activities, hopes and aspirations, and our life in general would be arranged differently compared to a situation in which our expected span was 150 years.

Nagel may be correct in his view that death is objectionable because it takes away our hopes and aspirations. On the one hand, as Jacoby Carter points out, these aspirations and hopes have no present ontological value. That is, they are not real in the present. We only imagine that we have the advantages to come: they have not yet happened. Notwithstanding, we place a great deal of weight on these hopes. We are unwilling to give them up, even in the face of great adversity. But in some lives there may come a time—particularly in old age, or in cases of terminal illness (with an individual less driven than Philip Gould)—where a quick and painless ending of life seems a better option.

It could be argued that Gould is an exemplar for Heidegger. This is an idea that is not capable of too much extension, but there is some evidence from his account that Gould has led an authentic life in Heidegger’s meaning of the term. The philosopher’s concept of life and death being one process by which death focuses us on the authenticity of life and the way it is lived is the point of most importance in all this. Gould illustrates this magnificently. Consider some of his observations as a guide to authentic living in the Heideggerian sense, even when we are far from death: we need to think of our finitude; we have projects and plan with this in mind; we need to find a purpose in life; we need to realise that as death (or advancing age) approaches, our relevance, our need to grow, and our contributions need not necessarily diminish; to realise, as Gould says, ‘dying is a time of assessment, pre-death a moment of judgment,’ and that death must be accepted, and not regarded as an obscenity not to be talked about.

As regards Nagel, because his approach is so much confined to evaluating death, the only common ground he seems to have with Heidegger is the notion that time is important in how we value life. Time, he argues, allows us to build up aspirations, which we are unwilling to give up, and which make us want to cling to life. But it could be argued that Gould also reached a conclusion which supports Nagel’s thesis: Gould, because of the person he had become, was keen to cling on to life, had hopes and aspirations, and was motivated to the very end. Heidegger and Nagel, while not mutually supporting, offer views that are not contradictory and which together can extend our philosophical view of death.

While death ends our aspirations, the run up to death—even from far out—is an important time for assessment. Death has an influence on the way we live our life far beyond being the mere ending of it.


Works Cited

  • Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), published by Blackwell, 1962.
  • The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louse and Aylmer Maude), http://www.tc.umn.edu/~awalzer/3302/readings/tolstoy_death.pdf.
  • Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel, published by Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould, published by Abacus, 2012.
  • The comment by Jacoby Carter is from his paper On the Value of Death https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/tag/nagel/.


The Crossroads of Power: Michel Foucault and the US/Mexico Border Wall

Thomas Nail
University of Denver


This paper draws on the work of Michel Foucault in order to analyze the constellation of political strategies and power at the US/Mexico border wall. These strategies, however, are incredibly diverse and often directly antagonistic of one another. Thus, this paper argues that in order to make sense of the seemingly multiple and contradictory political strategies deployed in the operation of the US/Mexico border wall, we have to understand the co-existence and intertwinement of at least three distinct types of power at work there: the sovereign exclusion of illegal life, the disciplinary detention of surveilled life, and the biopolitical circulation of migratory life. By doing so this paper offers an original contribution to two major areas of study: in Foucault studies this paper expands the existing literature on Foucault by analyzing the crossroads of power particular to the US/Mexico border wall, which has not yet been done, and in border studies this Foucauldian approach offers a unique political analysis that goes beyond the critique of sovereignty and toward an analysis of coexisting strategies of power. (more…)

Do Frugal Brains Make Better Minds?

Andy Clark
University of Edinburgh

Might the frugal (but pro-active) use of neural resources be one of the essential keys to understanding how brains make sense of the world? Some recent work in computational and cognitive neuroscience suggests just such a picture. This work sheds light on the way brains like ours make sense of noisy and ambiguous sensory input. It also suggests, intriguingly, that perception, understanding and imagination are functionally co-emergent, arising as simultaneous results of a single underlying strategy known as ‘predictive coding’. This is the same strategy that saves on more mundane kinds of bandwidth, enabling the economical storage and transmission of pictures, sounds and videos using formats such as JPEG and MP3.

In the case of a picture (a black and white photo of sir Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, to conjure a concrete image in your mind) predictive coding works by assuming that the value of each pixel is well-predicted by the value of its various neighbors. When that’s true – which is rather often, as grey-scale gradients are pretty smooth for large parts of most images – there is simply no need to transmit the value of that pixel. All that the photo-frugal need transmit are the deviations from what was thus predicted. The simplest prediction would be that neighboring pixels all share the same value (the same grey scale value, for example), but much more complex predictions are also possible. As long as there is detectable regularity, prediction (and hence this particular form of data compression) is possible.

Such compression by informed prediction (as Bell Telephone Labs first discovered back in the 1950’s) can save enormously on bandwidth, allowing quite modest encodings to be reconstructed, by in effect ‘adding back in’ the successfully predicted elements into rich and florid renditions of the original sights and sounds. The trick is trading intelligence and foreknowledge (expectations, informed predictions) on the part of the receiver against the costs of encoding and transmission on the day.  A version of this same trick may be helping animals like us to sense and understand the world by allowing us to use what we already know to predict as much of the current sensory data as possible. When you think you see or hear your beloved cat or dog when the door or wind makes just the right jiggle or rustle, you are probably using well-trained prediction to fill in the gaps, saving on input-dominated bandwidth and (usually) knowing your world better as a result. Neural versions of this ‘predictive coding’ trick benefit, however, from an important added dimension: the use of a stacked hierarchy of processing stages. In biological brains, the prediction-based strategy unfolds within multiple layers each of which deploys its own specialized knowledge and resources to try to predict the states of the level below it.

This is not easy to imagine, but it rewards the effort. A familiar, but still useful, analogy is with the way problems and issues are passed up the chain of command in rather traditional management hierarchies. Each person in the chain must there learn to distil important (hence usually surprising or unpredicted) information from those lower down the chain. And they must do so in a way that is sufficiently sensitive to the needs (hence expectations) of those immediately above them. In this kind of multi-level chain, all that flows upwards is news. What flows forward are just the deviations from each level’s predicted events and unfoldings. This is efficient. Valuable bandwidth is not used sending well-predicted stuff forwards. Why bother? We were expecting all that stuff anyway. What gets marked and passed forward in the brain’s flow of processing are just the divergences from predicted states: divergences that may be used to demand more information at those very specific points, or to guide remedial action.

All this, if true, has much more than merely engineering significance. For it suggests that perception may best be seen as what has sometimes been described as a process of ‘controlled hallucination’ (Ramesh Jain) in which we (or rather, various parts of our brains) try to predict what is out there, using the incoming signal more as a means of tuning and nuancing the predictions rather than as a rich (and bandwidth-costly) encoding of the state of the world. This in turn underlines the surprising extent to which the structure of our expectations (both conscious and non-conscious) may quite literally be determining much of what we see, hear, and feel.

The basic effect hereabouts is neatly illustrated by a simple but striking demonstration (used by the neuroscientist Richard Gregory back in the 70s to make this very point) known as ‘the hollow face illusion.’ This is a well-known illusion in which an ordinary face-mask viewed from the back (which is concave, to fit your face) appears strikingly convex when viewed from a modest distance. That is, it looks (from the back) to be shaped like a real face, with the nose sticking outwards rather than having a concave nose-cavity. Just about any hollow face-mask will produce some version of this powerful illusion, and there are many examples on the web, such as this one. The hollow face illusion illustrates the power of what cognitive psychologists call ‘top-down’ (essentially, knowledge-driven) influences on perception. Our statistically salient experience with endless hordes of convex faces in daily life installs a deep expectation of convexity: an expectation that here trumps the many other visual cues that ought to be telling us that what we are seeing is a concave mask.

You might reasonably suspect that the hollow face illusion, though striking, is really just some kind of psychological oddity. And to be sure, our expectations concerning the convexity of faces seem especially strong and potent. But if the predictive coding approaches I mentioned earlier are on track, this strategy might actually pervade human perception. Brains like ours may be constantly trying to use what they already know so as to predict the current sensory signal, using the incoming signal to constrain those predictions, and sometimes using the expectations to ‘trump’ certain aspects of the incoming sensory signal itself. (Such trumping makes adaptive sense, as the capacity to use what you know to outweigh some of what the incoming signal seems to be saying can be hugely beneficial when the sensory data is noisy, ambiguous, or incomplete – situations that are, in fact, pretty much the norm in daily life.

This image of the brain (or more accurately, of sensory and motor cortex) as an engine of prediction is a simple and quite elegant one that can be found in various forms in contemporary neuroscience (for useful surveys, see Kveraga et al. (2007), Bubic et al (2010), and for a rich but challenging incarnation, see Friston (2010)). It has also been shown, at least in restricted domains, to be computationally sound and practically viable. Just suppose (if only for the sake of argument) that it is on track, and that perception is indeed a process in which incoming sensory data is constantly matched with ‘top-down’ predictions based on unconscious expectations of how that sensory data should be. This would have important implications for how we should think about minds like ours.

First, consider the unconscious expectations themselves. Those unconscious expectations derive mostly from the statistical shape of the world as we have experienced it in the past. That means we should probably be very careful about the shape of the worlds to which we expose ourselves, and our children.  We see the world by applying the expectations generated by the statistical lens of our own past experience, and not (mostly) by applying the more delicately rose-nuanced lenses of our political and social aspirations. So if the world that tunes those expectations is sexist or racist, that will structure the unconscious expectations that condition humanities own future perceptions –  a royal recipe for tainted evidence and self-fulfilling negative prophecies.

Second, reflect that perception (at least of this stripe) now looks to be deeply linked to something not unlike imagination. For insofar as a creature can indeed predict its own sensory inputs from the ‘top down’, such a creature is well-positioned to engage in familiar (though perhaps otherwise deeply puzzling) activities like dreaming and some kind of free-floating imagining. These would occur when the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors, leaving the system free to be driven purely from the top down. We should not suppose that all creatures deploying this strategy can engage in the kinds of self-conscious deliberate imagining that we do. Self-conscious deliberate imagining may well require substantial additional innovations, such as the use of language as a means of self-cuing. But where we find perception working in this way, we may expect an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery.

Finally, perception and understanding would also be revealed as close cousins. For to perceive the world in this way is to deploy knowledge not just about how the sensory signal should be right now, but about how it will probably change and evolve over time. For it is only by means of such longer-term and larger-scale knowledge that we can robustly match the incoming signal, moment to moment, with apt expectations (predictions). To know that (to know how the present sensory signal is likely to change and evolve over time) just is to understand a lot about how the world is, and the kinds of entity and event that populate it. Creatures deploying this strategy, when they see the grass twitch in just that certain way, are already expecting to see the tasty prey emerge, and already expecting to feel the sensations of their own muscles tensing to pounce. But an animal, or machine, that has that kind of grip on its world is already deep into the business of understanding that world.

I find the unity here intriguing. Perhaps we humans, and a great many other organisms too, are deploying a fundamental, frugal, prediction-based strategy that delivers perceiving, understanding, and imagining in a single package? Now there’s a deal!

A version of this material appeared as “Do Thrifty Brains Make Better Minds” on The Stone (philosophy blog of The New York Times) Jan 15 2012.

[Feature image by 401(K) 2012]

Works Cited

Bubic A, von Cramon DY and Schubotz RI (2010) Prediction, cognition and the brain. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 4:25: 1-15

Friston K. (2010) The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 11(2):127-38.

Helmholtz, H. (1860/1962). Handbuch der physiologischen optik (Southall, J. P. C. (Ed.), English trans.),Vol. 3. New York: Dover.

Kveraga, K., Ghuman, A.S.,  and Bar. M. (2007) Top-down predictions in the cognitive brain. Brain and Cognition, 65, 145-168