Table of Contents
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals mainly with abstract concepts. Those are concepts about immaterial things in nature such as existence, the idea of being, and the nature of reality. It poses fundamental questions about reality that primarily look to demystify what is and what it is like. Within metaphysics there are three main branches:
- Ontology- it looks into the fundamentals of existence; the concept of being.
- Cosmology- the study of the universe’s origin and evolution.
- Epistemology- this is the field that studies knowledge in general especially with regard to whether it is valid, justifiable, its method of acquisition and its scope (Burtt, 1932).
Death is basically the state of being lifeless. This working definition only works for things that have life. It can also be used in reference to inanimate and abstract things to suggest their end or cessation (Stevenson, 2010).
Death as a concept not only relates with metaphysics but it is at its core a metaphysical topic of discussion (Savater, 2002). In its nature, death is a state or a concept. That makes it abstract and therefore a matter that is handled under metaphysics. Secondly, death implies the end of the existence of something. The core business of ontology is existence and the state of being. The existence of death is only possible because of the ending in the existence of life. The fact that both life and death are, makes an argument about their existence axiomatic. Their knowledge is undisputable proof of their existence and there is no need for further evidence or justification. The premise that views them in terms of knowledge alone due to their immaterial nature is epistemological while the one that looks death as a paradigm of state or description of cessation of life or existence is ontological.
The concept of death brings into perspective the question of the possibility of an afterlife and the idea that death is when the soul leaves the body. The existence of an afterlife implies the existence of another dimension of time and space thus invoking a cosmological argument on where and how in the universe this dimension exists and why it is only accessible to the dead. At the same time, it raises the question of whether it actually exists and what it really is, which is ontological. The same issue evokes epistemological inquiries like the validity of the knowledge of the afterlife. Is it really justifiable information or just widely accepted opinion? Is death a transition to something/somewhere else or is it the ultimate end? Whichever principle of death one subscribes to, how and why have they reached that particular conclusion?
Why death leads us to think about life
The relationship between death and life is pretty obvious seeing that they represent mutually exclusive points on the continuum of existence and/or form of existence. The nitty-gritty points of death and the thoughts it brings about life are particularly subjective. It’s however universally agreeable that the conception of death and the realization of one’s mortality brings into consciousness an evaluation of life. Having established for a fact that death triggers thoughts about life, the question of why can be answered in a multi-perspective way. In epistemology, philosophers have for centuries argued whether knowledge is innate or learned. Biological psychology presents proof of innate knowledge while behaviorism and empiricism on the other hand present evidence of learned knowledge. The gestalt school of thought postulates that the most accurate way of viewing humanity is as a sum total of all that makes it up rather than the individual constituent parts. Borrowing from this principle, the knowledge of both life and death among people is the combination of their biological instincts to survive and the cultural knowledge they pick up over time (Veatch, 1976).
Living organisms have within them the instinct for survival and self-preservation. Through evolution, the keenness of this instinct and its strength has been a major deciding factor for whether a species lives on or becomes extinct. The survival instinct in humans kicks in every time we are actively aware of our mortality. The aim is to increase the chances for death avoidance by invoking thoughts of how valuable life is and fear of death. Besides creating fear of death, it also makes us aware of how close death is especially if the thoughts are a result of the death of someone we know personally. The knowledge that one could die any time gives life a more pronounced sense of temporariness and purpose.
The nurture part of why death makes us think of life is dependent on what cultural beliefs one has about life and death. One of the biggest influencing cultural aspects on the issue is religion. For most religions, there is life after death. Many differences come in the form of the afterlife but in general the idea usually is that death is more of a transition than an end. Another common aspect across most religions is that the quality of the current life becomes a determinant for the quality one will earn in the afterlife. This knowledge creates an automatic cause-effect relationship between awareness of death and thoughts about life. Even without religion, people are socialized to value achievement and thus a culture of setting time sensitive goals. Whenever there is the conceptualization of death, this knowledge triggers questions like: what if I die today, what is my legacy? What would I have achieved? What would I be remembered for? What have I not accomplished that I must before I die and how long will it take me to do it? Will I live long enough to accomplish it all? In this way, death directly brings into conscious thought a subjective introspection into one’s own life.
Is death a paradigm of necessity?
Necessity as a philosophical concept can be defined as the quality of remaining true, absolute and positively present across all conceivable realities and postulable realms of existence (Shoemaker, 1998). Death is a paradigm of necessity on several levels of necessity depending on the specific definition of death that one assumes. In the meaning of termination of life, death becomes a paradigm of metaphysical necessity. This argument is based on the fact that life, just like death is immaterial thus metaphysical. In all perceivable reality, including religious concepts, the afterlife includes eternal life and eternal damnation that is considered a second death spiritually. The universe as we know it has a common trend of things beginning and ending. Death as a concept for the end of things becomes a paradigm in physical and metaphysical necessity. In all its definitions, death is a logically necessary concept. In the constraints of time and space, it is illogical to have continuous creation of life without death or continuous beginnings with nothing ever ending. This fact qualifies death to be a paradigm of logical necessity.
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- Burtt, E. A. (1932). The metaphysical foundations of modern physical science.
- Savater, F. (2002). The questions of life: An invitation to philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
- Shoemaker, S. (1998). Causal and metaphysical necessity. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 79(1), 59-77.
- Stevenson, A. (Ed.). (2010). Oxford dictionary of English. Oxford University Press, USA.
- Veatch, R. M. (1976). Death, Dying, and the Biological Revolution Our Last Quest for Responsibility.