Identity is an Illusion; Death is Trivial

We give importance to death because we give importance to the continuation of ourselves, our identity. In this essay, I first talk about the two major views of identity: psychological and physical identity. I argue that identity is a false concept, an illusion, and we’re interconnected with everything around us. Then I will explain when we take this view of identity, we have to regard death as a neutral event. I will conclude what is important then is what we do while we’re alive for the collective afterlife. I offer an idea of collective goodness to explain it. In this essay, I will use self and identity interchangeably.

In order to answer the question about death, we must solve the question of identity. There are several existing views on identity. The question to answer is, under what possible circumstances is a person existing at one time identical with someone existing at another time? The first view is the Physical Theory of Identity, which states person A is identical to person B if and only if they have the same physical makeup. It’s plausible since we seem to recognize the person through their physical appearance, and general visual aspects persist over time. However, this is problematic because the particles, cells sentient beings are made of change over time. For example, Brittany changes slightly every single moment in the extended space-time, so we can’t say she grows every year, nor we can say she doesn’t change. The physical stuff of Brittany is different when she’s five and when she’s seventy years of age. The second theory is the Psychological Theory of Identity. It states that person A is identical to person B if and only if they have the same psychological makeup. This is also problematic because our memory and our outlook on life change all the time. For example, Brittany of age twenty remembers what Brittany of age ten did, and Brittany of age thirty remembers what Brittany of age twenty did. However, Brittany of age thirty won’t remember what Brittany of age ten did as she did at age twenty. If A (Brittany at 10) is B (Brittany at 20), and B is C (Brittany at 30), A must be C. But here, A is not C. This is against the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, direct memory is unreliable to link our identity to as it changes over time. Both views to explain identity are inadequate.

Both Psychological and Physical Theories of Identity are inadequate to explain identity, so I take a view similar to a skeptic. The Skeptical View of Identity is earlier person A is never identical to later person B. Because both Psychological and Physical Theories are inadequate, we are left with thinking there is no one person that persists over time either psychologically or physically. Some might take the Skeptical as a plausible view, but it may cause problems of moral responsibility. People might stop taking responsibility for the things they’ve done before, claiming that it wasn’t them who did it. Considering the individual as someone new every moment won’t help to the question of the goodness or badness of death either. My view on identity is that identity is an illusion; all living beings are interconnected. I will argue that the self is not limited to our bodies.

The concept of self comes from the mind that works for self-preservation. Our ancestors, through evolution, developed fundamental strategies for survival, one of which is approaching opportunities and avoiding threats.[1] To do that, one came to the conclusion that the self ends within the body limits because danger comes from outside. For example, a danger from outside could be a wild animal attacking. The person identifies the dangers outside, and works to avoid it. This system worked well to continue human species’ existence for thousands of years, and was mainly important when we lived in hunter-gatherer groups. Back then, the danger would be mostly physical. In today’s modern society, the signal of danger doesn’t usually come from a bear attacking us but comes from doing taxes, dealing with an ex, or being stuck in traffic. What causes us distress evolved throughout the history, but our mental system didn’t. This is because most humans live in at least a bare-minimum standard where the basic needs (from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) are satisfied, as we live in a more civilized, advanced society. Still, we experience the same neural activity when we’re dealing with an ex as when our ancestors ran from a bear. When we constantly experience distress, thus anxiety in the little things in life, our body responds constantly like we are in a state of danger. This problem is even more widespread today, because the world is constantly changing faster than ever, and we’re more aware of each distress happening with the digital age. The information is spread more quickly. From the moment we wake up and check our phones, the burden of the world, a fire in California, shooting in Sri Lanka, or the drop in the value of Euro affects the individual. We continuously receive distressing information and the mind; thus, the body is in a state of distress, which causes the fight or flight mode that our ancestors needed to survive. While this mechanism helped us survive, it’s not useful in today’s society because we almost never face a life-threatening situation that the fight or flight system was created for. The opposite of the fight or flight response (workings of the sympathetic nervous system) is rest and repair response (workings of the parasympathetic nervous system). Our body releases completely different hormones and sends different signals when it’s in either of the responses. When in fight or flight response, some of the things happening in our body are our stomach stops many digesting functions, muscles contract, pupils dilate, and heart rate increases. For example, when the body doesn’t give digesting the importance it should when we’re in stress response, then it won’t get rid of the things that are detrimental to our body effectively. The point is being in fight of flight mode constantly is harmful to our physical and mental health.

The mind created a boundary between what is me and what is the outside world from an early age to avoid threats from the environment. This belief, while it was practical when we lived in a world full of life-threatening dangers, in today’s standards, is wrong. We’re constantly in relation to our environments, and it’s impossible to live without it. I will give arguments for the interconnectedness of the world. Firstly, we metabolize, so we exchange energy and matter with our environments.[2] The energy you get from eating beef came from that cow eating plants which came from the sun and water growing that plant. We can’t possibly survive without other living things in the world. We need oxygen and energy from plants as our basic needs.

Secondly, we’re constantly interacting with our environments from an early age. The mind shapes in accordance with people around; the society, culture and language affect the individual. For example, infants, by the age of 1 or 2 months, become perceptive to distinctions between phonemes (Eimas, et al. 1971). At first, babies respond to all sounds in any language, meaning they could learn any language as mother tongue. Through listening to their parents, and the environment, they lose the ability to make distinctions in phonemes that are not used in the language of their community and get better at the ones used in the language in their environment. (Werker, 1995.) This shows that we adapt highly to our culture and environment. We are not individuals distinct from our environment as we believe. We are a part of others, and others are a part of who we are.

Thirdly, we’re made out of atoms. At one time in the history, moment after the Big Bang, all the atoms were one. All the atoms in the universe could be traced back to a single originating point, which Georges Lemaître called was the primeval atom.[3] If we take the entanglement theory, two atoms with the same origin will have interconnected fates. If all of the universe came from one singular point, that would mean that the fates of all atoms in the universe are interconnected. We’re connected to other living beings, nature, the world, and the universe. In conclusion, our concept of independent self, limited to our body, is completely wrong.

I have demonstrated that the concept of self is created for the sake of self-preservation. This was crucial for the continuation of our species but is detrimental to us with the growing distress in the digital world. I’ve argued that our ancestors needed to create the concept of independent self to survive. I showed in the previous paragraphs that the concept of independent self is found to be wrong in biological, cultural, and atomic levels through current studies. If the self-preserving concept of self is wrong, it means we’re interconnected with other living beings. If all living beings are interconnected, we let go of the significance of the identity, then our death loses its significance as well. What is important is no longer the preservation of one’s own body and prolong one’s existence, because the self is unimportant in itself. Thus, for living beings, death is a neutral event. It is something every living being goes through, and there is nothing special about the death of an individual as the life on earth persists.

If we give up identity and the importance given to death, one could then ask, what is important? What is important is the contributions we can make to the collective afterlife, which means the life that continues on earth after one’s death. The contributions must also be for the collective goodness. Collective goodness is an idea that I offer, and it means the good or virtue that people add to life on earth, with its effects both within and after an individual’s lifespan. Examples to this can be financing education to a child, helping as a scientist to cure cancer, helping a friend in need, recycling, or fighting against animal cruelty with a genuine care and interest. Acting in virtuous ways is both easier (when we implement the no-self idea to our lives) and more logical thing to do. Doing good deeds will be ultimately easier, because the less time we spend contemplating about our own lives and ourselves with the loss of the importance given to self, we get to focus more on others. It’s also the more logical thing to do because doing good deeds for the world and other people will also affect the individual positively, as we’re all interconnected. The virtuous acts that will affect the collective afterlife shouldn’t be done to prolong one’s ‘fame’ or ‘name’ in other people’s minds, but they should be done for the sake of increasing the collective goodness. If each person focuses more on increasing the total goodness on earth, it will affect everybody, people we love, and also ourselves, positively. I don’t believe there would be an objection to increasing the good in the world is what we should all want.

A possible objection to my argument could be the stance that a hedonist could take, which would reject the part from my argument that argues what is eventually good for the individual is doing good deeds for others. Hedonism is the school of thought that believes the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good and aim of life.[4] It takes an experientialist approach: the importance is given to what the individual does, consciously feels and experiences. Hedonism believes in two states of being, suffering and pleasure; thus, to escape suffering, one must pursue pleasure. It believes that the best thing one could do is to do everything in one’s power to pursue the greatest amount of pleasure. This essay argues the escape from suffering that we’re living (with the growing distress in the world and within ourselves) is through seeing through the illusion of self, performing virtuous acts, and doing good deeds to other living beings. Thus, affecting one’s self for the better as well. Someone accepting the hedonist view wouldn’t agree with my argument, because sometimes what is good for the collective good can be bad for the individual in the short term.

My response is that the hedonistic approach is focused on too much on the short-term consequences and pleasures in life. Having another drink, smoking another cigarette or indulging with another burger are things that we do, and while doing enjoy in life. Things that bring pleasure by activating reward system in our brain that is engraved through evolution are not necessarily good for us. Just because they bring pleasure in the short-term, doesn’t mean they are good for the person. The opposite is widely accepted: indulging too much of anything is bad for the person. Most things that bring short-term pleasure are detrimental to us in the long term. This is true for most things in life. Thus, while it might seem a good idea to focus on individual pleasure, looking at the long term, it’s better to focus on the collective good.

To answer the question of death being a good or a bad thing, I took a skeptical view of identity. I argue that identity is a concept created for self-preservation, therefore an illusion, and we’re interconnected with everything around us. I explained how evolution has created the concept for our survival and why it’s a bigger problem today with the rise of the digital age. Then, I argued that we’re all interconnected through three different ways: we need energy from other living beings for the continuation of life, we’re shaped by our culture and society, and we’re connected through entanglement in an atomic level. By proving that identity is a false concept, thus unimportant, I conclude that death is also unimportant, thus is a neutral event. What is important is how we add to the collective goodness by doing virtuous acts that has effects both within and after our lifespans.

Bibliography

“Big Bang.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang.

“Chapter 2: The Evolution of Suffering.” Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Richard Mendius and Rick Hanson, Paw Prints, 2010, pp. 23–35.

Eimas, P.D., Siqueland, E.R., Jusczyk, P., Vigorito, J. (1971, January 22). Speech Perception in Infants. Retrieved from http://home.fau.edu/lewkowic/web/Eimas%20infant%20speech%20discrim%20Science%201971.pdf

“Hedonism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonism.

Werker, J. F. (1995). Exploring developmental changes in cross-language speech perception. In L. R. Gleitman & M. Liberman (Eds.), An invitation to cognitive science. Language: An invitation to cognitive science (p. 87–106). The MIT Press.

[1] Mendius, Richard. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Paw Prints, 2010, pp.26

[2] Mendius, Richard. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Paw Prints, 2010, pp.27

[3] “Big Bang.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang.

[4] “Hedonism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonism.

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