Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Can we really die?

Can you be conscious of being unconscious? Clearly not. Purile insight.

But I've been mulling this over for years and I've always wanted to put it out there. The thought I had is that we can't ever be aware of that moment AFTER we loose consciousness. We clearly can't look back at that specific second and go: Oh, yes, that's when I blacked out.

What will it feel like to die, then?

My thought is that our own experience of death will have to logically continue for EVER in order for us not to actually reach a moment where we STOP being conscious.

I suspect my logic is flawed, and I hope someone can point out the mistake. But I've not found a resolution for this.

You walk down the street. A stray bullet hits your head. It bores through your skull, enters your brain and starts destroying neurons by the millions. As it moves through your head you loose consciousness. Your brain becomes progressively more damaged, up to a critical point AFTER which you can have no more capacity for consciousness.

So, you're inside your body, experiencing this almost instantaneous trauma. One moment you're aware, the next you're dead. From the outside.

But from the inside, what do you feel? What do you experience?

Remember: my logic says you cannot be aware of the moment AFTER loss of consciousness, because you would not be conscious to be aware of it. Grade school stuff.

So does time slow down for you? Where do you go? Your consciousness CANNOT escape. It's going to have to stay there, in that last instant. But you need wetware -- the bits of nerve and fat in your brain -- to be able to even BE aware. You won't be able to think. You need time to pass for that. EXTERNAL, common-or-garden time. You won't have that.

You will only be aware, but stuck in time. You won't know a bullet just went halfway through your head. You won't have the equipment to even wonder about this sudden freakiness. You will ONLY be aware of that moment, broken down into the smallest possible unit of time.

I imagine it something like a fever-dream: a nightmare of image and emotion, that immediately disappears on waking. Only, now, in your final moment, it has nowhere to go.

You might accuse me of incredulousness, as in: typical human... can't accept that your consciousness can end. No, it's not that. Not the same way. I can accept death and the end of consciousness. But I can't figure out how it CAN end, logically, when it can never be followed by a short period of awareness of the fact that consciousness has now actually ended.

I'm groping around for words here, trying to explain the logic of this. I hope you get it. Help me out here. What am I missing?

That's my theory of some kind of consciousness event horizon.

People often say things like "time is subjective" and, sure, on the scale of physics it is, but not in this way. Two people in the same frame of reference will not experience time differently. No matter how blue your Monday happens to be.

So, if you get killed, I don't think it is possible for you to experience a progressive slowdown of subjective time, leaving you frozen in a last moment, but aware that you are frozen. It just cannot work that way. And yet, you can also not go over into the NEXT moment.

Have I sketched this problem clearly?

By the way, I'm aware of the reference to this kind of thinking in Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In his version time continues to pass for the subject, but gets infinitely divided, like old Zeno's tortoise thing.

I guess another question, then, is whether time itself is quantised, like matter and energy. If they're so intertwined, it doesn't seem far-fetched. Problem, like I said, is you're still going to need your physical bits to do the experiencing, since neurons work in a pretty much non-quantum way, John Searle notwithstanding.

This post needs a picture.


  1. I have no resolution or answer to the question. I just want to point out the typical South African nature of your example: "You walk down the street. A stray bullet hits your head. It bores through your skull, enters your brain and starts destroying neurons by the millions."

    It need not even be stray, but is that how we will all die? A bullet to the head? What about lying in bed, thinking about the most recent The National album, and off you go... will trauma and physical destruction of brain cells play a role in what happens in that moment of endlessness?

  2. if that is true (and im not saying it isnt) then that would happen when you fall asleep
    its basically the same thing
    loss of conciousness albiet temporarily

  3. what the? comments?

    if you die peacefully (is that possible) your brain also follows a pattern of "switching off" as bloodflow decreases. I have no idea what the sequence is, but your consciousness would slowly ebb away and beyond a certain threshold you'd lose the potential for consciousness. you'd go beyond the critical mass needed for meaningful self to exist and then i'd guess even in sleep you'd be stuck in that last dream, that last moment before perception ceases. (You do have the ability to percieve even while you sleep.) If there is anything like a heaven, for me it would be for the lucky few who are having a good dream at that moment.

    people who experience high g-forces in centrifuges often report a feeling of bliss overcoming them just before the moment of losing consciousness, as the blood is forced out of their brains. perhaps nature built in this feeling specially to provide a buffer against the agony of death.

    How did something like this evolve, you might ask. What advantage could it have given us? Maybe, if people see other people ALWAYS dying in agony and pain, people would have evolved to take fewer risks... Maybe prey experiencing this euphoria made it easier for the rest of the herd to get away, instead of being compelled to lend assistance because of the insistent cries of pain. Who knows.