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The Concept of Death

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2024

“Change cannot entail the annihilation of what changes… Something of what was must be conserved or it’s not ‘change’ at all, is it?”

Today, we revere Socrates, but would it surprise you to know that he was generally despised by his fellow Athenians? Aristophanes made fun of him on stage: he’s uncouth, unhygienic, unproductive, etc. Socrates’ fellow citizens sentenced him to death. Like Jesus, he was accused of undermining the religious orthodoxy of the day. How superficial we are! 

Philosophers have a bad habit of telling the truth – at least the best of them do – and if there’s one thing we cannot abide, it’s Truth! “You can’t handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men) So, we are hostile to truth-tellers, be they prophets, artists, or philosophers. We regularly kill, or starve, our messengers.

There is an ancient story of an Emperor who encountered one such raggedy philosopher on the highway. The Emperor confronted him: “What use are you philosophers with all your talk of Truth? You eat our food, but you do no useful work; and for all your endless speculation, you cannot tell me one single thing that all men (sic) agree is always true under every circumstance. 

“Do that! Or I’ll slay you right here, right now, on this very spot. Can you? No? Then prepare to die!” 

The philosopher thought for a moment and then replied to the Emperor, “This too shall pass.”

“What?” yelled the Emperor, “How dare you mock me at a time like this!”

“No, your majesty! ‘This too shall pass,’ is what all men can agree is always true under every circumstance.” 

Foolishly, the Emperor spared the philosopher’s life; he should have followed through on his threat. Death after all does not pass, does it? (Ignoring for now doctrines of reincarnation, resurrection, and an afterlife.) Our Emperor could very well have decapitated our philosopher on the spot, shouting “Oh yeah, well let’s see if this too passes?”

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is credited with a similar insight: “Everything flows.” Might he have been this very same itinerant sage? If so, I’m glad he was spared, even though today’s populist philosophers and corporate gurus have co opted his ideas. They never tire of saying, “Change is the only constant.”

From our acceptance of the doctrine of universal change, it is a short step to the conviction that death is the other white meat (i.e. indisputable reality)…along with chicken and taxes. I mean, if it’s change you want, what could be more of a change than death? If you accept that change is universal, then don’t you have to accept that certain strings of changes will lead to the ultimate change…which must be death?

It seems logical…but it isn’t! Death is not a change at all; it is the cessation of all change. It marks the limit of change. Therefore, the doctrine of universal change is inconsistent with the concept of mortality. If change ceases, then it isn’t universal, is it? Our Emperor could very well have decapitated our philosopher on the spot, shouting “Oh yeah, well let’s see if this too passes?”

Heraclitus is also quoted as saying, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” He did not say, “You cannot step into the river twice.” The point of his observation is that the river is constantly changing…but normally, it remains a river. Change cannot entail the annihilation of what changes. If it did, then every change would be creatio ex nihilo. Something of what was must be conserved or it’s not change at all – it’s something else entirely.

So it turns out that two of our most cherished beliefs, change and mortality, are mutually inconsistent. We cannot logically hold both views. Our belief in change is strong. We experience change, we witness change, every day. So maybe we need to take a second look at death.

Is death real? There are three ways to resolve a question like this. First, we can assert that something is real because we actually experience it. Second, we can accept that something is real based on the testimony of trusted sources, sources that presumably have directly experienced it themselves. (For example, I’ve never been to Tokyo, but I accept that Tokyo is real based on the testimony of others.) Finally, we can argue that something is real because it follows logically from other things that we know to be true. (I’ve never visited a black hole, but I accept that they are real based on logical inference from collected data.)

The reality of death cannot be established using any of these arguments! On the contrary, death is both a phenomenological and a logical impossibility. Death not only does not exist, it cannot exist…by definition. Existentialist philosophers are fond of saying that death is ‘absurd’; it is not death that’s absurd. What’s absurd is the concept of death, the notion that it’s real.

Want absurd? Ok, this seems absurd…on the face of it! Who hasn’t experienced death? How many of us lost a pet as a child? And a much loved older relative shortly thereafter? Now at my age, I feel like a bounty hunter; I know more people who are dead than alive. To say that there is no such thing as death seems silly.

Who does not await their own inevitable death, full of foreboding? In fact, life could be described as a perpetual state of ‘just wait ‘til your father gets home’. So how can anyone say that death isn’t real?

Let’s start with the arguments from experience. We cannot experience our own deaths because by definition death entails the cessation of all experience. When we die, we cease to be an experiment…so whatever death may or may not be, we certainly can never experience it firsthand.

All of the experiences of death we suppose we’ve had turn out to be experiences of someone else’s death.  But don’t those count? When someone ‘dies’, we observe phenomena that we associate with what we call ‘death’. A person becomes non-responsive and stops breathing; the body cools and begins to decay. Surely, she is dead, but did we experience her death? No, we experienced certain phenomena that we associate with death, but we did not experience death per se.

I cannot experience my own death and I cannot imagine what experiencing my own death would be like. In this I am not unique; you cannot experience your own death either. Therefore, the reality of death cannot be established either directly by firsthand experience or indirectly through the testimony of others.

Even though death cannot be experienced, it may still be real, and I might be able to demonstrate that logically. What is it that we think we know about the world that would lead us to believe in the reality of death, absent the possibility of experience? 

Well, we talked about that above. I had a pet and then I didn’t; my mother told me that my pet had died. Ok, things have limits; we all know that. Limitation is not the eradication of that which is limited. In such cases limitation is part of being

My favorite Van Gogh, for example, is limited by the edges of the canvas. But we don’t say that the painting ‘dies’ at its edges. We expect things to be limited in space, and we don’t think any less of them for it. But when we consider that something might be limited in time, we freak out.

Gizmo, my daughter’s cat, did not exist for me prior to a certain date and she ceased to exist for me as of a later date. We may correctly say that Gizmo had limits in time as well as space. Similarly, a symphony is also limited in time - by its first and last chords; but when that last chord fades away, we don’t say that the symphony is ‘dead’. The phenomenon of ‘limitation’ is not what we mean by ‘death’. 

On the contrary, the limits of every painting and every symphony are absolutely crucial to their characters. These works of art are as much defined by their limits as they are by their content. The key to every successful work of art (and every event?) is starting…and stopping. If paintings did not have borders and symphonies never ended, nothing that we recognize as art today would exist. Limitation is an essential feature of being…death is not.

We are told that spacetime can be sliced and diced like sirloin in a Japanese steak house. Paintings and symphonies - the media that form these works (pigments, tones) have existence in the spatiotemporal world. Therefore, they are subject to division. 

Not so, the art! (the works of art themselves). They do not permit division. Any division in the material substructure destroys the art utterly. Works of art are not media but patterns – patterns that have nothing to do with spacetime, they transcend the spatiotemporal world. 

There is a species of spacetime that does exist inside works of art; we call it rhythm. Music has rhythm; so do paintings and sculptures. There is a theory in contemporary cosmology that what we call ‘time’ is abstracted from the overlay of multiple rhythms; but that takes us beyond the scope of this essay. 

Suffice to say that rhythms exist in spacetime…but do not ‘die’ there; in fact, rhythm is the paradigmatic perpetual motion machine. Spacetime separates, rhythm unites. Rhythm is one way that the first brush stroke is linked with the last, the first note of a score one with the final chord.

Now works of art, more or less by definition, are prototypical events. Life imitates art. An event occupies a region of spacetime. It has an extension, including duration. The spacetime region that an event occupies is divisible, of course, but the event itself is indivisible. If an event in the process of becoming somehow gets interrupted, then it is not an ‘event’ at all. An event is whole and entire, or it is not. Events manifest ‘in spacetime’, but they are not ‘of spacetime’.

Death implies discontinuity. According to the accepted model, my life has a degree of continuity and death is the total, radical disruption of that continuity. But events possess intrinsic ‘continuity’, or better yet, ‘integrity’. The limited extent of an event in spacetime does not compromise in any way its intrinsic integrity. On the contrary, it is an integral component of it. We say that events are limited by space and time; not really. Space and time are limited by events. Events shatter the continuity we call spacetime. 

So where does this leave us? Death is an inexorable part of the world. Things fall apart, organisms decay, entropy increases. But all this has nothing to do with us. We are not things; you are not even organisms. We are epiphenomenal patterns (or patterns of patterns) associated with, but not part of, particular organisms.

Your world and that organism are subject to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy); you are not. Everything around you will die; you will not. Don’t misunderstand me. You and I will die to one another and to the rest of the world; it’s just that neither one of us will die to ourselves. Like it or not, that which is you is eternal. Deal with it.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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