I appreciate your effort in responding at length to my article, but you’ve mostly misread it. The article is written as a dialectic, so it’s important to consider the conclusion (the last three paragraphs), which you ignore.
The point of the article isn’t that death proves our subjectivity is in fact an illusion that comes to nothing, so in attributing that view to me you’re arguing against a strawman. The key word in my statement that, “Unfathomably, our subjective life as persons must be an illusion, a mass hallucination, a giant fraud,” is the first word. It’s unfathomable how we could be mere physical things that end, because we can’t help but identify with our seemingly immaterial conscious mind, and because that “illusion” of subjectivity has real-world, anomalous effects which I address in the conclusion, namely the creation of what we call, in short, the Anthropocene (the replacement of the wilderness with our artificial environments).
This is why it’s important to see the comedic and tragic aspects of death. The joke the world plays on us is that the mystery of our duality leads us to make fools of ourselves when we lurch towards either extreme, towards materialistic nihilism, on the one hand, or naïve theism or metaphysical idealism on the other. We’re stuck with the existential absurdity of our dual nature. By the way, I’m not a nihilist. I raise Brassier’s nihilistic interpretation of death only to reject it.
Most of what your article deals with is the burden of proof issue. What my article assumes is indeed that death presents us with overwhelming evidence of our finitude. That evidence is indisputable unless we resort to farfetched notions of ghosts, theology, or parapsychology. The weight of the evidence that death ends not just our bodies but our personal identity is far greater than the sum of religious and parapsychological arguments.
Indeed, we don’t base our beliefs entirely on the weight of the empirical evidence. We do have our faith and our nonrational convictions based on our experience, our upbringing, our character, and our emotional commitments and goals and so forth. However, the nonrational side of our beliefs can be more or less honourable in dealing with the empirical evidence. So my worldview faces head-on the obvious fact that death has apparently ended the vast majority of creatures that have ever been born (all those not currently alive). They live for some years or moments and then they’re no more, their bodies reduced to a form that couldn’t support life.
Their consciousness may ascend to a higher plane, but possibilities aren’t probabilities. The probability, based on trillions upon trillions of observations of what happens when a creature dies and when its body decays, and based also on the best available theory that accounts for all this data (philosophical naturalism, biology, cognitive psychology) is that our personal identity ends with the disintegration of our body. Rationality is on the side of accepting that that’s what the balance of evidence indicates. So that’s not at all a faith-based belief.
You suggest there’s evidence to the contrary, as you turn to parapsychology, to memories of past lives, and so forth. I do dismiss that evidence as wildly insufficient to counter the trillions upon trillions of observations that when someone dies they’re apparently no more. That’s to say that as far as we can tell with our most reliable, five senses, death is the end. We can easily imagine that we continue on in some form, just as we can confabulate and imagine that we lived countless times in the past and collect a karma debt. We can devise various theologies to explain away any piece of evidence that conflicts with what we’d prefer to believe. But that’s part of the joke that’s being played on us: we imagine more ideal scenarios because the actual world disappoints us.
You’re resting your case on a thin reed when you suggest that materialists overlook parapsychology because they’re emotionally committed to their finitude, and that that commitment, in turn, is due to their fear of immortality. I would love to live forever, but I’d hate to have to kid myself into thinking that it’s rational to believe we survive death.
To this extent, my faith or nonrational commitment is to reason. I think it’s irresponsible and even disgusting to flaunt a dereliction of our rational duties (as in the acceptance of some exoteric religious creed, for example). The faith is Promethean (Luciferian) or secular humanistic, depending on whether you want to speak mythically or in more conventional terms. The idea, of course, is that trust in reason is progressive, that we do our best when we think critically and adapt our beliefs to the best arguments and presentations of evidence. Reason isn’t self-supporting, since there’s no proof that rational humanism is in fact progressive. On the contrary, we might be destroying the planet. Moreover, intellectual integrity might be antithetical to personal happiness—all of which I take on board in my critiques of secular humanism, scientism, new atheism, and so forth.
In any case, I’m not a physicalist but a property dualist. Mind you, these old terms are stale and clumsy in light of the post-Newtonian theory of matter. Regardless of the details, I’d say that nature complexifies and adds layers to itself, calling for more specialized models to explain the emergent patterns. This is roughly the predominant view of cognitive science (computationalism). In theory, perhaps the software of the mind could be decoded and instantiated in new hardware after the body’s death. Property dualism allows for that possibility, although the brain is fiendishly complicated and it’s just as likely a re-encoded self wouldn’t be the same without its brain. The mind may be inextricably woven into this particular, finite wetware.
But this is all theoretical and highly speculative. Again, there’s no good evidence that this preservation and transplantation of the mind actually happens. The mind’s survival may be physically possible, but there’s no good reason to think there’s an eternal, immaterial realm in which anyone could live out their immortality.
Sure, you can try to interpret nature from a metaphysically idealistic standpoint, but there’s a reason this is hardly the standard perspective in scientific circles. Materialism is far superior as a way of making sense of all the available data.
So “The Most Telling Fear of Death” isn’t an attempt to argue for our mortality. The evidence for our mortality is obvious and overwhelming, which is why I focus on accounting for the fear of death. We fear we’re only mortal, not just for the petty reason that we’d prefer to live forever or at least for a very long time, but because our physical finitude is unfathomable. Our actual nature is dualistic, which makes for the comedic aspect of intelligent life. And that in turn is an aesthetic source of values, contrary to nihilists.