It’s a few years old, but I just stumbled across this post (from Philosophy, et cetera) about J. David Velleman’s paper “So It Goes” (the link to the paper in the post is broken, but here is a PDF), which attempts to explain the Buddhist idea that the idea of an enduring self is an illusion that causes suffering in terms of Western thought, and in particular, in the framework of the neo-Lockean philosophy of Derek Parfit. I will leave it to the links to explain the distinction between endurance and perdurance, but I had some thoughts on how this all relates to death.
To start, I would point out that the demarcation of an object in space is really a matter of arbitrary definition. I’m unsure if this is the case for a consciousness, since I’m inclined to believe that consciousness is something that happens and not something that exists in space, but it certainly is arbitrary which atoms we choose to consider as part of our body – the air in our lungs, for instance? But if we see consciousness as a particular type of process of perdurance that happens to our physical being, extending it in time like a crystal growing in one direction, we could just as well expand what we consider to be our physical selves to include, for instance, the things that we create, or others’ impressions of us. In this case, we do indeed still perdure, often in an expanding way, after death. If what we want is to extend ourselves as far forward in time as possible, then this means that leaving something behind that is in some way a part of us that will continue to exist is enough. Of course, it’s also arbitrary what exactly we value in terms of perdurance – and I do think that the particular type of purdurance that is consciousness has a value in itself. But, all that aside, I don’t think that death can be characterized as a ceasing to exist altogether unless one identifies “I” as the process of consciousness. I am honestly not sure whether the “I” should be the process itself, but either way, all we can say after death about the thing that consciousness was happening to is that it has ceased to expand itself in the way that it had been expanding itself before – not that it has ceased to exist. And depending on how we define it, it may continue to expand itself in other ways.
I’m hesitant to now conclude that we should view a work of art that remains “alive” after its creator’s death as a way around the implications of that death. An absolute end will come eventually, regardless of what pieces of oneself one leaves behind, so if what we want is still to be never-ending, simply telling ourselves that we will “live on” in some way in the world does not solve our problem. However, the idea that death is simply the end of a process of growth of, if you would, the main stalk of one’s being, rather than the sort of absolute oblivion that the heat death of the universe will guarantee, could at least provide a bit of comfort about the particular moment at which our consciousness ends, which taking care not to value the eternal over the ephemeral doesn’t help much with . . .