Eternal oblivion (also referred to as non-existence or nothingness)[1][2] is the philosophical, religious, or scientific concept of one's consciousness forever ceasing upon death. Pamela Health and Jon Klimo write that this concept is mostly associated with religious skepticism, secular humanism, nihilism, agnosticism, and atheism.[3] According to most modern neuroscience theories of consciousness, the brain is the basis of subjective experience, agency, self-awareness, and awareness of the surrounding natural world. When brain death occurs, all brain function forever ceases.[4]

Many neuroscientists and neurophilosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, believe that consciousness is dependent upon the functioning of the brain and death is a cessation of consciousness. Scientific research has discovered that some areas of the brain, like the reticular activating system or the thalamus, appear to be necessary for consciousness, because dysfunction of or damage to these structures causes a loss of consciousness.[5] Through a naturalist analysis of the mind, it is regarded as being dependent on the brain, as shown from the various effects of brain damage.[6] Some interpretations of studies of near-death experiences have suggested against the idea of consciousness ceasing upon death, and it may continue even after brain function ceases.[7][8]

In philosophy

In the Apology of Socrates (written by Plato), after Socrates is sentenced to death, he addresses the court. He ponders the nature of death and summarizes that there are two major schools of thought on the afterlife. The first is that it is a migration of the soul or consciousness from this existence into another, and that the souls of all previously deceased people will also be there. This excites Socrates, because he will be able to conduct his dialectic inquiries with all of the great Greek heroes and thinkers of the past.

The other opinion about death is that it is oblivion, the complete cessation of consciousness, not only unable to feel but a complete lack of awareness, like a person in a deep, dreamless sleep. Socrates says that even this oblivion does not frighten him very much, because while he would be unaware, he would correspondingly be free from any pain or suffering. Socrates stated that not even the great King of Persia could say that he ever rested so soundly and peacefully as he did in a dreamless sleep.[9]

Cicero, writing three centuries later in his treatise On Old Age, in the voice of Cato the Elder, similarly discussed the prospects of death, frequently referring to the works of earlier Greek writers. Cicero also concluded that death was either a continuation of consciousness or cessation of it, and that if consciousness continues in some form, there is no reason to fear death; while if it is in fact eternal oblivion, he will be free of all worldly miseries, in which case he should also not be deeply troubled by death. Similar thoughts about death were expressed by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in his first-century BC didactic poem De rerum natura and by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus, in which he writes:

Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore, a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.[10][11]

Paraphrasing philosopher Paul Edwards, Keith Augustine and Yonatan Fishman state that "the greater the damage to the brain, the greater the corresponding damage to the mind. The natural extrapolation from this pattern is all too clear – obliterate brain functioning altogether, and mental functioning too will cease."[12] Psychologist Steven Pinker and physicist Sean Carroll assert that death is equivalent to eternal oblivion, as science finds no mechanism to continue consciousness after death.[13][14]

Legal use

The term "eternal Oblivion" has been used in international treaties, such as in Article II of the Treaty of Westphalia 1648.[15][16] It has also been used in legislation such as in the English Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660, where the phrase used is "perpetual Oblivion" (it appears in several of the articles in the act).[17]

Oblivion and subjectivity

Thomas Clark, founder of Center for Naturalism, wrote a paper titled "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity" (1994).[18][19] He critiqued what he saw as a flawed description of eternal oblivion as a "plunge into darkness". When some imagine their deaths (including the non-religious), they project themselves into a future self which experiences an eternal silent darkness. This is wrong, because without consciousness, there is no awareness of space and no basis for time – there cannot be darkness, because to experience darkness, one must be conscious of it. For Clark, in oblivion there is even an absence of experience, as we can only speak of experience when a subjective self exists. According to neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, consciousness is "all we are and all we have: lose consciousness and, as far as you are concerned, your own self and the entire world dissolve into nothingness."[20]

See also


  1. ^ Clark, Thomas W. "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity". Center for Naturalism. Archived from the original on 4 February 2012. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  2. ^ Schell, Jonathan (2004). The Jonathan Schell Reader: On the United States at War, the Long Crisis of the American Republic, and the Fate of the Earth. New York: Nation Books. ISBN 978-1560254072.
  3. ^ Heath, Pamela; Klimo, Jon (2010). Handbook to the Afterlife. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. p. 18. ISBN 978-1556438691. Archived from the original on 6 March 2016. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  4. ^ Chalmers, David John (1996). The conscious mind : in search of a fundamental theory. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-585-35313-1. OCLC 47011200.
  5. ^ Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. ISBN 0-316-18065-3. OCLC 23648691.
  6. ^ Hallquist, Chris (20 January 2013). "Neuroscience and the Soul". The Uncredible HallQ. Archived from the original on 9 November 2014. Retrieved 14 February 2015. Quoting neuroscientist Sam Harris (video Archived 6 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine).
  7. ^ "'Erasing Death' Explores The Science Of Resuscitation". NPR. Archived from the original on 5 February 2023. Retrieved 5 February 2023.
  8. ^ "Agnostic Psychiatrist Says Near-Death Experiences Are Real". 24 February 2022. Archived from the original on 5 February 2023. Retrieved 5 February 2023.
  9. ^ Plato; Estienne, Henri; Serres, Jean de; Adams, John; Adams, John Quincy (1578). "Platonis opera quae extant omnia". [Genevae?] : Excudebat Henr. Stephanus. p. 17.
  10. ^ Cook, Vincent. "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus". Archived from the original on 3 January 2017. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  11. ^ "Epicurus and Lucretius against the dear of death". Archived from the original on 26 August 2018. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  12. ^ The Myth of an Afterlife, Michael Martin and Keith Augustine, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015, p. 206.
  13. ^ Brockman, John (4 July 1999). "Is science killing the soul?". Edge. Archived from the original on 3 August 2018. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  14. ^ Carroll, Sean M. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Penguin. p. 218. ISBN 978-0698409767.
  15. ^ Christodoulidis, Emilios A.; Veitch, Scott (2001), "Chapter III The Legal Politics of Amnesty", Lethe's Law: Justice, Law and Ethics in Reconciliation, Hart Publishing, p. 33, ISBN 978-1841131092
  16. ^ "Treaty of Westphalia excerpt" (PDF). History Department of the University of British Columbia.[permanent dead link]
  17. ^ An act of free and general pardon, indemnity and oblivion
  18. ^ Benjamin Libet; Anthony Freeman; Keith Sutherland (2000). The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will. Imprint Academic. pp. [1]–. ISBN 978-0907845119.
  19. ^ "death". Archived from the original on 8 February 2014.
  20. ^ Tononi, Giulio (2008). "Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto". The Biological Bulletin. 215 (3): 216–42. doi:10.2307/25470707. JSTOR 25470707. PMID 19098144. S2CID 364500.

Further reading