Time and Death.
In an essay about the death, Thomas Nagel* discussed the times before and after one's death, wanting to establish if death is a good or a bad event. His ingenious approach to the topic makes the discussion not only interesting but even exciting. The analyses would still follow another way if we would first define the concept of the time with which one operates.
For analysing an event, we first must discuss what happened before it and what will happen after it. Only then we will be able to judge the role played by the event that separates those two times and to make pertinent considerations about the event.
But we first have to discuss about time.
The debates about time always seem odd and apparently senseless because we have gotten into the habit of it before we attempt to define it. Even so, it is necessary to define the concept we use to make clear enough its subsequent utilisation. We shall not deeply develop here this concept, but some specifics are necessary to approach our initial topic. This is what we are trying to do in the following paragraph.
We accept the idea that time is the sum of the events which happen in an interval. If between two successive events a third one does not exist, we consider the two events to be consecutive. The length of such interval is null. Instead, more intermediate events between the initial two are longer the length of the intervals between them is. Therefore we can look at time as a warehouse of events, a collection, a history of them. The length is a contouring of the events that happen in an interval.
The length may seem different to different observers, depending on the events that each of them observes. And so it is. Each observer has his own idea about the world, his history, his time. Universal time is a wrapper of the all individual times. The usual time - the one we are accustom to - is nothing else but a bringing to the same denominator, a common value scale, useful for communication among us.
Shortly, we conceive the time in its essence like a succession of events and not as a pre-established, existing, and everlasting matrix, in which some events could happen or not.
Let us return to our topic. Death is not an action, strictly speaking. Life is an action, an activity; death is nothing but the end of life. Death is an event only in the sense that it can be recorded in a history. An analogy for life is a liquid flowing from a reservoir. Death is the moment when the liquid has finished itself and nothing more flows. Whether a person's life ended suddenly, such as by a fatal accident, or slowly at old age, it does not matter. One of our subjective estimation is that the first case is tragic and unfortunate, and the second one is natural. But we actually never knew how much liquid had been in the reservoir. It is only in our minds the thought that all reservoirs of life are equal each other. To extend the life/reservoir analogy, considering how fast or slow the liquid flows, would go beyond of our purpose. Therefore death is only the end of life and we should not assign it an exaggerate role.
If death is not worth speaking about, and life is, then the initial question must be changed a little: is there a significant difference between the time before someone's birth and after his death? In both situations, the person's life does not exist. Therefore the two times seem to be equivalent: times in which he does not exist. We see now, after the concept of time has been defined as such, that the answer to the first question is definitely NO. That is because the first time, looked as history of the previous events, does not contain the person's life, while the history of after his death does. History has been enriched by another life, another set set of activities.
Maybe just the awareness of the idea that our life becomes history, our history, makes death seem important to each of us, because we ourselves become responsible for the trace we leave behind. Maybe if our life were longer, by just a bit, we would succeed in giving to our trace more consistency, or making it seem at least honourable. It is from here probably that the fear of death comes, like of the final judgement, such as death leaves us undressed by what we sometimes try to put on to seem more beautiful.
Surely, such a deep topic could be approached in many ways and the conclusions would be equally different. This approach was only a way. A definitive solution would be the most awkward thing in the world.
Brasov, March 16, 1998
Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979