Friday, May 08, 2015

Competing Perspectives on the Significance of One's Final, Dying Thought

Here's a particularly unsentimental view about last, dying thoughts: Your dying thought will be your least important thought. After all (assuming no afterlife), it is the one thought guaranteed to have no influence on any of your future thoughts, or on any other aspect of your psychology.

Now maybe if you express the thought aloud -- "I did not get my Spaghetti Os. I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this." -- or if your last thought is otherwise detectable by others, it will have an effect; but for this post let's assume a private last thought that influences no one else.

A narrative approach to the meaning of life seems to recommend a different attitude toward last thoughts. If a life is like a story, you want it to end well! The ending of a story colors all that has gone before. If the hero dies resentful or if the hero dies content, that rightly changes our understanding of earlier events. It does so not only because we might now understand that all along the hero felt subtly resentful, but also because private deathbed thoughts, on this view, have a retrospective transformative power: An earlier betrayal, for example, now becomes a betrayal that was forgiven by the end (or it becomes one that was never forgiven). The ghost's appearance to Hamlet has one type of significance if Hamlet ends badly and quite a different significance if Hamlet ends well. On the narrative view, the significance of events depends partly on the future. Maybe this is part of what Solon had in mind when he told King Croesus not to call anyone happy until they die: A horrible enough disaster at the end, maybe, can retrospectively poison what your marriage and seeming successes had really amounted to. Thus, maybe the last thought is like the final sentence of a book: Ending on a thought of love and happiness makes your life a very different story than does ending on a thought of resentment and regret.

The unsentimental view seems to give too little significance to one's last thought -- I, at least, would want to die on a positive note! -- but the narrative view seems to give one's last thought too much significance. I doubt we're deprived of knowing the significance of someone's life if we don't know their last thought in the way we can't know the significance of a story if we don't know its last sentence. Also, the last sentence of a story is a contrived feature of a type of work of art, a sentence which the work is designed to render highly significant; while a last thought might be trivially unimportant by accident (if you're thinking about what to have for lunch, then hit by a truck you didn't see coming) or it might not reflect a stable attitude (if you're grumpy from pain).

Maybe the right answer is just a compromise: The last thought is not totally trivial because it has some narrative power, but life isn't so much like a narrative that it has last-sentence-of-a-story-like power? Life has narrative elements, but the independent pieces also have a power and value that isn't hostage to future outcomes.

Here's another possibility, which interacts with the first two: Maybe one's last thought is an opportunity. But what kind of opportunity it is will depend on whether last thoughts can retrospectively change the significance of earlier events.

On the narrative view, it is an opportunity to -- secretly! with an almost magical time-piercing power -- make it the case that Person A was forgiven by you or never forgiven, that Action B was regretted or never regretted, etc.

On the unsentimental view, in contrast, it is an opportunity to think things that, had you thought them earlier, would have been too terrible to think because of their possible impact on your future thoughts. (Compare: It's also an opportunity to explore the neuroscience of decapitation.) I don't know that we have such a reservoir of unthinkable thoughts that we refuse to make conscious for fear of the effects of thinking them. That sounds pretty Freudian! But if we do, here's the perfect opportunity, perhaps, to finally admit to yourself that you never really loved Person A or that your life was a failure. Maybe if you thought such things and then remembered those thoughts the next day, bad consequences would follow. But now there can be no such bad consequences the next day; and if you reject the narrative view, there are no retrospective bad consequences on earlier events either. So it's your chance, if you can grab it, to drop your self-illusions and glare at the truth.

Writing this now, though, that last view seems too dark. I'd rather die under illusion, I think, than dispel the illusion at the last moment, when it's too late to do anything about it. Maybe that's the better narrative. Or maybe truth is not the most important thing on the deathbed.

[image source]


Anonymous said...

You say"If the hero dies resentful or if the hero dies content, that rightly changes our understanding of earlier events." So is your concern what the hero thinks of his or her life or what we think of it based on knowing his or her last thought? The post seems to go back and further between these two questions.
And how can you ever know that your last thought is your last thought? The opportunity to think things that would have been devastating to think earlier seems not really an opportunity since you can't know it is your last thought and therefore can't know that there won't be future thoughts on which it could have an impact.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon! On your first point, I was thinking about how the hero's life is properly viewed, or what it really is -- if that makes sense. So closer to "our" perspective than the hero's own. Similarly with a non-fiction dying person: There's her own perspective on her life, as she dies, and then there's some fact of the matter about the power of that dying thought to change the significance of earlier events (regardless of whether she thinks so). If this sounds like too much value-realism, probably these issues could be couched more carefully in other terms (though possibly that would also influence the conclusions).

On the second point: Right! So if you're going to do the "poisonous thought" thing, you'd better be sure. I actually have a story in draft in which, at the beginning of the story, the protagonist mistakenly thinks he's having his last thought.

Izzy Black said...


I would say that it simply depends. If your final thought is, for instance, one where you are finally forgiving someone, then it would be a fairly significant thought. Narrative view would apply.

On the other hand, as you point it out, it could be a wholly trivial thought, like what you had for lunch, or whether or not there is a fly in the room. In this case, the thought is of no consequence to the evaluation of one's life or character.

That's kind of just the nature of thoughts. Some matter, some really don't. My inclination is to say that a higher percentage of them don't matter very much, which tells me that there's a good chance one's dying thought is most likely to be a trivial one. Although the likelihood is a bit lower here since you're generally more likely to be contemplating serious matters on your deathbed.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very sensible, Izzy! I wonder if there's *some* additional color added by the fact that it's your last thought. So if you forgave someone in your penultimate thought, and then your last thought was "that fly is annoying", would that be importantly different than if the two thoughts were in the opposite order?

Izzy Black said...

Hi Eric,

I think the order of the thoughts might be significant inasmuch as a trivial thought immediately following a more serious thought might have the effect of trivializing the prior thought (for example). That is, if you just forgave someone and now you're thinking about the fly in the room, was it much of a forgiveness? Shouldn't the next thought be something like, "now are there others I should forgive?" or perhaps you should now be contemplating the meaning of that forgiveness and how it recolors your relationship with that person (and even your own sense of moral worth).

On the other hand, perhaps you had been agonizing over your hatred for a person for years and once you finally forgave them, you were now free to think of something trivial immediately after. In that case, the trivial thought was quite liberating, and actually has an ironic or poetic sort of significance after all!

I don't think, however, it being your last thought is what colors it in this way. It has more to do with the relationship or the connection between the two thoughts in general, which might've just as well occurred the day before you died, or at some other time.

I think the way death renders your thoughts more meaningful is (perhaps) only in the sense that one's pending mortality tends to encourage more thoughtful interrogation of the soul.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I see the appeal of that perspective. Part of me still sees some attraction in the more strictly narrative idea that the order matters not *only* because of what it reveals about the previous thought -- that somehow there's more significance to a thought's being the last. I'm not sure I can defend that, though. Your perspective has a lot of appeal.

Well, here's one thought. On another site, a commenter pointed me to this site of people's last tweets before death.

There's something especially eerie about those being people's *last* tweets. They gain a kind of significance simply in virtue of that, it seems. That's the kind of thing I'm not sure your perspective fully accounts for.

Izzy Black said...

Thanks a lot for the link. I've never seen this. It is very interesting.

My initial reaction is to say that final tweets are ispo facto more valuable than final thoughts (all other things being equal). This is because one's final tweets are (for many people) the last public record we have of a person. It ends up meaning more to us than it did to the dying person (like funerals).

Your original case stipulated private thoughts, however. If those thoughts were made public, that changes the circumstances rather substantially. One of the sad ironies of some of those tweets, particularly the more seemingly mundane ones, is that we survived them and the person didn't.

Callan S. said...

Not important to whom?

If I'm dying, then why would I care what lack of effect I might have on anyone else, anyway? This universe is private and it is effecting itself until it's falling apart, and that's perfectly meaningful.

You all think you're so dang important - as if if it doesn't effect you, it was nothing! What a way to give up identity - by denying the importance of anything you do unless the herd reacts to it.

If the last thought has no effect and that is significant, think of all the mass out there - all of jupiter, all of the sun - all of a cosomos - these things your little thoughts will not affect at all! There is so much your thoughts will not affect, that you might as well, by your metric, already be dead - and many times over!

(written with more chagrin than was actually felt!)

Ryan Gomez said...

Hi Eric,

One problem with the is that we are ascribing significance to that thought after the fact. It fits perfectly within the narrative view, but not within within the secret last thought.

I'd agree with you that the narrative view seems to give too much significance to one's last thought. If you ascribe to that view and are prudent, then you would want every thought to be one that could end your narrative meaningfully, or you would want to be reasonably certain that you would not die before you could have a subsequent thought. That's a crazy way to live though, and would make for an awful narrative--a story with only endings!

Of course we aren't that prudent in reality, and maybe the power of a narrative life stems from it being not artificially contrived--to control how your story ends robs it of its importance. I need to reread John Fischer's essays at this point though, because I'm not sure this fits with guidance control.

Ultimately, it seems that, as humans, we are drawn to idea of a narrative life and having a meaningful last thought. But if death is an experiential blank and we're being honest with ourselves, then it seems likely that the unsentimental view is the correct position.

chinaphil said...

Made me think of this:

I think there's a sort of "halo of momentousness" that we all experience. When one momentous thing happens, it focuses our mind, and makes us think of other important things. That's why speeches at weddings, funerals and baptisms can be good: the scale of the event makes you strip out some of the rubbish from your mind and think/say things which are equal to it in scale.

And just think of the alternative - aren't sudden accidental deaths intensely frustrating? In many ways, they must be the best kind of death, because there's little pain and no fear, but it is incredibly unsatisfying to think of just ending on the way to the shops to buy milk.

On a more trivial note, people who end sentences without proper sentence final intonation inspire utter confusion as well (I'm not talking about AQI, I'm talking about sounding as though the sentence has just sto...) People need a rounding off.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry about the slow approvals! Visiting family. Follow-up thoughts tomorrow or Mon.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all those comments, folks!

Izzy: I think I agree with that.

Callan: I agree that thoughts have intrinsic value as well as value for their influence forward in time (or their narrative influence backward in time). I should have been clearer about that. But on the "unsentimental" view, all that would remain would be that intrinsic value, so unless something about the thought is sufficiently intrinsically valuable to make up for that lack, it would be less important than other thoughts.

Ryan: Right, living like that seems like a poor choice! Maybe narrative completeness has some value, but not enough value to be worth that kind of cost?

chinaphil: I could see the "halo of momentousness" working with either view. It could be a narrative rounding off. Or it could be a way of fleshing out the unsentimental view without narrativity: Because I'm *thinking* narratively, I will tend to have momentous thoughts, even if those thoughts don't gain additional momentousness due to their position in my life.