Counting at the Time of Death

Article by Eric Fossum, Pitzer ‘20

    The mind-body problem has been a leading concern in the last three centuries of philosophical debate. The version of the problem familiar today has its origin in the assertion, made by Rene Descartes, that his mind—his first-person, conscious point of view—would survive bodily death.1 He reasoned that the mind and body are distinct entities, possessing contradictory properties that are united in an individual person while alive. Descartes’ motivations for holding this view were varied, as he was a prolific thinker with wide-ranging interests. His primary rationale, however, came from applying scientific and philosophical views that he held to the question of death. His research into the question converged on a central point: that the mind and body substantially differ. The consequences he drew from this extended into equally varied areas of inquiry, the most salient being doctrinal—in justifying the theological belief in the immortality of the soul. If the mind and body are not the same, then they do not share the same fate, according to Descartes. Many have taken this division to entail that reality might be composed of two fundamentally unlike things: minds, on the one hand, and physical bodies on the other. The difficulty involved in working out how these two aspects of reality interact, however, led many card-carrying Cartesians in Descartes’ own time to outright reject, or, at least, heavily amend this feature of his philosophy. The last century has, arguably, treated Descartes’ views even less kindly. This treatment is epitomized in Gilbert Ryle’s caricaturization of the mind, according to Descartes, as a “ghost in the machine” subsequently burdening dualism with an air of old-timey superstition.2 The theologian, Paul Tillich, in a similarly dismissive manner, inveighs Descartes’ lasting influence on Christian thought, saying, “Arguments for the immortality of an assumedly better part of us cannot bring life out of the grave.”3 Religious and secular thinkers alike have been unfriendly to Descartes’ thought; the former due to its apparently cold rationalism and privileging of reason over faith, and the latter due to the distinctly pre-Enlightenment associations his view of the mind invokes. Despite relatively harsh treatment the Cartesian project continues to thrive in certain respects. I suggest some reasons for this throughout the paper.

        A more philosophically, and less doctrinally oriented approach to the problem, locates death as the starting point into the problem rather than something to which we ad-hoc apply the consequences of prior conjecture, as Descartes famously did. Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, saw death as both impetus and terminus of all metaphysical reasoning.4 This paper will argue along somewhat similar (but more modest) lines by taking a path through the mind-body debate, and drawing a crucial parallel with another long-standing issue in metaphysics. The methodology I use brings out some salient themes of the debate and takes a metaphysical perspective on an overarching narrative that locates death as the origin of our intuitions about what the mind is. The examples used mostly focus on the mundane facts about death and extrapolate from them. I conclude that these mundane facts about death both confront us with the mind-body problem and constrain any potential answers that might be given. In other words, nonexistence, or life’s endpoint, throws a shadowy contrast over the self-image of human existence, and, at bottom, the mind-body problem is a question about what exists.

I view the competing answers to the mind-body problem though the lens of potential nonexistence in the way it is most commonly understood and dealt with, and judge them in accordance with how much insight is gained into our most basic intuitions regarding death. I claim that these basic intuitions lead one to view the problem in a specific way, which is sometimes labeled a ‘counting question’ in recent metaontology and, unavoidably, involve a group of concepts with a numerical connotation.5 What occurs at the time of death forces us to engage with this class of terms (unity, subtraction, identity, non-identity) because something of undeniable significance happens when a person dies, something is subtracted out of the world, and the only compelling commonsense description we can give of that occurrence invokes these quasi-numerical terms.  What this means, if not clear at first, will become so throughout the course of the paper. Further, by seeing where the mind-body problem is contiguous with another metaphysical issue, namely, the problem of universals, we are given a glimpse into the question in a more general form. Metaphysics, and the mind-body problem by extension, asks ‘what is there—what exists?’ This is by no stretch of the imagination a unique insight, but instead a reminder of why the problem is so engaging to begin with. Understanding where and how the problem originates—historically, philosophically, and prosaically—what it entails, and why it matters, are indispensable to finding an answer.  The aim of this paper is to reframe some of the competing answers and to engage them slightly differently than how they are normally dealt with.

        To begin with, a significant historical explanation for Descartes’ lasting relevance comes from a series of lectures given by Saul Kripke, which would later be transcribed into his classic work Naming and Necessity.6  Kripke’s contributions are important for a number of reasons, but one of the most intriguing aspects of his argumentation is the subtle interplay between technical and commonsensical that feature throughout the work, culminating in a distinctly Cartesian argument to the effect that mind and body can’t be identified. On the commonsensical end of Kripke’s reasoning is the observation, hidden in a footnote, that Descartes might have noticed that the mind and body were not the same thing because a person’s brain and body stick around as a corpse after their mind evidently vanishes. If the mind and body were strictly identical, then the two would disappear together. This conclusion would follow by virtue of how identity typically functions: entities that are identical share the same fate. The body is clearly a component of the identity relation and so, bodily fate after death cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. This insight, properly understood, conveys an important fact: the mind-body relation is not an identity relation. Identifying the mind with the brain, or body, is to say that they are one and the same thing. If one maintains that the mind and body are one and the same, then they have to explain bodily survival after death intelligibly within the strictures of the identity relation. Briefly, consider an identity relation and, especially, its implications: if Marie-Henri Beyle dies, then Stendhal also dies. This happens because the two identities, or names, denote one and the same person. Similarly, if all the H20 disappears from the world, then all of the water disappears too, since water is H20 (is identical to H20). What happens to Cicero necessarily happens to Tully too, since Tully is another name for Cicero. Minds, however, conspicuously disappear while brains and bodies are often left behind when a person dies in a manner suggesting non-identity. As is apparent in the examples above, when two things are identical, they are necessarily tied to the same fate. What happens to one must happen to the other. If the mind and body are identical in some other way which concedes that the two are not tied to the same fate, then explaining this mismatch requires additional justification—justification which must satisfy deeply rooted linguistic and logical norms. As W.V. Quine wonders, “If sheer logic is not conclusive, what is?” and we are forced by Kripke’s reasoning to ask ourselves the same question in regard to the mind-body identity, as identity is indisputably a logical-numerical concept.7 Kripke himself doesn’t explicitly state what conclusions should be drawn from this striking disanalogy, but he does advocate that views about the mind which take it to be identical to the brain cannot be strictly correct. If the mind and brain, or mind and body, aren’t identical, then something like a view resembling a Cartesian union of the mind and body is still a legitimate competitor for our assent. However, Kripke’s own views are that, “the mind-body problem is wide open and extremely confusing” and, perhaps, given the current scientific and philosophical landscape, this might be the only intellectually honest position to take on the issue.8 Again, unanswered, Kripke’s observations—which owe their plausibility to the mundane facts about death—give compelling reasons why the mind is not the brain, reasons that are grounded in equally impactful applications of the logic of identity to the problem.

        Kripke, in a later and lesser-known lecture titled, “The First-Person” elaborates apropos of corpses. He notes, “For Descartes, I say, was not his body when the body was a corpse. ‘Descartes had a serious accident, did he survive?’ ‘Yes, of course—take a look in his coffin.’ The response is absurd; rather, we have to say, ‘I am afraid Descartes is no longer with us.’’9 It is hard to see how anyone could disagree with Kripke here. And so, what, if anything, is subtracted out of the world when a person dies? So far, two answers have been considered, though not yet explicitly described. First, the mind and the brain are the same. That is to say, the mind and the brain are identical, which is the antithesis to Descartes position. Second, the mind is unified with the brain, which is to say that they are not identical. These views capture the essence of two competing philosophical views on the mind; the former view is called identity theory, and the latter, dualism. A third answer can be given, however, by saying that what is subtracted out of the world when a person dies is a pattern occurring in the brain. This view, which is the view that what the brain does is uniquely responsible for the conscious mind goes by the name functionalism in the technical literature.

What are the merits of the functionalist view of the mind? For one, this view has considerable plausibility when considered in light of how we ordinarily feel about what occurs at the time of death: the brain ceases to act, events, presumably responsible for, perhaps even identical to (more on this to come), conscious experience can no longer take place, the processes involved in the production of consciousness come to a halt, and the storm of electrical and neurochemical activity subsides.

Functionalism is commonly regarded the leading view of the mind in the last three decades. This view clearly captures many beliefs that we hold about death and mind-brain identity, as I briefly tried to illustrate above; however, we are capable of putting it to further questioning along lines developed regarding identity. When we do so, we find that functionalism is metaphysically ambiguous—it is open to being interpreted as dualist or otherwise. That is to say, functionalism has no prima facie metaphysical commitments. Therefore, we should ask a couple of follow up questions in line in the basic style of examination that has been utilized so far. To start, when a person dies, something is subtracted out of the world, and, when we think in these terms, we invoke the closely related logical-numerical notions of identity, which, naturally, leads to questions about what and how many things are involved in the event. Basic existence questions, identity questions being a species thereof, presuppose numeracy; if we were to say that two things exist, we would be implicitly saying that one thing is non-identical to another. This is the justification, though it hardly requires any sophisticated argumentation, for construing the issue in terms of a basic ‘counting question.’ The only way to miss this obvious point is to overcomplicate it. Notice that the metaphysical question, not the scientific or prosaic question—as these ways of asking questions are, perhaps, not obviously constrained by the same standards of explanation—is asking what the mind is. If the mind is the brain, then the mind survives death, at least, in most cases, for a while after. If the mind is an event, process, or pattern of activity in the brain, then the mind is identical to an event, or pattern of activity, not necessarily the structure involved in facilitating the event—remember, the ‘structure’ sticks around, in most cases, as a corpse. In this case, the mind does not survive death, but brain qua structure or object is decoupled from its processual aspect: the mind.

Identifying the mind with an event is not to identify it with something immaterial or nonphysical, contrary to what Descartes explicitly argued, although it does not in and of itself rule it out. Here’s why: an older and more deeply entrenched metaphysical problem makes an appearance when we ask about the physical status of events, patterns, functions, or processes. The reason for this being that events (brain events included) maintain a status as both interpretive practice, presupposing a human point of view, the very thing in need of explanation, and, when correct, represent the way the physical world really is.

A similar line of thought led Richard Rorty to see the mind-body problem an outgrowth of the problem of abstraction, or ‘the problem of universals’ of which functions, patterns, and other terms possessing a quasi-abstract valence are habitually associated in metaphysical debate.10 The problem takes a more general form than the mind-body problem, asking how abstract objects and concrete objects relate. Plato thought that concrete existence was an imperfect reflection of a more real and complete reality.11 By comparison, the patterns of activity that the brain instantiates are, taken in one sense, abstract objects not entirely unlike numbers or universals—those things belonging to Platonic reality. Canonically abstract entities, of which mathematical objects form a paradigm case themselves raise fraught metaphysical problems—problems about what exists. Therefore, identifying the mind with a pattern of activity or event is to identify personhood with an abstraction whose concrete spatiotemporal status is vague, even on a charitable interpretation. At the very least, introducing potential abstraction into an answer to the problem feels, at first glance, comparable to defining a circle as a spherical shape. We are led to ask the mind-body question in a different way: how does the concrete world of bodies, tables, chairs, atoms, and molecules relate to the Platonic world of numbers, patterns, sets, and, perhaps, conscious minds? A similar point applies to views claiming the mind is a property of the brain. Rorty’s solution to this problem was to deny any reality to abstract objects.12 Regardless, the point here is that one of the main contending solutions to the problem seemingly doesn’t get us far outside of the Cartesian explanatory framework—a framework within which we are compelled by the apparent decoupling at the time of death to introduce basic counting questions into our methodological approach. Functionalism’s construal of mind is not exempt from the counting question, and I don’t see any reason why it is not equally plausible to claim that the abstract-functional aspects of the mind are unified, rather than identical to, physical brain structure. Decoupling at the time of death strongly suggests the former. Here I again point to the suggestion that scientific, ordinary, and philosophical explanations don’t always perfectly overlap, but instead, might be thought of as mutually constraining one another.

The intended dialectical effect of my approach has been to underscore that the mind-body problem, considered in light of the intuitive way I’ve tried to present it, is an attempted identification, and, by implication, a question about the existential status of the mind and body. I think that the effect of my approach is of equal relevance to the so-called ‘is’ of predication too; the claim that consciousness is a property of the brain. One could observe that mind and brain are not strictly identical, but their identity is captured by the ‘is’ of predication, which is a looser sort of identity claim. For example, that a tennis ball is green is an example of the ‘is’ of predication and not strict identity. It should be roughly apparent, given the connection drawn between functionalism and the problem of universals, why the ‘is’ of predication, as opposed to the ‘is’ of identity, is subject to the same basic considerations that follow from decoupling at the time of death.13 To say that the brain loses a property, that the property of consciousness is subtracted out of the picture at the time of the death, cannot avoid raising the question of the existential status of abstract objects, since ‘property’ can be thought of as closely synonymous with ‘universal.’ To observe a tennis ball over time ‘losing’ the property of being green, we are in the territory of the problem of universals by virtue of greenness’s relation to instances of itself in physical particulars, such as tennis balls. Physical particulars, such as tennis balls, limes, and Saint Patrick’s Day decorations share a property ‘green’ in common, a universal that all particular instantiations of green share in. Where limes and tennis balls have a definite location, the universals that comprise their characteristic features are spatiotemporally ambiguous, since they can be in many places at once, or nowhere at all. Again, we are compelled to ask what leaves—ceases to occur or is subtracted out of—the world in the example where the tennis ball is no longer retains its green coloration. This questioning still obviously bears the rudiments of an attempted identification. This attempted identification, again, involves a constellation of terms with a numerical connotation: identity, unity, subtraction, and so forth. The outcome achieved from considering the example of corpses was to illustrate that a reimagining of these basic notions, seemingly necessary to any commonsense description of death, is not easily accomplished, though strategically required in order to avoid the argumentative route taken in this paper.

We can see how these issues of identity and how many existent ‘things’ there end up being, are inextricably linked, at least in the way I’ve presented the situation. The justification for my treatment of functionalism by putting it to further identity questions—what the brain’s activity is identical to—followed from this basic methodology. Considering the importance of how identity features in the problem, when hypothesizing what the mind is, we are seemingly compelled to make some form of an identity claim. So, to the compelling and commonsense answer that the mind is (identical to) what the brain does, the patterns it instantiates, we are obligated to pose the further question about the status of the abstract features of the world by virtue of the fact that the question finds us in the territory of identity. Descartes would have likely agreed to this account of the situation by virtue of his insistence on mind-brain unity, and his intuition that the mind’s fate after death was not the same as the body’s. It is for this reason that we might see an invocation of brain activity as identical to conscious experience as hindering any attempt to outmaneuver the specter of Cartesianism that haunts the mind-body debate.14

To recapitulate, I primarily focused on the example of brain activity to show how deeply intuitive answers like functionalism are explanatorily beholden to more basic, fundamental identity questions, which, in this case, seemingly alter the philosophical valence of possible conclusions. The considerations addressed in this paper resulted in motivating and elaborating some potential answers to the problem, all of which involve engagement with metaphysics more broadly, as illustrated in the approach to functionalist unification of mind and body (the disguised problem of universals) and identity theory, which is viable only if we deny reality to abstract objects. Death is unambiguously the end of something. What that something is can only be comprehended within the framework of an identity claim, or a closely related, quasi-numerical description, such as unity. The possibility of separation, evidenced by the mundane, though morbid, reality of corpses, strongly urges us toward the kind of explanation whose satisfaction would require that we count entities. I submit with relative confidence that what ceases to exist is not the body, or, if it is, it will only be by coincidence, not necessity, that bodily structure and mental life simultaneously cease. I doubt that this is a contentious point. If there is room for disagreement, it will be within this space that progress on the problem is made, that is, if my presentation of the problem is on the right track.


1. Descartes, Rene. 1641. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” In The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge University Press. 1996.
2. Ryle, Gilbert. 1949. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 17
3. Tillich, Paul. 1948. The Shaking of the Foundations. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 167.
4. Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1844. The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2. Dover Publications: New York, NY.
5. My thinking on the metaontological issues and that ground my methodological approach is influenced by Peter Van Inwagen’s “Being, Existence, and Ontological Commitment.” In Existence: Essays in Ontology. Cambridge University Press. 2014, 61. Van Inwagen develops a version of Gottlob Frege’s claim that existence and number are analogous. Applying this insight to the mind-body problem, as far as I know, is unique to this paper. 
6. Kripke, Saul. 1980. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
7. W.V. Quine. 1970. Philosophy of Logic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 81.
8. pp. 155
9. Kripke, Saul. 2011. “The First-Person.” In Philosophical Troubles: Collected Papers, Volume 1. Oxford University Press, 310.
10. Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
11. Plato. The Republic. New York: Books, Inc., 1943.
12. This philosophical position is usually referred to as nominalism.
13. A common distinction is usually made between the ‘is’ of identity (the ‘is’ that featured front and center in this paper), and the ‘is’ of predication, as in ‘the snow is white.’ Considering the ‘is’ of predication, we aren’t saying that snow is literally identical with whiteness, but rather, that it instantiates whiteness, or that whiteness is a property commonly associated with snow. See Frege, Gottlob. 1892. “On Sense and Reference’ In Geach, Peter & Black, Max (eds. and trans.), 1980, Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, Oxford: Blackwell, 3rd Edition.
14. This is a play on the opening line of “The Communist Manifesto” ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’ Marx, Karl., & Engels, Freidrich. 1848. In Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow. 1969, 98-167.