Eternal oblivion (also referred to as non-existence, oblivion or nothingness) is the concept that an organism's consciousness permanently ceases to exist after its death, resulting in a permanent state of unconsciousness. This belief, which is often associated with atheism, points to a lack of evidence that there is an afterlife in any form. A stronger stance denies that it is even possible for consciousness to naturally continue after brain death.
The faculty of consciousness itself is the basis by which an organism can have a subjective experience and awareness of the existence of itself and the world around it. As neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi put it, "[Consciousness] is also 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."
In the process of brain death, all brain function permanently ceases. Many people who believe that death is a permanent cessation of consciousness also believe that consciousness is dependent upon the functioning of the brain. Scientific research has discovered that some areas of the brain like the reticular activating system or the thalamus appear to be necessary for consciousness, due to the fact that damage to these structures or their lack of function causes a loss of consciousness. (For more information see neural correlates of consciousness and disorders of consciousness). Also, the mind seems to be dependent on the brain, as shown from the various effects of brain damage. It is based upon evidence like this that many people become skeptical of the notion that consciousness can survive the death of the brain. As explained by neuroscientist Sam Harris in the debate titled "Is There an Afterlife?":
"..there are very good reasons to think it’s not true [the survival of death]. And we know this from now 150 years of neurology where you damage areas of the brain, and faculties are lost. It’s not that everyone with brain damage has their soul perfectly intact, they can’t get the words out. Everything about your mind can be damaged by damaging the brain. You can cease to recognize faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools. The fragmentation in the way in which our mind is parcellated at the level of the brain is not at all intuitive, and there’s a lot known about it. And what we’re being asked to consider is that.. you damage one part of the brain and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, and yet if you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English."
The English word "oblivion" (late 14c.) comes from the Old French oblivion (13c.) and directly from the Latin oblivionem, meaning "forgetfulness; a being forgotten", which also comes from the word oblivisci ("to forget"). Oblivion itself means "state of being forgotten".
Oblivion and subjectivity
Thomas W. Clark, the founder and director of the non-profit Center for Naturalism and the creator of the Naturalism.Org website has released a paper titled "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity" in which he criticized the widespread misunderstanding of death as a "plunge into oblivion". His point is that people who, when imagining their deaths, project their selfs into future perceptions of oblivion as an eternal silent darkness are wrong, because without consciousness, there is no awareness of space, thus no basis for time.
In the Apology of Socrates (written by Plato), after Socrates is sentenced to death, he addresses the court. He ponders on the nature of death, and summarizes that there are basically two opinions about it. 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 man 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. Indeed, Socrates asks, not even the great King of Persia could say that he ever rested so soundly and peacefully as he did in a dreamless sleep.
Cicero, writing four centuries later in his treatise On Old Age, 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, where 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."
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- Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity retrieved 4 February 2012
- The Jonathan Schell reader: on the United States at war retrieved 4 February 2012
- "The idea that nothingness follows death is often associated with atheism" Handbook to the Afterlife retrieved 4 February 2012
- Tononi, Giulio (20 August 2008), Consciousness as Integrated Information: a Provisional Manifesto, retrieved 14 February 2015
- "Symptoms of Brain Injury"
- Hallquist, Chris (January 20, 2013), Neuroscience and the soul, retrieved February 14, 2015