Eternal oblivion

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In philosophy, eternal oblivion (also referred to as non-existence or nothingness)[1][2][page needed] is the permanent cessation of one's consciousness upon death. This concept is often associated with religious skepticism and atheism.[3]

According to contemporary 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 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, because damage to these structures or their lack of function causes a loss of consciousness.

Through a naturalist analysis of the mind (an approach adopted by many philosophers of mind and neuroscientists), it is regarded as being dependent on the brain, as shown from the various effects of brain damage.[4]


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").[5] Oblivion itself means "state of being forgotten".

Oblivion and subjectivity[edit]

Thomas W. Clark, founder of Center for Naturalism, wrote a paper titled "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity".[6] 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. For Clark, in oblivion there isn't 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."[7]


Steven Pinker explains the following in the seminar Is Science Killing the Soul, a discussion with Richard Dawkins presenting evidence against the existence of souls. He elaborates;[8]

"Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone — the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as Alzheimer's. The person — the soul, if you want — gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process. We know that every form of mental activity — every emotion, every thought, every percept — gives off electrical, magnetic, or metabolic signals that can be recorded with increasing precision by positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, magnetoencephalography, and other techniques. We know that if you look at the brain under a microscope, it has a breathtaking degree of complexity — on the order of a trillion synapses — that's fully commensurate with the breathtaking complexity of human thought and experience. We know that when the brain dies, the person goes out of existence."

Physics and death[edit]

In his book The Big Picture, physicist Sean Carroll asserts that through physics we can demonstrate that death is equivalent to eternal oblivion. He writes;[9]

"There is a much more profound implication of accepting the Core Theory as underlying the world of our everyday experience. Namely: there is no life after death. We each have a finite time as living creatures, and when it's over, it's over. The reasoning behind such a sweeping claim is even more straightforward than the argument against telekinesis or astrology. If the particles and forces of the Core Theory are what constitute each living being, without any immaterial soul, then the information that makes up "you" is contained in the arrangement of atoms that makes up your body, including your brain. There is no place for that information to go, or any way for it to be preserved, outside your body. There are no particles or fields that could store it and take it away."

In philosophy[edit]

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 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 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. Indeed, Socrates says, 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 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;[10][11]

"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."

Paraphrasing philosopher Paul Edwards, Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman note 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]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Clark, Thomas W. "Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity". Center for Naturalism. 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 9781560254072.
  3. ^ Heath, Pamela; Klimo, Jon (2010). Handbook to the Afterlife. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. p. 18. ISBN 9781556438691. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  4. ^ Hallquist, Chris (20 January 2013). "Neuroscience and the Soul". The Uncredible HallQ. Retrieved 14 February 2015. Quoting neuroscientist Sam Harris (video).
  5. ^ "oblivion - Origin and meaning of oblivion by Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  6. ^ "death". Archived from the original on 2014-02-08.
  7. ^ 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. Retrieved 14 February 2015.
  8. ^ Brockman, John (4 July 1999). "Is science killing the soul?". Edge. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  9. ^ Carroll, Sean M. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Penguin. p. 218. ISBN 9780698409767.
  10. ^ Cook, Vincent. "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus". Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  11. ^ "Epicurus and Lucretius against the dear of death". Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  12. ^, Augustine & Fishman, 2015, p. 206.

Further reading[edit]