I am reading Stephen Cave's book Immortality, and one of the claims he makes early on is that there is a "mortality paradox." This is the phenomenon that humans know that they will die (based on induction), but that "the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable." I am interested in the second part of this paradox, that humans cannot conceive of death.

His evidence for this is:

  • Introspection: "Try it: you might get as far as an image of your own funeral, or perhaps a dark and empty void, but you are still there—the observer, the envisioning eye."
  • Quoting Freud, who said: "It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators."
  • Appeal to some recent psychology: "Research by the psychologist Jesse Bering has shown that even young children who have not yet been socialized into any particular religion or worldview believe that the mind survives bodily death. He and his colleagues argue that this is because the alternative—that the mind is extinguished—cannot be grasped. He concludes that we have “an innate sense of immortality” that stems from this cognitive quirk—that is, the seeming impossibility of our annihilation is hardwired into our brains."

My question is: Is the idea that death is inconceivable a consensus stance in cognitive psychology?

Surely it depends on how one defines a "conception", but it seems to me like it ought to be possible, at least for some subset of the population.

  • $\begingroup$ Could you include a reference to the study mentioned in point 3? (As in, does Cave include a proper reference at the back of the book or the footnote?) $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2012 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev He cites Jesse Bering's book: amazon.com/The-Belief-Instinct-Psychology-Destiny/dp/0393341267. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15, 2012 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ If you take conception to mean rational understanding, the answer is trivially "yes". On the other hand, if you take conception to mean perception, the answer is trivially "no". $\endgroup$
    – user6682
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ Your question is inconsistent. If you think of death as the extinguishing of being, then there is no entity left that could conceive of being dead. You no longer are. If, on the other hand, there is an entitiy that can conceive of being dead, then existence cannot have ended with death. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's impossible to fully comprehend something that even as we're experiencing it, Is nothing, total nothingness. Because even as you're thinking about it or trying to imagine it, you're incapable of taking away your five senses. Smelling, Feeling, Hearing, Tasting, and Seeing, are all still things that you experience as you're thinking of it. Until you take away everything that makes you alive or conscious, it's impossible to fully comprehend it. $\endgroup$
    – user10362
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 4:21

4 Answers 4


Sort of, think of what it's like when you're asleep, not dreaming. Or if you've ever been knocked-out via anesthesia. No-consciousness, just a gap in time.

The question can't really be answered though because it's asking how one might perceive a lack of consciousness, consciously.

Here's an interesting study on the transition from an unconscious to conscious state via the use of anesthetics:


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    $\begingroup$ Your claim seems to be that "cannot perceive death" is equivalent to "cannot perceive unconsciousness", and that the latter can't be done until we understand consciousness better. I agree, and I think this helps clarify his point, although it also makes it weaker by generalizing it. Regardless, +1 for the interesting link. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2012 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ The latter ("cannot perceive unconsciousness") simply cannot ever be done, even through a full understanding of consciousness. One can't be conscious of unconsciousness or any unconscious process, even if familiar with them in a technical sense. Perceiving anything involves a conscious perception, or a simulated re-perception via memory. To perceive death assumes one can perceive something outside of a conscious state. I'm assuming here that death is the end of perception, and thus a lack of perception is not something that can be perceived. Think of what it was like before your birth. $\endgroup$
    – Zoasterboy
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ Nicely done, Zoasterboy. Another way of putting it and therefore underscoring the absurdity of the question might be, "What would it be like to experience nothing at all?" $\endgroup$
    – Chelonian
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 17:00

Under normal cirmumstances, death is indeed inconceivable. However, there is a rare psychiatric condition called Cotard Delusion or Cotard's syndrome where patients believe that they are dead. Strange as it may seem, there have been reports by such patients who deny the existence of parts of their bodies or claim to smell the rotting flesh of their allegedly dead bodies. Also some of these patients deny their existence completely. I think this condition, rare and extreme though it may seem, it certainly qualifies for providing the possibility of a realistically false but phenomenologically true and direct conception of death. For a review of this syndrome you can have a look at this the full text of which is available on researchgate.net.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, but considering that patients suffering from Cotard's syndrome still have some phenomenological experience makes me conceive of it as an extreme form of depersonalization/derealization subjectively interpreted as the feeling of being dead. $\endgroup$
    – user6682
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that is a view shared by many psychiatrists as it seems, while others make a similar case that the syndrome is like the Capgras delusion directed to the self. Anyway, there is a debate on whether it is a distinct disease category or only a symptom of other disorders. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 15:10

I can only think of one way to attempt to experience death. And even that last sentence isn't entirely correct, but more to the point, attempt this thought exercise:

Draw a set of three circles in a chain (not a Venn diagram, but they DO overlap) and label them Life, Thought, and Death, in that order, or reverse if you prefer. You will slowly be running your finger from one direction to the other, and attempting to achieve the state of each circle. They do not need to be huge, just large enough for you to place your finger in each one. In the first circle, Life, you can do things actively. Imagine running a marathon, or some other physical activity. In the next circle, Thought, you can do things actively and passively. Imagine perceiving a person running a marathon. In Death, you can do nothing. You can't observe, perceive, or act. Try to not think or observe. Clear everything from your mind and shut out your senses. Even though you can't realize it, if you're actually doing it, that was death.

By virtue of thinking, you remove a state of true death. You cannot observe the unobserved by observing it. You can only observe it by observing that which it isn't. Like observing a black hole. You can't see into it, you can only see the gap it leaves while continuing to exist. It exists as a 'nothing' that is still kind of a 'something'.

Or if this statement helps more, "you can't think of what it would be like to be dead because it isn't a state of experiences. When you're dead, 'nothing' happens. You'd have to think of what it would be like to experience something that defines your state that you cannot experience."

You can also ask individuals who have been resuscitated from 'dying', though I'm sure they are rare and more rare as you restrict the definition of 'dead' from 'dying'. Though I'm certain, other than religious observations, the majority of the responses you might hear would be "A big blank".

After you've left life and left thought, only 'state' of existence persists, which may be experienced bodily, but definitely not mentally.

  • $\begingroup$ Good point that you could ask people who have experienced cardiac death and then been resuscitated. Alas, Cave does not do so. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2012 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand how this answer goes beyond the reasoning employed by Cave and already quoted in the question. The only thing that is not in the question is a suggested "exercise", which I don't see as any more likely to produce results that 'imagine your own death' and the suggestion to poll people that have been clinically dead. If you included links to studies that have done either and analyzed the results, then the answer would be more than just speculation. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2012 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Artem My apologies. Unfortnately for me, I'm having a lot of trouble finding studies for or against either side of the question. I'm still an amateur at this. I was attempting to answer the question in a way involving deductive reasoning and mathemtaical concepts. Specifically combining closed systems, exclusive membership in sets in the closed system, and recognizing information having membership of a second set of data by it not being a member of the first set of information. I also made the mistake of attempting to answer the title and not the bolded question- but yes, speculation. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2012 at 19:11

We have all been in this 'state' if it can be called that. It existed before we were conceived.

However it is impossible to imagine being something we are not. I cannot imagine being a dolphin and perceiving the world through echolocation. A person blind from birth cannot imagine the colour green.

For the same reason, a living person cannot imagine being dead because a dead body is not a living person and has no imagination.

Cave's statement seems trivial to me. How can anyone believe otherwise?

  • $\begingroup$ But thinking of a time before we were conceived is inconceivable, ha ha. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 0:31

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