No One Has Ever Died

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Image by Toby Roberts



Tom Stoneham


Paradoxes are arguments designed to provoke rather than persuade and philosophers who propose them rarely accept their conclusions. So here is a brand new paradox of my own invention for you to think about.

(1) Dying, i.e. the transition from being alive to being dead, is a discontinuous change.

While it is often hard to identify the precise moment in time at which someone dies, and perhaps dying itself takes a period of time, it seems to be an a priori truth that we cannot represent dying in terms of the continuous change of some variable. To see this, suppose we could and call the variable ‘liveliness’. Then dying would be a continuous decrease in liveliness until its value was so low the person was dead. What would be that value? Surely it must be zero: whatever the property is which makes for being alive, being dead consists in a total lack of it. You can perhaps be more or less alive, but however little alive you are, you are not dead at all. So dying is a discontinuous change, from possessing some liveliness to possessing none at all.

(2) There are no discontinuous changes in nature.

It seems to be the case that all natural changes, that is, all changes studied by the natural sciences, consist in continuous change of some variable such as mass, energy or velocity. Let’s accept that for now.

These two premises entail the paradoxical conclusion:

(3) No one has ever died.

Now the simplest way out would be to deny premise (2), but that is not so easy. Not because (2) is undeniable, but because it is contingent and a matter of empirical discovery. Perhaps quantizing effects in current physics show that (2) is false, but the problem (2) presents is that it makes the question of whether anyone has ever died or not depend upon fine details of theoretical physics, and that just seems plain wrong.

Furthermore, death plays a rather major role in several widespread religions and it would be surprising – and a little uncomfortable – to discover that the coherence of those religions depends upon whether light quantizes or not.

Another way of seeing the paradox is to combine (1) and the denial of (3): this seems to prove something about physics which we should not be able to prove from an a priori claim like (1). So perhaps we should deny that (1) is a priori? Unfortunately, that is not plausible, because our reasons for thinking (1) is true look like they are conceptual: anyone who properly grasps the concept of dying will think that it is a discontinuous change.

So the paradox is genuine. That does not mean there are not solutions to it, but we need to do some philosophy to find them.

Tom Stoneham is Head of Philosophy at the University of York.


  1. Robert King · ·

    But there are discontinuous changes in nature…

    Phase transitions, liquid to gas for example. This isn’t a facet of modern physics but an every day occurrence of natural science.

    Therefore I think your argument fails as the second premise is false.

    You suggest that a counter argument such as mine makes the question of whether or not anyone has ever died contingent on physics, but since you’ve made physics a premise of your argument this is trivially true.

  2. Hello Robert,

    Thanks for your interesting comments. I am always ready to stand corrected on factual matters and phase transitions seem a good example to consider. As far as I understand the physics, the discontinuous change in a phase transition is the breaking or making of symmetries. If so, that raises some interesting questions, since symmetries are relational properties.

    However, you are right that my main point did not depend upon getting the physics right, but on the relation between the physics and the conclusions we can draw. And I am afraid I do not see what you are getting at with your last point about triviality. Suppose we initially think that some claim Q is false whether or not some other claim P is true. If we then discover a valid inference from P to Q, we have discovered that Q is false only if P is false, contrary to what we first thought. It is not using a physical premise which gets the surprising result, but using a physical premise *in a valid inference*, and that is not trivial but quite surprising.

  3. It does seem, after consideration, that there are clear cases of discontinuous change in nature that aren’t dependent on knowing a lot of physics. For instance, if an apple drops to the floor, the change from motion to rest (in relation to the floor) is a form of discontinuous change. Furthermore, if you eat the apple, the process of eating the apple is a form of discontinuous change, as the process definitively ends once the whole apple has been eaten.

    Whilst this argument is interesting, I think that this is only so because people don’t tend to think about discontinuous change. However, once the argument is given, it only takes a few moments to come up with clear cases of discontinuous change.

    This argument reminds me of another argument I once heard:

    1) If we cannot conceive of something, then it probably does not occur.
    Can you think of something inconceivable, that nonetheless occurs?

    2) We cannot conceive of the end of our existence.

    3) Therefore, the end of our existence does not occur.

    4) Therefore, death is not the end of our existence.

    Once you think about it, clear cases against (1) can be raised.

  4. You’re dropping context. You’re attempting to apply the nature of subatomic particles to the nature of abstract concepts such as life/death. The particles making up a person certainly never cease to exist, but the person’s life can certainly go out of existence. Fallacy of composition.

    Replace “life” with “having apples in my hand”, and “dying” with “removing apples from my hand”, and suddenly your story is rather dull.

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