TRADITIONAL CONCEPTS OF IMMORTALITY – PART I – REINCARNATION

“Indeed, for one who is born death is certain, and for one who has died birth is certain. Therefore, since this process is inevitable, you ought not to grieve.” – Bhagavad Gita 2:26.1

 

Our initial forays into the subject of immortality have led to powerful if not convincing arguments that immortality defined as eternal life or eternal existence fails careful scrutiny. Now I would like to take a step back and look at historical concepts of immortality and subject them to philosophical examination. Those concepts include:

1.    Reincarnation

2.   Bodily resurrection

3.   Spiritual afterlife

4.   Absorption into a greater entity.

Reincarnation (also known as rebirth, metempsychosis, and palingenesis) is the theory that after death, one is reborn in the body of a different person, animal, or even plant. It is one of man’s earliest hopes (or fears) of existence after death. It is a basic tenet of Hinduism dating back thousands of years before the modern era. It also appears in ancient Western philosophy – particularly with Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, and Plotinus – and found adherents among some gnostics and Christian Cathari, within Jewish Cabalism, and by two later philosophers: Arthur Schopenauer and J.M.E. Taggart.2

Reincarnation solves three basic enigmas of human existence– first as an explanation of what occurs after death, second as a justification of the predetermined imbalance of goods or status among different people, and third as a means of moral retribution (karma). In traditional Hinduism, cycles of reincarnation can end in moksha at which point the individual ‘soul’ is reunited with the Atman (essentially #4 above). Buddhism adopts reincarnation, but terminates the cycle of death and rebirth in oblivion, which becomes the ultimate goal of the Buddhist – to escape the cycle and achieve final death.

Empirical demonstrations of reincarnation often cited include childrens’ intuitive abilities (e.g. Mozart’s musical genius), individuals’ memories of past lives, and the common feeling of déjà vu. Metaphysically, the argument is that souls are eternal and indivisible and cannot come from two parents, making (eternal) preexistence necessary.

However, philosophically reincarnation appears implausible. It requires a soul which cannot be proven as we discussed in an earlier section. Typically it requires migration of souls to other animals and even plants which seems particularly farfetched. How the soul is first preserved and then placed again in another creature is unexplained. The soul’s ignorance of its prior life as confirmed by most peoples’ amnesia of prior lives seems counterproductive. Given the increasing number of human beings over time, it should demand new souls to be continuously created. Its success as a belief appears to be its ability to provide comfort to those faced with a fear of death and distraught at the unfairness of life.

Should reincarnation be true, it seems to me to make little difference in making choices in life as the best possible life should be one that includes the very actions that lead to better karma and escape from the cycle of life and rebirth. A reborn version of myself with none of my memories or personality hardly seems to be the same me. Unless more rigorous empirical evidence supporting reincarnation appears in the future, it seems to be reasonably discarded as unlikely and possibly irrelevant. Metaphorically however reincarnation can be recast as the passing of our learned values, prosperity, and intellectual advancement to our offspring and to future generations. The good lives we help create for our descendants seem to me to be an important aspect of a meaningful life.

1Schweig, Graham M. Bhagavad Gita, Harper One Publishers, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-199730-3, page 43.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 7, pages 122-124.

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EXISTENCE AND NONEXISTENCE

“Here is the core of the enigma. This little consciousness, this feeling of a specific me, demands that it accompany us into infinity.” – Maurice Maeterlinck, La Mort.1

 

In all likelihood you found the last blog superfluous as you do not think of immortality as eternal biologic life. The purpose of those arguments was simply to be completely methodical and precise on this subject. In fact most of us presume ‘immortality’ refers to eternal existence rather than eternal life and now we will explore the distinction.

Turning again to Webster’s dictionary, the first definition of the word ‘exist’ is “to have actual being”2. Under the entry for ‘being,’ the philosophical use of the word is “that which has actuality either materially or as an idea”3. For us then, the word ‘existence’ means having actuality either materially or as an idea.

Mortimer Adler tells us this meaning of existence has three modalities: (1) real existence which is independent of and unaffected by the human mind, (2) subjective existence which is dependent on an individual mind (e.g. one’s perceptions), and (3) intentional existence which indicates dependence on human minds in general, but not of any individual mind. Therefore planets and stars have real existence; my memories of, and perceptions while stargazing have subjective existence; and Newton’s law of gravity and the concept of a light-year have intentional existence.

He also distinguishes a related distinction; ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ – where being is immutable and timeless and becoming applies to things subject to change. The word ‘eternal’ applies only to that which is beyond time and change. He parses this further with the terms ‘necessary’ which implies imperishability and ‘contingent’ which refers to the ability to change and cease to exist.4

So where do we as humans fit into this understanding. The answer can be debated, but the most coherent position is that the human body has real existence and the immaterial portion of man – the mind, will, and self – have subjective existence. Both are mutable and contingent and thus man fails Adler’s tenets of eternal being. Philosophically we must conclude that man is also not immortal in the sense of eternal existence.

 

1 Choron, Jacques, Death and Modern Man, Collier Books, New York, 1973, page14.

2Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 678.

3 Ibid, page 189.

4 Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, pages 39-46.

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LIFE AND DEATH

“The goal of all life is death.” – Sigmund Freud.

Before we can talk of what happens after death we must understand exactly what life is, or perhaps what it means to be alive. Webster’s dictionary’s first definition of the word ‘life’ is:

“the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifest by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.”1

The German biologist and philosopher, Bernhard Rensch begins his defining of life by pointing out that the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not easy, as most distinguishing characteristics are shared by both groups. After an extended introduction, he concludes that living things have about a dozen major characteristics, one of which is temporary constancy, by which he appears to mean temporal continuity.2

On the other hand, the Webster dictionary defines ‘death’ as “the total and permanent cessation of all vital functions of an organism.”3

The philosophical implications of our definitions are self-evident.  First there are the two corollary principles: life requires continuity and death is permanent. Thus, by definition, there can be no life after death – it is logically impossible. Either the living being never died which meets the criterion of continuity or it is dead, which is irreversible.

Second, traditional conceptions of soul do not represent life as defined above, and therefore the soul cannot be the basis of eternal life. The consequence is that when most traditions speak of ‘immortality,’ they are not referring to unending life in the biological sense. It turns out there is ‘immortal’ life on planet earth, i.e. in the form of unicellular organism which multiply be asexual means, so that the original organism continues and in theory can continue to live indefinitely. However the price of multicellularity for humans is sexual reproduction and the inevitable death of the parental organism.

In addition to the epistemological proofs above, we have the experience of humanity – all human beings die, and none is later found living (we will discuss contradictions raised in the Bible in later posts). The only coherent conclusion is that human life is not eternal on either a logical or empirical basis. The concept of human immortality defined as eternal biological life can be discarded.

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1110.

2Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, pages 35-66.

3Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 513.

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DEATH AND IMMORTALITY – INTRODUCTION

“All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

And now we come to perhaps the most difficult conundrum of human existence– the inevitability of death. It seems a cruel trick of nature to permit our birth with the predetermined certainty of our death. But it is particularly disturbing that we, perhaps alone of all earthly living things, should be aware of the inevitability of that death. Our scientific side recognizes that human mortality is merely the continuation of a basic characteristic of life passed down through the chain of evolution. But our deeper self is repulsed that nature allowed us to conceive of time, especially future time, in all of its immensity, in light of our infinitesimal lifetimes.

All philosophical and religious traditions address the significance of death, but Buddhism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Christianity, and existentialism appear to amplify its role  most in their ideology. Much of what follows will investigate the solutions they offer to this human dilemma, but as in other sections, my goal is to assemble a personal approach from their teachings. That synthesis will incorporate my prior conclusions regarding reality, good and evil, God, and the soul. That is, reality refers that which can be validated phenomenologically or scientifically, but  includes an ultimate form. Good is that which is conducive to life and the universe; evil its opposite. God is strictly designated as the origin of the universe and is not asserted to be concerned directly with the fate of man. The soul is not regarded  as a substance, rather as the immaterial nature of man, especially mentality, will, and self.

I will divide our discussion into the following parts:

1.    Life and death

2.    Existence and nonexistence

3.   Traditional concepts of life after death

4.   The negative side of traditional forms of immortality

5.   Alternative conceptions of immortality

6.   Death as a good

7.   Time

8.   Dealing with mortality

9.  Synopsis – Is there an ideal approach to mortality?

We will start by distinguishing the end of life from the end of existence. Then we will consider what happens after death, first looking at traditional theories of immortality and their disadvantages, followed by alternative conceptions . Next we will consider the case for seeing death as a good rather than an evil. After a pause to reconsider time, we will examine the choices we face in dealing with our own mortality. Finally will conclude with a synopsis and attempt to integrate human mortality with a meaningful life.

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CURRENT READING – IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? (cont’d)

In the last post I summarized an essay/lecture by Jacques Barzun from 1969 on the question of whether life is worth living. Today I will add some of my thoughts on his thesis and its application to our time.

I agree that we have difficulty separating feelings which are visceral from thoughts which presumably rely on reason. With so little in philosophy being certain, feelings and opinion become inescapable default criteria in the reasoning process. Barzun’s belief that life for each of us is experienced individually  rephrases a basic tenet of existentialism which when paired with Martin Heidegger’s observation that the self (or dasein) experiences itself as being-in-the-world, reinforces Barzun’s concern of society’s impact on the quality of our lives. But if we can only find meaning and happiness as individuals, society should be structured for every individual to succeed.

What is it about life that makes us wonder if it is worth living? Perhaps the answer is found in Buddha’s first noble truth; “Life is suffering.” In return for that suffering, man expects certain benefits – specifically the hope of happiness and meaning. Personal limitations, natural ills, and death can be accepted as unavoidable, but we seem unable to forgive the evils of the very society we created. For instance manners may appear superficial, restrictive, and inconvenient, but in fact Barzun, like Confucius, knows better – manners and respect for others is essential to their contentment. Immanuel Kant expands this into his  categorical imperative: we must never treat another as a means, only as an end.

Meaningful work is tied closely to the need for individual purpose in the achievement of happiness. Here I wonder if Barzun is being completely objective; the agrarian life of our ancestors seems no more meaningful than modern livelihoods. Nonetheless it is undeniable that finding societal purpose through one’s vocation is a critical piece of a flourishing life.

With regards to democracy and capitalism, they appear to allow the highest quality of life possible so far, but the negative consequences of materialism and futile competition are a trap that stymies fulfillment. In a world where the competition for physical survival is muted, we must be reminded frequently that material competition is a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche warns us that only through the careful examination of societal values and a powerful will to find our authentic role can we emerge from mediocrity.

It seems likely that within the near future (if not already), mankind will find the limits of secularism and humanism. Paul Tillich warns us repeatedly that the true ultimate concern must be identified for any hope of meaning in our lives. Humanism while noble seems to fail the test of ultimacy.

One place where I think Barzun can be challenged is on the end of great human causes. Hegel’s error on believing his generation was at the end of history should not be duplicated in our time. Homo sapiens is far too young to have mastered its mission as a species. There remains too much suffering in our world and danger to our planet, not to mention a universe only recently opened to our potential participation. Rather I suspect our immaturity as a species has left us unable to see through the miasma we have created by the failure to get our seven billion moving parts to work together.

I doubt Barzun would advise us to follow Arthur Schopenauer’s pessimistic path and  repudiate society. Instead he may be urging us to recognize the need to treat each other as valuable and deserving of respect, to identify a meaningful calling within the larger world, to redirect democracy and capitalism to the benefit of every living person, and to find our way to an ultimate cause. Humanity has much to offer the universe – it is up to us to find the means to accelerate that purpose and make life worth living.

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CURRENT READING – Is Life Worth Living ?

“That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions, and were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.” George Santayana

The Spring 2019 issue of American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, includes a half-century old essay by a 20th century historian, Jacques Barzun, with an introduction by his grandsons. It is the transcription of a lecture he gave at the University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine entitled “Man and Life” but which he called “Present Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life (1969).”

Barzun was a chronicler of the West’s decline and had been deeply affected by the horrors of the first World War that left him with a “permanent muting of the spirit.”  He matured into a humanist who insisted upon the inseparability of feelings from thought. He was deeply concerned with the individual’s interior life or ‘sense of self’ which he considered the primary determinant of one’s quality of life, and yet emphasized the role culture makes in the shape, form, and quality of our lives.

The dilemma of the 1960s according to Barzun (and perhaps our time as well) is that life seems to lack the right quality due to societal structure. Occupation becomes a rationalization rather than a reason for our desire to live. His critique of modern society describes six main problems:

1.   Social contacts are increasingly impersonal leading to alienation. Each of us begins to feel like a mere unit, manipulated by societal institutions, in a world without the manners that in earlier times served as a means of protection of the self.

2.  Work that leads to visible accomplishment has disappeared, and this is mirrored by the appearance of the failure of institutions and the state to ever solve problems. 

3.  Democratic competition and envy manifests as the repeated need to justify one’s existence, resulting in excessive self-consciousness that distorts reality as we become “spectators in our own life.”

4.  Secularism and equality limit life goals which leads to discounting of heroism and greatness, and dismissal of spiritual or religious life. 

5.  The historical success of the great human movements for democracy and equality left us without major societal causes within which individuals can find meaning. 

6.  Because most modern change is superficial rather than fundamental, there is only an illusion of change. He offers as evidence the thoughts of John Rushkin who predicted our misery of self-contempt and Thomas Carlyle who foretold the paralysis of social action.

Barzun worries that modern thinkers believe the solution to these problems can be engineered – genetically, psychologically, or politico-economically, but he disagrees pointing out that problems of human affairs rarely have such solutions. Many individuals instead default to neoprimitivism or drug-induced withdrawal.

He concludes that as a historian, his task is not to predict the future, but whatever it may be “What is certain is that the desire not for life alone, nor for brutish life, but for a special quality in life will not cease, even for the last shivering inhabitant of a devastated planet. That desire is planted deep, and it seeks its fulfillment, which is what makes humanity other than animal.”

(continued next post)

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SOUL – A SYNTHESIS – PART III – RECONSTRUCTION OF SOUL

“We are not our mind, we are not our body; our true identity is found in deep meditation joined with the universe.” – Eknath Easwaran.

 

 

Our last step is to reconcile the five human immaterial features – mind, will, personality, identity, and self – with the key characteristics of soul presented in the major traditions. These include:

    1.  Personhood

   2.   Indivisibility

   3.   Immutability

   4.   Platonic Ideas

5.   Subsistence

   6.   Timelessness

   7.   Connectivity to Universal Soul or Spirit

Most obviously, personality and identity seem to constitute the personhood of one of the Buddhist soul concepts, perhaps the least arguable element of man considered as soul. None of our five immaterial human features is divisible, so this part of soul theory is logically consistent as well. The identity and self are immutable and the contents of mind are the near instantiation of the Platonic Ideas. Subsistence is contained by will – Schopenauer’s thing-in-itself –  which I previously noted seems to be a visceral, unthinking self-preservation or self-affirmation.

Timelessness is a quality of the mind, that is its contents, rather than its origin in the brain. Newton’s description of the laws of physics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata do not exist in time; they are beyond time, and the thoughts they had, and similarly the thoughts we have, are not subject to the law of entropy and hence the direction of time. The will to exist, to grow, to love are not bound by time even if our biologic structure must cease to exist eventually.

Moreover the self in some circumstances can escape time, albeit briefly in terms of physical time. Hence the advice of the Tao Te Ching, “stay at the center of the circle (the Tao) and let all things take their course,” because “if you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart you will endure forever.” Plotinus similarly notes “immortality is not survival of the personality; it is the absorption of the soul in deathless things.” The metaphor of the immortality of the soul is encompassed in a spiritual experience of connection to the timeless, immaterial quality of the cosmos – the logos – which the great thinkers called the universal soul or spirit.

Our reconstituted concept of soul then is not a substance, but the immaterial depth and spiritual capacity of man. It does not require God, religion, immortality, or the supernatural. It is the seemingly universal ability of man to reflect deeply on himself and the universe, especially universal law. It involves science, art, morality, openness, freedom, hope, brotherhood, and love. It is not the concrete in our world, but the abstract, the ephemeral. All men and all women have access to it, and it ties all of us together beyond a particular body, space, or time.

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SOUL – A SYNTHESIS – PART II – HUMAN IMMATERIALITY

“My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it.” – Thomas Alva Edison.

 

Our next step is to compile a table of the human features indicative of soul scrutinized against the criteria for materiality listed in our last post (See Table 4 in Appendix). Of the eight intangible human features, only life fits all of the criteria of materiality, and thus should be rejected in a reformulation of soul. Perhaps it Is conflated with the presumed dynamic nature of the soul which may be contained in other features such as will.

Consciousness also meets several of the criteria of materiality, and is of course common among nonhuman animals. Man’s apparently unique capacity for self-consciousness seems to me an insufficient argument for immateriality, but if human consciousness of self can be united with a cosmic consciousness, that might signify an immaterial nature.

Being cuts across both material and immaterial reality so seems to be a neutral consideration, but it appears logically inconsistent to discard the characteristic of actual existence. For now it may be best to bracket being in our reconstruction.

The remaining five features – mind, will, personality, identity, and self – fail to meet even half of the criteria for materiality and thus deserve positing in our final reconstruction. They seem to be real, but cannot be directly perceived (by others); rather they are indirectly revealed by behavior of the physical body. They certainly do not occupy space and are indivisible. The main criterion of physicality they satisfy is particularity which seems a reasonably exception since it is essential to the logic of any discussion in which human immateriality is conceived as individual rather than shared.

In short, it seems that the soul can be reconstructed as the composite of these five immaterial features of man. They defy current scientific penetration, though that may change in the future. Based on this discussion and our scale in Table 4, the core of human immateriality are will and self with personality, identity and mind layered over them.

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SOUL – A SYNTHESIS – PART I – IMMATERIALITY

“What is finally the most revolutionary and fruitful aspect of our present age is the relationship it has brought to light between Matter and Spirit: spirit being no longer independent of matter, or in opposition to it, but laboriously emerging from it under the attraction of God by way of synthesis and centration. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man.

For those of us who find the arguments and warrants for belief in a soul unconvincing, we now reach the point of reconstruction. We have investigated the components of human existence which soul is presumed to explain and must now reconfigure them. Since the origin of soul belief is recognition that man in particular and reality in general seem to have two manifestations – physical and immaterial – we shall differentiate them first.

Physical reality is made up of matter which science tells us is subatomic particles (possibly themselves representing multidimensional strings of energy), that are compounded in steps into atoms, molecules, complex chemicals, visible matter, planetary and stellar bodies, and galaxies. It also includes intangible elements such as light, fire, electricity, magnetic fields, and gravity, which are not immaterial per se. Finally physical reality includes life, an emergent property of some complex organic matter..

Immaterial reality includes, mathematics, natural laws, ideas, thoughts, imagination, and possibly God. How real is the immaterial? Well, no perfect circle exists in nature, but the mathematics and concept of a perfect circle seem undeniable. We trust the laws of relativity are correct, but while the universe demonstrates its validity, the laws themselves are not a material substance. Neither ink on a piece of paper nor the sound waves of the voice of a reader are a poem, yet the poem seems real. We know the science of how an object appears red, but the mental qualia of redness cannot be seen on examining the brain.

There appear to be five general criteria to distinguish the physical from the immaterial:

  1. Spatiotemporality – existence in space (extension in classical philosophy) and time.
  2. Perceptibility – detectible by human senses with or without tools
  3. Mutability – ability to change (especially to be divided)
  4. Interactivity – participation in a causal chain within the material universe
  5. Particularity – individually unique

These are self-explanatory except the last. All physical substances are unique; no two material beings are the same – no two trees, birds, cows, or people. In the case of atoms with identical structure, numerical identity is still assured – two hydrogen atoms are in fact two different entities with the same make up (except for deuterium of course). Immaterial reality involves universals – the circle is invariable and appears to have no existential beginning or end. ‘Horse’ is a universal; Secretariat is a particular, hence the ancient Chinese paradox: “a white horse is not a horse.”

To repeat, the immaterial aspects of man resulted in postulation of a human soul. If we reject the soul, we are left with the original enigma of our immateriality. The monist solves this by rejecting the immaterial aspect of the person and disregarding any philosophical significance of the illusion of immateriality. The following posts will attempt an alternative understanding.

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