REEVALUATION OF IMMORTALITY – PART I – BIOLOGICAL

“Eternity, thou pleasing dreadful thought!” – Joseph Addison, Cato (Act V, Scene 1)

 

 

Our analysis of immortality so far has not been encouraging. Multicellular biological life forms are inherently mortal. Proof of a soul is lacking and the nature of human ontology as a mix of real and subjective existence indicate we are contingent rather than necessary, thus impermanent. The four classical forms of immortality are implausible or unsatisfactory.

Before we despair, perhaps we should reconsider our desire for immortality. Where does this desire come from? Biologically humans, like all living things, are genetically programmed for self-preservation, but unlike other living things we perceive our own deaths as abhorrent. In fact we appear to be peculiar as a life form in our egotistical desire not just for survival, but perpetual life. Perhaps this is due the immense power of our individual consciousness which cannot imagine itself coming to an end. And yet other creatures have consciousness that we readily assume will pass. Every night we go to sleep during which loss of consciousness is entirely acceptable, even pleasant. Has our consciousness played a trick on us making us fear its nonexistence? Did this trait evolve in humans as a mere counter to our unique ability to end our own lives?

The crux of the conscious desire for immortality is that life is good, so a longer life must be better, and unending life would be best. But we saw in our sections on ethics and good and evil, that in some instances, goodness may involve a limitation or moderation. It is time to look deeper and imagine what human immortality would look like.

Starting with biologic immortality – we have three levels to examine. If all life had been immortal, the planet would have been covered before the human species evolved, and the whole discussion would be moot. Mortality it seems is  essential to evolution.

If immortality had developed only in homo sapiens, the world would have been long overpopulated – about 108 billion humans have lived in the last 150,000 years compared to the 7 billion living now. Fertility would have long fallen off and the current generation of humans including ourselves would have never been born.

If immortality were singular – just for oneself, but not other humans – aging and incidental injuries would still in theory lead to progressive enfeeblement. If individual immortality entailed the cessation of aging and physical indestructibility, there would still be issues of loss of loved ones, obsolescence, alienation from later generations, problems with romantic relationships (such as the aging of one’s spouse and the disparate significance commitment means for a mortal versus an immortal), and even questions of identity as the memories of distant times fade and the later version of self seems increasingly distinct from the earlier.

Even if the above concerns seem acceptable, true immortality would end at the end of the Sun’s life or should interstellar travel be possible, at the end of a habitable universe.  Biological immortality does not appear to be feasible or particularly attractive. Perhaps spiritual immortality will fare better as we will discuss next time.

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TRADITIONAL CONCEPTS OF IMMORTALITY – PART IV – IMPERSONAL CONTINUANCE

“At death the soul survives the body, but only as an impersonal energy. At the final conflagration the soul will be reabsorbed, like Atman into Brahman, into that ocean of energy which is God.” – Will Durant, on Stoic philosophy.1

In the last three parts, we examined three classical concepts of immortality: reincarnation, resurrection, and spiritual afterlife. Each allows for at least some component of individual identity after death and the latter two preserve memory and personality. Each attempts to justify the inequities among people and offer punishments or rewards for ethical behavior in this life. But they all have significant difficulties including unsubstantiated complexity. The last and least complicated classical conception of immortality was developed apparently separately by the Upanishads and the Stoics.

Both of these philosophies identify a universal spirit; in the East, Brahman, and in the West, the Logos, later referred to as Providence. The universe is seen as a gigantic organism with God as its soul. The human ‘soul’ is seen as an impersonal force or energy, essentially a finite version of the Universal soul as if a broken off piece destined to reunite with it. This description of existence after death has an elegant and simplistic beauty about it which makes it surprisingly credible. However it still depends on the undemonstrated human and greater souls. In addition it lacks the satisfaction of individual continuation as a particular person, and fails to address moral retribution or inequalities and evils suffered by people in this life.

Later philosophers have modified versions of this form of impersonal immortality. For example, Hegel identifies an immortal Universal Spirit with its successive phases imbedded in man. We then are the incremental steps of development of the Universal Spirit which is completed in us. Our participation in the eternally present is encompassed and remembered in the Universal Spirit’s continuous being. Spinoza conceives of a kind of immortality man achieves through participation in the eternity of Nature. He also asserts that because of its sensibility of the eternal, the “human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body but something of it remains eternal.”2

Whichever form impersonal immortality takes, this conception seems to me the most probable of the four traditional beliefs and can serve metaphorically, at least, as a substitute for the other three. We may want to return to it in our final synthesis, but first we must look behind the curtain at the disadvantages of personal immortality and the advantages of death.

 

1Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 654.

2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 793.

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TRADITIONAL CONCEPTS OF IMMORTALIY – PART III – SPIRITUAL AFTERLIFE (continued)

Some religious thinkers such as Paul Tillich reconceive immortality of the soul, not as a continuation of temporal life after death, but understood in a non-dualistic way. Following Aristotle’s ontology of form and matter, the soul is the form of the life process and includes all elements which constitute that process as essences. Tillich’s understanding of immortality of the soul then involves the power of essentialization (his word). Immortality is symbolic not literal, wherein man’s finitude is taken into God’s infinitude as ‘Eternal Life.’ He concludes that bodily resurrection entails a symbolic reference to the ‘Spiritual Body’ while affirming the individual person’s uniqueness.3

Spiritual afterlife is the most satisfying and intuitive concept of immortality for most of us. However as the soul cannot be demonstrated convincingly and there is no empirical evidence for persistence of human agency, it seems to be based more on hope than reason. Plato’s arguments for the soul  seem unpersuasive. This model depends on an untenable complexity – multiple individual spiritual agents including God (or gods) and humans, the unexplained connectivity of souls and physical bodies during mortal life, and an eternal realm unconnected with the known universe. It also suffers from the metaphysical concern of identity of a disembodied soul and an earthly person.

Antiquity offered one additional mode of immortality which lacks this complexity while remaining palatable to us and is the subject of the next blog.

1Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 791.

2Harvey, Sir Paul, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford University Press, London, 1969 page 193.

3Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8.Volume 3, Pages 409-414.

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TRADITIONAL CONCEPTS OF IMMORTALITY – PART III – SPIRITUAL AFTERLIFE

“When mind is set free from its present conditions, it appears as just what it is and nothing more; this alone is immortal and eternal.” Aristotle.1

In the last post we looked at the concept of immortality as resurrection of a particular body with its particular soul and noted the significant scientific and metaphysical objections to it. Somewhat less problematic is the third traditional connotation of immortality from antiquity, spiritual afterlife, which probably was the most common belief of ancient Western polytheistic societies and philosophers. This notion offers some comfort in the face of inevitable death by proposing individual immortality of the soul including memories, personality, and identity; the possibility of compensation for the inequities of mortal life; and moral retribution in the forms of punishment and reward.

The afterlife begins immediately after death as the soul enters another world. In ancient Greece, Hades is both the god of the nether world and the name of his domain, where the dead come as ghosts with unsubstantial life. On arrival they are judged by Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus who may assign the more fortunate to Elysium and unfortunate to Tartarus for punishment.2 This basic pattern is repeated in Rome and other European cultures.

Plato habitually takes on the subject of immortality as persistence of the soul. He has several arguments for an immortal soul; for instance he considers natural abilities as a form of reminiscing, suggesting immortality precedes current life suggesting timelessness over simple duration. In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the soul as ‘self-mover’ indicates immortality compared to the mortal things which are moved by another. The soul’s indivisibility is a third argument for its permanence. Perhaps strongest is his argument that if Ideas are eternal, the mind or soul which knows them must be also be eternal.

Aristotle seems more grounded, but does ponder the possibility that the intellect as soul is capable of existence in isolation of the body (see quote above). However he never speaks of an afterlife, and seems to be referring to an absence of temporality in contemplative thinking rather than disembodied existence.

(continued next post)

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TRADITIONAL CONCEPTS OF IMMORTALITY – PART II – RESURRECTION

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” – Daniel 12:2.

Last time we discussed the concept of immortality as reincarnation as dominated  ancient India, but was embraced by some Western philosophers. Resurrection is the second idea of immortality from antiquity and likely developed in the Middle East. The earliest Egyptians used mummification to prepare the bodies of Pharaohs (and others) for revivification in the afterlife. However this belief changed over time and eventually the preserved corpse served merely to transport the soul. Later religions starting with Zoroasterianism and Judaism and followed by Christianity and Islam believed resurrection of the physical body with its original soul was the nature of everlasting life. This principle makes great theological sense; if a perfect God created man as both body and soul, that combination is integral to man’s identity. The combination must be reconstituted in eternal form for that identity be maintained.

Resurrection is typically thought to be delayed, rather at death, the body begins to decompose while the soul enters a spiritual state either in heaven, hell, or in some faiths, purgatory. The resurrection of the merged body and soul is thought to occur on Judgment day at which time the body is considered glorified for everlasting life in God’s Kingdom. This miraculous reconstitution of the dissipated fragments is  of course feasible for an omnipotent deity.

The physical and scientific difficulties involved in the restitution of the original human body make this doctrine problematic. But there are also two metaphysical concerns. The first reiterates the prior arguments against the existence of the soul and an all-powerful deity. The second questions whether the reconstruction of a body from its prior parts allows identity. A common analogy is a tower of blocks constructed by a child that is knocked over by a parent and then put back together by the parent using the same blocks in the same order – is it is in fact the same tower the child created? Most of us would say it is not, and hence exact reconstruction is not metaphysical identity. Moreover if the reconstituted person is eternal after Judgment day but mortal in original form, it seems inconsistent to consider the two as identical.

It fact belief in resurrection depends on faith rather than reason and is thus philosophically untenable. However immortality of an incorporeal soul may be  more defensible as we will discuss in the next blog.

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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.   Reevaluation of immortality

5.   Reassessment of death

6.   Time

7.   Alternative conceptions of immortality

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. 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 alternative views of immortality and 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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