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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