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 to 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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