TIME – PART I – REPHRASING THE QUEST FOR IMMORTALITY

 “I am not eternity, but a human being – a part of the whole, as an hour is part of the day. I must come like the hour, and like the hour I must pass.” – Epictetus

 

 

In the last four posts, we uncovered the dual paradoxes of the desire for immortality despite its negatives and the fear of death despite its positives. We can abstract from this inextricable conflict its basic truth – the fundamental premise behind the words mortality and immortality is subjective considerations about time. It may be that our quest is actually a wish to alter time’s supremacy over us. The three most likely scenarios here are: (1) a preference for a longer but still finite lifespan, (2) the wish to slow or stop the passage of time, or (3) the hope for time transcendence or existence outside of time. We will take these individually.

In the first case, the desire for immortality is symbolic of the longing for a longer life span in which to accomplish all of one’s desires and experience all of the desired experiences. In that alternative world, one would remain healthy and die only when one has done all one wishes to do or when one is weary of life. Immortality is recast as optimal life expectancy. It turns out that for some of us the average life expectancy in 21st century developed countries may already meet this condition, but most of us would seek a longer life span, though not necessarily eternal life. For now our only options are taking good care of our bodies, avoiding injury, and managing disease preferably through prevention. Technical advances may lead to a sustainable corporeal existence in the future or perhaps continued consciousness in a nonorganic structure although this risks metaphysical identity.

The second case would simply allow the slowing or cessation of the movement of time. This appears impossible although near light-speed travel would make time move slower relative to others, it would not change one’s sense of one’s own life span. In any case slowing or stopping time is clearly not desirable on deeper reflection. While this alternative might have some practical advantages in normal life, in reality, if time were to stop or slow, growth and progress would be attenuated or halted – a state hauntingly similar to death itself. Stagnation and inactivity is an unacceptable price to pay for only apparent immortality.

Last is the desire to exist outside of time altogether. We are familiar with timeless existence – geometric and mathematical figures, concepts like justice and love, creative works such as music, poetry, and fiction. These “immortal” things are not subject to the negatives of immortality. However it is difficult to see how living matter can be recast as timeless in the same fashion, and timeless existence is inactive and only the tool of contingent entities inside time.

Perhaps there is a different transcendental understanding of immortality within time itself, but to find that we will need to analyze the metaphysics of time which is the subject of our next blog.

ADVANTAGES OF DEATH – PART II – HUMANITY AND NATURE

“A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

 

In the last post we identified five advantages of a limited life span from the standpoint of the individual. Now we take up the advantages mortality serves for humanity, nature, and the universe. There are at least three to consider.

The first is the recycling of the matter of which we are composed. It is a basic tenet of the ecological cycle that living matter returns to more elemental forms to be reused for nature’s purposes. While humanity is only a small portion of all matter, our corporeal selves are inextricable participants in this cycle. Lao Tze states this beautifully:

“All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfil their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfilment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.”1

The second is human vitality, which would likely diminish if we were immortal (consider the Elves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). Humanity’s brief life ensures it fertility. Each human life includes a proportionately large stage of productivity with the greatest typically in youth – consider examples of Bill Gates starting Microsoft at age 20, Isaac Newton inventing calculus at age 23, Albert Einstein discovering relativity at age 26, Mozart composing Don Giovanni at age 31, Dmitri Mendeleev creating the periodic table at age 35

Ernest Becker observes in Death and Human Meaning  that nature seems to gain most by men and women who use themselves up. In contrast our later years typically are less productive and offer limited value to our species and the universe. In the natural state, evolution supported short human lifespans with only a small fraction living to advanced age as sources of guidance, wisdom, and memory for the tribe. It is essential for cultural and technological development that youthful, engaged individuals appear regularly.

Last and most important is the role mortality plays in evolution which depends entirely on procreation and numerous generations. It is unlikely that homo sapiens is nature’s ultimate life form. Human immortality would make further evolution of our line impossible. There is something gratifying in realizing that our existence, procreation, and disappearance make up some of the innumerable steps in our evolutionary line.

In closing, our mortality appears to be best for nature, humanity, and ourselves while biologic immortality would be beset with problems and impede the natural course of the universe. Nonetheless it is undeniable that life feels too short, permanent cessation of consciousness feels tragic, and our will to survive is not diminished by any rational process. Perhaps we should seek a different significance of our distaste of mortality and desire for immortality. We will consider those alternatives in our next post.

1Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954. ISBN 0-671-54800-X,  Page 656-656.

ADVANTAGES OF MORTALITY – PART I – PERSONAL

“But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world, wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar [the One], which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.” – J.R.R. Tolkien1

In the last two posts, we explored the defects of immortality; now I would like to invert the question and look at the positive side of mortality. At the individual level, there are five advantages to biological mortality. First is the cessation of bodily degeneration and suffering. If aging continued indefinitely – all of us would end up increasingly frail, physically limited, perhaps even demented. Painful conditions would be unending. Death then is release from aging, frailty, mental degeneration, and pain. Seen in this light, it seems more an act of mercy than one of deprivation.

Second, death serves as a focal point for life itself. If we lived forever, there would be no urgency to do anything, and nothing would likely ever get done; or once major accomplishments were complete, life would become aimless. Martin Heidegger in his book Being and Time refers to the experience of ‘Being-towards-an end’ or ‘Being-towards-death’ as leading to authenticity:

“Being-towards-death is the anticipation of a potentiality-for-Being…Anticipation turns out to be the possibility to understand one’s ownmost and uttermost potentiality-for-Being – that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence.2

Third, if there is no spiritual immortality, one is spared the angst of trying to divine the criteria for reward in the afterlife, and is thus free to act based on one’s own assessment of the nature of reality and ethics. Jean-Paul Sartre discussing existentialism sees mortal man as totally free and concludes:

“…there is no doctrine more optimistic, since man’s destiny is within himself…the only hope is in his acting and that action is the only thing that enables a man to live.”3

Fourth is limitation on duties. In theory, if one were immortal, one might be considered responsible to master all fields of human endeavor and solve all the problems of mankind since one would have an infinite time to accomplish this. However limited longevity relieves us of such open-ended obligations and expectations. Rather we are permitted the choice of what our interest and ability lead us to accomplish during a finite lifetime. Guilt of omission cannot be avoided wherever there is free will, but at least that guilt is limited by our existential finitude.

Last, mortality offers an exit to the unwelcome changes in the world around us. Human nature seems to prefer stability and routine over constant change and unpredictability. Mortality assures us we live in a specific time subjected to only the upheavals of a few generations. Our obsolescence is limited by our life spans. For myself, where once I wished to see far into the future, as I age, it seems more and more that I fear seeing too much of it. Mortality assures me a specific historicity which is integral to my existence.

Mortality then offers many benefits to our individual life and can be reasonably reclassified as a good. Next we will look at the value death has for nature and the universe.

1Tolkien, J.R.R., The Simarillion, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1999. ISBN 0-618-12698-8, page 42

2Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4, page 307 (263).

3Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism and Human Emotions, Philosophical Library, Inc., 1957. Pages 39-40.

REEVALUATION OF IMMORTALITY – PART II – SPIRITUAL AFTERLIFE

“Without the belief in the existence of the soul and its immortality human existence is ‘unnatural’ and unbearable.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky.

In the last post, we scrutinized biological immortality and found it unworkable for nature and wanting for us. Now we will analyze the desirability of spiritual immortality. There are two considerations in our analysis: consequences for this life and concerns regarding the afterlife.

The immediate consequence for our life on earth would be that this life is infinitesimal by comparison to the afterlife. Therefore it would be critical to know how to behave in this life to assure the best afterlife, but that pathway is unknowable. Decision-making would become impossible and paralysis might be the result. Even if one knew the best course, it would limit choices in this life, require servitude over self-actualization, and be a source of immense anxiety as perfect compliance would be unlikely or impossible. One would have lifelong fear of punishment in the afterlife and the reality of eternal torment if one chose wrong. Immortality in Hell seems much worse than mortality and oblivion.

You might counter with the consideration of eternal reward in Heaven for those who succeed, or even that the afterlife will be bliss for all, not a ground for equalizing goods and moral retribution. The question then becomes what is eternal reward? Nothing initially pleasurable is likely to be pleasurable forever. If God can make pleasure somehow last forever, what meaning is there in a robotic or drug-like ecstasy? Spirits are incapable of activity or creation, nor is there anything to gain from such efforts. If there is a Heaven, there is a God and he already has all knowledge and can do anything, so there seems no point in trying to learn, discover, or make anything. And meeting the greatest humans in history would not be exciting once we are aware of the insignificance of mortal life compared to eternity. In fact, between the inactivity of spiritual existence and the monotony of eternal paradise, the likely outcome would be intolerable boredom and ennui. Moreover if eternal bliss truly exists and is assured at death, what point can biologic life have? – logically we should end it as soon as possible.

Reincarnation also offers little consolation: unending rebirths without memory of past lives, enduring consequences of the errors of one’s unremembered self, repetition of the phases of human life without the benefit of experience, and being reborn as an animal or plant with their unfortunate life and death cycle lead invariably to Buddha’s first noble truth – life is suffering. And it is no surprise that in Eastern traditions, nirvana entails the end of reincarnation with either impersonal existence or oblivion.

In conclusion, the presumed or hoped for benefits of spiritual immortality are an illusion. Paired with the unworkable and undesirable features of biologic immortality, our analysis reveals the longing for immortality is an intellectual deception. Perhaps mortality is preferable as we will discuss in our next session.

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.

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 plausible 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.

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.

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)

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 which 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 the tower 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.

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.