BEFORE discussing our subject, let us be sure that we know what it is. First, let us distinguish between immortality and mere survival, whether for a short or a long period. Most of those who believe in survival probably also believe in immortality, or "eternal life"; but proof of survival is not necessarily proof of immortality in this sense, since survival of earthly death might conceivably be followed by a second and final death. On the other hand, proof of survival would certainly suggest immortality; since on the face of it, if we survive one death, we might reasonably expect to survive others.
But perhaps we are being too hasty. Perhaps we are using words which have really no intelligible meaning at all. The Logical Positivists roundly assert that this is so. The statement "A mind survives the death of its body" is one which, they say, cannot conceivably be verified in sense-experience; therefore it is strictly meaningless. In their view, as we have seen, no statement can have meaning unless it can at least in principle be verified in sense-experience. This is not the place to consider this claim in its general application. For the moment let us ask merely whether it makes nonsense of personal immortality.
Let us distinguish between conceiving merely that some sort of after-life occurs and conceiving what the content of that life really is. If its content is entirely non-sensory, all that we can conceive of it is that it consists of some kind of mental process, such as thinking, desiring, fearing, and so on. And it is not inconceivable that we should find evidence here and now, of an ordinary sensory type, suggesting that a particular mind, of known history and temperament, whose body is known to be dead, is communicating with us. The fact that we cannot conceive what kind of life he is leading "over there" does not detract from the significance of the statement that he, an identifiable mind, is now communicating with us.
What the plain man wants to know is whether, when he dies, he will "wake up" to find himself embarking on a new career, either with a new and lovely body or as a "disembodied spirit" What is the essential meaning of this last phrase? To be a disembodied spirit, a man would have to find himself still being aware, aware of something or other; though presumably not aware of the familiar world, and certainly not aware of the physical body which is central to all his experience in this world.
Some champions of modern science, more zealous than intelligent, affirm that this is inconceivable, not, indeed, for purely logical reasons but because it violates the laws of contemporary science. For awareness of every kind, they say, is dependent on a physical body, and the perception of any kind of world whatever involves sense organs. The answer to this is simple and final. Even though I may not believe in the existence of disembodied spirits, I can certainly conceive what it would be like to be a disembodied spirit, at any rate in this world. For instance, I might, as a disembodied spirit, simply perceive all that I now perceive of this world except my body, except the mass of visible and touchable characters which now constitute my body. I can even conceive myself to have the power of moving objects in the physical world although had no body. There is nothing inconceivable in my causing my pen to write though I had no hand to hold it. Or rather, if this is properly to be called inconceivable, so is the familiar act of causing my hand itself to write. In neither case can I conceive why such an event should happen, but in both I can quite well conceive the happening.
To be a disembodied spirit, then, a man would have to be aware of events of some kind happening. Presumably he would also have to play some part in determining the course of events. Those who demand a life after death would not be content with a completely passive, inactive existence.
In saying that the disembodied spirit must be aware of events we have admitted that its experience must be temporal, must be of events happening "in time." Though the plain man vaguely thinks of his future life as in some sense or other "in eternity," he does not intend a timeless, static eternity, but rather an endless temporal process. He does not expect a changeless existence, but one which is as much alive with movement as his experience in this world. Indeed, a kind of experience which was not thus qualified by time which was not aware of passage, would be quite inconceivable to us, save in the most abstract manner. It may be that beings more developed than ourselves might experience "supratemporally"; but so far as we are concerned experience in its very nature involves temporal passage.
In desiring a future life a man assumes that such a life will be at least in part comprehensible to him. It will not be a completely unintelligible chaos. However different the other world from this world, he must sooner or later find his feet in it. Either it must be sufficiently like this world for him to learn his way about in it without any radical change in his own nature; or, if it is utterly different from the familiar world, he must wake up in it to find himself already equipped with the necessary knowledge and skill to cope with it.
Something else, of great importance, is implied in the idea of immortality or of survival. If a man is to live after death, the other life must be not merely a life but his life. In some sense, when he wakes he must recognise his identity with the self that lived on earth. He must therefore carry over into the new life at least some memories of the old life.
Indeed, if the life after death is to satisfy his present demands .of it, it must allow human beings to carry beyond the grave a good deal of their earthly experience. For amongst a man's chief motives for desiring immortality is the hope of meeting again in the other world human beings whom he has loved in this world.
Clearly this demand not merely for consciousness but for personal identity in the other world involves something more than the carrying over of memory from this life. Personal character also must be preserved. A man and his friends must be able to recognise one another as having essentially the same familiar, well-loved natures that they had on earth. They may of course be greatly changed, and even, in a limited sense, "perfected"; but they must not be improved beyond all recognition. Certainly they must not be so magnified spiritually as to be entirely superhuman. Their temper, their tastes, their whole mode of behaviour, must somehow remain recognisable.
This raises a difficulty. On earth we express ourselves to one another by physical means. We talk and laugh and kiss. A man who demands survival for himself and his friends may be too sophisticated to believe that people in the other world have bodies. He may have sorrowfully resigned all hope of going to bed with his dearest after death. He may perhaps be a bit of a puritan and feel, poor fool, that such behaviour would somehow be improper in heaven. He would as soon think of doing it in church. But even if he resigns all physical intercourse, he must at least be permitted some other medium of communication; otherwise survival must be a mockery. Probably he vaguely postulates some kind of direct contact of mind with mind, some intimate feeling of the other's thoughts, emotions, and desires. But thoughts and desires must have some "content" They must be about something or other. If their subject-matter is not physical it must be something else. Even if this something else is itself mental, even if the thinking is just about thoughts and desires, those thoughts and desires themselves must have some content, must be about something other than themselves; and if this content is not physical, or embodied in physical characters, it must at least be embodied in some characters other than those of mentality itself. If the disembodied spirit is to be more than repetitive memory of earthly experiences, it must have some kind of environment, physical or else non-physical and to us inconceivable.
Since I have already referred to some of the desires which determine the concept of immortality, this is perhaps a convenient place to consider the part played by desire in actual beliefs on this subject.
It is well known that desire is apt to distort our reasoning and influence our belief. The fact that a man desires immortality is itself no reason for disbelief, but it should put him specially on his guard against believing with insufficient evidence.
Probably the majority of human beings, when they think about the subject at all, do desire immortality. The prospect of annihilation is an offence to the universally strong motive of self-regard, the desire for the continuance and success of the active personality. And it is an offence to our love of other individuals.
Now clearly a man who is much influenced by these motives should be specially on his guard against a too-ready acceptance of the theory of human immortality. If he is aware of having these motives, it will be comparatively easy for him to counteract their influence. But unfortunately our believing is apt to be swayed much more by motives of which we have no clear cognisance than by those which come readily into the focus of attention. So at least we are told by our psychologists. Against these unconscious motives, it is said, reason is largely impotent. All a man can do, then, is to take note of the kind of motives which are considered to be common sources of unconscious prejudice, and to guard against these.
It is important to realise that, while many strong motives tend to produce an irrational belief in immortality, there are also motives which tend to have the opposite effect, leading to an irrational belief in the finality of death. One such motive is the fear of being irrationally swayed by the strong desire for immortality. Allied to this is the fear of being associated with sentimental, soft, or respectable ideas. This motive is quite as irrelevant to the problem as those on the other side, and a far more subtle snare, particularly for some members of the intelligentsia. For every irrational emotive influence on the one side there is an opposed irrational emotive influence on the other. For every taboo there is an opposite anti-taboo. If we should guard against being swayed by the one set of desires we should equally guard against the effect of the others.
We can now consider the main arguments for and against personal immortality. Let us begin with those that support it.
(a) The Argument from Desire — Some hold that the widespread desire for immortality is itself a valid reason for believing that we are in fact immortal. The champions of this theory point out that many of our desires presuppose the existence of their objects. Thus the desire for food would never have occurred had there not, throughout the evolutionary past, been food available for eating; and similarly the desire for companionship presupposes the existence of other persons in relation with whom the social impulses could gradually evolve. In some such manner, it is suggested, the desire for immortality presupposes the fact that we are immortal. We should never, it is said, have conceived the desire for immortality had we not been fashioned to be immortal, had not immortality been demanded to complete our mortal nature.
To such arguments the answer is simple. If we accept the theory of evolution, we must certainly admit that our desire for food is in part the product of past eatings and past food. But my desire for food does not prove the existence of food now and in the future. It proves, not that a royal banquet is being prepared for me to-morrow, but that some sort of food, probably very unpalatable to my modern taste, was available to my sub-human ancestors. In the same way, though the desire for companionship is certainly in part a product of the relations between individuals in past ages, it constitutes no proof that for all individuals ideal companions are available to-day or will be available in the future. Similarly the desire for immortality, which is but a form of the desire for life, indefinitely prolonged, is simply an expression of the opportunity which permitted our ancestors to live and breed. The analogy between the desire for immortality and the desire for food or for companionship is not exact. A closer analogy would be with the desire for a sumptuous and endless banquet or an ecstatic and eternal sexual embrace. These desires do not imply, each of them, a unique factor, calling for some special explanation. They are merely pathological developments of the cravings for food and sex.
Another argument based on desire is pragmatic. It is first admitted that in the present state of knowledge immortality is not susceptible of logical or scientific proof. But it is argued that the truth of an idea is constituted in the last analysis by its usefulness in the enterprise of living, and that the idea of immortality is extremely useful, and therefore true. Human beings are such, it is said, that they live most fully in this life if they believe in a life to come.
The pragmatic theory of truth must be considered at a later stage. Let us for the moment accept the pragmatist's contention that we ought to mean by "truth" simply the practical serviceableness of ideas, or that the truth of an idea is constituted by its being a means to successful life. Even so, it is far from certain that the belief in immortality is such a salutary idea as it is claimed to be. It is arguable that the belief in another life has on the whole distracted men's attention from this life, has tended to make them less, not more, aware of the potentialities of this life; less, not more, sensitive to the reality of their fellow human beings. In spite of moral exhortation and the belief in reward and punishment in another world, the practical effect of the hope of immortality has often been to make them regard this life as in itself worthless, as something to be got through with as little trouble as is compatible with keeping the traditional moral rules that are supposed to ensure a happy life hereafter. I do not, of course, suggest that this is invariably the effect of the belief in an after life. Sometimes, undoubtedly, faith in immortality has been beneficial.
On the whole, then, so far is the belief in immortality from being plainly a salutary belief, that many have come to regard it as positively harmful to the proper growth of the mind. Only in the phase of mental adolescence, they say, a phase which most people never outgrow, does the persistence of human individuality seem an important matter. With maturity the mind should come to realise that the kind of fulfilment implied in human nature is not personal immortality but a brief participation in the co-operative venture of the race. So far is it from being true that we are "fashioned for immortality," that the desire for immortality is merely a by-product of an imperfectly developed phase of human nature. The belief in immortality, they say, prevents the mind from emancipating itself from values which are essentially puerile. Though on the whole I agree with this opinion, I shall not here defend it. I mention it only to show that the pragmatic argument for immortality is far from convincing. A similar but contrary argument might with at least equal force be used by the opposition.
(b) The Argument from Intuition — Some insist that they know intuitively that they are immortal. A personal being, they say, has only to look intently into its own nature and experience to recognise that such a being is necessarily indestructible, and that no intellectual argument against immortality can shake the certainty of that intuition.
Their position is unassailable, but their truth is in- communicable. If they really have such an experience, if it is as precise and unmistakable as they claim, they are justified in brushing argument aside. Men with sound eyes need not concern themselves with the arguments of blind men to prove that seeing cannot occur. But it is impossible for those who see to tell those who were born blind what seeing is. Only on one condition can the vision of those who "see" their own immortality have any public significance. Let us pursue the analogy of the blind. They would be very foolish if they were to believe that seeing did not occur, for it must be clear to them that those who claim to have sight are in many ways much more capable than those who have it not. Some kind of power, then, they must seem to themselves to lack. And if those who claim intuitive knowledge of immortality show by their conduct that they must have some capacity lacking in the rest of us, we must take their claim seriously. I have already said that I can discover no good evidence that as a class the believers in immortality are more successful or virtuous or even more happy than those who lack this belief.
The analogy of the blind will help us in another way. Even though the born-blind have reason to believe that normal men have a power lacking in themselves, they would be very unwise if they were to believe every account of the world revealed by vision, or every story of a ghostly apparition. Similarly in the case of the supposed intuition of immortality, even if those who claim to have it do have some kind of experience with- held from the rest of us, it by no means follows that their intellectual interpretation of that experience is true. And since these intuitive believers in immortality are generally also ardent desirers of immortality, it is reasonable to suspect that their unverifiable interpretation of their incommunicable experience is influenced by their strong desire.
We must not, however, reject the evidence of the seeming intuition of immortality as simply worthless. It is often held with conviction by persons who are very far from puerile, who are highly developed in sensibility toward the more subtle aspects of human consciousness. Unbiased reading of the literature of mysticism suggests that the great company of the mystics cannot simply have suffered from delusions born of unconscious craving. Rather, they seem to have perceived something of overwhelming majesty and beauty which completely defeated their powers of description. Inevitably they interpreted it in terms of their traditional culture, and believed that it gave assurance of the traditionally most precious things, namely God and personal immortality. It may well be doubted whether, if they had not assumed that these were supremely desirable, the ineffable experience would have seemed to guarantee them. Indeed, many mystics, particularly in the East, refrain from claiming that their experience guarantees personal immortality. Instead they emphasise the necessity of personal annihilation by absorption in the infinite spirit. We may therefore reasonably suspect that the personalistic interpretations of some western mystics need not be taken as true in a literal sense. Perhaps the only inference from the fact of mystical experience should be that, however ephemeral the finite personality, in some sense mind or spirit is basic to the universe. But such a conviction, which is extremely vague and very far from certain, has little bearing on the plain man's desire for everlasting prolongation of his familiar personal self.
(c) Arguments from the Importance of Personality — Some find it incredible that such important things as human persons should be inconsequently and finally snuffed out by merely physical accidents such as disease, old age, or violence.
Believers in immortality often contend that human persons, in spite of all their faults, are essentially, or at any rate potentially, such good things that a universe or God that allowed them to be annihilated at death would be guilty of gross stupidity and wastefulness in the working out of the universal plan. And this they refuse to believe. On the score of injustice also, God or the universe would have to be condemned. In this life, it is said, some of us have much more pleasure than we deserve, others much more distress. Clearly another life is needed to redress the balance. A similar argument may be based on charity. If God is good, it may be said, he must act lovingly toward his creatures. He cannot be good unless the millions of frustrated and tormented persons receive comfort in eternity.
Yet another variety of the argument is based on our experienced need for personal fulfilment. Even the most fortunate of us are imperfect creatures; and all of us, it is said, strive wittingly or unwittingly for perfection, for fulfilment of our mental and spiritual capacities. In this life we never achieve perfection. Therefore we must be given another opportunity hereafter.
This form of the argument could not be fully considered without discussing the meaning of perfection in relation to personality. Such a discussion I shall later undertake. Meanwhile it is enough to note that the idea of personal development toward an ideal limit of perfection is quite intelligible. Such development may be abstractly and summarily described as growth in accuracy of awareness of the universe and the self, in appropriateness of action, and also in creativity of action, a vague phrase which I shall explain in the course of discussing Personality.
All these arguments for immortality assume that the extinction of human persons is for one reason or another incompatible with the goodness of the universe or the moral perfection of God. This is not the place to discuss the question as to whether the universe is in any sense good, or whether there is any reason to believe it to be controlled by a good God, or the more fundamental question as to the meaning of "good" Let us for the present assume that the universe is good, or that a good God controls it, and that the word "good" has a single, essential, and objective meaning. But let us consider whether these assumptions do imply human immortality.
The defenders of this theory seem to overlook two possibilities. The first is that in respect of intrinsic goodness and instrumental importance human persons may be of a very low order in comparison with other things in the universe. It may be that to condemn the universe (or God) for not allowing immortality to men would seem to superhuman beings as foolish as to condemn it for not allowing immortality to fleas. We are able to accept the mortality of fleas because we are not impressed by their intrinsic goodness and their cosmical importance, whereas we are impressed by our own. The assumption that man is of the highest order of importance seems to be based on nothing but lack of imagination. Of course mere physical immensity and subtlety do not themselves constitute intrinsic goodness in the universe. But if we claim intrinsic goodness for human persons we must recognise that the physical immensity and subtlety of the universe do suggest, and do offer scope for, beings incomparably more developed than human persons. The human race is rooted in a very minute fraction of the whole universe, and it is possible, even probable, that the rest contains modes of life which excel us in mental lucidity as man excels the amoeba. In face of this possibility it seems comically foolish to claim that if human minds are annihilated at death the universe cannot be very good, or its creator righteous.
The second possibility which the religious defenders of immortality overlook is that the nature of the human individual should after all not be such as to be capable of fulfilment by personal immortality. It seems probable that everything characteristic of a particular human individual, everything that distinguishes him from other individuals, is in some sense conditioned by his inheritance and his environment. Apart from the effects of inheritance and environment he is nothing but a completely abstract and undifferentiated psychical capacity, a capacity for knowing — feeling — striving in some manner. The actual detailed way in which he does so must depend on his body and his world. It follows that any kind of perfection or fulfilment possible to him must be fulfilment in a world essentially identical with this world. In heaven, in any conceivable heaven, he could no more find fulfilment than a cut flower in a vase can find fruition, or a fish translated into the stratosphere could find happiness.
We have raised a fundamental question about the nature of human individuality, and one which we must consider more carefully at a later stage. Is a man to be thought of more truly as a distinct and self-complete spirit or "ego" which in any environment, in any world, would remain the same identical "thing" or "substance," no matter what accretions of experience were to be added to it? Or is he more truly to be thought of as an expression of and a factor in something bigger than himself? Is his office in the cosmos some- thing like that of a musical phrase, the function of which is not to be prolonged, or even to be developed, for ever, but to fulfil a part in the music and in due season vanish? If this is the true view, then the only perfection possible to him is the perfect fulfilment of his part in the whole, in the " music " of human life. But is there any such music of human life, and if so what is its true style and tenor? Once more we raise, but must not yet discuss, fundamental questions.
If the human individual is essentially an expression of his world, the demand for personal immortality is beside the mark. Whatever the truth about him, it is surely preposterous to argue that if we have not personal immortality the universe, or its creator, stands condemned. I ask myself, " Supposing I am doomed to unfulfilment and annihilation, is the universe therefore less than perfect, or God's nature therefore blemished?" And I answer without hesitation, "Of course not." My brevity and unfulfilment may actually be a factor in a perfection that is achieved, so to speak, over my head. Then I ask myself, "If immortality is denied to those most dear to me, and some are very dear, is the universe, and is God, condemned?" Once more the answer is, "Of course not." And what if no persons are immortal and ultimately perfected? Is the universe therefore one whit less good than it might be? Of course not. It is enough that persons, with all their imperfections, should occur, that they should achieve such dim and ephemeral lucidity as they do achieve. Such wealth and glory of existence as does actually happen before our eyes is enough, and is perhaps also an earnest of glories inconceivable to man.
It may be objected that although this view may satisfy those who are happy in this life, the vast host of the grievously frustrated will reject it with scorn. If they do not receive compensation hereafter, they may well spurn the universe.
Well, I ask myself as sincerely as I can, " Do I really demand that the universe should treat human individuals with charity, or even with justice?" The answer is emphatically "No!" When my mind is in the state which I cannot but recognise as its most lucid state, I do not demand charity or justice even for my friends. I crave them, but I do not demand them as a condition of my approval of the universe. Something I do demand, but this is irrelevant to the present discussion.
The champion of immortality may reply, "You are blind. You are insensitive to the distresses of your fellow human beings, and to the necessity that love should be supreme. If the universe, or the deity that rules it, lacks charity, it is contemptible. And it is not contemptible. In my heart I know that God is good. Therefore we are immortal."
Here we seem to come on a direct conflict of intuitions, of immediate, unreasoned valuations. Each party "in his most lucid state" condemns the valuation of the other. Is there any way of deciding the issue? Not, I think, till we have discussed the whole question of intuition and reason; and not till we have enquired whether there is any means of judging the relative lucidity of minds.
Meanwhile, about the argument for immortality based on the importance of human individuals we may conclude as follows. It depends on two assumptions, namely that the universe is good, or ruled by a good God, and that such goodness necessarily involves human immortality. The first assumption we have not discussed; but even if it is in some sense true, there is at least grave doubt whether the second assumption is justified.
(d) The Epistemological Argument — Some philosophers hold that nothing, other than minds themselves, can exist save as an experience in some mind. Consciousness, they say, is the very stuff of which the universe is made. Matter is but a mode of the experience of personal minds. Matter depends on mind, they say, for its existence. It is simply a form of mind's experience. Mind, they are convinced, does not depend on matter. The destruction of the mere body does not bring destruction to the mind.
The doctrine that matter is just a form of our experience, and that to be is to be perceived, will be discussed in due course. For the present let us suppose it to be true, and let us consider its bearing on immortality.
The doctrine implies only that for the universe to continue after my physical death some mind or minds must survive. It is quite compatible with the theory that henceforth the universe consists of the perceptions of my survivors, and that successive generations of short-lived minds will keep it in being.
On one condition alone has the doctrine any bearing on my immortality, namely that I am the sole mind. According to this theory, called Solipsism, my experience is all there is. Other minds are mere figments of my mind. Solipsism, though very unplausible, seems to be strictly irrefutable. What is its relation to immortality? When, within the universe of my experience, the bodies of other persons cease to exist, their minds also cease to exist, since they no longer play any part in my experience. Indeed, they never really existed at all as centres of experience, for according to the theory I am the sole centre of experience. On the other hand, if my own body were to cease to exist, I, the sole mind, would not therefore cease; for my body (in this theory) is only a figment of my mind.
Clearly the only sort of immortality which Solipsism permits is very far from satisfying the common desire of the plain man who wants to live "hereafter."
(e) The Argument from the Unity of the Unconscious — Some believe that, though consciously we are distinct from one another, "below the threshold of consciousness" we are all one deathless mind. In this view our conscious personalities are all expressions of the common racial mind, or perhaps of the universal mind. They are said to be like islands which, though distinct above the water-level, are united in the sea-bottom. Those who accept this theory claim sometimes that it assures us of immortality. When we die, they say, we are not mentally extinguished. All that is extinguished is our insularity, our separateness from one another.
Without discussing the merits of the theory itself, let us consider its relation to immortality.
According to the theory, when a man dies, he "wakes up" to find that he is the common mind. What a waking it must be! Presumably he comes into possession of all the conscious experience of all individuals, and also of their "unconscious experience" in virtue of which they constitute a single mind, though unwittingly. In fact, when our friend dies he is going to have the shock of his life, for he will find himself being at once himself and everyone else, and something infinitely more than all of them together, namely the common mind of which they are all normally unconscious. It may reasonably be questioned whether there is any sense in saying that he, the lamented human individual, has survived his death. For he has become something fantastically different from what he was. He has become his neighbour and his enemy and all the swarms of Asia, and presumably all past generations also. To give him such immortality is to annihilate him.
(f) The Argument from Spiritistic Phenomena — I have thus far considered arguments that derive personal immortality either from the nature of personality itself or from its relation to an essentially good universe. Not one of these arguments carries much weight. It is now time to consider an argument of a very different kind, one which is rather scientific than philosophical, since it is based on the careful examination of evidence.
From time immemorial some have claimed that they have actually communicated with the spirits of the dead. In our own day many persons whose honesty and intelligence are above question are convinced that we do receive messages from the living dead, either by direct personal intercourse or through the help of some "medium," someone gifted with special sensitivity in relation to "the other world."
Much very skilled and conscientious work has been done in this field by the Society for Psychical Research. As I have had no personal experience of it I shall not attempt to criticise its technique. Some of those who have thorough knowledge of the work are men whose integrity and shrewdness seem to me to guarantee the authenticity of any evidence that passes their scrutiny. I therefore accept the data that they offer. But I do not necessarily accept their interpretations of it.
Let us consider what sort of evidence is necessary to establish the claim that the spirits of the dead sometimes communicate with us. It must be such as we cannot more plausibly explain on any other theory than that of human survival. The established principles of science must be shown to be incapable of explaining it.
Further, the evidence on which we base our belief in survival must have a specially high degree of cogency. Theories which fit naturally into the general system of our knowledge need less cogent evidence than theories which cannot be thus accommodated. For example, less cogent evidence is needed to prove that a man has normal ocular vision than to prove that he can see with his stomach.
To prove human survival, then, we must have very cogent evidence that the minds of persons known before they died are still in some manner having intercourse with us after their death. Events must happen in our experience which very strongly suggest that an intelligent mind is expressing itself through them; and, further, that no mind now alive on earth in the normal manner, but only the mind of the person known to be dead, could have expressed itself in that way.
In passing judgment we must guard against the influence of desire (for and against) in ourselves and others; fraud; ambiguity in the evidence; explanation in terms of inadequate, over-simple concepts.
Professor C. D. Broad has personally examined much of the evidence. In his book, The Mind and its Place in Nature, he discusses its significance, and suggests a very interesting conclusion. I cannot do better than summarise the verdict of this eminent and very clear-headed philosopher.
The most impressive evidence is of the type called "cross correspondence." Imagine a number of mediums or automatic writers in different localities, all working for a long time without communicating with one another. Suppose that their scripts, though individually fragmentary and unintelligible, are found to fit together to make sense. Suppose that the sense is in some unmistakable manner characteristic of a particular mind that has ceased living the normal life. It might, for instance, convey information known only to the dead person, and subsequently verified by carrying out instructions contained in his spiritistic messages themselves. This would be strong evidence of his survival.
A vast amount of work of this kind has been done, but the upshot is far from clear. It is difficult enough to eliminate fraud, but still more difficult to eliminate the possibility that the source of the messages was the unconscious telepathic influence of living minds. By "telepathic" influence is meant any kind of direct influence of mind on mind without the aid of the senses. (In passing we may note that the degree of cogency needed to prove telepathy, though high, is not so high as that needed to prove survival.) On the other hand, as Professor Broad points out, the fact that so many mediumistic messages purport to come from the dead and not from the living is more intelligible if the main source of them is the "other world." But again, the fact that the investigators themselves are chiefly interested in evidence for survival may incline the medium to interpret his experiences in terms of survival.
Unfortunately, the evidence is seldom straightforward. Its significance has generally to be discovered by means of ingenious interpretations of matter which, on its face-value, is worthless. We know very well that with sufficient skill it is possible to discover in any complicated text almost any hidden meaning that we will. The Bacon-Shakespeare controversy and the wilder dream-interpretations of the psychoanalysts should give us pause. When we bear this in mind the empirical evidence for survival is far from convincing.
All the same, to the unprejudiced mind that has tried to take everything relevant into account, it does seem probable that mediumistic phenomena are caused partly by influences of some kind as yet unrecognised by any of our sciences. Such at least is the tentative verdict of Professor Broad. But the most interesting part of his verdict is this. He finds no reliable evidence to suggest that the dead live on as experiencing minds, capable of actual desiring, thinking, and purposefully communicating with us; yet he does find evidence that, when a man has died, some traces of his past experiencing, of his memories, may persist and be picked up by living mediums, much as the letters that the man once wrote may be picked up and read by his survivors. These persistent traces must not be regarded as constituting an actual experiencing mind; for of actual conscious process on the part of the dead there is, in Professor Broad's view, no evidence. But also these traces are seemingly not merely physical, since distance appears to make no difference to the ease with which they are recovered by the medium.
Readers of Mr. A. W. Osborn's recent very interesting book, The Superphysical, may feel that I have grossly under-estimated the evidence for the survival of conscious personalities. In his view the case is abundantly proved, and Professor Broad's theory is unnecessary. Mr. Osborn's evidence is certainly very striking. But to accept it as proof of human survival (in the ordinary simple sense) is in my view hasty. In fact, the upshot of the book in my mind is, not to make me feel that survival is proved, but to confirm my opinion that in "mediumistic phenomena" we touch upon the fringe of a vast area of possible experience for the understanding of which we have as yet no adequate concepts.
Whether Broad's theory of the "psychic factor" is true or not, it is of interest because it attempts to solve the very obscure problem not by a plain yes or no, but by the invention of a new concept to fit the evidence. It is, after all, extremely probable that man's questions about his destiny as an individual are wrongly and far too simply stated, and that in their present form they admit of no true answer, one way or the other. Probably the question, "Do we survive death?" is as misconceived as the question, "Which came first, a hen or an egg?" This, of course, is quite an intelligible question; but those who accept the theory of biological evolution can see that it entirely misses the mark. The same may turn out to be true of survival.
So far as the plain man's plain question about his survival is answerable at all by reference to such phenomena, it must, if Professor Broad is right, be answered in the negative. For the survival of mere memory traces is very different from the kind of survival which is demanded by the plain man who wants to survive.
I have now glanced at all the main arguments for survival and immortality known to me, and they have been shown to open up a large number of philosophical questions, some of which I shall consider in due course. Meanwhile it should be noted that whenever such a question arose I assumed, for argument's sake, that it could be answered in a sense favourable to personal immortality, and proceeded to enquire whether, even so, immortality was credible. The upshot seems to be that, though some of the arguments deserve serious consideration, none of them is at all weighty. It is now time to discuss the arguments against personal immortality.
(a) Alleged Overcrowding of the Other World — Most of the arguments against personal immortality are even less convincing than those in favour of it. Some of them can be dismissed in a few words. To begin with the silliest, we are sometimes told that if all human beings who ever lived on earth live for ever in the other world, that world must be scandalously over-populated This argument will appeal only to the very simple whose idea of the other world is closely tied to their idea of this world. There is no reason to restrict the capacity of the other world in anyway, if one can believe in it at all. The relation between this world and the other might be like the relation between the area of the cross-section of a telegraph wire and its total surface. If we like, we may stipulate that the wire shall be very long. Let it stretch from the earth to the most distant star, and back again; and let it cover this distance an infinite number of times. And anyhow, since the other world is presumably not spatial at all, the idea of overcrowding seems to be entirely meaningless in relation to it.
Such force as this argument has is really emotional. By insisting on the multiplicity of human beings, those who disparage human individuality seek to embarrass those who prize it as unique and precious.
(b) The Problem of Animal Immortality — A rather more impressive objection to immortality may be stated as follows. Either human beings alone are immortal, or animals also. The former possibility seems unplausible in view of modem biological knowledge, which suggests that the difference between men and the higher animals, though great, is not fundamental. On the other hand, if some non-human animals are immortal, where is the line to be drawn between the immortal animals and those that perish utterly? One way out of the difficulty is to say that not only men and the higher animals but all living things are immortal, even down to the most ephemeral bugs and bacilli. Many believers in immortality are revolted by this possibility, and find it quite incredible. This is sheer prejudice, derived from man's desire to preserve his aristocratic privileges to himself alone.
(c) The Argument from Man's Insignificance — Another objection to human immortality is based on the petty nature of man himself. In such a vast universe as ours, it is said, there can be no cherishing of so minute and ephemeral a thing as a human individual. The births of men and the lives of men are fortuitous and negligible consequences, we are told, of "mighty forces" which plainly have no concern for them. If any power or god cares for anything at all, he must find plenty to occupy himself, with, and plenty of much greater importance than the trivial spirits of human beings. This argument has no more weight than the,opposite argument, which claims to defend immortality on the score of man's importance. The more trivial man is, the more glory to his creator in providing him with eternal bliss.
We must remind ourselves, too, that physical minuteness in space and brevity in time are entirely irrelevant to the question of man's importance, save in so far as they suggest the possibility that the universe may harbour beings of much loftier mental stature than men. Minute and ephemeral as we are, we have no positive evidence that there are nobler beings than ourselves. If our world should happen to be after all the only mind-inhabited world in the cosmos, we should with some reason claim that the rest of the universe, a waste of mere space and fiery points, was entirely worthless in comparison with ourselves. But the possibility that ours are the sole minds in the cosmos is almost incredible. If there are others, perhaps far more developed than ourselves, it may, of course, be that we are negligible by-products of the cosmical process, and doomed to extinction; but equally it may be that they, and we also, are set in this world of space and time to fit ourselves for eternal life elsewhere.
(d) The Argument from Mind's Dependence on Body — Perhaps the strongest argument against personal immortality is that which is based on the observed relation of mind and body. Minds, it is insisted, are, essentially products of the neural and glandular events of a physical organism. No mind, therefore, can conceivably exist without the particular body that supports it. Now clearly, if minds are essentially body-dependent, immortality is impossible without the resurrection of the body, or its reduplication in another world.
In the next chapter I shall discuss the whole question of the relation of body and mind. Meanwhile I shall assume that the verdict of science favours the theory of the complete body-dependence of our minds. What are the implications of such a hypothetical scientific discovery? All the facts which science studies are derived from our experience of this world. All scientific laws are generalisations of mundane happenings. Have we any justification for believing that they hold good beyond the mundane sphere? So far as I can see, we have none whatever; except the negative reason that we have no reason to believe that they do not. It is conceivable that, though minds in the mundane sphere are dependent both for existence and character upon physical events, they become at death wholly emancipated from the physical. Logically, science might quite well succeed in proving that within the universe studied by science, minds are physically determined through and through; yet science might remain incapable of making any true statements whatever about any other sphere. Consequently, if there were any cogent positive reasons for believing in the existence of the "other world," and the continuance of our lives therein, the scientific argument based on mind's dependence on body in this world could not weaken them to any extent whatever.
What bearing has the foregoing discussion of personal immortality on philosophy, which we have defined as the love and the pursuit of wisdom?
Clearly, in the present state of human knowledge the problem of immortality cannot be solved. ''It depends on a great number of other problems which would have to be settled before we could affirm that human persons are immortal, or that they are not immortal. The most obvious of these problems is that of the nature of personality. Is a personal mind nothing but a sequence of mental events, or is it an enduring something, a spirit, which has the experiences? And what of the relation between body and mind? Is mind simply a product of body? Behind this lies the problem of the authority of natural science. What kind of authority is it, and how far does it extend? Can science secure any "inside information" about the nature of reality? And what is the status of the external world in relation to the mind that perceives and studies it? Is body, and the physical universe, a product of mind?
Behind this problem again lies the more general problem of the nature of knowledge. Is our knowledge ever what we mean it to be, an apprehension of the actual nature of reality? Or is all intellectual enterprise doomed to failure? And is there perhaps some other kind of knowledge, which is not subject to the disabilities of intellect, and which apprehends and enters into its object intuitively? The problem of ethics also was raised in our discussion, for we had to consider the "importance" of personality. Is "good" an objective character which simply belongs or does not belong to things? Or is objective goodness an illusion caused by the pleasurableness of things which favour our activities? And is there any reason to believe that good and bad are in any sense relevant to discussions about the universe as a whole?
These are some of the problems raised by our enquiry. Clearly the discussion of immortality has effectively served to open up the whole subject of philosophy. But short of solving all the questions that have been raised, can we reach any tentative conclusions, or must we preserve a completely open mind?
It seems that the balance of such evidence as we have discussed is on the whole against the survival and immortality of human persons as recognisably identical experiencing minds. There is no clear and cogent evidence that they do survive in any sense relevant to the demand for personal immortality; and there is some not wholly worthless evidence that renders their survival somewhat improbable.
But this almost entirely negative result should not be regarded as the final outcome of our discussion. In conclusion I shall summarise what seems to me the true line of mental advance in respect of the idea of immortality. There is certainly a stage, an early stage, in our development at which the prospect of annihilation for ourselves and our beloveds seems terrible. But the frank acceptance of this prospect should, I believe, turn out to be the way to further growth. It should free the mind from the shackles of egoism. It should lead in the long run to a more secure peace and joy and a greater moral strength than would otherwise have been possible.
Here perhaps a word of caution is needed. The acceptance of human ephemerality can only be the way to growth on one condition, namely that the acceptance is not made an occasion for self-pity, or even for pity of the human race. The masochist, the addict to self-torture, is apt to hug the brevity and futility of personal existence to his breast like a block of ice, narrowing his whole consciousness upon it in such a way that his interest cannot develop. This is always the danger of the tragic view of life, which sometimes turns out to be merely self-pity masquerading as impassioned stoicism. The power of this snare lies in the fact that it is concealed in the direct route of advance. For the genuine tragic view is one which the mind must pass through if it is to leave behind the misconceived optimism of its immaturity. But the genuinely tragic view of life is not warped by self-pity. It is, of course, a painful sacrifice of cherished things, but it includes no gloating upon pain itself. The spirit remains quick and receptive, and objective in its outlook.
Naturally, if a man has been brought up to believe in immortality as a birthright, and to expect eternal reward or punishment for his conduct on earth, the sudden destruction of this faith may have a shattering effect on both his happiness and his morality. He may become so oppressed by the seeming futility of human existence that he will give up all serious effort, and suffer a deep moral disintegration. Something like this did actually happen to European culture as a whole during the first quarter of this century. In hosts of individuals the old moral sanctions were lost, and nothing new took their place. The prolonged effects of industrialism and the relatively sudden effects of war combined with loss of faith to undermine moral stamina. Four distinct mental attitudes emerged. There were typical, disintegrated, unmoral, neurotic, "post-war" minds, very sick at heart. There were seekers after new, yet essentially archaic, comforting faiths. There were intellectually honest, but spiritually blind and self-pitying, stoics. And there were those few who were bewilderingly stimulated to a painful real advance in sensibility.
This advance is not primarily intellectual, though intellectual scepticism made it possible. It is an advance in sensibility, in feeling. It is the discovery that, after all, the loss of the old faith has made the universe more, not less, worth living in; more, not less, fulfilling to the newly awakened spirit. In outgrowing the old needs we discover new needs, which, though less insistent, prove capable in the end of a more far-reaching fulfilment.
In relation to immortality this advance consists intellectually of complete agnosticism. Emotionally it involves detachment from the desire for immortality, through the discovery of more satisfying values. At this stage I shall not attempt to say what, in my view, those values are.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13