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Lecture 19 The Immortality of the Soul

Lecture 19
The Immortality of the Soul
WE assume that reason is the most fundamental principle in our theoretical life. If there is not rational connexion between facts and if the relations between them are not discoverable by the methods of reason then the whole region of the real would be for us chaotic. We could draw no conclusion; no practical maxim would be reliable. Man would be helpless in a tumble-down universe.

Can it be that LOVE on the practical side of life fulfils a similar function? Neglecting for a moment the fact that spiritual forces imply each other in such a way that any one of them may be conceived as containing the rest would a loveless world be more possible or desirable than an irrational one?

The spiritual function of Love.
Assuming as is often done that “reason is cold”—either passionless as Hume thought or the antagonist of all passion and desire as Kant thought could men live together in such a loveless relation? That is to say would social life and all it brings be possible? And again would religion be possible? Would the dedication of the self to the best and the worship and service of it take place where no love crowned the object with worth?
Both answers must be negative. Love is no less a condition of right or rational practice than Reason is; and when Hegel passed from the former to the latter there was no fundamental change of outlook.
And of course reason includes love and love at its best includes reason. To act in the most rational way towards our neighbour is certainly to behave in the spirit of love. Every service if it proceeds from Love gains thoroughness and value and beauty. There are few if any circumstances in which the loving attitude is not the most reasonable and practically effective.
But accentuate their affinity as we may the speculative attitude and the religious remain different. They are rarely both occupied at the same time. The temper of mind which doubts and tests and reasons for and against a doctrine differs fundamentally from that which trusts adores loves and worships.
The combination of Love and Reason.
When doubt comes as it does upon all reflective minds there follows or ought to follow an appeal to reason. And if the frank use of the methods of reason support the faith then there is great peace.
There are few attitudes of the spirit more worth striving for than that which is inspired and guided by a religious faith that is itself in turn supported and ratified by our interpretation of the ultimate meaning of the finite facts of the world in which we live.
How far have we achieved this purpose?
What are the results of our enquiry?
At first sight these results appear to be pitifully meagre even if our conclusions follow by a sound process from sound premisses.
In the first place all our conclusions are hypothetical and as we have seen to treat a religious faith as if it were a hypothesis repels many good people philosophers among them.
But when the function of hypotheses in our practical and cognitive life is more closely considered there is less dissatisfaction. For all our knowledge is found to be hypothetical being incomplete; and we cannot reject all knowledge. That were a self-stultifying attitude as absolute scepticism always is.
In the next place let me remind you our hypotheses are in every department our ultimate explanatory conceptions. Only in their light are facts intelligible. Knowledge does not arrive at completeness either of content or certainty. “We are made to grow.” It satisfies however if we have succeeded in establishing some universal hypothesis and tracing its presence in every detailed fact that comes under it.
Our results are hypothetical but nevertheless convincing.
And if it be true that the sanest explanation hitherto offered of the facts and events of our finite life is that which refers them ultimately to the operation of the Absolute of Philosophy or the God of Religion then religious faith is so far ratified. No stronger kind of proof than this can be offered in any science.
If again the practice of religion the religious life brings new reasons for the faith; if spiritual facts in other words prove more and more that they are their own sufficient justification then the sense of the truth of religion grows and has a right to grow. Practice brings new tests and nothing explains the nature of a thing or its value so fully as its activities. Pragmatism is quite right in accentuating test and trial; its error is to leave out the intelligence which draws the conclusions: and religion indubitably sustains the pragmatic tests.
Except in one matter.
If I could say that our enquiry had resulted in placing religious faith on this basis i.e. on the same basis as the colligating conceptions which the scientific man calls his hypotheses I should be more than satisfied. But I must be frank and confess that I have achieved nothing so convincing.
You may remember the emphasis that was thrown upon the difference between not-proven and disproved; and the sharp distinction we drew between the instances in which a law of nature or a hypothesis had not as yet been traced and the instances in which it had been proved to fail being directly contradicted by a relevant fact?
In the latter case the scientific man at once gives up his hypothesis and fumbles about for some other: for until he finds one he is helpless amidst a chaotic collection of enigmata.
Our hypothesis apparently disproved by failed lives.
Now it seems to me that the central hypothesis of a philosophy of religion the vital article in an enlightened religious creed is thus challenged by facts which we have all observed and which are not reconcilable with it—except on one condition.
The central article to which I refer is the faith in the omnipotence and limitless love of God—the spiritual perfection of the Absolute. The fact which contradicts this faith—a fact which an honest and fearless intelligence will not try to deny—is the ultimate failure of some human lives and therefore in these instances of God's goodness or power. We follow certain lives to the end of their career and at the side of the grave we turn away our thoughts from the contemplation of them knowing they were a blunder and tragedy. The ethical enterprise which human life is supposed to be had come to what is worse than nothing. All would be well if like some writers we could be satisfied with a God who while not caring for the individual cared for the species; or with a general triumph of the good. The conception of a God whose goodness or power or both is limited might also satisfy. But we have rejected these facile solutions of the difficulties. No scientific spirit could be satisfied with them. On the contrary the scientific man would affirm that one genuine failure of the good in any one single life deprives us of the right to be convinced of the divine perfection which we deem to be essential to religion.
The sceptical inference is undoubtedly sound. That is to say the premisses can yield no other conclusion to honest thought. But on the other hand the premisses from which the inference proceeds may be insecure unreliable incomplete or even false. Let us examine them.
But our information is incomplete.
The failure of Psychology to give help.
In the first place our knowledge of any particular object is confessedly incomplete; and this is especially true of the exceedingly complex object we call man. The life we have condemned as a failure may not have been a failure. Our view of the individual may have been wrong. In the next place the life-process we have witnessed and from which we drew our conclusion may have been incomplete. It may have been stopped in mid-course. We have no more right to assume that death ends matters than to assert the opposite. We do not know what takes place at death. We cannot tell whether or not death is more than a temporary sleep; and we can draw no conclusion either sceptical or otherwise in such circumstances. Death is manifestly a part of and has a place in the scheme of things. As such it is capable of a rational explanation but that explanation has not been found as yet. There is nothing more obscure within the whole psychological region than the relation of the soul and body and the dissolution of that relation. There are many theories and every one of them is more or less probable. For instance it would appear that when a physical organism achieves a certain complexity of structure it performs the activities usually attributed to spirit or soul. On the other hand the exact opposite may seem to be true namely that only in spirit or soul does the body acquire any meaning and only in virtue of that ‘end’ does it exist at all. Such was Aristotle's view. “The soul was the first perfect realization of a natural body possessed potentially of life.”1 The ordinary psychologist restrains himself and propounds no theory of the relation of soul and body. There are two series of phenomena he tells us which so far as we can observe are independent; and yet they have a concurrence that suggests intimate connexion. I for my part have affirmed that the distinction between soul and body or nature and spirit by no means amounts to their independence of each other The idea of an unbroken evolution according to which mind too is a natural product precludes such a view. Moreover the impotence and meaninglessness of both man and his world when held apart suggests a unity within their difference.
Amidst such a variety of opinions it seems to be impossible either to affirm or to deny the immortality of the soul on psychological grounds. The future may reveal that which in its very nature necessarily conquers death; but that discovery has not been made as yet.
And of Biology.
Natural facts that suggest victory over death.
The biologist is not much less helpless than the psychologist. To all appearance the death of an animal is its end. It has been all along as an individual animal less the care of nature than the species is; and even the species may disappear. Is nature careful even of the type? On the other hand the biologist affirms the unbroken continuity of every kind of life. The life that is in the oak of to-day—the same life—was in the first oak that ever grew on the cooling earth. There has never been a single break or gap or need of the recreative act which a new beginning demands.
Have we here a hint within the natural region of something that masters death? Can death be merely a recurrent incident in the history of a plant or animal? That it has a place of its own in the scheme of things is undeniable as Hegel said; and it follows that it has significance only in virtue of its part and function within that scheme. Death contributes somehow to its perfection. How?
There is another natural feature which seems to suggest the same positive conclusion as to immortality namely the cumulative character of the life-process. The history of spirit whether in its theoretical or practical activities shows this fact quite clearly. The past does not vanish. It is preserved. Knowledge experience character grow and growth implies this conversion of the past into an active element of the present. There is no way of accounting for the growth of human civilization if the process of living has not this cumulative character.
Now so far as I can see this fact would become practically meaningless if death ended all. Death whenever it came would set the process at nought: and death may come at any moment. Its coming is the only certain thing in man's life; but the when and how of its coming are the most uncertain. The “cumulative process” and every other human interest gives it no pause. It takes the babe from its mother before the process has begun; or the mother from the babe who is left without her care. The strong man is called the feeble is left: the man of wide uses and social sympathies and services is summoned his useless neighbour is left to cumber the ground till old age brings its imbecilities. Can such an apparently lawless event as death have the importance that would accrue to that which puts a final end to the soul's enterprise? It seems to me to be much more natural to conclude that death is in truth a very insignificant event seeing that its “when” and “how” of coming count for so little.
Nature changes objects but does not annul.
The fact is that nature does not destroy and demolish. It changes. The probability is strong that nothing is ever finally lost. Physics will not admit the abolition of any form of energy: its task consists of watching its transmutations. But what waste would compare with that which death would bring were death equivalent to extinction! The whole purpose of man's life as we have described it would be set at nought and spiritual ends placed at the mercy of the most incalculable of natural events. Is it not far more likely that death is a pause than a break—at least in the case of man? For man's case is not like that of any other animal: he is self-conscious and self-consciousness brings rights. Man has a right to the conditions which make for his well-being if indeed the rule of the world is in God's hands; and extinction at death would sometimes violate and at other times greatly limit that right. Man's self-consciousness and his claim to the conditions of moral well-being have a final claim which cannot be over-ridden by death.
A previous life not proven.
Before I return to the main issue I may mention that the continued existence of man after death has been held to imply his existence previous to the present life. This does not seem to me to follow. Until we arrive at the conception of a self-conscious being we do not discover that whose worth lies in itself and which has intrinsic rights. Other beings may be used as means to something other than themselves; but a self-conscious being is never reducible to such a condition. Now self-consciousness we concluded was the result of a long evolutionary process and so likewise are the rights and claims which self-consciousness brings with it. Amongst these is the right to immortality. For being in himself an end the scheme of things must continue to serve him and not overwhelm or destroy him. He must not be at the mercy of death or of any other external power.
Notwithstanding these considerations all of which point in the same direction I am not prepared to maintain that the observation of man's present life in this world furnishes adequate premisses for either the affirmation or the denial of man's immortality. Not that the balance between the two possibilities is even. For there are no premisses at all from which denial can justly issue. There cannot be any negative evidence: there is only silence. On the other hand the extension of life beyond natural death seems congruous with the natural scheme instead of being like extinction sheer waste of achieved results. When we know more of the nature of the soul or spirit or mind and of their relation to the body we may discover grounds in present facts for a more confident conclusion. At present we must look in another direction than that of the merely natural scheme.
Spiritualism put on the rubbish-heap.
I need hardly say that I am not inviting you to consider the evidence which Spiritualists offer. Perceptual knowledge of those who have passed away in death is not given to us nor I believe is it capable of being acquired. My faith in Spiritualism in all its forms is too weak to permit me even to examine them. With your permission I will fling Spiritualism so far as these lectures are concerned upon my rubbish-heap.
The argument must depend on man's nature.
The grounds to which I refer as possibly offering premisses for reliable conclusions are all moral or spiritual—if you like you may call them religious. They are furnished by man's nature though by no means necessarily by his desires. Royce finds within our finite personalities an insatiable divine discontent which calls for and implies satisfaction. Surely mere discontent can constitute no claim. It must be some positive element that can imply the satisfaction. I do not think that the Universe exists in order to make man contented. For that purpose all that is necessary would be to extinguish his ideals and turn him back into a ruminant. Man's rights spring neither from his discontent nor from his desires. They arise from his intrinsic nature the final purpose of his life and of his world—namely moral progress. That is the conception which we have throughout made our standard of values and the source of rights. And here we come upon the crowning use of it. It means that man is immortal if immortality is a condition of the fulfilment of the purpose of God as expressed in man's moral life and the world-process.
Not merely on his desires.
The ground of immortality does not lie in our desires. I do not think that our desires are consulted. “What appeals to me” says Mr. Bradley “…is the demand of personal affection the wish that where a few creatures love one another nothing whether before or after death should be changed. But how can I insist that such a demand (whatever one may dare to fondly hope or dream) is endorsed by religion?”2 I do not think that religion does endorse it. Not that it is a small matter to disappoint the yearnings of love; but that love itself if it be not love of God is not the spring from which necessities flow.
Religion needs immortality.
I do not think that natural affection desire or friendship count except as elements in a moral system. Religion does demand the fulfilment of the conditions of a good life; and I am inclined to think that the immortality of the soul is one of these conditions. Otherwise as Mr. Bradley says “mere personal survival and continuance has in itself nothing to do with true religion. A man can be as irreligious (for anything at least that I know) in a hundred lives as in one.”3
But the continuance of life or rather its repetition gains importance in that the hundred lives offer a hundred opportunities of learning to adopt the good as the law of conduct. Immortality extends man's spiritual chances as I understand them. Some time some where in some life under some new circumstances and conditions the soul one would say will awake and apprehend its true nature and destiny. For my assumption is that the intercourse between man and his world will have a character on the other side of death similar to that which it has on this side. Such seems to be the demand of a moral universe.
Morality does not depend on it.
There is an ethical sense in which the immortality of the soul loses all importance. The possibility of endless existence ought in no wise to affect our personal conduct in the present. It does not enhance the obligatoriness of duty if there is life beyond life in an endless series nor loosen it if when death comes we cease to exist. Morality does not depend upon the immortality of the soul: but religion does.
I do not deny that many truly religious men doubt or even deny the immortality of the Soul. The problem of immortality stands apart from those of religious faith. But this result comes from the incoherence of such religious experiences. They have not been carefully scrutinized. Otherwise it would be evident that the belief in a God whose goodness and power are unlimited which we have deemed to be essential to religion is not possible unless the soul be immortal. A single life given to man would not exhaust the resources of infinite goodness. There must be “life after life in endless series.”
Logical evidence: our poets contemn it.
“Everything finite” says Mr. Bradley “is subject in principle to chance and change and to dissolution of its self. But from this it does not follow that finite beings are unable to endure as themselves for an indefinite time. And in the end the argument that we are finished when our bodies have decayed seems to possess but a small degree of logical evidence.”4 Many thinkers would say that it possesses none; and that it is none the worse for the absence of logical evidence. Their belief in immortality does not rest on logic they tell us. The future life is a matter of faith. The first thing for instance that impresses the student of Tennyson and Browning is the fulness of their belief in the immortality of the soul. If they ever did doubt its truth—which is very questionable—doubt only “shook the torpor of assurance from their creed”: it left the belief itself more strong and fixed. Tennyson's view regarding the state of the soul after death changed at different times. Browning emphatically set aside both the final woe and the final extinction of the wicked. Neither could Tennyson adopt the belief that any soul would in the end be excluded from the love of God. But their faith in a future life never wavered or weakened nor did their conviction that it was in spite of reason rather than by favour of reason that it could be held.
Man is not merely finite.
Let us examine these attitudes. Finite beings thinks Mr. Bradley may be able to endure as themselves for an indefinite time. But is man adequately described as a “finite” being? Have we not found that self-consciousness implies what is more than finite? Does it not signify what is self-determined and what therefore is not at the mercy of anything save itself? Mr. Bradley ought not to debate this question on finite grounds.
I need not say that he shows no tendency to rely on anything except logical evidence; and the logical evidence against immortality he finds to be very weak. In this respect he is at the opposite pole from the poets. They believe that logical evidence goes for nothing.5
Experience is in fact our logical evidence and everyone uses it.
So it does if what is meant is the conscious use of logical methods. But supposing that reasoning is such as we have described—the bringing to bear of the experience of the past upon the facts of the present? If our view is valid their faith had its premisses: these premisses were the results of intellectual and more or less correct judgments: and judgments are one and all the results of a logical process. The poets had discovered that the grounds of their faith were hypothetical; but they had not discovered nor even asked what are the nature and significance of hypotheses. They were not aware that our hypotheses are in the last resort not merely the foundations of our knowledge but “the light of all our seeing.”
The final proof of any fact is by negation.
It is not usually realized that the final proof of any fact is negative in character. An object is proved real an idea is proved true when the denial of it brings consequences which are recognized as too insane to be entertained. Argument at that juncture closes; the critic is silenced.
I admit that the test is not perfect or complete for after all it is employed by a fallible intelligence. But all the same it is the final test and remains final whether used or mis-used by the individual.
The line of argument.
The question we have thus to ask is: “Does the denial of the immortality of the soul imply such an insane consequence?” We have already answered it. It is not possible to maintain the limitless love and power of God if the soul be not immortal. There are men so far as we can see who die in their sins. If death ends all then their lives can be called nothing but failures. These persons have missed what is best; they have not used the opportunities of life to build up a good character. The failure of their lives is so far as they are concerned the failure of God's purpose. It was not benevolent or it was not strong enough to secure their well-being. The imperfection of God implies a breach of purpose and therefore of order somewhere in his Universe. Sheer unreason has found an entry. It is not possible any longer to set out from the hypothesis on which everything depended for us—namely that the world-process of which man is a part is ethical in character and the expression of the sovereign will of a perfect Being.
And what of those individuals who have not missed the purpose of their present life—but as we would hold have all their lives morally “attained”? Is the result of their strivings failures and successes to go for nothing when death comes? To affirm this it seems to me is impossible except to those who have not learnt to value spiritual achievement.
What remains for him who thus gives up the ethical character and the universal ideal of the cosmos? We have only to ask the question to perceive that he who gives these things up gives up the conditions under which his rational faculties can be of use. And the answer of the believer to the unbeliever is overwhelming: denial of the immortality of the soul implies absolute Scepticism.
No stronger proof of immortality possible.
No stronger proof of immortality is either possible or necessary than that which shows that it is a necessary condition of an orderly universe. The two hypotheses support each other. The truth of each of them taken by itself is probable: its truth by relation to its complement is irrefragable.
God is. God is perfect. His lovingkindness and power are unlimited; and his greatest gift to man is the gift of the power tendency and opportunity to learn goodness. God's goodness being unlimited the opportunity not made use of by man in the present life is renewed for him in another life and in still another; till at last his spirit finds rest in the service of the God of Love. For my part I wish for no stronger proof of the permanence of the spiritual process and I ought not to care for aught beside: that supreme good involves every good.

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