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Lecture XVIII: The Belief in Immortality

Belief in the immortality of individual persons is usually associated, sometimes dimly, and sometimes very definitely, with religious belief. In Christianity, for instance, this belief is very prominent, though it is absent or far from prominent in the Old Testament writings. In some religions it takes the form of belief in transmigration of souls to other human beings or animals. A future resurrection of the body, along with the soul, has been a prominent feature in Christian belief.

In Lecture VII of the first series I discussed animism, or the theory that the body is inhabited or animated by a soul distinct from it and therefore separable from it in space. I pointed out that this theory is similar to, and subject to the same fatal objections as vitalism, which is the theory that life is due to the fact that the material body is, during life, the site of operation of a “vital principle,” “entelechy,” or by whatever other name we may call it. I also pointed out that these fatal objections are no less applicable to the philosophical conception of a living organism, as this conception is expressed in the writings of Hegel, and of what may be called the British Hegelian school of philosophy.

Animism, no less than vitalism, concedes what philosophy can never concede, namely, the reality, or at least the reality for our perception, of a mechanical material world. Animism and vitalism are simply vain attempts to evade the consequences of this assumption. It is easy to show that if the visible and tangible world is simply a material world, or what we are compelled to interpret as such, all that we attribute to the influence of either a vital principle or soul must be dependent on material conditions. The fact that all psychical activity is dependent on environment is clear to all who have studied the evidence closely; and if that environment is mechanical in nature it follows that psychical activity of all kinds is mechanically determined.

The evidence has already been discussed which shows that the material mechanical world is only an ideal interpretation of reality, useful for certain purposes, but limited in application by the limited scope of these purposes, so that not even life, and still less conscious behaviour, can be described in terms of this ideal interpretation. Thus neither vitalism nor animism is a possible theory. A universe interpreted biologically is at any rate nearer to reality and less of an ideal abstraction than a universe interpreted physically; but a universe interpreted psychologically, as a spiritual universe, is still nearer to reality. We have seen, moreover, in the last lectures, that a spiritual universe consisting of mere individual spiritual realities is not consistent with itself. The spiritual universe is one, and leaves nothing outside. In other words, the only ultimate reality is, in the language of religion, God. This seems to me to be the result of analysis of what our Experience means, or what Nature means, if we prefer the word Nature to the word Experience.

The question as to immortality appears now very differently from what it did from the animistic standpoint. In the first place, mere individual personality is unreal. It is only in so far as God is manifested in us that we partake of reality. Just as death of the individual cell or individual compound organism, or even the last of a species, must be regarded as a normal event in a wider life, so death of the individual person must be regarded as only an event in God's manifestation in time-relations. Through faith in God as the only ultimate Reality we must regard death of the individual from this standpoint, and our faith in this regard is just our faith in the self-consistency of our experience. It is God manifested within us, and not the abstraction which we call our individual self, that is immortal and the Creator and Sustainer of time-relations themselves. From this standpoint the immortality of individual persons is only a meaningless conception.

In the present times we live under the shadow cast by the physical conception of visible and tangible reality. This conception looms up before us and seems to menace the whole spiritual world of values which we are also more fully conscious of than ever before. On the physical conception we and our interests seem to be mere helpless specks in an essentially chaotic universe of overpowering immensity in space and time, or in space-time. In reality, however, the immensities of time and space represent, as Kant, himself a physicist as well as philosopher, pointed out, only the unlimited scope of the ideas through which we have ourselves ordered our experience. These ideas are, moreover, abstractions—useful tools, but only for certain limited practical purposes. Owing to the very nature of our perceived world, the abstractions cannot describe it. For philosophy the immensities of space and time are not outside us, but within us as our own useful, but in reality abstract, and therefore to this extent unreal, creations. We have become, however, so accustomed to take for granted that the physical interpretation of our experience represents reality itself that we can hardly help accepting this assumption and idolatrously bowing down before it.

Since we see at the same time that a merely physical interpretation of life and conscious behaviour is impossible, we are driven into the acceptance of vitalism and animism. Conscious behaviour thus appears to us as a struggle of a soul with a vast surrounding physical universe. The supposed soul itself appears also to have originated in time and to disappear from the scene at death, leaving nothing visible but a lifeless body subject wholly to mechanical interpretation.

If we simply assumed that the soul passes out of existence at death, this would, from the animistic standpoint, be an admission that what it had acquired in its struggle through life would be thrown away; also that the merit or demerit acquired during life would go unrewarded or unpunished. Such an admission seems inconsistent with the deep-seated religious belief that God is both omnipotent and the source of all that we call good. Hence a belief in personal immortality has come to be associated with religious belief, and to appear as an essential part of it.

We live in the presence of death all around us. Those nearest and dearest to us may be stricken by it at any time. Both young and old have often to pass through the valley of its shadow. We can face and deal with the ordinary ills of life as they come, and gain strength in overcoming them; but in presence of the death of one near to us our efforts seem to have been vain, and we may have had to watch helplessly while the end approached. Without a belief in personal immortality religion may easily appear to us as little better than a mockery.

In actual fact religion must sooner or later appear to us as nothing but an illusion and mockery if once we take the initial step, which is part of the animistic conception, that the visible world around us is in reality a physical world. It makes, moreover, no actual difference if we assume in addition that this physical world was originally created by God, and at the same time given its mechanical constitution. The scientific evidence has become overwhelming that our life, conscious behaviour, and religious or philosophical beliefs depend upon our environment. We are entangled in the meshes of what is known as materialism; and not only belief in immortality, but belief in the objective reality of all that we regard as of value, disappears. Even the belief in an original Creator of this mechanically-determined universe must disappear, since physical science reveals to us no such Creator, however far back in time we may go.

The argument of these lectures is that the physical world is not the real world, but only an ideal and quite insufficient representation of it. The real world is the spiritual world of values, and these values are in ultimate analysis nothing but the manifestation of the Supreme Spiritual Reality called, in the language of religion, God. What we interpret as physically determined is only what is imperfectly seen. Our faith that this is so is firmly grounded, so that we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear. Death of the individual is no extinction of values, and no injustice. If he had a real and practical faith in God he needs no compensation in a future life; and if he had not faith in God, but had been snatching at the illusion of his own individual interests, he has already during his life paid the penalty. We are accustomed to lament over the grave of a good man, but we might with better reason rejoice over the manifestation of God in his life: for our lamentations are a bowing down before materialism. In showing, however, our practical sympathy with those who have been left alone, we can best help them to realize God's continued presence to them, so that they can face their loss bravely.

Belief in a soul existing in a material universe, but separable from it, brings us very soon into conflict with physical science, since we have accepted physical science, not as what it really is, a useful system of abstractions from reality, but as a full representation of reality itself. From its very nature physical science can attach no meaning to the existence of a soul or to its immortality, and if we seek for physical evidence of the soul's existence we can never find it. The history of so-called spiritualism is, and can be, nothing but the record of illusion, and I shall not waste time by discussing it. Not even during life can physical science present any evidence of the existence of a soul. Consciousness is for it a quite mysterious accompaniment of certain extremely complex and remarkable physical processes occurring within the brain, and it has to leave the matter at this. It has no language in which it could possibly describe the actual phenomena of perception and conscious action, and in reality it is dumb before these phenomena, though the dumbness is concealed by what is only senseless mumbling. We cannot imagine a material world and a spiritual world to exist side by side, as on the animistic theory. When once we have admitted the reality of the physical world, the spiritual world must sooner or later disappear from any clear view.

The animistic conception of a soul separable from a material body seems to me to be essentially irreligious, since it assumes that outside the spiritual world within which God manifests Himself there is a material world of mechanical chaos in which there is no direct manifestation of God. If we say that God created this chaotic world we are attributing to Him something which seems inconsistent with His attribute of goodness. We are also setting up souls as existences separable from God's other manifestations.

The belief in individual immortality is evidently bound up closely with animism, or the theory that an immaterial soul is present in a material body. In the previous course of lectures, as well as in the present course, I have stated what seem to me the conclusive objections to animism. The same objections seem to me to apply to the idea of individual immortality, and I wish to leave no doubt as to my own conclusion on this subject. I do not think that one to whom religion is the guiding influence in life, and for whom the reality of God is the only reality, could seek for individual immortality. If his vision of God is a true and whole vision, it has effaced the vision of mere individual self, as well as the vision of a real physical universe. We are accustomed, through the New Testament Scriptures and other writings, to the idea that it is only through losing our individual selves, and through faith in the love and omnipotence of God, that we attain to union with Him. It is surely in this union, and not in our continued individual existence, that we attain true immortality, and with it freedom.

Philosophical writers are apt to be somewhat timid and vague on the subject of individual immortality, and still more timid and vague on the subject of physical science. In view of the immense practical success of the latter it tends to escape searching criticism except in so far as physicists themselves criticize it; and, even in the case of Kant, their criticisms have been essentially from the narrow Newtonian standpoint which accepts the very useful physical interpretation of the visible world as representing our actual experience of it. This remark applies just as much to the more recent developments of physical science as to the more literal Newtonian physics of last century.

Immensely valuable as were the post-Kantian developments of philosophy, particularly as represented by Hegel, it seems to me that they failed as effective philosophy through concentration on the ideas which shape our interpretations of experience rather than on the fundamental nature of experience itself. For Hegel the different sciences or departments of knowledge seemed to represent different spheres of application of different fundamental ideas, and he greatly extended Kant's conception of these ideas. But he also concluded that these ideas have in themselves the tendency to become transformed into ideas of a truer or higher sort, so that ideas really make our world, instead of being mere tools in a partial and limited interpretation of it. As a consequence, his philosophy got out of touch with the fundamental nature of experience itself.

In that experience Hegel's highest categories or general ideas are there from the beginning. The conceptions of God, or of time, space, and matter, for instance, have never been new, though with the advance of civilization they have progressively become clarified, and the stages in this clarification are associated with the names of great men. But the ideas are themselves given in or implied in our experience. If they were not so given, their clarifications would constitute no revelation to us. The ideas embodied in the sciences are only tools devised for the limited practical ends which present themselves in our experience as a part of more comprehensive ends; and God is no mere finally-developed idea, but the presupposition of all ideas and all experience.

From the mere ideas of physics, or of biology, we can never pass directly to what we regard as higher ideas. It is only by reference back to wider experience that we pass to these higher ideas. Ideas are in themselves rigid and immutable, and are only susceptible of clarification where they are not sharply defined. Hegel really attempted to show how the concrete world produces itself from developing ideas, each stage in the process representing a richer and more concrete idea. But the inner dialectic through which he thought that ideas develop into new and higher forms was, it seems to me, just as artificial as in Alexander's realistic philosophy; and he was dealing with ideas abstracted from their concrete application, and therefore unreal, whereas the world of our experience, even if we interpret it wrongly, is a real world not constituted by mere ideas.

Thus the Hegelian philosophy, though it contains a collection of fundamental ideas or categories, does not help us as regards the manner of their application. It tells us nothing as to limitations in the scope of application of physical science or biology, and throws no definite light on the question of personal immortality. Unreality clings to it, in spite of the acuteness of its criticisms and the great influence which it has exerted.

In considering the subject of immortality we are apt to think of unrecognized merit and undeveloped promise, even more than of the recognized merit and experience which seem to end in death. But faithful and gentle conduct, whether it is recognized or not by men, and whether it is prolonged or cut short, is what unites us with God. Even in the lives of criminals, but particularly in those of children, we can recognize this, as Christ did and as our greatest literature does. It is only through halting faith in the reality of God that death of the individual seems to be an actual or potential disappearance of what is to us of the highest value.

The subject of Immortality, including a very illuminating historical account and discussion of the beliefs which have been and are held on this subject, was treated in the Gifford Lectures of 1922 by Professor Pringle Pattison. He is in agreement with what I have said as to a belief in individual immortality forming no essential part of religion, and that it is union with God which means eternal life, beyond the vicissitudes of time. Nevertheless he argues for individual immortality, differing in this respect from the late Professor Bosanquet, another great thinker who recently discussed the same question.

The difference between my own standpoint and that of Pringle Pattison and other idealists can be traced back to our different conceptions of life. Life, as I have pointed out, is not something confined to the body of a living organism as its entelechy, but is a unity in which the whole environment is included. Similarly, personality is not something confined and complete in itself separately from an environment in space and time, but extends over that environment; and for either philosophy or religion individual personalities are unreal, the only real personality being that of God. Thus Nature or Experience is nothing but the manifestation of God, though certainly not Nature as merely interpreted by the Sciences. It is therefore a personal God that philosophy and religion point us to, but no mere individual person distinguishable from other persons. It seems to me that belief in individual immortality, just like belief in the existence of individual souls, implies a questioning of the omnipresence and omnipotence of God.

In these lectures I have laid very great stress on a correct scientific conception of what mere life implies; for if we go wrong on this point we go wrong also in the interpretation of personality. It seems to me that neither Aristotle nor Kant nor Hegel reached an adequate conception of what life is. They all regarded a living organism as a self-contained individual, and were thus led to a similar conception of a soul or subject of knowledge.

Overborne as our present age is by the Newtonian interpretation of reality, we are accustomed to think of old age as simply the wearing out of a bodily machine, and death from ordinary diseases and accidents as an unavoidable result of the mechanical conditions which surround us. From a mere physical standpoint, however, there is as little explanation for old age as for the fact that during life the body is constantly renewing and replacing its substance in ordinary nutrition. If the processes of nutrition go on at all, there seems to be no inherent physical reason why they should not go on indefinitely; and in the line of reproductive cells they do as a matter of fact go on indefinitely.

It is clear that the metaphor of a machine wearing out does not apply. From the biological standpoint old age with resulting death is just as much a normal event as is reproduction; and apparently the succession of new individuals makes for the maintenance of adaptation, or organic unity in the relations between organism and environment. From the biological standpoint mere individual life is unreal, though we see this more easily in the cells and other apparent units of life in a higher organism than in the lives of what we commonly regard as whole organisms. The immediate cause of death is asphyxia from want of oxygen, and death is not the mere stoppage of a machine, as a heat-engine stops when its oxygen supply is stopped, but disintegration of living structure, for which there is no physical explanation any more than there is for the maintenance of living structure during life.

I have already pointed out that from the higher and more real philosophical or religious standpoint our individual lives as such are unreal, and that it is only in so far as we lose our individual lives that we become one with Spiritual Reality or God. In the death of an old man the accumulated experience and insight of a lifetime may seem to be lost; but that experience and insight belong to past conditions. Mankind must always be building up its experience and insight anew, and the old experience will only mislead when the conditions are new. Thus old age and death seem to be just a part of losing our individual lives in becoming one with Spiritual Reality or God.

Not only soldiers, but men and women in every walk of life, deliberately risk their lives when the duty of the moment calls on them to do so. If they are true to their race, and not lost in the selfishness and materialism which breed cowardice, they never hesitate about it, and their example lights up the spiritual reality which is within and around us. In losing their individual lives for the sake of others they show that individual life in itself is unreal. Even when death comes by disease or accident it is not something merely useless: for it serves as a warning of danger to those who are left, or removes one who can no longer serve. The knowledge which has accumulated in consequence of deaths from disease and accident is of the utmost practical value in the avoidance of danger. We can therefore regard such deaths as in the same category as death for others on the field of battle or as a direct consequence of the performance of whatever duty may have presented itself. In civilized countries the circumstances of every death are enquired into and recorded as far as possible, and the information thus collected guides future conduct.

In the present lecture I have dealt very openly and directly with the belief in personal immortality, and in doing so it seems to me that I have been guided by the light of religion itself, and that in reality religion, when purified from the materialism mingled with religious beliefs, is the same as philosophy when similarly purified. No one realizes more fully than I do how sensitive a point in religious belief I have been touching on. When we are in presence of the unresponding features and deaf ears of one we have loved we can hardly help seeking for some more direct comfort than the mere faith that individual life and individual death are only a manifestation of God still everywhere around and within us. Our faith is weak, and clouded by the abstractions which seem to us to be realities. We therefore seek for a countervailing abstraction which we call a soul.

It is not to the conception of a soul, but to the reality of God, that we must turn for strength, courage, and comfort. It seems to me that as the shadow of the physical conception of reality passes away from the civilized world, so also will the fear of death pass, and the feeling that there is any real parting in death, since all that was real in those who have died is immortal and ever-present. It is through the presence of God within us all that we attain to eternal life, and that the loved ones whom we seem to have lost are still with us, since God is with us.