Is Immortality Desirable?

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2022-09-22 08:30:06

IT may be thought, a man must be very bold or very shameless who is prepared to discourse on such a theme as mine. For either, it would seem, he must profess to know what the wisest have admitted to be beyond their ken, or he must be a charlatan, ready to talk about matters of which he knows nothing. These are hard alternatives; but they do not, I hope, exhaust the possibilities. For the Immortality of Man is one of those great open questions which, to my mind, are of all the most worth discussing, even though they may never be resolved.

But, in saying that, I have already, no doubt, said what some of my readers will dispute; for to some, in all probability, the question is not open, but closed. There may be those who are convinced, on grounds of revealed religion, that Man is immortal. To these I do not speak, for anything I could say must be an irrelevance or an impertinence. There may be others who are equally assured, on grounds of science, that man is mortal. Against them I shall not argue; but I must state briefly that I do not agree with them, and why.

The scientific denial of immortality is based upon the admitted fact of the connection between mind and brain; whence it is assumed that the death of the brain must involve the death of that, whatever it be, which has been called the soul. This may indeed be true; but it is not necessarily or obviously true; it does not follow logically from the fact of the connection. For, as Professor James has ably set forth in his lecture on “ Human Immortality,” that fact may imply, not the production, but the transmission, of mind by brain. The soul, as Plato thought, may be capable of existing without the body, though it be imprisoned in it as in a tomb. It looks out, we might suppose, through the windows of the senses; and its vision is obscured or distorted by every imperfection of the glass. “ If a man is shut up in a house,” Dr. McTaggart has remarked, “ the transparency of the windows is an essential condition of his seeing the sky. But,” he wittily adds, “ it would not be prudent to infer that if he walked out of the house he could not see the sky, because there was no longer any glass through which he might see it.” My point is, that the only fact we have is the connection, in our present experience, of body and mind. That the soul therefore dies with the brain is an inference, and quite possibly a mistaken one. If to some minds it seems inevitable, that may be as much due to a defect of their imagination as to a superiority of their judgment. To infer wisely in such matters, one must be a poet as well as a man of science; and for my own part I would rather trust the intuitions of Goethe or of Browning than the ratiocination of Spencer or of Haeckel. For in making his hypotheses a man is determined, whether he knows it or no, by his habitual sense of what is possible; and in this curious universe so many things are possible which seem incredible to men who had never been astonished! Does it seem incredible that the body should be the habitation, not the creator, of the soul; that this should continue to live when that has died ? I can only reply in the words of an American poet: —

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