given by Derek Maitland
As I said in my synopsis for this address, the problem with immortality is that it can’t be proved or disproved unless you’re dead.It’s true that we’ve had a lot of people over the years extolling their near-death or beyond-death experiences – very honest and earnest people -- telling of their consciousness hovering over their apparently dying body, of the blazing white light, and the unearthly white corridor, beckoning their departing spirit into the unknown.That blazing white light and white portal are something I suspect I myself experienced about four years ago, when I almost drowned in a treacherous, monster surf at Bronte Beach. I say “suspect” because what was in front of me, deep down under the cresting waves, when I realized I wasn’t going to survive, was of course a massive kaleidescoping swirl of white foam.Naturally, I can’t say this white maelstrom was a portal to the beyond, but I do know that I stopped fighting desperately for my life and gave into it, floating in it, becoming strangely calm, telling myself, with an almost all-knowing familiarity: “So this is how it happens. This is how you die.”I also know that if the toes of my left foot hadn’t then suddenly touched the outer lip of a sandbank, and galvanized me back into action, I would have given myself up completely and gone wherever the white swirl took me.So, I probably went about as close as anyone to solving, one way or the other, the most burning mystery of our existence – whether there’s life, or indeed any form of existence, beyond death. And of course, I’m not the first thinking person, and definitely not the last, to ponder that question.If we go back to Socrates, we find a philosopher who was so convinced of the survival of the soul after death that it’s said he happily chose suicide, rather than escape – and with much the same absolute belief that we’re told Jesus Christ, much later, faced his crucifixion.Socrates was among the first great thinkers to question knowledge – whether it was through our senses – our eyes, ears, sense of touch, etc – that we were able to know things – or whether it was only through our soul, in the alternative realm of ideas, that we really knew anything at all. Socrates decided that real knowledge – that is, not of the physical reality – was recollection, something very similar to Carl Gustav Jung’s very much later primal, or hereditary, consciousness; and because there were things we knew about, but couldn’t possibly have experienced – and exact equality is one concept he pointed to – then that knowledge must have existed before birth.In others words, there are things we know of even if we haven’t actually experienced them, and these things exist outside of our physical existence; so there must be an existence outside the one we’re experiencing as earthly mortals.Of course, we can counter that by saying we don’t have to experience all knowledge ourselves; we get it every day from others who have experienced it, or have thought it through. But then, we’re taking their experience or opinion for our own. It doesn’t really disprove knowledge as an immortal thing at all.It was Plato who really established the long-standing philosophical goalposts in the argument for and against immortality – and he did this by widening and exemplifying the concept of the physical versus idealistic realities – in other words, two different realities in which we exist – one physical, the other spiritual.Not only that, but he questioned which of the two was the sole reality – the real one – and that’s been at the very crux, as I see it, of real philosophical debate, especially on existence and mortality, ever since.Plato said we can’t perceive anything with our eyes or ears or sense of smell or touch, only through them. And it’s the mind that says what it is they’re sensing. So if I’m looking at an apple, it’s not my eyes that tell me it’s an apple, it’s my mind that’s deciding that --interpreting the sensory signals it’s receiving.What follows from that, Plato decided, is that we cannot know things through the senses alone, since through the senses alone we cannot know that things exist. And how does he progress from here to immortality? Well, he says that if the soul cannot attain real knowledge through the senses of the body, then knowledge must be attained after death, if at all.” And I’ll say that it’s at this point, from my own experience, that immortality, or the concept of an existence of some sort after death, actually becomes something more than a fantasy fuelled by extreme and very human fear and need. It becomes something to seriously think about.Again it was the father of modern psychology, Carl Jung, many centuries after Plato, who exhorted us to take immortality very seriously. Jung spent almost his entire life convinced that the “unconscious” was the portal to another dimension, or even a multitude of dimensions, that were the true reality of our existence. In that sense, he followed the idealistic school of philosophic thought, that thought itself is imperishable and therefore real, while the physical, or material, world is transitory and in a constant state of decay. And he said: “A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it – even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss.” So, how do we form a conception of life after death, of immortality, when the only real way we can do it is to actually step through the deathly portal? Well, we can go back to the thinkers, this time to Aristotle, and find that while he also believed in immortality, it wasn’t the personal immortality that Plato and Socrates envisaged.While Plato talked of the soul being separated from the body, and thus an agent of the spiritual existence, Aristotle saw it actually driving and managing the body – a part of our physicality. He saw the mind, separated in turn from the soul, as having the higher function of thinking – and it was our rational minds, released in death from our irrational souls and the body, which achieved immortality. The mind alone, as distinguished from the soul, “is capable of existence in isolation from all other psychic powers,” he declared.Moreover, he considered that while the soul, being irrational, separates us, the rational mind unites us – and in an immortality that is not separate but part of God’s immortality – an ultimate divinity.This divinity takes us on, of course, to the divine grace and immortality promised by Christianity, but there we must be careful because we’re not dealing with reasoned investigation and conjecture any more but the demands of absolute faith and dogma.And when it comes to absolute faith in divine immortality, you can’t help but consider the faith of Bishop Berkeley, who stood as a pillar of divinity against the so-called Empiricists – mainly Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – in the great struggle of science versus philosophy and theology in the 17th century.Up until then, the Aristotelian view of us all being part of the all-encompassing immortality of God had existed alongside the Christian view, which saw God, through Christ, bestowing personal – individual -- immortality and divinity upon us.This in turn reflected the struggle through the ages between philosophy and theology alone. Philosophy, as we know, questioned our physical or material reality. It can’t be the only one we have, because ideas are not physical, or of substance, so there must be another reality which is completely immaterial. And this in turn suggested a reality beyond our present one – another existence, an immortality.Theology insisted, yes, of course there is – but it’s the immortality bestowed by God, and all you have to do is have absolute unwavering belief in it to make it come true.Bishop Berkeley’s absolute belief stood him diametrically opposed to a new theoretical schism. The 17th century ushered in the age of science and empiricism, in which thinkers like Hobbes and Locke declared there was no other, idealistic reality at all. The physical, material, reality which we experienced about us was all we’ve got, they argued.Not so, said Berkeley, and took the question of realities to its other extreme, arguing that our sole reality is in fact completely immaterial – the reality of God, whom he endowed with a Creationist role very similar to the “intelligent design” dogma we’re hearing about today.And it’s interesting to note that Berkeley had what you might call the ongoing last laugh in this fierce 17th century debate. Even at this time, with scientific investigation and exploration sparking an intellectual explosion, the empiricists, or materialists, like Locke and Hobbes were so scared of being labelled atheists that they too had to allow God a pivotal role in their submission – so they declared Him the creator of this material world and, “like a divine watchmaker [setting] it going by an initial injection of motion and keeping it going with occasional adjustments.”So the question of true realities – and the possibility of immortality – has remained at the crux of one of two great challenges to philosophy down the times – the often hostile challenge from religion. Metaphysics versus unquestioned faith.Schopenhauer had no doubts at all on the matter. He regarded religion as the metaphysics of the masses, the majority of mankind who, as he saw it, are not capable of thinking, only believing, and who, like glow-worms, need the darkness of fear and superstition in order to shine.As for immortality, Schopenhauer argued it was the knowledge we have of the inevitability of death, together with our awareness of the suffering and misery of life, that made us yearn for a metaphysical interpretation of existence. An immortality.For others, it wasn’t such an open-and-shut case. Kant, for instance, was able to believe in the existence and immortality of God, yet come up with three very compelling reasons why God doesn’t exist. His view of immortality was equally ambivalent: there is another reality, a spiritual reality, he argued, but we cannot know it because we simply don’t have the faculties to do so. There’s no reasoned way in which we can prove immortality, he insisted, but if we applied morality to this, we could come up with a fair possibility. And what Kant meant by this was that the proclaimed and undeniable existence of virtue in this life – the moral imperative – means there must be a God and a future life. Otherwise, why observe a virtuous life at all?In these times, the majority of us are moving away from the question of God and the religious afterlife and searching, I think, for the philosophical basis of the mystery of immortality. Or at least, I am.And if we take religion, or theology, out of the equation we’re left with the second biggest challenge of philosophy – the challenge of science. Again, we have the completely materialistic reality of science on the one hand – the sole reality, as science insists -- and philosophy still doggedly engaged in the compelling but obviously unproven question of an idealistic reality – a place where all our thoughts, abstracts, concepts and spiritualism exist. That other world that we can’t enter, if indeed it does exist, until we die.And I guess it’s at this point – the point in our lives where we have to face the inevitability of death -- that the whole question of immortality, or survival of our souls in one manner or another after death, becomes something the great thinkers can’t help us with any more. It becomes personal. It becomes somewhat intuitive.What I’m saying is that we can put all the philosophical arguments for and against immortality together, then decide what we ourselves want, or would envision, in terms of immortality and then listen to the soft, insistent whisper of intuition inside us.My whisper tells me that Carl Jung is right – we must spend our later lives, at least, seriously pondering the question of immortality – because in the final analysis, confronting and understanding existence and immortality does one thing – it helps remove our primal, animal fear of death. As indeed it has for me.I also feel that in investigating and attempting to understand the concept of existence and death – and let’s face it, that’s what philosophy is mostly all about -- I’m taking my first steps toward attempting to attain wisdom, which is what I definitely should be doing at this stage of my life.As for immortality itself, I can’t prove anything, of course, but that whisper inside me tells me to go back to the central debate of philosophy – the realities -- the physical reality versus the idealistic.We know that our physical reality, the world we see and feel about us, is definitely not what it appears to be. It’s our senses of sight, touch, hearing and smell that perceive it, but our minds that interpret and therefore determine, for us at least, its colour, texture, sounds and odours.For ages, this has been a chief argument in philosophy’s clash of realities – that everything about us, the so-called physical reality, is not what we perceive it to be. And it’s my opinion that the two chief protagonists, philosophy and science, have finally met on common ground, with quantum physics – with its atomic, sub-atomic and particle research – supporting the argument that our world is all in fact colourless, soundless, odourless particles that we ourselves fashion as a reality.I particularly love the image that the American science writer George Johnson has given it. “We live in an electro-dynamic world,” Johnson writes. “With every step we take, it is electrons exchanging photons that generates the repulsive force that stops our feet from going through the sidewalk. That creates the illusion of solidity in a world that we have come to believe is mostly the empty space inside electron shells.”What this says to me is that if our life, our reality, our world, our existence is so questionable, then surely the concept of death must be just as questionable too. And what that implies, of course, is that immortality is not something to reject out of hand but to ponder and investigate, as Carl Jung exhorts us, as a spiritual priority.And if I die, and there’s nothing beyond death after all, it won’t mean anything to me anyway. I’ll be dead.But as Jung adds: I’ll have arrived there, in intellectual and possibly spiritual terms, “not empty of hands” – having something to show for my life after all.
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