The Long Transition to a Modern View of Death

In tracing our theme through Western philosophy—whether death is final or whether some notion of afterlife is envisioned—there is very little more to say about this between the time of Stoicism's greatest influence and the onset of a secular, scientific modern renaissance. For over 1,200 years Christian religious views held sway, and philosophy, dominated by theology, had little of substance and still less that was novel to say about death. Enormously important philosophical work was done during this long era, but little of it had much new to contribute to Western philosophical thought on death.

Western philosophical thought on death did not take a turn back to the secular until Francis Bacon (1561-1626) promoted an increasingly scientific methodology and worldview, and René Descartes (1596-1650) reordered the philosophical agenda. Both reflect on death with the aim of excising the fear of death (which in the late Middle Ages, overwhelmed by both plague and superstition, reached new heights). Bacon, however, does so by emphasizing the continuity of dying with living, such that once we learn to live fearlessly, we will be assured of dying fearlessly. Descartes chooses to assuage fears of death by the now more traditional route of arguing for the immortality of the soul.

And as is well known, Descartes's argument to this end relies upon a radical division of persons into different substances, body and soul, mysteriously and problematically united, which sets the stage for much subsequent philosophizing.

Most of modern philosophy pursues Cartesian themes, and the variety of responses is considerable. Rationalist philosophers have generally sought to salvage hopes of surviving death. (Benedict Spinoza [1632-1677] is a notable exception.) But the philosophers of the eighteenth century, and the empiricists they often looked to, came to regard doctrines of the immortality of the soul as priestly lies. French writer Voltaire (1694-1778), through Candide's misadventures in "The Best ofAll Possible Worlds," savagely ridicules Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's (1646-1716) faith in universal harmony, and other philosophers look back to the Epicureans and Stoics for inspiration on how to face the prospects of death as annihilation.

But it was David Hume (1711-1776) who most systematically and rigorously called into question doctrines of the soul's immortality. His attack is two-pronged: First he argues against the notion of substance, specifically the self as a substance, and second, he directs a series of arguments against the notion that some part of a person survives death. In his essay "On the Immortality of the Soul" (1777), Hume characterizes substance as a "wholly confused and imperfect notion," an "aggregate of particular qualities inhering in an unknown something" (p. 591). As for the self as a substance, he states in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):

There is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations, succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea. (1978, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. 6)

Hume claims to be "insensible of myself," for the self is "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." All that binds perceptions together is memory and constancy, but it is futile to ask what it is that "has" memory or experiences constancy of conjoined perceptions (1978, bk. I, pt. 4, sec. 6).

Hume's more vigorous critique of immortality is reserved for benighted attempts to settle questions of fact by a priori metaphysical speculation, which is what is done by all doctrines of immaterial substance and all attempts to identify personhood with an immaterial soul substance that is individuated and survives the demise of the body. Placing his faith in the conviction that all natural processes have some point (if not purpose), Hume notes the universal fear of death and remarks that "Nature does nothing in vain, she would never give us a horror against an impossible event" (p. 598).

The only admissible arguments on such a question of fact as whether human beings survive death are those from experience, and these, Hume asserts, are "strong for the mortality of the soul." What possible argument could prove a "state of existence which no one ever saw and which in no way resembles any that ever was seen?" Body and mind grow together, age together, ail together, and, from all experience conveys to us, perish together. (p. 598).

Moral arguments that turn on a just Deity's desire to punish the wicked and reward the good fare no better than metaphysical ones when attempting to prove immortality. It would be a "barbarous deceit," "an injustice in nature," Hume asserts, to restrict "all our knowledge to the present life if there be another scene still waiting us of infinitely greater consequence." Still worse, it would be monstrous for a loving God to base a judgment of how each of us will spend eternity upon the all too finite experience of one human lifetime. (p. 593)

Notwithstanding that it was Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) reading of Hume that woke him up from a comfortable immersion in conventional dogmas. Kant advanced his own version of a moral argument for the immortality of the human soul. Kant agrees with Hume that no argument from nature (i.e., experience) can demonstrate the immortality of a human soul, and he even concedes that pure reason is not up to the task. Nonetheless, Kant is firmly convinced that a compelling metaphysical/moral argument will do the job.

Kant apparently never doubted his belief in human immortality, and his argument to show the soul's immortality is both elegant in its simplicity and rich in the number of fundamental Kantian tenets that it incorporates or presupposes. Kant asserts in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) that the most basic requirement of the moral law is the attainment of perfection. Such an achievement is not possible in a finite life, however. But the moral law can command only what it is possible for moral agents to do. Hence the necessity of an immortal soul so that moral agents will have the opportunity to do what they ought to do.

One of the more interesting features of Kant's proof is that it breaks with the long tradition that sees afterlife as occurring in paradise. In Kant's moral universe, there must still be pain and suffering in the hereafter, for these are inseparable features of the moral life. Further, doubt, uncertainty, and struggle for constant improvement must accompany our disembodied journey through eternity. The moral law would appear to be nearly as powerful as God.

The soundness of Kant's argument turns on the truth of at least the following Kantian doctrines: Objective reality must conform to the essential structure of the human mind; moral certainty is as sure a route to knowledge as the logical demonstrations of reason; moral perfection is required of all who would live a moral life; human beings exist, simultaneously, in two worlds, one phenomenal, the other noumenal. If any of these dogmas fail—and all have been extensively criticized—Kant's argument for the immortality of the human soul fails as well. Any number of philosophers after Kant, less enamored of metaphysical arguments, have turned his argument around and observed that if perfection is not possible in a human life span, the moral law cannot require perfection of human beings. Far from showing human immortality, Kant's insight into morality shows the limits of what a reasonable morality can demand of mortal creatures.

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