William James on Immortality

Immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of man.— William James

A generation before Freud and on the other side of the Atlantic, William James laid foundations for an empirical science of psychology.  Compared to Freud, James was less theoretical, more open-minded.  He styled himself a radical empiricist, and led a philosophic movement away from religion and dogma, rooted in what we can see and hear and measure in nature.

In this essay, James argued famously that there is no such thing as consciousness, which would align him with the most extreme materialist views of Daniel Dennett.

How delightfully surprising, then, to discover that James found support for the belief that the human experience does not end with the death of our physical bodies.  As always, he is balanced and open-minded, presenting arguments on both sides.  He (130 years ago) leans toward a view which I had considered rather modern: that our brains are not the source of conscious awareness, but rather a translator, a transceiver, an intermediating device for conducting awareness into and out of the physical realm from its natural home in a world that knows no space and time.

In 1893, Caroline Haskell Ingersoll bequeathed an endowment to Harvard University, for the purpose of sponsoring annual lectures on the subject of human immortality.  This  lecture series included Alfred North Whitehead, Robert J. Lifton, Marian Wright Edelman, and (recently) Toni Morrison.  The second Ingersoll Lecture was delivered in 1887 by William James of Harvard’s own philosophy department.  Excerpts below:

The first of these difficulties is relative to the absolute dependence of our spiritual life, as we know it here, upon the brain…How can we believe in life hereafter when Science has once for all attained to proving, beyond possibility of escape, that our inner life is a function of that famous material, the so-called ’gray matter’ of our cerebral convolutions? How can the function possibly persist after its organ has undergone decay? Thus physiological psychology is what is supposed to bar the way to the old faith. And it is now a physiological psychologist that I ask you to look at the question with me a little more closely.

Thought is a function of the brainThe question is, then, Does this doctrine logically compel us to disbelieve in immortality?…Most persons imbued with what one may call the puritanism of science would feel themselves bound to answer this question with a yes.

[E]ven though our soul’s life…may be in literal strictness the function of a brain that perishes, yet it is…quite possible, that the life may still continue when the brain itself is dead.  The supposed impossibility of its continuing comes from too superficial a look at the admitted fact of functional dependence.

Suppose, for example, that the whole universe of material things—the furniture of earth and choir of heaven—should turn out to be a mere surface-veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities. Such a supposition is foreign neither to common sense nor to philosophy. Common sense believes in realities behind the veil even too superstitiously; and idealistic philosophy declares the whole world of natural experience, as we get it, to be but a time-mask, shattering or refracting the one infinite Thought, which is the sole reality, into those millions of finite streams of consciousness known to us as our private selves.

[W]hether we care or not for immortality in itself, we ought, as mere critics doing police duty among the vagaries of mankind, to insist on the illogicality of a denial based on the flat ignoring of a palpable alternative. How much more ought we to insist, as lovers of truth, when the denial is that of such a vital hope of mankind!

In strict logic, then, the fangs of cerebralistic materialism are drawn. My words ought consequently already to exert a releasing function on your hopes. You may believe henceforward, whether you care to profit by the permission or not.

James goes on at length (conciseness not being among his abundant virtues) to state the hard problem that David Chalmers made famous a century later: there is no theory that offers us any inkling of how physical processes in the brain might give rise to our subjective experience of awareness—“Sense, pleasure, pain—what are they but a shifting otherness, phantasmal flux of moments?” [George Eliot]  Thus the “transmission” theory is no worse than the “production” theory in this regard.  In favor of the “transmission” theory, James cites experiments in parapsychology and describes (already in the 19th Century) a prejudice against them from established scientists.

A medium, for example, will show knowledge of his sitter’s private affairs which it seems impossible he should have acquired through sight or hearing, or inference therefrom. Or you will have an apparition of some one who is now dying hundreds of miles away.

He ends by arguing that not just human life but all life is immortal.

For my own part, then, so far as logic goes, I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?… If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives, however numerous, however unideal they may seem to us to be. Let us at any rate not decide adversely on our own claim, whose grounds we feel directly, because we cannot decide favorably on the alien claims, whose grounds we cannot feel at all. That would be letting blindness lay down the law to sight.

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1 thought on “William James on Immortality

  1. Pingback: Re-enchanting Nature and Ourselves | Daily-Inspiration

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