Is Death the

All living creatures on this planet are mortal. From the point of view of everyday experience and natural science, human beings, like all other animals, are born and die, each with a limited life span here on Earth. But, for large tracts of human history, all over the globe, most human beings have believed that they are more than biological organisms. Rather, they are composite creatures, made up of body and soul. In world cultures and world philosophies, east and west, the soul, the subject of consciousness and will, has been regarded as immortal, sometimes as pre-existing, more often as surviving, its period of embodiment. One need only mention, in the western tradition, the names of Plato, Descartes and Butler as prominent defenders of the kind of mind—body dualism that lends itself to the formulation of philosophical arguments for the immortality of the soul.

Among the most persistent of such arguments is the argument that the soul, being a simple substance, is not susceptible to dissolution and, as such, is necessarily immortal. This argument is prominent in both Plato and Butler. But it finds little favour in contemporary philosophy, even among those philosophers sympathetic to the notion of survival. The main reason for this is the widespread loss of confidence in mind—body dualism to be found among both philosophers and theologians in the age of science. The more we know about the dependence of the mental on the physical, in humans as in other animals, the less easy it is to regard the soul as a separate, indissoluble substance. This is not to say that the materialists, or physicalists, have won the day. The philosopher John Searle has come up with powerful arguments for taking consciousness and mind seriously as features of the natural world.2 But Searle's position is not a form of dualism. What he is drawing attention to is the capacity of nature to evolve mind.

Even so, a number of strong arguments for dualism can still be found. Karl Popper, together with the neurobiologist John Eccles, defended mind-body dualism in their joint book, The Self and its Brain. But there was no question, at least in Popper's case, of deducing immortality from what he called 'World 2', the world of the mind. And even philosophers of religion such as H. D. Lewis and Richard Swinburne, both of them resolute upholders of mind-body dualism, do not attempt to defend the idea of the natural immortality of the soul.4 For them, the soul, like the body, is a finite, created substance, with a limited life span, unless sustained or recreated by God beyond death. So, even for these Christian dualist philosophers, life after death is a theological, not a philosophical, postulate. Later in this chapter we shall examine the Jewish-Christian preference for talk of resurrection rather than immortality; but, either way, survival is now regarded as a matter of God's gift, not an inherent property.

The theological reasons for supposing that God does in fact bestow the gift of life after death are quite easy to summarize. Restricting ourselves to the Christian worldview, we may refer to the doctrine of Creation, discussed in chapter 3, and to the doctrines of Incarnation and Salvation, discussed in chapters 4 and 6. Reflection on God's purposes in creation and redemption, as revealed in the history of Israel and the story of Christ, and that story's aftermath, shows that a future consummation to the whole world process, involving a new creation in which at least God's personal creatures are all to participate, is an integral aspect of the divine intention. Considerations of theodicy reinforce this view. We have already considered briefly the problem of evil that afflicts Christian understanding of creation and the love of God.6 It is widely held that, at least where human beings are concerned, the creative project would not be worth the cost unless all life's victims, from every generation, can be assured of a place in God's ultimate future.7 These considerations may be held to support the concluding affirmations of the Christian creed, whose primary foundation is, of course, Christ's Resurrection, recorded in the Gospels.

A small number of Christian philosophers have shown an interest in what they claim to be empirical evidence for survival of death, namely the alleged evidence of parapsychology or of reported near-death experiences. The contribution of parapsychology is discussed by John Hick, with intriguing reference to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in his Death and Eternal Life, which remains the major study of this whole subject area by a contemporary philosopher of religion. We shall be returning to Hick's book at various stages in this chapter. On the alleged evidence of parapsychology for survival of death, Hick remains pretty sceptical, given the possibility of alternative explanations in terms of telepathic impressions or even psychic traces, themselves of highly uncertain credibility. Accounts of near-death experiences have been collected by the Alister Hardy Research Institute, and discussed by Paul Badham and his colleagues. These too are very intriguing, not least the extremely unexpected account of his own near-death experience by the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer. But again, the evidential value of such experiences, given the sheer difficulty of interpreting them in isolation from some prior psychological, philosophical or theological framework, is highly uncertain.

To sum up: the belief that death is not the end is best treated by philosophers of religion as something required by theology rather than by philosophy. Their main concern will be, not so much with philosophical reasons or empirical evidence for such belief, as with its coherence.

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