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Short Story

The Parable of the Atheist and the Logical Positivist

Michael Langford drops in on the afterlife for an argument about personal identity.

Two years before his death Professor Jones had a near death experience. The experience had been extraordinary, and surprisingly similar to the accounts he had read of other people’s near death experiences. In particular, there was that rehearsal of his whole life and that long tunnel with the friendly white light at the end of it. For all the following week, for the first time since he had jettisoned his juvenile religious faith (at seventeen), serious doubts about his atheism assailed him. Eventually, however, sanity returned – in no small part thanks to his friend, Professor Thomson. Thomson, another professional philosopher, persuaded him of something he had half-suspected even as the near death experience itself was taking place: that the strange sensations were not contact with another kind of reality, but the purely physiological effects of low oxygen levels in the brain. Indeed, his reason told him that it was precisely the common occurrence of low brain oxygen levels among those suffering cardiac failure or strokes that led to the similarity of the experiences. Of course, some elements of the phenomenon were not yet explained, such as a possible evolutionary cause of such a benign set of feelings when near the point of death; but, Jones concluded, the full explanation must be along these lines.

The two philosophers had been friends since undergraduate days at Oxford, and with respect to religion differed strongly on only one matter. While Jones called himself an atheist, arguing that it was manifest to any truly rational person that God did not exist, Thomson argued that even this position gave away too much to the theist. Following the recommendation of A.J. Ayer, the Godfather (as it were) of logical positivism, he thought it better to say that the word ‘God’ is ‘literally meaningless’. The very concept of God, he claimed, is incoherent: so as a good logical positivist he could not say that theism is ‘false’, because that would credit it with some meaning to be false about. The same approach, he argued, should be applied to the absurd belief in a life hereafter, as heralded in many religions. The concept of self, or of ‘me’, in so far as it is coherent at all, refers only to a kind of unity experienced by this particular body. Indeed, Thomson had a sneaking admiration for Old Testament Judaism, which seemed to believe only in the kind of physical immortality that was to be had through one’s descendants’ lives.

Then, just over two years after Jones’ first heart attack, both friends were dead: Jones following another, more serious, cardiac arrest; and Thomson following a tragic accident only two days later, in which his sports car, traveling at high speed in the South of France, burst a tyre and hit a tree, Albert Camus style.

There are a number of anterooms where souls spend some time alone after arrival adjusting to the situation and preparing themselves for a trial before examining judges. Often they are visited by friends who have already ‘passed over’, who inform them of the impending trial, help them to understand that they’re dead, and help them accept this new reality.

In one of the anterooms appears Thomson. There, to his astonishment, he sees standing by a window his friend Jones, of whose death he had been informed only two days ago. “Jones, my dear fellow!” he says, “I was so worried! I was phoned with news of your heart attack, and the message I got was that the attack was fatal. I’m glad to see that that was somewhat of an exaggeration.”

After a pause, Jones replies: “I think you better sit down Thomson. Things may not be quite as you assume.” Once Thomson is comfortably seated, Jones resumes: “I know things are different from what I first thought when I woke up – in the very armchair in which you are currently sitting. I’ve been here two days now. At first, I thought I was recovering after another attack. I assumed this was a rehab unit I hadn’t seen before, since the view of the hills and fields beyond the window is completely unfamiliar, and that I had short-term memory loss. I began to suspect there was more to it when I didn’t seem to be getting hungry or thirsty. This extraordinary body doesn’t seem to need food or drink! Further still, I soon noticed that there was no toilet facility connected with this room. Now I know why. These bodies just don’t need them! Also, have you noticed that both your body and mine look like the ones we had twenty years ago?”

Thomson listens to Jones’ narration with increasing incredulity, albeit accompanied by a careful examination of his own body. Then he gets up, goes to the window and looks through it at the countryside. It resembles the area near Ambleside in the Lake District, which he knows well; but it’s definitely not the Lake District. He looks down again at his body, then bends his knees and stretches his muscles. Visibly trembling, he says: “Are you trying to tell me what I think you’re trying to tell me?”

“Yes. We’re both dead! My heart attack was fatal. I began to suspect that I must be dead a few hours after I woke up here. I was getting worried because there didn’t appear to be a door into the room. In fact I was beginning to wonder if I was in a kind of Hell – a sort of solitary version of Sartre’s play. But then a door opened – it’s over there, cleverly hidden behind the bookcase, although it only opens from the outside. Peterson came in – you remember James Peterson, Head of Biology, who died four years ago? He explained things to me.”

“Hold it, hold it! Are you forgetting all the things we agreed about – all the results of hard logic? Don’t tell me you’ve got religion in your old age and gone soft in the head? Have you started to believe in God!?”

“No, no. Keep your hair on. I’m still perfectly rational. There is no God – we still agree about that – although I still prefer to say He doesn’t exist than to say that the question of His existence is like asking if a square circle exists. But I have to admit that we were wrong about one thing. Physical death does not seem to be the end of personal existence. Here I am, and, so far as I can tell, here you are, and we’re both dead; or perhaps I should say, we’re both alive!”

“I’m glad you’ve not altogether lost control of you senses; but still…” Thomson walks from the window and sits down again. He thinks hard for two minutes before speaking again.

“You say we were wrong, or are wrong, because physical death is not the end of personal existence – you say. But even if I do allow that this is an afterlife” – he winces as he remembers an image of a fast-approaching tree – “what makes you so sure that you are the same person who was alive and well on planet Earth two days ago?”

“Perhaps not well; but alive, anyway…”

Hmph! And what makes you so sure that I am the person you knew as Thomson; or come to that – that the presence you described as Peterson was really Peterson? To start with, our bodies are not the same as they were. And even if they did look and feel exactly the same, they can’t really be the same bodies, with the same atoms and the same continuity in time and space.”

“But just look here, Thomson. Here we are, with similar – though different – bodies, and with the same memories, and, so far as I can judge, the same characters – even if we are evidently in an altogether different space.”

Ascent of the Blessed
Detail of Ascent of the Blessed Hieronymous Bosch c.1500

“My dear Jones, you’re letting emotion run away, and forgetting logic. You are not Jones and I am not Thomson. We just cannot be, because it makes no sense to identify whatever these entities are that now appear to be speaking, with the bodies that were known as Jones and Thomson. There are in fact two logical possibilities that explain what’s going on, and neither of them entails personal survival after death. The first is that one of us is hallucinating; or perhaps both of us are. We are still within our old bodies – or rather, we still are our old bodies – but, perhaps while lying in comas, one or both of us is or are having a strange experience, like that near death experience you had two years ago – an experience that is powerful but illusory, and purely physiologically-based. The second possibility is that we are two new entities, produced by some advanced technology that we do not yet understand, and that these entities have been given, by some unknown means, the content of the memories of the bodies of those known as Jones and Thomson. These advanced powers might have been able to get the bodies of those two extinct persons, collect their DNA to clone them, and somehow – though I admit I do not know exactly how – scan their dead brains so that all their memories and dispositions were preserved in digital format and transferred into these new bodies. In that case we have been ‘replicated’ – perhaps thousands of years after Jones and Thomson died. The same could apply to Peterson, if the entity you encountered really did have his memories. In short, the most probable explanation of what is now happening is that we are replicas. I must admit that this is very surprising – but there is no reason to think we actually are the original Jones and Thomson in some kind of afterlife.”

“But if we have the same memories and the same characters as Jones and Thomson, then what is the difference between what you’re saying has happened and having an afterlife? Aren’t you guilty of making the old mistake of suggesting a distinction without a difference? Wasn’t it Locke who said that being the same person was a matter of having the same memories?”

“Well here’s one difference for starters: there could be lots of identical replicas – identical at least until they have a life and a history unique to them. Don’t you remember, this is something that Parfit used to write about? So if there are lots of, let us say, ‘us’, you can’t say any one of us is the real Jones or Thompson.”

“I must admit that that is a difficulty. But perhaps I am the only ‘replica’; and perhaps I have a special kind of continuity – maybe because of a relationship to someone who has known me both as the earthly Jones and as, shall I say, the ‘new’ Jones?”

“Ah, but now it seems to me that if you’re going to allow talk of a being who knows both the original Jones and his replica, and treats them as moral equivalents, then you’re getting back to the idea of God. It reminds me of the weird view of that Professor of Divinity we both liked – until she got onto the subject of religion. If you remember, she insisted that the concepts of God and personal immortality were inseparably linked, because without a God there would be no ground for belief in the real identity of a person from one life to another. In a way I agree with her – I mean in the link between the ideas. But you see where that leads us, as a matter of logic? Since we both know there is no God, we must conclude that there logically cannot be an afterlife. Unless you bring back the Platonic idea of an immortal soul, with all the problems that form of dualism involves, only a divine being could guarantee the common identity of the original and the replica. So the result is obvious. Because there is no God, and because the idea of a soul is unacceptable, what we’re experiencing now are the experiences of completely new entities, in new bodies, not the experiences of the original Jones or Thomson.”

‘Jones’ looks puzzled. He’s thinking, ‘If Thomson was wrong about an afterlife, could he also have been wrong about God? But perhaps he’s right: there is no God, and, at least partly for that reason, there is no hereafter – in which case I must not say ‘Thomson’, but ‘the Thomson replica’; and what I now experience is not the experience of Jones.’ He finds this thought deeply troubling, and replies, “It really does seem to matter whether this is or isn’t me! For starters, if I am to face some kind of examination of my life, it’s hard to know what kind of defence to make until the issue is clarified.”

© Michael Langford 2019

Michael Langford is Professor of Philosophy, emeritus, of The Memorial University of Newfoundland. He now teaches part-time in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge. He is author of The Tradition of Liberal Theology (Eerdmans, 2014) and An Introduction to Western Moral Philosophy (Cambridge Text Education, 2018).

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