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Santa Lives?: The Challenge for Philosophy

by Les Reid

One of the most important tasks for philosophy today is to challenge religion. Ancient religious myths are still current in most societies around the world and have perpetuated deep social divisions and traditional animosities. Fictions that were, perhaps, a source of comfort, hope and community spirit in primitive societies that faced a harsh environment and hostile neighbours, have been preserved and inculcated in technological, industrial societies which face very different problems. The natural environment is now more threatened than threatening and is overpopulated by our human species to such an extent that we are driving other species to extinction and polluting the whole planet with our waste. Hostile neighbours are still around, of course, but local conflicts do not remain local for long in an age of hi-tech warfare. Religious beliefs support aggressive territorial claims and underpin many of the most bitter and long drawn-out conflicts in the world: Muslim v Hindu, Catholic v Protestant, Christian v Muslim, Jew v Muslim, etc. A world of conflict, overpopulation and environmental crisis needs a true and rational account of itself. A plethora of religious fictions is part of the problem, not of the solution.

This task of clearing away intellectual debris was envisaged by Locke when he figured the Philosopher as Under-labourer, removing obstacles in the way of social and scientific progress. The philosopher, by examining religious beliefs and contrasting them with alternative, probably scientific, accounts of, for example, the history of the human species, reveals religious fictions as fictions and so clears the intellectual air of the fog of obsolete ideas. This creates greater opportunities for dialogue and a sense of shared experience between different cultures. Eventually religion will be as irrelevant as astrology (with all due respect to Nancy Reagan and her fortune-teller).

At this point a philosopher might expect me to produce a Proof of the Non-existence of God. But that is not my intention. Theologians have always been keen on proofs, hence the Argument from Design and the Argument from First Cause, for example. However, the millions of people around the world who are adherents of one religion or another do not believe in a syllogism. Broadly speaking, they believe that there is a spirit in charge of the universe, that the spirit takes a special interest in human beings and that there is life after death. These beliefs involve empirical claims rather than logical proofs and therefore the best response, in my opinion, is to set them alongside other examples of generally accepted empirical fact and to ask whether they are compatible. However, some points of logic are also involved and I shall attempt to show at the end of this article that life after death as envisaged by adherents to many different religions is impossible.

First, let us consider the process of disbelief. Here I invoke the Argument from Santa Claus. How do children lose their belief In Santa Claus? They have believed for years, hung out their stockings, received their presents and sent their prayers up the chimney. But still they discard that belief. Why? Because it no longer fits. Their broader understanding of the world cannot accommodate the business of Santa Claus. It now seems fantastical and improbable. Sleighs, particularly reindeer-drawn ones, are not likely to fly. A fat man in a red costume is not likely to visit several million homes in a single night via the chimney. And so the child finds the world less jolly and generous, but more rational and consistent once the belief is dropped.

The same should happen with religion. We know a great deal about this planet and the plants and creatures which inhabit it. Medicine, gardening, geography, chemistry, etc., all form part of our broad picture of the world. It is a picture which does not easily accommodate an invisible, omnipotent, kind and caring ghost lurking in every corner and reading people’s minds. The ghost seems improbable, an anomaly which it is simpler to discard.

Likewise the notion that only human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, have another life after death. When we resemble other mammals so closely in terms of skeleton, brain, respiration, digestion, etc., it is quite improbable that death should mean the end for all of them, whereas we human beings only appear to die and secretly continue in another form. The extra helping for human beings looks very much like a piece of fiction.

This challenge to religious ideas of immortality can be given more weight by adding further empirical detail. One can ask not only whether human beings are different from all other species by virtue of being immortal, but also how and when immortality was acquired. Most people accept that the scientific account of the history of the Earth is well grounded in the evidence of the rock strata. Planet Earth has a history of many millions of years, not just the few thousand recorded in the Bible, and the various species that inhabit the planet have evolved down the millennia in order to survive the geological changes that have occurred. Evidence of that biological evolution is seen not just in the fossil record but also in the obsolete relics found in our own bodies, eg. the appendix, toe-nails and male nipples. The human species has changed and evolved down the millennia like every other. Our ancient ancestors were ape-like creatures which lived in caves and hunted in packs. So when did we acquire our special additive, an after-life? At which point in our evolution did we step away from the rest of the living world and achieve the special status of being immortal? When we trace the evolutionary process back in time, back towards that common ancestor which we share with the other primates, is there a point in time where one generation of our ancestors counts as human and immortal, and the next generation counts as ape and mortal? Surely the arbitrary nature of the change makes it seem improbable. Evolution is a slow, gradual process taking millions of years. It does not readily admit an abrupt change from mortal to immortal.

It is not just American Creationists who have trouble with Evolution. They are the most vocal, but all the other religions have the same problem. Religion elevates the human species above all others, granting it immortality and declaring it the main concern of the cosmic overseer. The religious world-view is essentially anthropocentric. It is essentially at odds with a scientific world-view which sees the human species as merely typical in its progress down the millennia of evolutionary change. The Creationists are right to say that evolution and religion are incompatible; unfortunately, they have chosen the wrong side of the dilemma.

There is also a point of logic to be considered when immortality is being offered. This is the point which Socrates swept aside rather casually when it was put to him that the mind is related to the body in the same way that the harmony of the strings is related to the Iyre. The harmony is not a thing which can survive the destruction of the Iyre. It is a quality of the Iyre, not a separate thing capable of independent existence. It is a pity that Socrates ignored this important idea. His comments would have been interesting. However, we must acknowledge that it was the night before he drank the hemlock, so perhaps a different time would have been more appropriate.

Immortality requires dualism. It is a simple empirical fact that the body is mortal. Eventually the organs cease to function and the whole structure disintegrates. Therefore, if one is to live on after the death of the body, the mind must be an entity capable of independent existence. The mind is not just a quality of the body, like the harmony of the Iyre, but a thing which exists in dualistic tandem with the body throughout life and then wings its way on its own when the body dies.

The smile of the Cheshire cat is surely relevant here. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll invites us to imagine that the Cheshire cat is gradually disappearing. Eventually everything has vanished except the smile. No face, no eyes, no teeth, just the smile. The reader enjoys the joke because it is absurd. Smiles cannot exist separately from faces. It is impossible. The smile is like the harmony of the Iyre; it is not an independent thing but a quality of a thing.

Gilbert Ryle, in The Concept of Mind, calls that mistaken classification ‘a category mistake’ and argues at length that a Cartesian, dualistic model of mind and body is guilty of a major category mistake. The mistake entailed that philosophers and theologians imagined that there was a ghostly, immaterial thing called ‘the mind’ somehow located in the material object, the body. Ryle labels this view of mind and body ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ and shows the problems that arise trying to connect the mind to the body, locating the mind, describing it and so on. The dualists invented an empty abstraction, ‘the mind’, and tied themselves in knots trying to make sense of it.

Minds are not mysterious. We encounter them every day. We may even engage in some mental activity ourselves. Let us consider first a person’s character, which may be generous, or irritable, or vain, or whatever. There is no mystery about such attributes. We do not ponder on the location of vanity and how it is connected to the body. To be vain is a matter of acting in a certain way; the vanity is a quality of the actions, not a strange ‘vanity-thing’, hidden in the body.

Similarly, there are the skills which people acquire. For example, one might be a skillful footballer or an accomplished liar, or one might be useless at solving crossword puzzles or a mediocre cook. How do we recognise such skills? We look at people’s actions and behaviour. We do not look for immaterial objects hidden in the body. Skills do not have an independent existence. They are not things which can survive the demise of the person who performs those actions. The skill of the accomplished lyre-player is found only in the notes he plays on the strings.

Immortality is a pipe-dream which is based on a false conception of mind and body. The basic false assumption is that mind can exist separately from the body, that mind is a ghostly object rather than being a quality of the material object, the body. Instead, we see that a person is a body which acts in a certain way and that the attributes which the dualists ascribed to mind belong to actions and behaviour. When the body dies, the actions cease and the person dies completely.

It would be very nice indeed to be immortal and to enjoy the pleasures of life and the company of our loved ones forever. It would also be nice if a jolly old man in a red costume would bring us all an expensive present or two in return for a note up the chimney.

It is time to put away religion. We inhabit a small, shrunken planet facing great problems. It is better to face those problems armed with a true, rational account of our world than to perpetuate the false, divisive beliefs of the past.

© Les Reid 1993

Les Reid is alive and well and living in Northern Ireland, where, among other activities, he teaches Humanism as an evening class.

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