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Will I Know Me In Heaven?

Les Reid reviews Immortality, an anthology edited and introduced by Paul Edwards.

One of Shakespeare’s lapses of concentration occurs when he has Hamlet in the course of his “To be or not to be” soliloquy describe the afterlife as “…the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” This is odd because two scenes earlier Hamlet had had a lengthy chat with the ghost of his dead dad who had apparently just returned from that undiscovered country. Equally odd is the news that the ghost wore a suit of armour for the journey. Was he worried that someone might try to kill him? Where did he get the armour from? Is it the ghost of a suit that he wore in life, or is it one that he picked up somewhere in the after-life? Hamlet only tells us that there are more things in heaven than we thought. Yes, we want to reply, and some of them do not make sense.

However, if Shakespeare is not a reliable guide to the undiscovered country, he is not alone. This anthology contains several would-be guides, ranging from Plato through Aquinas to John Hick, all of whom have tried to put some flesh on the bare bones of the notion of an after-life, and their efforts generally seem pretty odd too. As one might expect, it is seeing how the debate develops between believers and unbelievers down the centuries that is one of the attractions of this book. One of its delights, however, is that Paul Edwards makes room not only for the serious philosophers whose writings make up the bulk of the anthology, but also for popular writers and broadcasters whose colourful ideas are often hugely entertaining. His introduction brings many of these characters before us in all their glory. This is one of the few philosophy books that has made me laugh out loud.

Take, for example, the popular broadcaster, Dr. Kubler-Ross, who claims to have met visitors from the next world. Interviewed on Canadian television by Roy Bonnisteel, she was asked about the age and appearance of her visitors.

RB I’m wondering how they look, because a lot of people on their death-bed don’t look very well.

K-R They look young and healthy.

RB They look young and healthy?

K-R Yes.

RB At a younger age.

K-R They look the way they feel would appeal to you the most.

RB Hmmmm.

K-R Like if you had a marvellous time with your mother when she was 50, she looked at her best, she would come to you the way she looked when she was 50 and you had the best time together. But that is their choice. They can appear any way that is the most appealing to you.

Edwards comments drily, “Surely not even Dr. Pangloss could have come up with a more cheerful solution.”

But the irony is not reserved for the popularisers. After describing John Hick’s convoluted ideas of resurrection, which include the proposal that the replica of an older person may at first grow younger in the after-life until it achieves prime condition, Edwards compares Hick to “…a pauper who imagines himself a millionaire and then debates with himself how he is going to spend the money.”

I do not wish to give the impression that the book is only concerned with debunking survival theories. It is much more than that. In the introduction, which at 70 pages is almost a book in itself, Edwards maps out the whole subject area and shows how immortality links to several contested concepts: personal identity, free will, minds and brains, animal consciousness, etc. In each case, having sketched the main arguments, he then refers the reader to the appropriate articles and further reading is suggested in the bibliography. Immortality is often no more than the point of departure for various philosophical explorations. Thus, even a sceptical reader like myself who regards immortality as a mere myth, can find this book immensely challenging and rewarding.

For example, the debate between survivalists who believe in the resurrection of the body and those who believe that the mind survives in a disembodied form, is a variation of the debate between dualists and monists on the concept of mind. Thus, if dualism is wrong and minds cannot exist independently of bodies, it follows that survival will have to involve resurrection of the body. A substantial part of the book is therefore concerned with questions in the philosophy of mind, as discussed by the Enlightenment philosophers, Locke and Hume, of course, but also Reid, Voltaire and Priestly, for a welcome change. Recent discussion is also well represented with articles by Flew, Foster, Hospers, Edwards and Parfit among others.

Edwards himself argues for epiphenomenalism, the view that mental states are a by-product of brain activity and do not act causally upon the brain or body. He says that it is the only way to avoid the difficulties inherent in the interactionist model. As I understand it, this means that “It just occurred to me that …” becomes the paradigm for all mental activity. Edwards, to his credit, grants strong arguments to the critics of epiphenomenalism. So much so, in fact, that the present writer sided with the opposition. I could accept that consciousness is dependent on the brain and that cases of Alzheimer’s disease, etc., provide empirical evidence for that conclusion, but those facts did not, in my opinion, entail that mental events could not have causal effects. A process of thinking which issues in action seems to me to be a causal sequence and I agree with Searle when he denies that a reductionist programme can remove the element of intentionality. But perhaps that reaction to the theory is premature, if not impulsive. I intend to read more about it.

This book is packed with vigorous philosophical argument and contains a wealth of references and examples. Paul Edwards is an excellent editor, choosing the contents with great skill and introducing them with wit and style. It is only my duty as a reviewer which makes me complain about the lack of an index and of an alphabetical bibliography. The reviewer would also say that the Beloff article could well have been dropped in favour of the absent Thomas Nagel essay which is so warmly recommended by the editor. But these are little carps asking for more icing on the cake. I heartily recommend the book and wish it could be made compulsory reading for all professional holy people of whatever dogma. They might not find it as entertaining as I did, but they would certainly find it thought-provoking.

Immortality is edited and introduced by Paul Edwards and is published by Macmillan in the Philosophical Topics series. It costs £8.50 for the paperback.

© L.Reid 1994

Les Reid is still alive and well and teaching humanism in Northern Ireland.

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