Death Control: The Last Taboo? - 'Religious Perspectives on Euthanasia' and 'Can Philosophy Calm Anxieties?'

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Euthanasia, whilst becoming a more frequent topic for comment in the Press, is still viewed with as much suspicion as eugenics a hundred years ago.  Ethical issues, legal and financial questions are touched on but tend to provoke well-worn responses.  This Symposium provides an opportunity for serious debate on this important topic.

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Religious Perspectives on Euthanasia

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Emeritus Gresham Professor of Divinity

My brief is to talk about religious attitudes to euthanasia, and that is what I am going to do, so it is mostly presenting attitudes and a few comments on what the background to that is.

I will begin by saying that I think the most basic religious attitude is one that seeks to preserve the affirmation of life as its key perspective and is very fearful of anything which might undermine that.  In fact, of course there are many religions in the world, it is nevertheless quite clear that all the major religions are opposed to euthanasia, in their official statements at least.  The Anglican Church made its own point in its submission to the House of Lords Select Committee in 2004, that was a joint submission with the Roman Catholic Church in opposing the institution of euthanasia.

So what are the religious arguments for that?  There are quite a lot of arguments, and one very good text from my own church is on "Dying Well", which is a complete discussion of the reasons for and against the practice of euthanasia.  In fact it is quite difficult to disentangle the purely religious reasons, and at the end of my brief talk, I am going to ask how you could decide whether purely religious reasons were actually at work and what they would be, but let me give what occurs in these documents as what appear to be religious reasons.

The first, and the most important one, is that if you are part of a religion which believes in God, as the creator of human life, who has a purpose for the universe and for individual human lives within it, then you will think that life is a gift, life is a gift of God.  Of course, as it was said, many things that happen in life can not be regarded as gifts of God: God does not give pain as a gift, but perhaps God gives the capacity to cope, the capacity to deal with pain, or perhaps the opportunity to learn through what has to be undergone.  You might think in other contexts of pain and suffering as something that you just undergo, and you could either learn from or become embittered by, but that life itself is certainly, for a believer in God, I suppose, a gift.  It is not something we create.  We are not self-made men and women, in fact; it is something received from the Creator.

So that is perhaps the most important religious reason because, if you did not believe in God, you might not believe that life was a gift.  If you thought, for example, that human life was the result of millions of accidents in a pointless and purposeless universe, you might not find a very great reason to think that life particularly was a gift.  There would be nobody to give such a gift, the phrase would not make much sense, but I am going to come back to that a little later.  But there is the first point then: if you believe that your life is created by God, that it does have a purpose, then you might indeed feel that it is not for you to reject the gift, and there may be ways in which you have to endure what happens, but nevertheless, there is some point that can be found in it, not that it was designed to test you, but that when the testing comes, you can make of that a virtue.

The second reason is slightly similar, but it is unique to Judaism and Christianity, and that is this: humans are made in the image of God, and being made in the image of God, human life has, some would say, as Rabbi Jacobowitz used to, "Human life is of infinite intrinsic value; every life in every state has worth; no moment of any human life is worthless."  You can certainly see why Jews have a special reason for saying that.  They, of all people, have faced the threat of extinction and the reality of people who thought they were less than human, that their lives could be dispensed with.  So, although Jews do not have to believe in immortality at all, and many do not, nevertheless, it is a very deeply rooted Jewish feeling that you must not distinguish between some human lives which are worthwhile and other human lives which are not worthwhile.  It may seem easy for sophisticated people to make fine distinctions about which lives are worthwhile and which are not, but there is a point at which you might want to say, if we draw one broad, clear line, that will preserve the value of life better than making subtle distinctions that might be modified, as indeed they were in the unfortunate history of Germany in the last century.  So it is not that immortality becomes something absolutely vital there, it is not that we know exactly what is meant by that biblical phrase of being made in the image of God, but it certainly relates human life to the life of God in a specially intimate way, and the point is that, from that, you can infer that each human life is of absolute value.

A third point made by religious believers is that the killing of the innocent is forbidden in scriptures.  It is forbidden in the Koran.  There is no licence in the Koran for suicide bombing.  The only thing that could be used, and has been used, by Islamic terrorists, is that killing yourself is absolutely forbidden except in the cause of justice, so there could be a perverse argument, which would be rejected by all Islamic scholars of any respectable tradition.  There could be an interpretation of that which said the requirements of justice in extreme situations might mean that killing of others, including yourself, is necessary.  But suicide itself, or the taking of innocent human lives, is quite clearly forbidden in the Koran, and in the Bible too, and indeed, those religions which are not theistic, like the Jains in India, for example, insist that no life should be taken.  The principle is Ahimsa - that is, no harm should be caused to any living thing - a principle which Gandhi made much of, and again, it is easy to understand that principle, "Do no harm to living things".  In the Semitic traditions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - we usually do not say that; we usually say "Do no harm to innocent human lives," but we might well reflect that perhaps we could think more about taking the lives of other conscious entities too, but we might not want to think about taking innocent life if we could help it.

So that is a commandment - that life is not to be taken.  The Old Testament command in fact, often quoted, is not "Do not kill"; it is, in Hebrew, "Do not kill unlawfully," and so you have to define what lawful killing is, but it certainly means "Do not kill those who are innocent".  So there is some room for debate, but the general principle is quite clear: to take a life is forbidden.

Then, associated with that, is something that Pope John Paul II made much of in his Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor", which I always like to say is the only doctoral dissertation which was infallible.  That is slightly incorrect of course; it was not really infallible, but John Paul liked to think it was, and when he wrote "Veritatis Splendor", his main point actually was to combat ethical thinkers who tried to have basic moral rules to which you could make exceptions.  John Paul was an absolutist, and he made this the principle of Catholic moral theology, that there are some absolute moral rules which cannot be broken in any circumstances, and one of them is the taking of an innocent human life.  That is something forbidden absolutely.  So I suppose that is not necessarily a religious reason because there are absolutists who do not have any religious reason for that, but in a sense, it makes more sense, if you think there is a God, to say you could have an absolute rule that you never broke on any occasion, or at least, psychologically, there seems to be that connection, and it is, after all, John Paul who said, "There are absolute moral rules."  So, that is something which is on the borderlines of religion perhaps, but it is part of the Catholic faith that there are absolute moral rules: there are some rules that you cannot, for any reason, break.  That means that you have to think very carefully about how you formulate those rules, and in thinking that, you want to make the very important distinction between prolonging life by what you might call aggressive or extraordinary or unusual means and terminating a life intentionally. 

Earlier this afternoon, Katherine Whitehorn mentioned the principle of Double Effect, which is very important in Catholic theology.  It is a rather complicated principle, but in its simplest form, what it says is that you must not directly intend to take a life.  You may do something which has the foreseen consequence of the ending of a life, but that cannot be your primary intention. 

So this underlies the general recommendation that the Anglican and Roman Catholics made to the House of Lords; that actually perhaps doctors take too seriously the view that they should take any means to prolong life and that is not actually necessary, but it is a big step from saying that you need not prolong life by extraordinary means to saying you can actually take a life, or an even bigger step to say not only can you take a life, you can frame an institution, socially, which has the purpose of taking human lives.  It may not be that that in itself is catastrophic, but when human beings are largely influenced by peer group pressure, and by things that are in the air, and things that they think and hear from other people are alright, it may in fact be very important to stick to some absolute rules and say "this, I will not do".  So for example, you might just say "I will never torture an innocent human being," and if you make that a rule, you know where you stand.  If you say, "Well, I sometimes would, under some circumstances," then who knows how your views may change to include many different sorts of circumstances.  Of course, one must remember that hard cases make bad law, and when you are thinking about moral rules, it is really not a good idea to take the most extreme cases you can think of and make the rule to cover that.  Exceptions perhaps might occur, but you would probably usually find that they are probably re-described so as not to break an absolute rule.   Anyway, that is certainly a principle of Catholic moral theology, it is an absolutist's philosophy, and in morality, and it includes not taking a human life.  So for Catholics, that is the end of the matter: you cannot take an innocent human life for any reason at all, but you are not bound to prolong it in ways which are perhaps possible but invasive.

What other religious reasons could there be or do people give?  Well, one is that there is life beyond death.  As a matter of fact, that is not usually appealed to very strongly in the documentation of religious writers on this topic, but it perhaps has more impact in some Indian-based faiths, because I think it would be put forward as a reason, and I have checked this with the Hindu Centre in Oxford, and they certainly take the view - when I say "they", I mean those who speak for certain varieties of Hindu religion - take the view that to take a life, innocently, is to interfere with the process of Karma, of cosmic justice, and therefore will actually make things worse for the person in a life beyond this.  Now, that is clearly a religious-based view, but I think part of it is perhaps not so much what happens to you now, in reincarnation, is a result of bad things that you have done in the past; the important thing to stress is that what you do now will affect what you shall be in the future.  Although that plays a special part in the thinking of those who do believe in reincarnation, that what happens to you in future lives will depend very much on what you have done in this life, it does play some part in Christian and Jewish thinking, to the extent that, if you do something which is morally wrong, this will not be a good thing for your future life. 

So life after death is a consideration, though, as I say, it is not usually appealed to very strongly, but for some people, psychologically, it may have an impact to think that this life is not the end, that you are destined for an eternal life with God, and that that life may be possible through, if it has to happen, the endurance of suffering, just as, in the Christian case, you could think of the crucifixion of Christ as a way to a unity with God and to glory.  Certainly, such a belief would affect your view of dying.  Death would not be an end of a sad life, but death would be a way into the fuller life, from which you have been alienated through the condition of the human world, but which you perhaps have caught glimpses of, and I think one must think of that as a religious motivation - life with God is greatly to be desired and, if it is God's will, that it is through what we do with this life, and what we make of it, that the nature of our life with God will be affected, then that would be very important that we affirm the life that we have been given and do not reject it.

I suppose there is one other consideration which you could call religious and that is the nature of compassion.  I think all religions think of compassion as a major human virtue.  Each verse of the Koran begins with the invocation of the compassionate, the merciful, and compassion and love are characteristics of the Jewish and Christian view of God as well.  I suppose compassion implies that you should care for those who suffer, and that you should ease suffering and eliminate it wherever possible, that suffering is never a good thing.  But nevertheless, the compassion does not imply, and should never be confused with, killing, and it is slightly paradoxical to say you could have compassion for someone and kill them.  It might not be totally possible, but it seems to open a wedge which threatens a yawning chasm, and so you might want to say that compassion should always seek to heal but never seek to kill.  I think that would help to define what compassion is quite well, in a world where you may think it is for people's own good that they die, even if they do not recognise that that is the case.

Of course, there are lots of other reasons which are brought forward to justify opposition to the institution of medical practices which involve the termination of innocent lives.  I will only briefly mention these because they are not particularly religious, but they probably take an added force from the reasons that I have mentioned, about God, about purpose, about meaning, significance and value in human life.

Perhaps the main one is that, once you cease to affirm life, then it may seem that you are approving of death or that you are careless of life.  The principle of autonomy, which has been mentioned today, the principle that you should be able to choose what you want to do, you cannot deny that is an important principle, but of course we all know the principle of autonomy is misused every day and we do not want to have social institutions which actually bolster and support those misuses of autonomy.  So autonomy needs to be carefully limited - limited by compassion, limited also by that fundamental value of respect for human life.  Here, as well, the institution of a practice which threatens human life, which could be misused, and the instances for misuse are perfectly obvious, that it is not hard to make an old person feel that they are not wanted, and that perhaps is not a culture that we would be happy to have.  I am not saying this is an easy thing to say, or to practise, to put into practice, but I think, if you can say to somebody when they ask you to kill them, and I have been asked that, if you can say, "It is not open to me to do that - I cannot take an innocent human life," that, I believe, can have the effect of reinforcing somebody's belief that, after all, maybe life is of value.  Maybe it is not that "I'd just be better out of the way"; you never know what goes on in the secrets of people's hearts.  But I think there is a certain point in being able to say there are some things I would never do, and I would not like my society to do, and I do this because I affirm life and because there is always something, there is always something that is worthwhile in a human life, and in every human life.  We do not make distinctions.

Without going into the other social reasons, which of course are quite important on their own but they are not religious reasons, I now want to raise a question: what is religious about these reasons?  I have mentioned God, I have mentioned life after death, I have mentioned being made in the image of God - are these really religious reasons?  I want to just suggest there are two views you might take of religion in this respect: there is the view I would call an externalist view, religion seen from the outside; and there is an internalist view, religion as practised and believed.

The externalist view would see it like this: a religious reason is something which says "I know there is a God, perhaps I just believe it for no reason, but I think there is a God, and that God has commanded me not to do something, so I will not do it."  That is an externalist reason, because religious people do not usually think like that.  That is what atheists think religious people think like: "There is a God, God has told me not to do this, so I won't do it."

The internal approach to religion is much more subtle, and it is that what you mean by God in the first place is very largely determined by your basic moral values.  It is not that you believe in some being who tells you what is right and wrong; it is that your deepest feelings about what is right and wrong connect somehow with a sense of purpose and meaning and significance in life and in the universe itself.

So if you think of that first religious reason I brought out, life as a gift, is that really religious?  Does it depend on there being God to see life as a gift, life as something which is given to you, that you have only once, briefly, you touch it, you experience it?  Isn't believing in God something that follows from that as much as derives?  What I mean is it is not that you believe life is a gift because you first of all believe in God; you begin to think there is some deeper meaning in the cosmic context in which you live because you feel life is a gift, given to be used with care and enjoyed. 

Again, the absolute value of human life - is that a religious feeling?  Well, from the inside, it is rather, because human life is felt to have absolute value, that we tend to feel this value is built into the universe itself.  It is objective.  It is not something that I invent.  I suppose that is the deepest religious feeling I have about these matters, that morality is not invented, it is discovered.  We may be wrong in what we think we discover, but we seek to find the truth.  We do not just seek to invent something we can all live with.  Seeking to find that truth is seeking to ask: what is the value of a human life, and can it be affirmed?

Now at the end of my talk, I would like to give a quote from a well-known philosopher, and it says this: "To redeem the past and to transfer every "it was" into an "I wanted it thus", that alone do I call redemption."  And also from the same writer: "Was that life"  Well then, once more..."  The writer is, perhaps surprisingly, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the first great philosophical atheist, felt that religion denied life and that he wanted to affirm life, and his myth of eternal recurrence was that life could be repeated again and again because you will it to be, with all its woe, and his challenge was, as an atheist: would you live this again?  He said, "Religion says no.  I say yes.  I am a yeah-sayer to life." 

Well, the question I would just leave here is: was Nietzsche right?  He was absolutely wrong when he said religion denies life, because, as I have said, this whole attitude to euthanasia, which is taken by most religions officially, is that life is to be affirmed as worthwhile in every part and for every person, and dilemmas have to be endured, whichever view we take, with tears, but sometimes we may feel that we have to draw hard and clear lines, and I think the churches do. Perhaps what we would then need most of all is to draw those clear lines and to instruct our medical professionals that they should always act with compassion and for the relief of human suffering, but always with a respect for every human life.


©Professor Keith Ward


"Our Little Life is Rounded with a Sleep"...Can Philosophy Calm Anxieties?

Professor Richard Sorabji CBE FBA, Emeritus Gresham Professor of Rhetoric

Among philosophers, Plato presented Socrates on the last day of his life, before he drank the poisonous hemlock, which was the way he was being executed, and his main message in this dialogue was that philosophy is a preparation for death.  That is to say, philosophy, in Socrates' view, as Plato conceives him, is trying to teach you how to withdraw to the most important things; the things, in this view, which do not have to do with the body.  One follower of Plato and Socrates, famously, thought that this preparation for death meant that a true Platonist should commit suicide, so later Platonists had to explain that that was not the intended message.

To me, it seems that that is something that is going to cause too much withdrawal from life.  In thinking about life, you need to take death into account, but I do not think you should be withdrawing from life.  I am not, in that regard, a Platonist.

Another of the ancient philosophy schools, the Stoics, believed that suicide was right in certain circumstances.  They had two views about this.  One view was that there were five circumstances in which suicide was permissible.  One case was if you otherwise would have to betray a friend; another case would be if you were afflicted with irreversible madness (because they paid great importance to rationality - they thought we were fragments of "the rational God").  But a second view among the Stoics was that you should weigh up the balance of preferred things in life and dis-preferred things in life: do not imagine these things are really important - health is not really, in the end, important, prosperity is not really, in the end, all that important - but nonetheless, well before the time that you are going to actually die naturally, you should be thinking "Have I got a preponderance of the things which, though not really the most important things, nonetheless are the preferred things?"  It is said the founder of Stoicism fell down, broke two fingers, said to God, "Don't worry - I'm coming!" and simply committed suicide by holding his breath.  Nobody since, I believe, has found success with this technique again!

I am currently engaged in a book comparing, rather eccentrically, Mahatma Gandhi with the Stoics.  I find they have a tremendous amount in common, and I believe they throw tremendous light on each other.  They throw light on each other because God is not always seen to be a philosopher but I think the Stoics reveal how he could be a little bit more consistent and then he would come out as a true philosopher.  Meanwhile, the Stoics never achieved their ideals, whereas Gandhi put these ideals into practice.  So I think the two throw light on each other. 

Now, Gandhi practised a very common Hindu practice of fasting unto death.  Indeed, if you want to get somebody to pay their debts, you sit on their doorstep and fast unto death until you get paid, or else die first.  It is a very common custom, and Gandhi was simply following a very familiar Hindu custom in having these many fasts unto death, which always sent the Viceroy scuttling and making every concession under the Sun!

Also, he wrote, notoriously, to the Jews, saying that they should treat Hitler the way he was treating the British and go for self-sacrifice.  Indeed, he said it did not matter if the entire race was wiped out by voluntary self-sacrifice - numbers meant absolutely nothing.  The moral example, hopefully, would produce the most wonderful effects eventually, and even if it did not, it was the right thing to do.

I think you probably will have come here with very different interests, because our talks have touched on very different interests.  Some people are worried about death because they are worried about the increasing loss of activity in their old age, they are worried about illness, causing disgust to other people, pain, helplessness, or the actual process of dying.  So many of you may not be interested in the main thing I am going to talk about - actually being dead.  Even there, people are worried about that for very different sorts of reasons: some because it puts an end to their wonderful relationships and projects; some because they fear punishment after death; some - and I want to ask whether this one is irrational - because they just have a horror of the idea of not existing.  Several of these things have been mentioned already in this symposium.  Only some of you will feel very strongly this fear, and perhaps it is irrational.  But I am going to discuss the fear simply of not existing.

Now, there are views about how we could survive after death.  It takes a great deal of imagination in order to really apprehend and think about what these various forms of survival should be like.  One issue was raised earlier by Katherine Whitehorn, who was referring to Muslims.  There is a most wonderful view, which is an answer to her question, of possibly the greatest of all Islamic philosophers, Ibn Sina, or Avicenna as he is called in the Latin tradition.

Avicenna believed in the Greek Neo-Platonist view, that the ideal form of life after death was union with an extremely intellectual God.  This would involve thinking and identifying yourself with God, the thinker.  It was a late-Greek Neo-Platonist view, which influenced some of the more philosophical Muslim thinkers.  He asked himself the question, "What about all these things about the lovely gardens that are awaiting people and, in some cases, the virgins that will be awaiting them?"  This was, I think, the question that Katherine Whitehorn was speaking about.  Avicenna had a very interesting answer.  I do not think this is the orthodox Muslim view - there was no orthodoxy among the Muslim philosophers.  His answer was that God, in his benevolence, arranges something for those who are really not up to this intellectual union with an intellectual God.  Some people cannot raise themselves beyond the idea of a heaven which would consist of all these gardens and virgins, so, for them, God, in his benevolence, has offered a perpetual dream, in which this is all that would happen to them, but it is merely a dream - the only true immortality is the immortality of those few select souls who are capable of union with the intellectual God.

Of course, some religions and some thinkers believe in reincarnation.  This was true of Plato and the Pythagoreans, in our European tradition, and it is true of Hindus.  It makes an enormous difference to the way you view life, of course.  You cannot look at life without being somewhat affected by whether you believe in an afterlife, and what form of afterlife, if any. 

Now, is reincarnation a consoling thought for those who want to avoid extinction?  I do not think Western Europe has thought sufficiently about the different forms reincarnation could take.  You see, it is not going to be much consolation to me if some other person is subsequently able to borrow my soul. No, I want it to be me!  If I am worried about this sort of thing at all, I want it to be me going on.  One of the Neo-Platonists in Greece discusses this issue, because he was really talking about how Socrates might have borrowed the soul of Pythagoras.  That is all very nice for Socrates, but it does not do much for Pythagoras, does it?  Some other fellow has got hold of his soul!  Or supposing Socrates, for example - this is quite imaginary, nobody ever said this - can remember events in the life of Pythagoras?  Well, that is wonderful for Socrates, but what good does that do for Pythagoras? 

I think the Hindus have thought very much more about what would give sense to saying that it was not just reincarnation in the sense of the souls going on - a different person has got hold of it - but how to make sense of the idea that it was the very same person.  For example, they talk not just about remembering what happened in a past incarnation, they talk about aspiring towards being better in your next incarnation, and then remembering your aspiration and seeing that, to some extent, you have achieved it.  If you have got forwards aspiration as well as backwards memory, and indeed backwards memory of aspiration now seen to be partially fulfilled, there is much more of a case for saying that it is not just the same soul or the same memories that somebody has got hold of, but that it is actually the same person.  I think they have thought much more than the Western tradition has about what reincarnation might be like if it is to be of any solace.

Now, some people imagine a disembodied survival.  Indeed, St Augustine, in the City of God, mentions that this is an interim stage, and he is a great and influential Christian thinker.  I do not know whether Christians necessarily have to believe what Augustine says, but his view was there was a temporary stage of disembodied existence.  This, I think, is perhaps the hardest type of survival to imagine.  There are several different questions: what sort of psychological experiences could one have if one was totally disembodied?  I think the favourite one that people think of is thinking.  That is what Socrates talks about, because he thought there were disembodied stages in between reincarnations, because thinking does not so obviously involve body, except that we know it involves the brain, but of course we are already going beyond what is within the limits of scientific knowledge if we suppose that there could be disembodied existence, so this is just one more supposition which goes beyond our scientific experience, and the idea would be that thinking is the sort of mental experience that could continue. 

But what about other things?  For example, could one feel, over a whole portion of one's body, could one feel something?  Well, not if one hasn't got a body.  Could one feel the emotional thump which one has when one experiences emotions?  Emotions involve more than just emotional thumps or sensations; emotions also involve thoughts, and I have been saying that perhaps it is easier to make sense of the idea for having thoughts about how things are very nice or very nasty, but could one experience the emotional thump which is involved in emotions?  Well, that is sort of spread out over a whole area of your body, isn't it?  You feel it in your chest or your tummy or somewhere else.  I am not sure if you could feel those things.  Would one have a voice?  No, that is a form of body, isn't it?  Perhaps one could have a visual viewpoint.

But just think for a moment: how much of one's original concept of oneself is tied up with the body?  The infant's concept of itself is tied up with the idea of whether its mouth is properly aligned with its mother's breast.  The original idea of self in an infant is very much to do with its position in the physical world, and it had jolly well better be, because the early conception of self is very much about the physical.  It is very much about avoiding obstacles towards which you are approaching, or avoiding obstacles which are approaching you, and distinguishing whether you are approaching it or it is approaching you to get out of its way satisfactorily.  Early ideas of selfhood are very much bound up with the body.  You have got to imagine that all those would drop away, and how much conception of self would you retain?  You have got to ask yourself that question. 

Could you perhaps at least have a viewpoint, because the viewpoint is only a point?  It does not involve a whole area of the body.  Yes, you might have.  We might imagine that a disembodied person had a viewpoint, but then, would this just be a series of imaginary viewpoints?  You see, I know my viewpoint here is different from my viewpoint when I was sitting in the chair, and they are both real viewpoints, because I navigated my way from the one viewpoint to the other viewpoint, and in navigating my way, I knew I was navigating, because I have a viewpoint that is limited by the frame of my face.  So, at every point between that chair there and this stand here, I was recognising how far things looked to me.  This desk became larger and larger in my visual field until it fills a very large part of it.  All this assured me - and if I was in any doubt I could ask you "Am I standing at the lectern?" - I have many physical ways of telling that this was not just my dreaming or imagining a change of viewpoint, that I actually did really move, but if we have disembodied experiences, it would be just like a dream I suppose.  It would be one viewpoint after another, but no way of distinguishing between whether these were imaginary or real changes of position and changes of viewpoint.

I suppose in effect we would have become streams of consciousness, but then, would we really distinguish streams of consciousness?  You see, I can distinguish my stream of consciousness and your stream of consciousness because we have all got bodies here, which make it very clear.  One stream of consciousness belongs to me and another belongs to you.  But how would we distinguish streams of consciousness from each other and how would we say, "Well, all those thoughts belong to your stream of consciousness but not to mine, and the responses belong to mine."  Bodies do enormously help to distinguish streams of consciousness, but if we were disembodied and somehow one of us heard all the things that had been said this afternoon, how would we know how many streams of consciousness that added up to?  Perhaps just one, or perhaps a thousand.  How would we tell?  I think it would not be very clear whether there were individual streams of consciousness if we did not have bodies to distinguish them, so I find this a very difficult idea, disembodied experience. 

The thing which I think is most important of all is this: that we are not just streams of consciousness - we have streams of consciousness.  "Having" seems to me terribly important.  Unless you think "I am somebody who has a stream of consciousness", I do not think you can plan anything, I do not think you can do anything, I do not think you can think about what I am motivated to do by what happened before and what I intend to do in the future, unless you think of yourself as having a stream of consciousness.  If you imagine that there is an ownerless stream of consciousness, I do not see how it could do or plan anything.  And what motive would it have to do or plan anything?  What motive would it have to engage in a conversation?  It would mean that, within one stream of consciousness, if you can even distinguish one, there would have to be an episode of thinking "I want some message from me to enter into some other stream of consciousness", but what would be the interest of that, if there are only streams of consciousness but no beings who have a stream of consciousness?  I think it is bodies which help us to see what it means to have a stream of consciousness and for there to be distinct streams of consciousness.

I have been wondering whether disembodied experience is possible except at the margins, individual experiences, possibly without distinguishable owners - individual experiences of thought, of viewpoints imagined, and so on.  Perhaps it would be very interesting psychologically, but would there be people having them?

I have one more question about this: would it be pleasant?  wouldn't it be terribly solitary as I have so far described it? 

Augustine, such a warm person in his confessions, describes how much he loved his friends, how shattered he was when they died.  His fondness for his mother is very striking.  He describes the philosophical conversations they had together in the last week of her life, and he used "touch" as the metaphor they used for how they tried to touch God.  And then, at the end of the confessions, he describes how he imagines the "heavens of heavens" he calls it, usually thought of as the "heaven for the saints", and he is completely different.  Nobody will have any memory at all.  Earlier on in the confessions, he said he hoped his dear lost friend would be remembering him; now he says that the saints, at any rate, will have no memory at all, because they will be wrapped up in contemplation of God.  Again, there will be no genetic relationships.  Think of his fondness of his mother.  There will be no genetic relationships.  It will mean nothing that this was his mother.  They will all be wrapped up in contemplation of God. 

In order to prepare yourself, as Plato recommended, for a disembodied future life, you really would have to prepare very well, and I am not sure that that would be wise, because to prepare yourself for a life as different as a disembodied life would have to be, you would have to sever yourself from this world and think yourself out of this world totally, and that is not a good way of living your life in this world.

Let me pass then to the main Christian belief, which is that, eventually, there will be a resurrection and we will be given back our bodies.  Then all the problems I have just mentioned will go away.  There are other questions that were raised though.  What would make it the same person after such a long gap, or would it just be a replica of me in the life of resurrection?

Most Christian thinkers, certainly up through the whole of the Middle Ages, and beyond, thought that we would have to have some of the same particles - that would be one of the required conditions - in order for it to be the same person, in order for it to be same body; that would be needed for it to be the same person - some of the same particles.  But this already, in the very early Middle Ages, caused enormous problems, because it was seen that the particles that are now in me will get eaten by fish or something eventually, and then other people will eat the fish, and those particles will pass through lots of other people.  So the question of which person will be the real owner of these particles, was the great problem discussed from very early on in the Ancient World among Christians.  Of course, we have further doubts, because we know that the enormous gaseous systems in our universe, as we now understand it, are very likely to destroy all particles and turn them into energy, and then it is not clear how we can make sense of the idea of the same particle coming back again. 

There was a very brilliant alternative solution, although it was rejected by Christianity, but by one of the most brilliant early Christians, a man called Origen, around 250AD, and he said, "No, the way the Christian resurrection will take place is much simpler. You do not need the same matter.  In fact, you do not want the same matter.  You do not want flesh in the next life.  Flesh is highly destructible.  God is going to give us an indestructible body, made of air or fire, or some mixture of the two.  You see, you cannot smash air and fire - you put a sword through air and fire, it does not split it at all.  Air and fire are really durable materials.  God is going to give us a body of completely different materials and he is going to impose a photographic likeness on us.  A photographic likeness of us on our deathbed?  No, certainly not - a photographic likeness of us as we were in our prime."    So here is a much more satisfying solution offered by Origin in 250AD, and one I think that some of us would find more satisfying and less open to problems, although we still would have to ask whether we are confident enough that this would not just be a replica of us - would it be really us surviving?  That is the question we have always got to ask if we want to ask about in what possible ways we might survive.

I will just mention one other, totally non-religious, way in which one might imagine surviving, and it rests on supposing that time goes round in a circle.  We normally think of time as going in a straight line.  But supposing time went round in a circle, and as a matter of fact, it happens that I think one can make sense of this, although I am not going to stop and try and explain why I think it would make sense.  I have no idea whether it is actually the actual case.  I have no evidence whatsoever to suppose it is the actual case, but I think we could make sense of the idea of time going round in a circle.  If time went round in a circle, it would be rather like Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo going round the world, because when Christopher Columbus left Europe, of course he left Europe behind him, but Europe was also in front of him, a bit further off, but eventually, it would be closer.  Time, if it went in a circle, would be like that.  Your birth lies in your past, obviously, but if time went round in a circle, it would be also true that it lay in your future, just as London can lie behind the explorer who is going round the world but also lie in front of him or her.

If time went round in a circle, then this would be, presumably, a natural phenomenon.  God may have created the universe to be like that or you could believe in this without believing in God.  There is absolutely no evidence for it, but if it were the case, then whether you liked it or not, on your deathbed, you could think to yourself that the whole of your life lay in your future, as well as in your past of course.  Whether much cheer could be got from that, I do not know, since we have no idea, and science cannot tell us, because it cannot investigate what happened before the so-called Big Bang.  Whether that would supply much comfort, I do not know.

I have looked at five different ways in which we might envisage surviving after death, only some of them religious ways, the last one was a natural way, although we cannot be sure of any of them.  And so I come to the last possibility that I am going to discuss for the moment, and that is, what if we are distinguished - is that something that we really should feel any horror or dismay about? 

I have looked at lots of arguments, produced from various cultures and philosophical systems in different parts of the world, which say that it is quite irrational to be worried about the thought of extinction, but there is only one which strikes me as having some force, and it is this: it is based on an argument produced in Ancient Greece by the Ancient Epicureans.  I am not absolutely sure if this is exactly what they meant, but the argument was developed, and it has been repeated in Europe, and it is this: for the very few people who feel horror at the thought of our past non-existence, is there anybody in this room who feels horror at the thought that they did not exist before they were conceived? - No, there is not.  That is quite extraordinary, isn't it?  There is not a single person in this room who has acknowledged horror at the thought that they did not exist before they were conceived.  The closest I have ever found to it was in Nabokov, in his book 'speak, Memory'.  He describes seeing a home movie of himself as a baby when his parents had just bought a perambulator, and his parents are waving, out of their window, above the perambulator, which is standing beneath them - they are waving from an upper window - and they are looking happy, happy even though he does not exist!  He felt absolutely horrified!  That is actually the only example I have ever found.  It is very rare.

Here is how the argument goes: if there is nobody in this room who feels horror at the thought of their past non-existence, isn't it clearly irrational to feel horror at the thought of your future non-existence, because your past non-existence and your future non-existence are perfect mirror images of each other?  You feel no horror at one; surely it is irrational to feel any horror at the other?

This did strike me as revealing to me that I was indeed irrational to feel horror at the thought of my future non-existence.  It is actually what drove me to Philosophy.  I remember I was the age of six, and my sister came up to me and said, "You'll die one day," and I said, "Don't be ridiculous!  Death is for butterflies and beetles."  I had seen them dead on our windowsill in the summertime, and I said, "I'll prove it.  I'm going to ask our Mother."  I went out to my mother in the garden, and I asked her, "We don't die, do we?" and I have never recovered from the answer!  In fact, that is why I am standing here as a philosopher!

I think that fear is irrational, but I think it has been caused in me.  I think it is a very common attitude to treat the future so differently from the past.  If you think about your close friends, it is only in very special cases that you feel awful about the period before you knew your friend, but you do feel badly if your friend is going to live somewhere where you will never see them again.  You do feel bad about that.  There are lots of things you do not mind.  For instance, supposing you will see them intermittently, then that is alright, but you want there to be some future seeing them, even if it is only intermittent.  It is rather similar: very few of us think it is tragic that we did not know the friend in the past, unless there is some special reason.  Such a special reason could be something like your only having got to know them shortly before their death, and it would have been wonderful to know them earlier - there could be special reasons.  But special reasons aside, we do feel quite differently about future absence of the friend and past absence.

Here is another case: imagine that you were told you are going to be terribly successful in your career, and indeed, we will give you a choice: you can either have a career of absolutely continuous promotion, or if you prefer, you can start at the very top and have a life of absolutely continuous demotion - there will be the same amount of honour, whichever way you go!  Would we hesitate about which direction we preferred?  I imagine everybody in this room would prefer the direction of continuous promotion, even if starting at the bottom.  We are built to treat the future direction differently from the past, and indeed, natural selection would have wiped out any little infants who happened to be born with this eccentricity, that they were more worried about their past non-existence than their future non-existence, because they would soon rush into wells and step off cliffs and so on, totally unworried about their future non-existence, and not survive to pass on their eccentric genes.  So natural selection, I am suggesting, is what has caused me to have this absolutely irrational horror at the idea of future non-existence when I have no such horror about the idea of past non-existence.

So, has philosophy consoled me?  No!  Because, you see, natural selection is even more powerful than philosophy.  Philosophy is a powerful thing - it can change people's lives, and it has changed my life, but it probably cannot change a person's life as much as natural selection does, even in the best examples.  The thing is, philosophy is not strong enough to counteract natural selection, but it does have some effect.  But what?

There is the William James Effect.  William James once said, "We don't cry because we're sad; we're sad because we cry."  That is not quite true as it stands, but there is a great deal of truth in it.  You see, very often, people say, "Look, I'm crying - I must have been maltreated!" but of course that does not follow at all.  You are crying, so you are crying - that is all that follows.  Now, what happens too often is people say, "Look, I'm absolutely shuddering with horror, so it must be awful!"  But philosophy has cured me of that, because I say to myself, "Look, I'm absolutely shuddering with horror at the thought of future non-existence," but I do not any longer say to myself "and how right I am!"  I say to myself, "and of course I am completely wrong," and that is some help.  That is some help, because this irrational horror does not increase.  It is there, I cannot beat natural selection, but it does not increase, so philosophy has given me something.  Philosophy has given me an absolutely delightful life, I have to say!  But it has not cured me of this fear.  What it has cured me of is nebulously increasing this fear by thinking how right I am to be horrified; no, I am completely wrong and totally irrational to be horrified, and that is some help.

The moral I would draw from all this is the following: if we want to be rational, then it may be difficult but what we ought to do is to think about the quality of our life, how to lead a life about which we could feel happy when we die, and try not to worry about where that life is situated in the stream of past, present and future, because philosophical reflection shows that that is a matter of triviality.  It is the quality that counts.

©Richard Sorabji, Gresham College 2009

This event was on Wed, 09 Dec 2009

keith ward

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Professor of Divinity

Professor Keith Ward was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008.  He has a BA from the University of Wales, an MA from...

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professor richard sorabji fba

Professor Richard Sorabji FBA

Professor of Rhetoric

Professor Richard Sorabji was Professor of Philosophy at King's College London between 1970 and 2000. Before that he was an Associate Professor at Cornell University...

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