Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 1

Chapter 1: Belief and Disbelief in a Life After Death

1. Life: physiological or psychological? | 2. Survival, immortality, eternal life | 3. Causes of belief in survival | 4. Why a life after death is desired | 5. Causes of disinterest or of disbelief in survival | 6. Causes of, distinguished from grounds for, belief or disbelief

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

          THAT THERE is for the human individual some sort of life after death has been and still is widely believed. To the majority of mankind, this idea has not seemed paradoxical nor a life after death difficult to imagine. It has often been conceived as lived in a body and surroundings nearly or quite as material as our present ones, though the future environment and the experiences to be had in it have generally been thought of as rather different whether for the better or the worse, from those of life on earth.

1. Life: physiological or psychological? [top]

Persons, however, who find such a material conception of a future life incredible either because of its crudity or because of the destruction the body undeniably undergoes after it has died, are likely to think of survival in essentially psychological terms and therefore to mean by "personal survival" more or less what Dean W. R. Matthews does, to wit, - that the center of consciousness which was in existence before death does not cease to be in existence after death and that the experience of this center after death has the same kind of continuity with its experience before death as that of a man who sleeps for a while and wakes again."(1)

(1) Psychical Research and Theology, The Sixth Myers Memorial Lecture, Proc. Soc. for Psychical Research, Vol. 46:15, 1940-41.

As we shall see eventually, a number of difficulties are implicit even in this seemingly clear statement. Yet, some meaning thus psychological rather than physiological has to be given to the word "life," if the hypothesis of a life after death is to have any of the personal and social interest it commonly has. For life in the merely biological sense of the word - the sense in which even the body of a man in coma. or a vegetable, has life - has, by itself, only an impersonal scientific interest for us. It acquires any other only if, or in so far as, an organism alive in this physiological sense is a necessary basis for life in the sense of conscious psychological experience. In these pages, therefore, the words, "life after death" - except at places where a different sense may be indicated specifically or by context - will be taken to mean at least conscious psychological experience of some sort, no matter how caused and whether incarnate or discarnate.

2. Survival, immortality, eternal life [top]

I shall refer to the belief that there is for the individual a life after death as belief in survival rather than as belief in immortality; for immortality, strictly speaking, is incapacity to die, which, as ascribed to a human consciousness, entails survival of it forever after bodily death. But survival for some indeterminate though considerable period, rather than specifically forever, is probably what most persons actually have in mind when they think of a life after death. Assurance of survival for a thousand years, or even a hundred, would, for those of us who desire survival, have virtually as much present psychological value as would assurance of survival forever: we should be troubled very little by the idea of individual extinction at so distant a time - even less troubled than is now a healthy and happy youth by the knowledge that he will die within fifty or sixty years.

Persons, on the other hand, who are tired of life; or who have found it to have for them negative rather than positive value and believe this to be of its essence; or who, like Professor C. D. Broad would for some other reason welcome assurance of non-survival; would be more distressed by prospect of survival for a long period, and even more by prospect of survival forever, than by that of survival for only a short time.

The expression "eternal life" is sometimes used to express, in a positive way, what "immortality" - distinguished from simply survival - expresses negatively. "Eternal" life, as so used, then generally means life that is everlasting in the future - life without end though not without beginning. Conceivably, however, life might be without beginning as well as without end. This is what theories such as that of metempsychosis assume, which regard not only the human body but also the human mind or consciousness or soul as an evolutionary product.

Similarly, when God's being is spoken of as "eternal" what is meant is sometimes that he is both without beginning and without end - that he always did and always will exist. Perhaps more often, however, what is meant is that God's consciousness is timeless. Eternal life, then, or consciousness of eternity, whether experienced by God inherently or by man on rare occasions, means a form of consciousness that does not include or that transcends consciousness of time.

For a person the content of whose consciousness were thus timeless, the question whether that content endured but a moment, or a thousand years, would have no meaning since he would have no consciousness either of duration or of change. Indeed, the question could not even present itself to him. But were external observation possible of the consciousness of such a person - for example, of a mystic in ecstasy - the observer could meaningfully say that the other experienced eternal life, or lived in eternity, for five minutes, or as the case might be, for fifteen, or for some other finite time, on a given occasion.

3. Causes of belief in survival [top]

The first question which arises in connection with the idea that there is for the individual an after-death life is why the belief in it is so widespread.

The clue to the answer is to be found in the fact that each of us has always been alive and conscious as far back as he can remember. It is true, of course, that his body is sometimes sunk in deep sleep, or in a faint, or in coma from some injury or grave illness; or that the inhaling of ether or some other anaesthetic makes him unconscious of the surgical operation he then undergoes. But, even at those times a person does not experience unconsciousness, for to experience it would mean being conscious of being unconscious; and this, being a contradiction, is impossible. Indeed, at such times, he may be having vivid dreams; and these are one kind of consciousness. The only experience of unconsciousness a person ever has is, not of total unconsciousness, but of unconsciousness of this or that; as when he reports: "I am not conscious of any pain," or "of any difference between the color of this and of that," etc.

Nor do we ever experience as present in another person unconsciousness itself, but only the fact that, sometimes, some or all of the ordinary activities of his body, through which his being conscious previously manifested itself to us, cease to occur. That consciousness itself is extinguished at such times is only a hypothesis which we construct to account for certain changes in the behavior of another person's body; or to explain the eventual lack in him - or, as the case may be, in ourselves - of memories relating to the period during which the body - his or our own was in an inert, unresponsive state.

Lack of present memory of having been conscious at a particular past time obviously is no proof at all that one was unconscious at that time; for if it were, then it would prove that one was unconscious during the first few years of one's life, and indeed during the vast majority of its days, since one has no memory whatever of one's experiences on any but a very small minority of one's past days. That we were conscious on the others is known to us not by memory of them, but only by inference from facts of various kinds.

The fact, then, is that each person has been alive and conscious at all times he can remember. Being alive and conscious has therefore become in him an ingrained habit; and habit automatically entails both tacit expectations and tacit belief that what is tacitly expected will occur(2). Just as every step which finds ground underfoot builds up tacit belief that so will the subsequent steps, and every breath which finds air to breathe, tacit belief that so will the subsequent breaths, just so does the fact that every past day of one's life was found to have a morrow contribute to generate tacit expectation and belief that every day of one's life will have a living morrow. As J. B. Pratt has pointed out, the child takes the continuity of life for granted. It is the fact of death that has to be taught him. But when he has learned it, and the idea of a future life is then put explicitly before his mind, it seems to him the most natural thing in the world(3).

(2) Cf. C. D. Broad: The Mind and its Place in Nature, p. 524.
(3) S. B. Pratt: The Religious Consciousness, Macmillan, New York, 1943, p. 225.

Such, undoubtedly, is the psychological origin of the widespread ingenuous belief that one's life and that of one's fellows does not end at death.

Another root of the idea and belief that persons who were known to us and have died continue to live - and hence that we too shall survive after death - is the fact that sometimes those persons, as well as persons who are still in the flesh, appear to us in dreams. Especially when the dream was both vivid and plausible, it easily suggests a view of the human personality which is rather common among primitive peoples and which has been held even by some educated and critical persons. It is that each person's body of flesh has a subtle counterpart or double, which can become detached from and function independently of that body; this separation being temporary as it occurs in periods of sleep during life, but permanent at the death of the body.

Evidently, such an idea of the constitution of man fits in very well with the ingenuous natural belief in life beyond death, for it provides concrete images in which to clothe the otherwise elusive abstract notion of a personality living on, discarnate.

Belief in a life after death, however, might conceivably originate in a given person in either one of two ways less ingenuous than those described in what precedes. One of these more critical ways would be out of attention to certain occurrences observed or reported, and then interpreted as empirical evidence of the survival of a deceased person. Communications purportedly from such a person and containing identifying details, received either through a "medium" or by oneself through automatic writing; or sight of an "apparition" of the dead person, would be examples of the kinds of experience in view.

The other possible kind of rational origin which belief in a life after death might have in a given person would be attention by him to arguments which, whether really or only seemingly, cogent, purport to prove immortality on metaphysical grounds. It is safe to say, however, that the belief can have this origin only in a very few persons, and that those arguments, irrespective of their cogency or lack of it, function in fact for the majority of those who know and accept them, much rather only as rationalizations of a belief in immortality they had previously acquired either in the automatic manner described earlier, or out of wishful thinking, or out of uncritically accepted childhood teachings.

We shall eventually consider the merits of both of the above kinds - empirical and theoretical - of prima facie evidence for survival. At this point, however, what we must ask is why survival is desired by the many persons who do desire it; and what general connection obtains between desire and belief, lack of desire and lack of belief.

4. Why a life after death is desired [top]

One does not actually desire valued things which one already has or assumes one has. They get desired only when loss of them occurs or threatens. This, which is true for instance of desire for air to breathe or for earth to stand on, is equally true of desire for continuation of life. It is not until the witnessing or the awareness of death thrusts upon the mind the question whether the life that was continues somehow, that actual desire for life beyond death arises. From then on, the desire operates automatically to bolster the shaken naive belief in survival, and the belief in so far becomes a "wishful belief."

The desire for survival of oneself and of other persons has its roots in a variety of more specific desires which death immediately frustrates, but satisfaction of which a life beyond death would make possible even if not automatically insure. In some persons. the chief of these is desire for reunion with persons dearly loved. In others, whose lives have been wretched, it is desire for another chance at the happiness they have missed. In others yet, it is desire for further opportunity to grow in ability, knowledge, character, wisdom; or to go on contributing significant achievements. Again, a future life for oneself and others is often desired in order that the redressing of the many injustices of the present life shall be possible.

Even in persons who believe that death means complete and final extinction of the individual's consciousness, the craving for continued existence is testified to by the comfort they often find in various substitute but assured forms of "survival." They may, for instance, dwell on the continuity of the individual's germ plasm in his descendants. Or they find solace in the thought that, the past being indestructible, the particular life they live will remain ever after an intrinsic part of the history of the world. Also-and more satisfying to the craving for personal importance there is the fact that since the acts of one's life have effects, and these in turn further effects, and so on, therefore what one has done goes on forever influencing remotely, and sometimes greatly, the course of future events.

Gratifying to one's vanity, too, is the prospect that, if the achievements of one's life have been important or even only conspicuous, or one's benefactions or evil deeds notable, then one's name may be remembered not only by acquaintances and relatives for a little while, but may live on in recorded history.

Evidently, survival in any of these senses is but a consolation prize for the certainty of bodily death - a thin substitute for the continuation of conscious individual life, which may be disbelieved, but the natural craving for which nevertheless is evidenced by the comfort which the considerations just mentioned even then provide.

5. Causes of disinterest or of disbelief in survival [top]

Lack of belief and even positive disbelief in survival are certainly more widespread now in Western countries than was the case in earlier times. Of the various causes which account for this, one of the chief is probably "the greater attractiveness of this world in our times and the increase of interests of all sorts which keep one's attention too firmly fastened here to allow of much thought being spent on the other world."(4)

(4) J. B. Pratt: The Religious Consciousness, The Macmillan Co. N. Y. 1943, p. 238.

As compared with earlier ages, the standard of living is now high for the large majority of the populations of Western countries. Leisure has greatly increased, and so have political liberties. Class distinctions no longer firmly stand, as formerly, in the way of personal ambition. And when there is pie at the baker's and money for it in one's pocket, "pie in the sky" is not thought of and hence not desired. It is when life is hard, joyless, and hopeless that one dreams of and longs for escape to another world where those who on earth were the miserable last shall be the happy first.

Again, in the present Age of Science the spirit of critical inquiry, with its demand for proofs, has robbed the teachings of religion of the authority they had earlier. One consequence of this, and of the materialistic conception of the nature of man fostered by contemporary science, has been that the unplausibility - to use no stronger term-of the picturesque ideas of the life after death which had been traditional in the Western world has become glaring. And this in turn has deprived the idea of a future life of the support which desire for it had previously lent it; for, as Pratt pointedly remarks, "some sort of belief in at least the possibility of the object is a condition of any real desire for it."(5)

(5) Op. Cit. p. 239.

These are the chief factors which have caused substantial numbers of persons today to doubt or positively disbelieve that there is for the individual consciousness any life after the body's death; or at least to view the idea of it with little or no interest. These persons, however, although numerous, are probably still a rather small minority of the population; for death goes on frustrating of expression one's love of persons who were dear, and thereby thrusting upon the living the idea of a life after death, stimulating in them the desire that such life be a fact; and, through this desire, fostering the belief that it is a fact.

6. Causes of, distinguished from grounds for, belief or disbelief [top]

It may not be amiss to stress here, however, that the arguments, the empirical facts, or the longings which suffice to convince some persons that a given idea is true, are not necessarily sufficient to prove or even to make objectively probable that the idea is true. For convincing is a psychological process where rhetoric and appeal to bias of various kinds are usually more efficacious than would be sound logic; and where automatic yielding to long-established habits of interpretation of appearances commonly takes the place of scrupulous verification.

It is only in exceptionally rational persons, or in exceptionally rational moments of the rest of us, or in circumstances where nothing tempts us to jump to unwarranted conclusions, that only what suffices to prove suffices to convince; or, when the conclusion concerned is an unwelcome one, that what does suffice to prove or to establish a positive probability also suffices to convince.

However, since we are now emphasizing that many beliefs, for example belief in survival after death, can be and often are acquired uncritically, i.e., without adequate evidence or perhaps any evidence that the beliefs are true, impartiality requires us to stress also that the fact that a given belief has been acquired uncritically is not by itself positive evidence that the belief concerned is erroneous. What its having been so acquired does it only to put the burden of proof on the person who so acquired it, and who maintains that it is true.



Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

Home | Intro | News | Investigators | Articles | Experiments | Photographs | Theory | Library | Info | Books | Contact | Campaigns | Glossary | Search


Some parts The International Survivalist Society 2004