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 3: The Case Against the Possibility of a Life After Death

1. Empirical facts that appear to rule out the possibility of survival | 2. Theoretical considerations that appear to preclude survival | 3. The contention that no plausible form of post mortem life is imaginable

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          IN CHAPT. I we were occupied mainly with the variety of psychological factors which cause people to believe, or as the case may be to disbelieve, that there is or can be a life after death for the individual. As pointed out in Sec. 6 of that chapter and again at the end of Chapt. II, some considerations may induce belief, or disbelief, and yet constitute no evidence or insufficient evidence that what is believed is true or what is disbelieved false; for to convince is one thing, and to prove is another.

In the present chapter, on the other hand, what we shall consider are the grounds, empirical and theoretical, on which is based the now widespread belief that the Natural Sciences have by this time definitely proved that any life after death is an impossibility. As Professor J. B. Rhine notes in a recent article, "the continued advance of biology and psychology during the last half-century has ... made the spirit [survival] hypothesis appear increasingly more improbable to the scholarly mind. The mechanistic (or physicalistic) view of man has become the mental habit of the student of science; and with the wide popular influence of science, the effect on educated men is well-nigh universal."(1)

(1) Research on Spirit Survival Re-examined Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 20: 124, No. 2, June 1956.

What then are, in some detail, the grounds on which the scholarly mind is maintaining that survival is impossible or at best improbable?

1. Empirical facts that appear to rule out the possibility of survival

There are a number of facts - some of common observation and others brought to light by the Natural Sciences - which, it has been contended, definitely show both that the existence of consciousness is wholly dependent on that of a living organism, and - some of them - that the particular nature of the consciousness at given times likewise wholly depends on the particular state of the organism at those times.

a) For one, it is pointed out that nowhere except in living organisms are evidences of consciousness found.

b) Again, as observation passes from the lower to the higher animal organisms, the fact becomes evident that the more elaborately organized the body and especially the nervous system is, the greater, more subtle and more capable of fine discriminations is the consciousness associated with it.

c) Again, everyone knows that when the body dies, the familiar evidences of the consciousness it had possessed cease to occur; and that, even when the body is still living, a severe blow on the head or other injuries will, temporarily, have the same result

d) The dependence of consciousness on the brain, moreover, is not only thus wholesale but obtains in some detail. Lesion, whether by external or by internal causes, of certain regions of the cortex of the brain eliminates or impairs particular mental capacities - for example, the capacity to understand written words; or as the case may be, spoken words; or the capacity to speak, or it may be to write, notwithstanding that the capacity to produce sounds or to move the hand and fingers is unimpaired.

Similarly, the capacity for the various kinds of sensations - visual, auditory, tactual, etc. - is connected in the case of each with a different region of the brain; and the capacity for voluntary motion of different parts of the body is dependent on different parts of the brain cortex situated along the fissure of Rolando. The parts of the brain which govern these various sensory and motor capacities vary somewhat from person to person; and, in a given person, a capacity destroyed by lesion of the cortical center for it often returns gradually as, presumably, a different part of the cortex takes on the lost function. But the fact that the mental powers are dependent on the functioning of the brain remains.(2)

(2) Concerning the general plan of the nervous system, and the dependence of various mental capacities on particular regions of the brain, see for example pp. 24-35, and the diagrams there, in Warren & Carmichael's Elements of Human Psychology, Houghton Mifflin & Co. Boston, 1930.

e) The dependence is further demonstrated when certain regions of the brain are radically disconnected from the rest, as by the operation called prefrontal lobotomy; for marked changes in the personality then result.

f) Again, changes in the chemical composition of the body fluids affect the states of consciousness. The psychological effects of alcohol and of caffeine are familiar to everybody. Various drugs - mescalin, lysergic acid diethylamide, sodium amytal, sodium pentothal, heroin, opium, benzedrin, etc. - affect in diverse remarkable ways the contents of consciousness, the impulses, dispositions, and attitudes. Consciousness is affected also by the quantity of oxygen, and of carbon dioxide, in the blood. And the retardation in bodily and mental development known as cretinism can be remedied by administration of thyroid extract.

g) To the same general effect is the fact that, by stimulating in appropriate ways the body's sense organs, corresponding states of consciousness, to wit, the several kinds of sensations, can be caused at will in a person; and, conversely, the capacity for them can be done away with by destroying the respective sense organs or cutting the sensory nerves.

h) Again, the typical differences between the male and the female personality are related to the differences between the sex functions of the body of man and those of the body of woman.

i) The facts of heredity show that the particular personality an individual develops depends in part on the aptitudes his body inherits from the germ plasm of his progenitors. And observation shows that the rest depends on the environmental conditions to which he is subjected from the time of birth onward. How important in particular these are during childhood is strikingly shown by such cases as that of the two "wolf children" of India, the older case of the "wild boy of Aveyron," and a few others where young children had somehow managed to maintain life and to grow up among animals without human contacts until later discovered and studied. They had developed various animal skills, and virtually lost the capacity to acquire the skills, e.g., for speech, which a child automatically picks up at a certain age when situated in a human environment.(3)

(3) The Wild Boy of Aveyron, by J-M-G Itard, The Century Co. London 1932 (tr. from the 1894 French edition.) Wolf Children of India, by P. C. Squires, Am. J. of Psychol., 1927, No. 38, p. 313. Wolf-Children and Feral Man, by J. A. L. Singh and R. M. Zinng, Harper & Bros. New York 1942. Wolf Child and Human Child, by A. Gesell, Harper & Bros. New York 1941.

2. Theoretical considerations that appear to preclude survival

That continued existence of consciousness after death is impossible has been argued also on the basis of theoretical considerations.

j) It has been contended, for instance, that what we call states of consciousness - ideas, sensations, volitions, feelings, and so on - are in fact nothing but the minute chemical or physical events themselves, which take place in the tissues of the brain; for example, the chemical change we call a nerve current, which propagates itself from one end of a nerve fiber to the other, and then on to the dendrites of another fiber; the electrical phenomena, externally detectable by electroencephalography, which accompany nerve currents; the alterations which, at the synapse of two neurons, facilitate or inhibit the propagation of a nerve current from one to the other; and so on.

k) That these various brain processes must be the very processes themselves, which we ordinarily call mental, follows, it has been contended, from the fact that the alternative supposition - namely, that ideas, volitions, sensations, emotions, and other "mental" states are not physical events at all - would entail the absurdity that non-physical events can cause, and be caused by, physical events. For, it is asked, how could a non-physical volition or idea push or pull the physical molecules in the brain? Or, conversely, how could a motion of molecules in the brain cause a visual or auditory or other kind of sensation if sensations were not themselves physical events?

l) The possibility of it, one is told, is anyway ruled out a priori by the principle of the conservation of energy; for causation of a material event in the brain by a mental, i.e., by an immaterial event, would mean that some additional quantity of energy suddenly pops into the physical world out of nowhere; and causation of a mental event by a physical nerve current would mean dissipation of some quantity of energy out of the physical world.

The conclusion is therefore drawn that the events we call mental" cannot be either effects or causes of the molecular processes in the nerve cells of the brain, but must be those very processes themselves. And then, necessarily, cessation of these processes is cessation of consciousness.

m) Another conception of consciousness, which is more often met with today than the chemico-physical one just described, but which also implies that consciousness cannot possibly survive after bodily death, is that "consciousness" is the name by which we designate merely certain types of behavior - those, namely, which differentiate the animals from all other things in nature. According to this view, for example, an animal's consciousness of a difference between two objects consists in the difference of its behavior towards each. More explicitly, this means that the difference of behavior is what consciousness of difference between the two objects is; not, as commonly assumed, that the difference of behavior is only the behavioral sign that, in the animal, something not publicly observable and not physical - called "consciousness that the two objects are different" - is occurring.

Or again, consciousness of the typically human kind called "thought," is identified with the typically human sort of behavior called "speech;" and this, again not in the sense that speech expresses or manifests something different from itself, called "thought," but in the sense that speech - whether uttered or only whispered - is thought itself. And obviously if thought, or any mental activity, is thus but some mode of behavior of the living body, the mind or consciousness cannot possibly survive the body's death.

n) In support of the monistic conception of man which the foregoing facts and reflections point to as against the dualistic conception of material body-immaterial mind, the methodological principle known as the Law of Parsimony has also been invoked. This is done, for example, in the third chapter of a book, The Illusion of Immortality, which is probably the best recent statement in extenso of the case against the possibility of any life after death(4). Dr. Lamont there states that the law of parsimony "makes the dualist theory appear distinctly superfluous. It rules out dualism by making it unnecessary. In conjunction with the monistic alternative it pushes the separate and independent supernatural soul into the limbo of unneeded and unwanted hypotheses ... the complexity of the cerebral cortex, together with the intricate structure of the rest of the nervous system and the mechanism of speech, makes any explanation of thought and consciousness in other than naturalistic terms wholly unnecessary. If some kind of supernatural soul or spirit is doing our thinking for us, then why did there evolve through numberless aeons an organ so well adapted for this purpose as the human brain?" (pp. 114-18)

(4) Corliss Lamont: The Illusion of Immortality, Philosophical Library, New York, 1950, Ch. Ill The Verdict of Science, pp. 114-16. Dr. Lamont states, erroneously, that the law of parsimony "was first formulated in the fourteenth century by ... William of Occam, in the words: 'Entities (of explanation) are not to be multiplied beyond need. - The fact, however, appears to be that the form Entia non sunt multiplicanda Praeter necessitatem, to which Sir Wm. Hamilton in 1852 gave the name "Occam's razor," originated with John Ponce of Cork in 1639; and that the law of parsimony was formulated, prior to Occam, by his teacher Duns Scotus and some other mediaeval philosophers, in various forms; notably, frustra fit Per plura quod fieri potest per pauciora, i.e., the more is in vain when the less will serve (to account for the facts to be explained.) See W. M. Thorburn, The Myth of Occam's Razor. Mind, XXVII (1927) pp. 345 ff.

3. The contention that no plausible form of post mortem life is imaginable

Another consideration still has been brought up, notably by Lamont in the book cited, as standing in the way of the possibility of a life after death. It is:

o) the difficulty of imagining at all plausibly what form a life could take that were discarnate and yet were not only personal but of the same person as the ante mortem one. For to suppose that a given personality survives is to suppose not simply persistence of consciousness, but persistence also of the individual's character, acquired knowledge, cultural skills and interests, habits, memories, and awareness of personal identity. Indeed, persistence merely of these would hardly constitute persistence of life; for, in the case of man anyway, to live is to go on meeting new situations and, by exerting oneself to deal with them, to enlarge one's experience, acquire new insights, develop one's latent capacities, and accomplish objectively significant tasks. But it is hard to imagine all this possible without a body and an environment for it, upon which to act and from which to receive impressions. On the other hand, if a body and an environment were supposed, but of some "etheric" or "spiritual" kind, i.e., of a kind radically different from bodies of flesh and their material environment, then it is paradoxical to suppose that, under such drastically different conditions, a personality could remain the same as before to an extent at all comparable to that of the sameness we now retain from day to day or even from year to year.

To take a crude but telling analogy, it is past belief that, if the body of any one of us were suddenly changed into that of a shark or an octopus and placed in the ocean, his personality could, for more than a very short time if at all, recognizably survive so radical a change of environment, of bodily form, of bodily needs, and of bodily capacities.

The considerations set forth in this chapter constitute the essentials of the basis for the contention that persistence of the individual's consciousness or personality after the death of his body is impossible. Such persistence, Lamont argues, is ruled out by the kind of relation between body and mind testified to by those considerations. The connection between mind and body is, he writes, "so exceedingly intimate that it becomes inconceivable how one could function properly without the other ... man is a unified whole of mind-body or personality-body so closely and completely integrated that dividing him up into two separate and more or less independent parts becomes impermissible and unintelligible."(5)

(5) The Illusion of Immortality. Philosophical Library, New York 1950, pp. 89-113.

It should be noted. however, that both in the allegation that the considerations reviewed establish the impossibility of survival, and in the contention that those considerations on the contrary fail to establish this, certain key concepts are employed. Among the chief of these are "material," "mental," "body," "mind," "consciousness," "life," and a number of subsidiary others. Usually, in controversies regarding survival, little or no attempt is made to specify exactly the meaning those terms are taken to have, for all of them belong to the vocabulary of ordinary language and it is therefore natural to assume that they are well-understood. And so indeed they are - in the ingenuous manner, habit-begotten and unanalytical, that is adequate for ordinary conversational and literary purposes. But such understanding of them is far from precise enough to permit clear discernment of the issues in so special and elusive a question as that of the possibility or reality of a life after death for the individual.

The fact is that, so long as our understanding of those terms remains thus relatively vague, we do not even know just what it is we want to know when we ask that seemingly plain question - nor, a fortiori, do we then know what evidence, if we had it, would conclusively decide the question or at least establish a definite probability on one side or the other. Hence, if our eventual inquiry into the merits of the case outlined in this chapter against the possibility of survival is to have any prospect of reaching conclusions worthier of the name of knowledge than have been the findings of earlier inquirers, then we must first of all undertake an analysis of the pivotal concepts mentioned above. That analysis, moreover, must be not only precise enough to define sharply the issues to which those concepts are relevant, but must also be responsible in the sense of empirical, not arbitrarily prescriptive.

This is the task to which we shall address ourselves in Part 2.

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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

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