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