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 2

Chapter 4: What is "Material" and What is "Living"?

1. Two questions to be distinguished | 2. Which things are "material?" | 3. "Material," derivatively vs. fundamentally

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          UNTIL THE last years of the nineteenth century, physicists believed that the rocks, metals, water, wood, and all the other substances about us are ultimately composed of atoms of one or more of some seventy-eight kinds - those atoms, as the very word signifies, being indivisible, i.e., not themselves composed of more minute parts.

Since then, however, the progress of physics has revealed the sub-atomic electrons, protons, neutrons, positrons, mesons, etc. The sub-atomic "particles" are at distances from one another that are vast relatively to their own size, so that a material object, such as a table, turns out to consist mostly of space empty of anything more substantial than electric charges or electromagnetic fields.

This state of affairs is what is meant by the statement occasionally heard that modern physics has "dematerialized" matter - from which it is sometimes concluded that the traditionally sharp distinction between matter and mind, or material and mental, has been invalidated or at least undermined.

Yet, if in the dark one walks into a table, one does not pass through it but gets a bruise. Whatever may be the recondite subatomic constitution of the table and of other "solid" objects, they do anyway have the capacity to resist penetration by other such objects. Physics has not dematerialized matter in the sense of having shown that wood, water, air, living bodies, and other familiar substances do not really have the properties we perceive them to have. What physics has shown is that their familiar properties are very different indeed from those of their sub-atomic constituents.

1. Two questions to be distinguished

The allegation that physics has now shown that the things we call material are not really material rests only on a failure to distinguish between two quite different questions.

One of them is about the nature of the ultimate constituents of all material things and about the laws governing the relations of those constituents to one another. This is the question to which theoretical physics addresses itself. The task of answering it is long, highly technical, and still unfinished. And the answers, so far as they have yet been obtained, have no obvious bearing on the problem of the possibility or reality of a life after death.

The other question is on the contrary easy to answer; and the answer, as we shall eventually see, has bearing on the validity or invalidity of some of the considerations alleged to rule out survival. The only thing difficult about the second question is to realize that we already know perfectly well the answer to it, and that our failure to notice this is due only to the fact that we do not clearly distinguish the second question from the first.

For purposes of contrast, the first may be phrased: What do physicists find when they search for the ultimate constituents of the things we call "material?" On the other hand, the second but of course methodologically prior question is: Which things are the ones called "material?"

2. Which things are "material?"

The answer to the second of these two questions obviously is that the things called "material" are the rocks, air, water, plants, animal bodies, and so on, about us; that is, comprehensively, the substances, processes, events, relations, characteristics, etc., that are perceptually public or can be made so.

No doubt is possible that, originally and fundamentally, these things are the ones denominated "material" or "physical;" i.e., that they are the ones denoted - pointed at - by these names. Moreover, unless the physicist already knew, thus as a matter of linguistic usage, that those things are the ones we refer to when we speak of "material" things, he would not even know which things are the ones whose ultimate constituents we are asking him to investigate and to reveal to us.

The point, then, which is here crucial is that the objects, events, etc., that are perceptually public are called "material" or "physical" not because technical research had detected as hidden in all of them some recondite peculiarity that constituted their materiality, but simply because some name was needed - and the name, "material," was adopted - by which to refer comprehensively to all perceptually public things.

The case with regard to these things and to our calling them "material" is thus parallel in all essentials to that of a given boy called George. He is not so called because scrutiny of him after birth disclosed to his parents presence in him of a peculiar characteristic, to wit, Georgeness. Rather, "George" is simply the name or tag assigned to him by his parents in order to be able to refer to him without actually pointing at him. Similarly, "material" or "physical" is simply the name or tag assigned by custom to the part of the world that is perceptually public or is capable of being made so.

Hence the question as to what recondite peculiarities are possessed by material things is intelligible at all and is capable at all of being empirically investigated, only after one knows which things are the ones to be examined in order to answer it; that is, knows which things are the ones named "material" - just as one can discover the recondite peculiarities of George only after one knows which boy is the one named George.

3. "Material," derivatively vs. fundamentally

Something, however, must now be added to the statement made above that, originally and fundamentally, what the expressions "the material world" or "the physical world" denote is the things, events, processes, characteristics, etc., that are or can be made perceptually public.

The addition called for is that, secondly and derivatively, those expressions denote also the minute or otherwise unperceivable constituents of whatever is or can be made perceptually public. The existence and the characteristics of these recondite constituents are discovered, not of course by perceptual observation of them since they are not perceptible; but by theoretical inference from certain perceived occurrences which turn out to be inexplicable and unpredictable except on the supposition that they are effects of certain processes among unperceivable constituents of the perceived things - constituents, namely, having the very properties in terms of which we define the nature of the "atoms," "electrons," etc., which we postulate exist. The reality of these is then confirmed empirically in so far as the postulating of them turns out to enable us to predict and sometimes to control occurrences that are capable of being perceived but that until then had remained unobserved or unexplained.

The title, then, of those recondite theoretical entities and events to be called "material" or "physical" is not, like that of trees, stones, water, etc., that they are perceptually public since they are not so; but that they are existentially implicit in the things that are perceptually public.

4. What is "living."

In an article circulated to newspapers by the Associated Press early in December 1957, Dr. Selman Waksman, Nobel prize winner in biology, rightly points out that the question whether life after death is possible cannot be answered until its meaning has first been made clear. He then proceeds - to define the meaning he attaches to "life" and to "death" by listing certain observable and measurable functions - growth, metabolism, respiration, reproduction, adaptation to environment, and intelligence - as being those which, together, differentiate living from non-living material and constitute the "life" of the former; and by defining "death" as termination of those functions.

After some technical biological elaboration, he comes to the conclusion that "any belief in life after death is in disagreement with all the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of modem biology" - a conclusion, however, which, notwithstanding its impressive allusion to biological science, then reduces to the mere truism that when the functions constituting life terminate they do not persist!

But, as we stated briefly at the beginning of Chapt. I, there are two senses in which a man may be said to "live." One is the biological sense, defined as by Dr. Waksman in terms of certain public, measurable processes. The other is the psychological sense. It is defined in terms of occurrence of states of consciousness - occurrence of the sensations, images, feelings, emotions, attitudes, thoughts, desires, etc., privately experienced directly by each of us: that a man is "living" in the psychological sense means that ones and others of these keep occurring. Moreover life, in this psychological sense of the term, is what man essentially prizes and is usually what he means when he speaks of a "life" after the death and decay of the body.

A biologist would of course be likely to say that, anyway, states of consciousness are effects of certain of the processes going on in bodies that are biologically "living"; and hence that when these die the stream of states of consciousness necessarily terminates. But this does not logically follow from the known facts; for although the biologist knows that some states of consciousness are effects of bodily processes, he does not know but only piously postulates that all of them without exception are so. Moreover, he does not know that some at least of the states of consciousness which certain bodily processes cause might not possibly be causable also in some other way, and hence might not go on occurring after biological life terminates. In any case, the question as to whether they then can or do go on is not answered by the truism that when biological life terminates, it does not continue.

Dr. Waksman's conclusion that biological life after biological death is biologically impossible escapes vacuousness only if taken to refer specifically to the idea that "life after death" means resurrection of the flesh; that is, (a) reconstitution of the body after it has died and its material has been dispersed by decay or by worms, vultures, sharks, or cremation; and then, (b) resumption in the reconstituted body of the processes of growth, metabolism, respiration, etc., which constitute biological "life."

Such reconstitution and resumption is what indeed is "in disagreement with all the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of modern biology."

The distinction between biological and psychological life having now been made sharp, it is appropriate to notice that, in the case of either, being alive is not a matter of wholly or not at all. When the body is in coma, under anesthesia, in a faint, or in deep sleep, the processes of "vegetative" life still go on, but such bodily activities as eating, drinking, seeking food, hiding from or fighting enemies, etc., which are typical of the body's "animal" life, are in abeyance, as well as the bodily activities distinctive of "human" life - examples of which would be speaking, writing, reading, constructing instruments and operating them, trading, and the other "cultural" activities.

In the psychological life of human beings, various levels may likewise be distinguished. The neonate's psychological life comprises only sensations, feelings, emotions, and blind impulses. Memory, association of ideas, expectations, conscious purpose, do not yet enter into it. Soon, however, some states of consciousness come to function as signs - signs of events or facts other than themselves. At later stages of individual development, psychological life at a given time may consist only of uncontrolled dreaming, whether by day or night. At other times psychological life is on the contrary active - inventive, heuristic, critical, consciously purposive. And it is conceivable that, if there is any life in the psychological sense after biological death, such life may consist of only certain ones of these various kinds of psychological processes.

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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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