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How shall I think about death?

In Western traditions, by far the most popular way to think about death and immortality is shaped by the ancient and fundamental distinction between the physical body and the spiritual soul. Body and soul are taken to be independent realities, each with distinctive properties and characteristics - neither being derivative from nor reducible to the other. Bodies may exist with or without souls, and souls may exist with or without bodies. According to most versions of this metaphysical dualism, the human person is essentially an incorruptible eternal soul that happens to sojourn in a corruptible physical body. At the moment of death, the body and soul go their separate ways - the body to dust and the soul (that is, the person) to eternal bliss in a realm of spiritual reality.

Despite the fact that this theory is widely held by virtue of its fixture into popular piety and religious doctrine, it must be seen to have one major flaw: it is rationally incoherent and therefore cannot be seriously believed by anyone willing to consider its implications. It is an incoherent theory precisely because the concept of a disembodied person is profoundly implausible. Clearly there was a time in the past when the dualistic theory could withstand criticism, but this is no longer the case for the simple reason that what we now know to be true of persons quite forcefully rules out the possibility of their disembodiment. A person, for anyone left paying attention at the end of the twentieth century, is a mysterious and complex product of interactions between hereditary and environmental factors, all of which are understood in terms of their fundamental physical properties. Embodiment is essential to sensation, intellection, emotion, identity, communication, and everything else we have come to associate with the reality of a person. A person is, virtually by definition, a material being. But if the body corrupts at death (as the dualist insists), then there can be no question of a person surviving death.

Of course, there remains the possibility that disembodied souls will be joined in complete union with God after death. But comforting as it may sound, this prospect is effectively indistinguishable from the most explicit form of nihilistic materialism. Annihilation of personal identity is everywhere the same, whether by virtue of union with God or by virtue of dispersal among the galaxies.

If we are left with the requirement that persons are necessarily embodied, then a second option for thinking about death and immortality opens up to us: reincarnation. The popular notion of reincarnation finds the metaphysically discrete soul leaping from body to body in the way a passenger on a train might pass from car to car. But this standard doctrine is little more than a variant of body-soul dualism. A more interesting view involves the indefinite survival of the person by virtue of reconstituting the person's body. Underlying this view is the idea that a person is essentially a material body organized in such a way that it manifests personality. The question then is whether this personality could possibly survive the destruction of the body. The answer is yes, if we assume that the material organization constituting the person could be transferred to some other information-bearing vehicle. Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose each time a cell in my body dies, someone replaces that cell with, say, a sophisticated silicon chip. And suppose, over time, billions of these transplants were carried out, such that after several years my body comes to be fully constituted by electronic circuitry. If we suppose that all the original complexity was held intact throughout the process, we would have to conclude that my personality would have been fully reconstituted despite the death of my original body. If we understand a person to be the emergent reality of complex material organization, then preserving the organization would be sufficient for the survival of the person. The particular matter being organized is irrelevant - what is required is that the reconstituted body be complex enough to bear the organized functions we associate with the person.

This view of death and immortality is far more interesting and plausible than the previous view of metaphysical dualism. The only trouble is that it is hardly more feasible. A good many things are theoretically plausible but practically impossible, and this is one of them. There is no good reason to expect that a completely bionic person will ever enter into the realm of possibility - at least not within the life span of anyone now seeking a way to think about death.

Those who are theologically inclined might wish to claim that God is capable of pulling off the technical feat of saving persons by reconstituting new bodies for them. But such claims would entail some very special theological problems of their own: namely, that God (if God is construed as a personal reality) would have to be an embodied being, and heaven would have to be located in real space and reckoned in terms of incarnate states - all of which opens up theological speculation to existing empirical methods. Such modified views of reincarnation may be entertaining, but they are hardly satisfying as constructive ways to think about death and immortality. If we desire a serious way to think, we shall have to depart from the domains of theology and science fiction.

A third way to think about death and immortality develops from a moral perspective. On this view, immortality is not seen as an extension of one's life but, rather, as a deepening of it. Eternity is not construed in a horizontal or historical sense (as a quantitative measure of future time) but, rather, in a vertical or valued sense (as the qualitative significance of each present moment). For a life to be judged immortal in this sense does not mean that it has become invulnerable to death but, rather, that it cannot be rendered meaningless by death. This view makes no metaphysical pretensions about the person's subjective experience persisting beyond the moment of death: when the body dies, the person is annihilated forthwith. Period. Kaput. But the objective moral character of the person may endure to inspire meaning in the world either by the legacy of a person's work or by the lives that continue to be touched in memory. The immortal life is therefore not a life that defeats death but one that defies it by placing each moment in the service of ideals that transcend the person. Such a life survives as a real moral presence.

The virtue of this moral reconstruction of the problem is that it enables us to continue affirming the presence and value of a life that has ended - which (when you think about it) is precisely what we do with respect to persons who are still alive. I do not mean to trivialize any differences among the ways in which we regard the living and the dead but only to assert that the death of a person does nothing to diminish his or her morally relevant place in our lives. Nevertheless, the moral reconstruction of immortality is not a completely satisfying way to think about death. It certainly helps somewhat in minimizing the sense of loss associated with death, but it does not (as the previous theories attempt to do) give us a sense that in death there is something of importance to be gained. To recapture the positive meaning of death, we might do well to supplement the moral reconstruction of immortality with a biological account of mortality.

Most theories of death regard it as a problem to be solved or (as we have just seen) as an insoluble problem to be reconstructed in moral terms. But from an evolutionary perspective, death is not a problem at all; it is a solution.

For humans, it is often said that only two things are certain: death and taxes. But this is not true for all living things. Many species of organisms need never die. Indeed, death itself appears to be a fairly recent biological innovation that came about shortly after sex was invented. Single-cell organisms reproduce by simply dividing into halves, each half becoming a distinct individual capable of further subdivision. Death is not a part of the picture, for both halves go on living, enjoying a virtual immortality. In the case of amoebae, the prospect of growing old and dying makes no sense. Nor does it make sense for various multicell organisms. Flatworms, for example, also reproduce by simple division. They pinch at the middle, leaving two abbreviated flatworms to regenerate all the missing bits, and so on, indefinitely.

It is only among the more complex, sexually reproducing organisms that death enters the picture as a regular phenomenon. Every sexually reproducing organism develops from a single cell, a fertilized egg. The organism then proceeds toward maturity by the process of cell division. Eventually there is a divergence of cell lines, as various groups become organized to carry out specialized functions. Among the many cell lines is the germ line, an assembly of cells that produce seed for the next generation. The various other cell lines go into making a body and may be viewed collectively as the soma line. The difference between the germ line and the soma line develops into a body whose job it is to negotiate the environment (that is, survival), thus enabling the germ line to do its own job of bringing forth more organisms to carry on the germ line (that is, reproduction). The strategy is simple and elegant: the soma line is the instrument of the germ line. Having performed its duty to the germ line, the body becomes redundant and eventually dies. But the germ line continues immortally onward in subsequent generations. The death of the body is an essential part of the system.

In the context of this evolutionary story, it becomes difficult to view death in a negative sense. The inevitability of my death is now beheld as a necessary condition of my life: a mere entrance fee, to be paid on the way out. If there were no death, there would be no soma line; and without a soma line, there would be no possibility of an embodied person - no memories, no loves, no joys, no wonder or wisdom, no longing or learning. These are among the many splendors of the soma line, and for these we must die. What we stand to gain by our death has already been gained in the possibility of our living. To the extent that I cherish my life, therefore, I have reason to be profoundly grateful for my death.

How then shall I think about death? With gratitude, and as the occasions decide. When I have occasion to mourn the death of other persons, I will try to absorb the loss in what I have gained from them. I will try to understand my grief as a measure of my gratitude, and I will try to view my life as an instrument for the enduring presence and values of others. And when I have occasion to consider the fact of my own death, I will attempt to think large. I will try to see that a soma-centered story of the self is a small and impoverished view, and that the life within me was, in the most literal sense possible, first quickened among the primordial organisms appearing on earth nearly four billion years ago. I will try to remember that I am the kind of being whose death is obligated by the entitlement to live, and I will try to live in a way that makes the price a pittance. I will affirm that all lives, no less my own, are instruments of life itself. And by these measures, I will submerge the gravity of my own death in the long, stern grace of evolution.

Loyal Rue is professor of religion and philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His most recent book is By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs (Oxford University Press, 1994).
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Title Annotation:Philosopher's Column
Author:Rue, Loyal
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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