Surviving Deathby Mark Johnston
In this extraordinary book, Mark Johnston sets out a new understanding of personal identity and the self, thereby providing a purely naturalistic account of surviving death.
Death threatens our sense of the importance of goodness. The threat can be met if there is, as Socrates said, "something in death that is better for the good than for the bad."/p>
In this extraordinary book, Mark Johnston sets out a new understanding of personal identity and the self, thereby providing a purely naturalistic account of surviving death.
Death threatens our sense of the importance of goodness. The threat can be met if there is, as Socrates said, "something in death that is better for the good than for the bad." Yet, as Johnston shows, all existing theological conceptions of the afterlife are either incoherent or at odds with the workings of nature. These supernaturalist pictures of the rewards for goodness also obscure a striking consilience between the philosophical study of the self and an account of goodness common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism: the good person is one who has undergone a kind of death of the self and who lives a life transformed by entering imaginatively into the lives of others, anticipating their needs and true interests. As a caretaker of humanity who finds his or her own death comparatively unimportant, the good person can see through death.
But this is not all. Johnston's closely argued claims that there is no persisting self and that our identities are in a particular way "Protean" imply that the good survive death. Given the future-directed concern that defines true goodness, the good quite literally live on in the onward rush of humankind. Every time a baby is born a good person acquires a new face.
Paul J. Griffiths
J. Jeremy Wisnewski
"[P]acked with illuminating philosophical reflection on the question of what we are, and what it is for us to persist over timeon the relations among selves, persons, human beings, bodies and souls."Thomas Nagel,Times Literary Supplement
"[Johnston] reveals himself to be an engaging wit, a swaggering polymath, and . . . a major talent."Jacques Berlinerblau, Chronicle of Higher Education
"Surviving Death and Saving God both provided me with intellectual pleasure of a high order, even though I found many of the author's conclusions false and some morally repugnant. Johnston is the kind of atheist it's good for Christians to read, because he is intelligent, intellectually energetic, and serious about what he engages, and because he shows very clearly just where fastidiousness leads."Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal
"Mark Johnston's Surviving Death is an immensely interesting book. While it is not without technical discussions of issues in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and personal identity, it is also a very readable bookand one that, despite some modest technicality, lets its author's personality shine through. . . . Surviving Death is a provocative, engaging, and worthwhile book. It is certain to re-invigorate our thinking about the prospects that the good allows in relation to our mortality."J. Jeremy Wisnewski, Philosophy in Review
"[Surviving Death and Saving God] constitute a remarkably thorough and convincing treatment of two extremely important religious issues, those of the perennial allurements of idolatry and the deeply menacing fact of death, to say nothing of the books' endorsement and defense of an arduous but richly inspiring ideal of the religious life. The books are a welcome corrective for some of the most seductive and prevalent distortions of religious thought and practice. I heartily recommend them to the reader who relishes a bountifully laid, religiously nourishing, and deeply satisfying philosophical feast."Donald A. Crosby, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
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By MARK JOHNSTON
princeton university pressCopyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIs Heaven a Place We Can Get To?
Having shaken off the yoke of being chair of the department (after seven years) it is a great honor to be invited by my colleagues to give these lectures. It is also a particular delight. For this lecture series celebrates the memory of our wonderful former colleague, Carl Gustav "Peter" Hempel.
Like all those who knew him, I remember Peter as a very good and kind man. To mention just one small kindness-a single example among so many-one Princeton summer, long ago, Peter offered his magnificent office in McCosh to my then fellow graduate student Alison McIntyre and me, with the encouragement that we look into his library. It provided a great education in the long history of positivism, especially in the often unnoticed practical idealism of that movement, which appeared so forcefully in the many early pamphlets associated with its formation, pamphlets that Peter still kept on hand. One of those pamphlets contained a partial translation of August Comte's Système de politique positive, in which I found an idea that I shall return to in the last lecture. I wonder what Peter would have made of it.
So now to begin on the lectures, I should say that I am very conscious of the awkwardness of my topic. To speak in this kind of academic context about whether we survive death is widely regarded as a form of bad taste. When I first announced the topic of these lectures, many of my friends in the department visibly flinched. And I believe that they are still a little nervous on my behalf. Why is this? Perhaps it is because there seem to be only two ways of proceeding, both bad ones at that. You either rehearse a scientifically established materialism about life and death, or you preach.
To do the first, to rehearse materialism, roughly the claim that the mind is merely the functioning of the brain and nervous system, so that a mind cannot survive the death of its brain, is just to insult peoples' cherished religious beliefs, and their consequent hopes that they and their loved ones are not obliterated by death. And that is not very helpful, is it?
Besides rehearsing the consequences of materialism, the only other option may seem to be apologetics or preaching; in effect, special pleading on behalf of particular religious beliefs. That is obviously out of court in an academic context. So how can you decently talk, in an academic context, about whether or not we survive death?
Well, we don't talk about it, or if we do, we talk about it under the arcane guise of what is called the philosophy of personal identity. This academic reticence on the question of life after death has at least two bad effects.
One effect is on the culture at large. Because there is something of a taboo on serious discussion of the topic, many people suppose that they have the right to believe anything they like about death and survival. So we get a good deal of second- or third-hand religiosity, mixed in with the whims of New Age wishful thought. Here as elsewhere, freedom of thought is confused with a license to believe anything. Philosophy is one of the few things that still enforces that disappearing distinction.
Another effect is t o be found in t he intellectual content of a major idée fixe of the day, namely the incessant discussion of the alleged compatibility or, as it might be, incompatibility of something called "religion" and something called "science." (As if Spiritualism and neurophysiology stood in the same relation as Unitarianism and, say, cosmology.) One reason why such discussions often seem like so much shadowboxing is that the crux of supernaturalist religious belief, the status of the afterlife, is not taken up in any detailed and concerted way.
One upshot of these lectures will be that dwelling on the generic motif of science versus religion misses something crucial. As we shall see, various supernaturalisms, particularly the Protestant and the exoteric Catholic theologies of death, have obscured a striking consilience between certain implications of the naturalistic philosophical study of the self and a central salvific doctrine found in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Vedanta.
The Popularity of the Other World
In , the Barna Research Group conducted an extensive survey of the attitudes of Americans on the question of surviving death. Here is their own "executive summary" of their findings.
Belief in life after death, like belief in God, is widely embraced. Not only do 81 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife of some sort, but another 9 percent said life after death may exist, but they were not certain. Moreover, a large majority of Americans (79 percent) agreed with the statement "Every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God's presence or absence." In fact, belief in the afterlife seems to be more popular than belief in the existence of God. Half of all self-described atheists and agnostics say that every person has a soul, that heaven and hell exist, and that there is life after death.
The Barna survey also explored Americans' particular conceptions of heaven and hell.
In all, percent believe that heaven exists, while nearly the same proportion said that there is such a thing as hell (71 percent).
While there is no dominant view of hell, two particular opinions seem widespread.
Four out of ten adults believe that hell is "a state of eternal separation from God's presence" (39 percent) and one-third (32 percent) says it is "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death." A third proposition, which one in eight adults will assent to, is that "hell is just a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death."
The popular view of where we are going after death appears to ignore, even to reverse, the consistent and ominous biblical warning: "Narrow is the gate to salvation, but wide is the road that leads to perdition." For just one-half of 1 percent of Americans think that they will g o to hell upon their death.
By the way, this is roughly the proportion of Americans who in other surveys are prepared to avow Satanism, or report that Satan is likely to be the highest power. So the level of anticipation of effective damnation, in the sense of ending up in the wrong place, may be considerably lower than half of percent.
What Does Death Threaten?
It is the kind of survey of American attitudes that shows that we need to significantly amend Nietzsche's best-known aphorism. God is dead; but only in Australia, Scandinavia, and parts of Western Europe! In these "godless" countries, and the old country, Australia, it seems, is one of the more godless, much lower levels of belief in the afterlife are found.
These stark differences in levels of professed belief in an afterlife persist, even when we statistically correct for the difference in churchgoing as between, say, the United States and Australia. Here is a tempting speculation about the persistent difference between Americans and Australians. In Australia, for whatever reason, saying that you believe in God and the afterlife is not a speech act required of you in order to count as a conventionally good person. By contrast, one of the things American respondents are doing in announcing their beliefs in God and the afterlife is declaring themselves on the side of the good. (If that is right, then we should not expect that a significant increase in scientific literacy would automatically alter the rate of such avowals.) Like it or not, in this country, the present conventions are such that to openly avow atheism and materialism is thereby to create the presumption that you are a reprobate, a morally unprincipled person. You will then have, for example, little chance of being elected sheriff, let alone congressman, senator, or president.
Is this why atheists are now "coming out"-in part to erode these conventions?
Convention aside, is there any intelligible connection between allegiance to the good and belief in life after death? I think there is. Death confronts us with a threefold threat. For the person who is dying death threatens the loss of life with others, as well as the end of presence, the end of conscious a wareness. As a generic phenomenon, death also threatens what we might call the importance of goodness. Belief in a life after death, where people get their just deserts, explicitly addresses this last threat. (Of course, it also promises the restoration of life with others and the persistence of conscious awareness.)
death and the importance of goodness
How does death threaten the importance of goodness? To start with the more inchoate versions of the thought: Death is the great leveler; if the good and the bad alike go down into oblivion, if there is nothing about reality itself that shores up this basic moral difference between their lives, say by providing what the good deserve, then the distinction between the good and the bad is less important. So goodness is less important.
It is an argument with an ancient pedigree. Qoheleth, perhaps better known as Ecclesiastes, the "one who has gathered many things," writing sometime after BCE, famously makes this argument in the case of one prized form of goodness, namely wisdom.
So I turned to consider wisdom and folly.... Then I saw that wisdom excels over folly as light excels over darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, but the fools walk in darkness. But then I remembered that the same fate befalls us all, wise and foolish alike. And I said to myself, "What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?" And I came to see that this wisdom also is vanity. There is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of the fools, for in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. The wise die just like the fools.... So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. (Eccl. 2:12-17)
Everything that confronts them is vanity, for the same fate comes to them all, to the just and the unjust, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and to those who do not sacrifice. (Eccl. 9:2-3)
The argument is no t (or not yet) that the distinctions between the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, and the clean and the unclean are obliterated by the fact that they all face the same fate, the supposed nothingness of the grave. Rather it is t hat the distinctions lose their importance. The struggle to be wise, or just, or good, or clean is so much vain effort, given what death is.
This is not an isolated thought in the Jewish tradition. The Wisdom of Solomon, written by a Hellenized Jew probably at the end of the first century BCE, rather than promoting Qoheleth's argument directly, offers a more telling conceit. The author has the wicked or "the ungodly" invoke their ally Death to vindicate their wickedness, by what is in effect a radicalized version of Qoheleth's argument.
The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned Death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company. For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, "Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Death. For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of creation to the full, as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in revelry."
So far, so good; we seem to have a sensible Epicurianism; there is nothing in itself wicked here. But now the reasoning of the wicked takes a nasty turn.
"Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless."
In so reasoning, the wicked "reason unsoundly," as the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha has it; and it is clear from the surrounding text that the argument of the wicked is explicitly presented by the author as un sound, but not invalid. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon is telling us that if it were the case that the righteous and the wicked alike go down into the nothingness of Death, then one could validly infer that everything is permitted. But the argument of the wicked employs a false premise about death. On the author's view, the righteous are saved by the goodness of God. As he says:
For the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall ever touch them ... for though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. (Wisdom 3:1-4)
And we might add, righteousness is thereby saved; its importance is preserved even in the face of death.
Can the Threat Be Dismissed?
Among contemporary philosophers, it is widely held that a few elementary considerations in moral philosophy will suffice to expose the confusion in this sort of thinking. Many moral philosophers would say that the wicked described in the Wisdom of Solomon are reasoning invalidly. The dominant view would be that it doesn't follow from the supposed fact that all alike go down into the nothingness of the grave that righteousness or goodness is less important.
For example, modern moral rationalists would make the following points. Moral goodness is a normative property that attaches to acts because of the kinds of acts they are, and independently of whether those acts are rewarded. Moral badness is a normative property that attaches to acts because of the kinds of acts that they are, and independently of whether those acts are punished. Whatever the merely self-interested or prudential point of view might tell you about the importance of the distinction between goodness and badness in the face of the nothingness of death, the moral point of view represents that distinction as categorically important; that is, important in a way that is not at all conditioned by your finding it in your self-interest to pursue the good. This is so even if we extend the notion of self-interest to cover your eternal salvation or damnation as meted out by a just God.
More than this, moral considerations override the considerations of self- interest; they place absolute side constraints on the pursuit of ends. In this sense they have an absolutely preemptory authority over anything we might desire. Therefore the force of moral considerations as reasons to act and prefer is independent of any desire-based incentive that the afterlife might offer. So much is just the content of the moral point of view, according to our modern moral rationalist.
That seems all very well as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. In thus ensuring the hardness of the moral "must," our modern moral rationalists have thereby left morality all too brittle. For we can ask about the importance of the moral point of view itself, given that reality-as depicted by secular naturalism-is indifferent to t he very distinction that point of view treats as so important. It is internal to the moral point of view that great injustice cries out for punishment, and that great sacrifice in the name of the good cries out for reward. But if the world itself is deaf to these cries then it can be rational to care less about the deliverances of the moral point of view.
Compare a corresponding attack on the importance of the prudential point of view; a point of view that presents the pursuit of one's own longterm self-interest as a fundamental principle of rationality. From the prudential point of view, the pursuit of your long-term self-interest is categorically important; that is, the force of reasons of self-interest does not depend on your having antecedent desires to promote your self-interest. So from the prudential point of view, one can be criticized for not caring enough about oneself and one's future. So young smokers and heavy drinkers are often criticized from the point of view of prudence alone, even when it is clear that they lack present desires to now act to satisfy their anticipatable future desires not to be in pain or misery.
Excerpted from Surviving Death by MARK JOHNSTON Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Mark Johnston is the Walter Cerf Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University and the author of "Saving God: Religion after Idolatry" (Princeton).
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Beautifully put, Penelope.