Many religions contemplate some form of personal continued existence after death: reincarnation in another body, or continued being in some vastly different place like Heaven or Hell.
David Hume died in August, 1776, at the age of 65 --- rather young, by my standards (I'm 64) but not unusually so for that age, I guess. The death is well-documented in literature. Realizing that he was dying, Hume wrote his short, charming Autobiography. His student and friend Adam Smith wrote a moving account of Hume's last days. And, most interesting for our purposes, his fellow Scot James Boswell, most famous for his biography of Dr. Johnson, at Johnson's urging, visited Hume to see if the old infidel's skepticism about an afterlife was shaken as death approached. Boswell published a short account of his interview, recording Hume's good humor, unfailing skepticism about an afterlife, and his own shock at Hume's light-hearted discussion of such issues.
It's not clear what bothered Boswell more, that Hume didn't believe in an afterlife, or that he didn't seem much bothered by not having it to look forward to:
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes....I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith.
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This morning on Philosophy Talk we'll be talking about life after death. I have some memories of believing in Heaven and Hell. This is what I was taught in Sunday School. But I don't think I believed in this kind of afterlife for very long. In my more religious phases when I was younger the form of afterlife was always rather different.
For a while, under the influence of the 50's best seller The Search for Bridey Murphy, I took reincarnation very seriously. This book was written by a therapist who used hyponisis, and in particular the technique called age-regression. The hypnotist gets the subject to relive important earlier episodes in their life by just telling them that they are going back in time to an earlier age. Apparently one day he took a subject further back than he intended, to a time before she was born. She started talking in an Irish brogue, and said her name was Bridey Murphy. At the time this book was published I spent Saturday mornings with my grandfather in the bell tower of Union College in Lincoln Nebraska. We were looking for Soviet bombers as part of the “Ground Observer Corps,” a government sponsored way for citizens to form a last line of defense against any invading planes that managed to sneak into our heartland. We had plenty of time to talk about other things, and we were both fascinated by The Search for Bridey Murphy. My grandfather took reincarnation very seriously and so did I. However, at some point a journalist discovered that Bridey Murphy was a neighbor of the subject while she was a child in Chicago, so she was not really remembering an earlier reincarnation.
Later I took reincarnation seriously again for a while. The Dalai Lama made a visit to Stanford, and I was on a panel of humanists who interviewed him. The Dalai Lama is the 14th Dalai Lama, but believes that he is the reincarnation of the 13th, who was in turn the reincarnation of the 12th, and so on back to the first. The Dalai Lama is a very intelligent guy who has written books about how the Tibetan Buddhist world-view is somewhat more amenable to naturalism than the Christian world view. So I asked him how the reincarnation view, and in particular the view that he was the same person as someone who had died before he was born, a number of miles a way, fit into naturalism. He gave quite a sophisticated answer in terms of many forms of memory, and dimensions that are physical and allow for causation, but beyond our ordinary conceptions of space and time. I was impressed, but not convinced.
But, speaking of space and time, it's now time to get ready to drive up to KALW, so I'll have to return to this blog later.
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