16 March 2007

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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Comments (4)

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Saturday, March 17, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

In a discussion over the truth of equality someone

In a discussion over the truth of equality someone once asked me, "surely you don't believe that life and death are equal or the same"? I responded, "how do you know they are different, have you ever been dead"?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I think that an afterlife without reincarnation is

I think that an afterlife without reincarnation is impossible. If we accept an afterlife, we must also accept a beforelife. It?s like marriage: when you marry the son or daughter you marry into the whole family, whether you like it or not. Consciousness can only exist after death if it can exist independently of our physical body; and if it can exist independently of our physical body, it can exist before our physical body is formed inside our mother. Put another way, if consciousness isn?t extinguished at the point of death, there?s no reason to expect that it would come into being at the point of conception. I think the two things cannot be separated.
I also think that the most important fact to consider when we talk about the subject of an afterlife is this: There is no generally observable evidence of an afterlife. There is no evidence in our normal dimensions of time and space that the dead continue to live. A credible afterlife theory must therefore provide evidence of a different context of time and space.
But a different context of time and space is not enough. A credible afterlife theory must also provide evidence that we have a constitution that allows a transition of consciousness to that context of time and space. It must therefore provide support for substance dualism, the proposition that our mind and brain are separate - and an unpopular position these days. Unless our mind and brain are separate there is no vehicle of consciousness available when our body dies.
A credible afterlife theory must not attempt to explain one mystery with another mystery; and like all credible theories, it must be able to be falsified.
That's a very high bar to jump over.

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