Essays, Philosophy, Religion.

Hope against hope: Immortality and illusion

Shortly after my father-in-law Burt died, Christopher Hitchens, the thinker, contrarian and atheist, announced that he had been diagnosed with an incurable disease. There was a good deal of response in the media and the blogosphere, much of it around the idea that Hitchens subscribed to no hopeful or immortal view of his afterlife. Many asked: should one pray for him, given that he did not believe in any religion? Should he go against his life-long atheism and embrace the “life-enhancing illusion” of the soul’s immortality before he dies?

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, offers up the latter idea. Vallicella weighed in on Hitchen’s imminent death, and on truth. "In the teeth of death the man remains intransigent in his unbelief. And why not? He lived in unbelief and so it is only fitting that he should die in it as well. He lived for this life alone; it is fitting that he should die without hope. As I read him, God and the soul were never Jamesian live options. To cop out now as debility and death approach must appear to him to be utterly contemptible, a grasping for straws, a fooling himself into a palliative illusion to ease the horror of annihilation. ... The contemplation of death must be horrifying for those who pin all on the frail reed of the ego. The dimming of the light, the loss of control, the feeling of helplessly and hopelessly slipping away into an abyss of nonbeing. And all of this without the trust of the child who ceases his struggling to be borne by Another. Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."(Maverick Philosopher, On Hitchens and Death) 

Vallicella finished by saying, “If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it?(note 1)

Preferring illusions, given the complete lack of knowledge about what happens to the soul after death, appears to be better than the proffered alternative of horror and imploding ego; however, not everyone prefers it. My father-in-law, Burt, had an attitude similar to Hitchens; he was an agnostic who, even in the face of death, saw no reason to change his mind. I spent many hours with him as he approached his death, and he was not outwardly agitated about the idea of dying without an explicit promise of immortality. He even raised some questions about blithely believing in “life-enhancing illusions”: If God exists, and actually promised eternal life to those who accepted his son Jesus as their savior (Christian God), would God accept as sincere or legitimate a profession of last minute faith for the purpose of hedging one’s bets (some version of Pascal’s wager)?

Or, alternatively, how deep a faith is required by God to qualify a person as one of the faithful, and one who will receive the gift of eternal life in heaven, as opposed to hell? I suppose the question might also be posed as: If one suspects the religious promise of immortality to be a palliative illusion, how can one then pretend to believe in something one has categorized as an illusion? It may very well be that God, that most mysterious of beings, has criteria for immortality that escapes the merely human; it may well be that God respects the Burt Fergusons and Christopher Hitchens of the world for their acceptance of that which they don’t understand about immortality or God himself, and their rejection of illusion just for the sake of palliation. (see note 2 for more on Pascal's Wager)

Vallicella’s argument explicitly assumes that Hitchens carries the depth of fear and horror that he himself does about death. That may be assuming too much: Burt talked also about a universal fear of death, and said that every human that ever lived is already dead, except the handful alive today; in dying we are completing not only the inevitable physical cycle that all living things are part of (“Dust to dust.”), but we are going to experience the same things that our ancestors experienced psychically, if indeed they did experience anything psychically after death. He described the instinct for self-preservation as perhaps the predominant thought in everyday human existence; it is deep, and persistent, and itself “survives” to the end of a life. How much of the desire for immortality is simply the influence, perhaps even the distortion, of the powerful life force within all of us?

Although clearly there is no way to know exactly what Burt was thinking, he seemed at peace with the idea of death; we all will experience it, and he thought it was the same for everyone (perhaps then he didn’t have to choose from the bewilderingly long list of immortal options human beings have come up with ex nihilo, again in the logical sense).

From Burt emanated no suggestion that he might become immortal by way of his writings, for which Vallicella chides Hitchens; unlike Hitchens, a man of prominence and great influence, Burt was an ordinary man in the best sense, that is a husband, father, manager, sportsman, thinker, and so on, unpublished and unknown but important to a small circle of family, friends, and co-workers. Whatever else immortality might or might not be, in all of humanity’s midnight struggles with individual and collective mortality, and all of the human groping in that dark that comprises metaphysics and religion, it has been said that we all are forever part of the human race, and our most obvious legacy is the influence we each have on each other, through our works and ideas, that, in perhaps the tiniest increments, are passed on to the next generation, and to the next generation, ad infinitum, or at least until human civilization ceases. That influence, for Burt, Bill Vallicella, or Christopher Hitchens, is real, accessible, and known, and, however tiny and fleeting it might be, is profound.

But is it sufficient? Vallicella has a point: Considering the vast evidence of human individual and collective obsession with immortality, it would seem that this mote of influence is not enough for a living human being that is constantly aware of its mortality and constantly questioning its purpose in life, and not enough to satisfy that hope that seems to well up in the human heart to live forever.

Did Burt, in his self-described agnosticism and thereby logical pessimism, not also yearn for his life to go on, after his death, like many, if not all, human beings? Was he not also, in his own way, hoping against hope? And is the amount of potential suffering during his mortality from doubting, not denying, his immortality, from not blithely accepting illusion, in and of itself particularly important? Wouldn’t the best of all possible worlds, that most optimistic outcome, be one in which Burt is unutterably surprised by a life after death? And wouldn’t we all, whatever our beliefs, given that those beliefs cannot be substantiated during our lives, be unutterably surprised to encounter a life after death, and unutterably surprised by the form that it actually takes?



1.Vallicella is not being dismissive by describing a life after death as an illusion; in fact it would seem that he believes in immortality; by illusion he means to say only that death is a complete unknown, so anything regarding an immortal soul is speculation, and thereby illusory.

On another note, his final contention was that if materialism is true, since we are materially annihilated at death, then this truth of annihilation is not life-enhancing, and illusions which otherwise enhance life are to be preferred. But is that supposition completely general, that if materialism is true, all truth is not a value? It seems to me that the point is reasonable when applied to man’s sense of his own mortality, since no one knows what happens after death, but I am not sure I see how it is reasonable when applied to the material understanding of physical or societal problems; in those realms don’t we want to seek understanding, and to do our best to refine that understanding, rather than to ascribe causes to illusions or myths? Vallicella acknowledged later that indeed he did not intend to generalize the idea that materialism as truth makes truth valueless, and meant only to apply that idea to the human conception of death.

A final comment: I don’t share his view about illusions, which I find shallow and merely palliative: For all of his learnedness, he still appears on this subject to have rooted his head firmly in the ground, and laid a foundation for all kinds of twisted logic.

2. The Cosmic Skeptic does a more thorough job of poking holes in Pascal’s Wager. Compare the Cosmic Skeptic’s arguments vs. Bill Vallicella’s. View it here.

3. The Daily Dish generated a discussion around Vallicella’s post, starting here, that prompted a response from Vallicella, essentially saying he had written his post quickly, as often is done in the blogosphere, and that he had not expected the breadth of response that a national blog like the Daily Dish might bring, and that he would have polished it if he had known. The point may be valid, but it still would be interesting to see a subsequent, less shrill version.)

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