|  ERICH UNGER   Home | Essays | About Us | Contact Us|
Conversation on Immortality
If, on the bodily side of our existence, we can refer to 'an actual continuity of substance' as Huxley calls it - where do we look for the actual corresponding continuity on the mental side of our existence, conscious or unconscious? With a telling looseness of style, Huxley speaks of' the immortal Self of the germ-plasm'. That is clearly a metaphor, since germ-plasm is here considered as purely material and thus has no Self. Or has it? And if so, where? Is it 'the Self of the Species'? Is such a thing conceivable? Or the unconscious root of my own Self? Or a constituent of that root? (To David, who is making a gesture indicating surprise:) I know, I know, my dear David, all about anti-pre-formation facts and arguments. I am not going in that direction. What is arresting is that there is a material continuity, a continuity, as Descartes would say of the res cognitans. Or, perhaps, have we simply failed to bring our theories of mental phenomena into line? Not enabled them to catch up with those of the bodily phenomena? On the side of the Self, that is to say, there is no theoretical expression of what, on the side of the body, is the connecting link or thread on which the sequence of organisms is strung.
In this context, in which we are told of something materially immortal, it may be particularly interesting to recall ideas on 'something mentally immortal', as many philosophies have it. We may find it useful to compare the characteristics that those philosophies predicated concerning the indestructible something with what would follow from our speculation. According to Plato, only that part of the soul that is localized to the head, the logisticon, is immortal. You will find that somewhere in the Timmaeus. Similar, though perhaps more coherent and detailed is Aristotle's conception. He grants immortality only to 'active reason', an attribute of Deity; it exists before the formation of the organism, is incorporeal, has nothing to do with the brain and is added by the Creator from outside to the otherwise mortal soul of the body. It is far from clear in which way the persistence of the reasoning power is imagined by him. Still more elaborate and less assailable is Spinoza's construct. He says that the faculties of the human mind for imagination and memory are conditioned by the existence of the body. But there is in God or in Nature a lasting 'idea of the essence of the single human organism', an idea that expresses this essence of a particular human organism 'sub specie aeternitatis'. The human mind, therefore, cannot be entirely destroyed with the destruction of the body, and 'something eternal' of the mind remains.
If we interpret that 'something eternal', that 'idea of the essence of a single organism' in our way and think of it as a particular 'type' of organism, a type that implies the mental constitution and the special relation to its collective living fundament and environment, we may find the deepest root, the germ of the Self in that type. This is not an immanent interpretation of what Spinoza meant by his terms, I know, but it might lie in the line of his thinking. The organism has, in the life of one human existence, the role of the constant form through which, by the process of metabolism, continuously new and other matter passes and which, on the higher level, itself becomes material That is to say, organisms that correspond to the same idea of the essence of a particular organism would assume a function or a place similar to the different phases of the same body, where the matter of the organism has been renewed in the course of a single human existence. And the constant form would have to be seen in the type itself, realized through the sequence of organisms. Is the wave moving from A to B the same at B as at A? Is my organism when I am an old man the same as when I was a child? Am I the 'same' then and now?
L. We would not think that specimens belonging to the same type are identical, i.e. that they are connected through Selfhood. We would not say that men of the same type or women who have the same character have an identical Self, would we?
B. Certainly not. Especially not if we see them moving about simultaneously. But we shall not go into the problem of equality in types and classes of things. That points back or refers back to identity and sameness. Anyway, the question of a plurality of Selves presents special difficulties. Such a plurality cannot wholly be treated in the same way as a plurality of material things, since Selves are essentially inside-phenomena and counting necessarily takes things from the outside. When counting Selves, you are bound to make a substitution, changing over to the outside view and counting the corresponding organisms instead. But, apart from the curious feature that matter cannot be properly looked at from inside and mind not from outside, even with regard to a plurality of material things, you also know Leibniz's principle of the identity of indiscernibles. With regard to a type of particular human organism contributing to a Self, we were speaking rather along the lines of Spinoza's idea of the essence of a single body. Such a type could not comprise simultaneously existing consciousnesses or subconsciousnesses. It could only comprise a succession of the absolutely closest related cases of Selves or organisms. What you have called type, a type having the same character, is a vast, manifold variety of lives by comparison. In other words, our type is incomparably smaller and narrower than a normal class of similar things. It denotes only the most intimately related specimens. Add to this a literal, organic connection of such organisms, linked through the bonds of succeeding generations of a particular biological family of characteristics and I wonder whether you would find it impossible to imagine that there could be part of the Self of an ancestor awakening in a later descendant.