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Conversation on Immortality
S. Yes, on the whole. The subject has become thoroughly obsolete, in science, that is. Clergymen and other pious writers are, of course, still pondering over it.
B. I have sometimes, in the depths of my unscientific bosom, cherished a peculiar suspicion concerning immortality. It may sound peculiar, even slightly nonsensical. But since there is no professional philosopher here and since it does not matter anyway what a man says during an air raid, I may as well tell you. I suspect that what Hume discovered and clearly stated, namely that there is no Self, is the real condition of its immortality.
L. Great. The only sure way not to perish is not to exist at all. Is that what you mean?
B. You've got it.
D. You should have put your idea to Lewis Carroll. He might have used it in 'Alice in Wonderland'.
B. Excuse me. I said that it might sound slightly nonsensical. I did not say that it was.
L. Then why be afraid of a professional philosopher listening?
B. Because they are so strict. They won't let you say anything obscure; they have a passion for clarity and so a good many things and reflections have to remain unsaid because they can only find their way to expression by being allowed to come to light in a somewhat muddled form; they present a somewhat unclean appearance - like anything newborn, you know. Remember Socrates and the business of midwifery. I think that you will never produce any thoughts at all if you are not allowed, sometimes, to begin with statements that seem - and are -somewhat cloudy. The clarification comes later.
L. And sometimes it doesn't.
B. Yes. Scientific philosophers are very much inclined to think that it never will, and, given the mysteries of our life and our world, I might not even consider that to be a complete disaster, to be avoided at all costs, especially not at the cost of stilling many good suggestions for penetrating the fringes of those mysteries. Professionals have little patience for the weaknesses of human thought. What they like is to proceed from one absolutely clear position to the next, equally unblemished, clarity. And that I cannot manage.
L. We are not professionals. Go on.
D. I wonder how you will extricate yourself from your apparent contradiction. You said something like: there is no Self; it is immortal. Wasn't that what you said?
B. Let's get down from the provocative formulations and view the so-called sober facts. They will prove to be puzzling enough, even without paradoxical brilliance. Let us grant that there is such a thing as consciousness; I prefer to call it sleeping consciousness because I mean the kind of consciousness we have when we are deeply asleep. Then let us distinguish between our consciousness as such, an empirical phenomenon, and those factors in nature that give rise to that phenomenon. Are there factors of nature that bring about human consciousness, to be found within the individual organism, which is itself the bodily complement of that consciousness? Or, do the natural factors which are responsible and necessary for the existence of an individual consciousness extend beyond the boundaries of the individual organism to the whole network of collective life, interconnected by living reproduction, the collective life from which the individual springs and is but a member. In other words, is the origin of individual consciousness related only to its own organism, or is it derived from the collective web of organisms.
D. I don't understand the question. The consciousness of any individual must, I think, be related to its own organism; but that organism must, of course, be connected to the whole network of life, interconnected by the process of reproduction or procreation.