Earning Immortality
Earning Immortality
New Freeman
August, 1930


See also: Time and Again by Clare Douglas

The death of Sir A. Conan Doyle has revived a little fitful newspaper comment on spiritism, but hardly as much or of such a quality as might be expected. I think belief in the persistence of human personality after death is not as general as it used to be. The position of modern science, as far as an ignorant man of letters can understand it, seems not a step in advance of that held by Huxley and Romanes in the last century. When Moleschott and Buchner declared there was nothing in the world but matter and force, Huxley said that there was pretty plainly a third thing, i. e., consciousness, which was neither matter nor force or any conceivable modification of either. Its phenomena occurred, as far as we knew them, invariably in association with matter and force, but if any one said they were inseparable from such association, he must ask him how he knew that; and if any said they were not inseparable from it, he must ask the same question. Romanes also observed that the transition from the physics of the brain to the facts of consciousness is unthinkable; and that being so, obviously nothing can be predicated about the persistence of consciousness, even upon the ground of probability, quite as Huxley said. I am unable to see that more modern science has carried us beyond this position of pure agnosticism.

Perhaps one reason for the falling-off of belief in a continuance of conscious existence is to be found in the quality of life that most of us lead. There is not much in it with which, in any kind of reason, one can associate the idea of immortality. Selling bonds, for instance, or promoting finance-companies, seems not

to assort with the idea of an existence which can not be imagined to take any account of money or credits. Certain other of our present activities might be imagined as going on indefinitely, such as poetry, music, pure mathematics or philosophy. One can easily imagine an immortal Homer or Beethoven; one can not possibly imagine an immortal Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller. Probably belief can not transcend experience. If we believe that death is the end of us, very likely it is because we have never had any experience of a kind of life that in any sort of common sense we could think was worth being immortal and we know we have had no such experience. As far as spiritual activity is concerned, most of us who represent this present age are so dead while we live that it seems the most natural thing in the world to assume that we shall stay dead when we die.

I have often wondered whether this idea was not behind the curious interruption that St. Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthian Christians who were disbelievers like ourselves. He gives them all the arguments he can think of, but interrupts himself by throwing in a quotation from the dramatist Menander, which at first sight seems out of place: "Be not deceived; evil communications corrupt a right line of morals." Corinth had a civilization somewhat akin to ours in its ideals; it was highly materialistic, spiritual activity was at a very low level, and appreciation of the things of the spirit was correspondingly weak. St. Paul may have thought, as was no doubt the case, that his converts were unable to believe in a future life, not from any lack of knowledge, but on account of their evil communications—they had never engaged in any kind of activity that was worth being immortal. If they wanted to believe, argument would not help them much; they had better hustle around and get some experience of a different kind of life, and belief would probably follow upon experience, as it usually does. The weakness of spiritism always seemed to me to lie in its neglect of the evidential value of this kind of experience. I know I could witness the most striking spiritist demonstration that I ever heard of, without being moved either to belief or disbelief; but I do not think I could engage long in any purely spiritual activity without being somewhat prepossessed towards belief.

In speculating on such matters, one does not see why life beyond death should not be as much of an achievement as life before death. We all know that life has to be the subject of pretty close management; if we do not adjust ourselves to our physical environment, our physical bodies die pretty promptly; and it is conceivable that a failure to adjust ourselves to our spiritual environment might result similarly. Organized Christianity has always represented immortality as a sort of common heritage; but I never could see why spiritual life should not be conditioned on the same terms as all life, i. e., correspondence with environment. Assuming that man has a distinct spiritual nature, a soul, why should it be thought unnatural that under appropriate conditions of maladjustment, his soul might die before his body does; or that his soul might die without his knowing it? There seems to be a pretty good analogy of nature behind the idea that spiritual existence, if at all possible, is possible only as something to be achieved by purposeful effort. Perhaps relatively very few human personalities will survive physical death—granting that any do—and the great majority simply disappears. Perhaps this survival awaits him alone who has made it rather strictly his business to discern his spiritual environment and bring himself into adjustment to it; perhaps it is only he who at death, with

all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.


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