Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Hartley's Arguments for Life After Death

David Hartley's Observations on Man (1749) is in two parts. Part One advances a fundamentally (though he sometimes says otherwise) materialist, rational explanation for sentience, thought and consciousness, as a function of the physical body, nerves and brain.  Part Two argues the correctness and necessity of Hartley's own Christian faith.  That's interesting, that conjunction -- it reflects Hartley's own life, as both a phsyician-scientist and an Anglican.

Now, I want to make sure I understand the various and, it seems to me, rather contradictory reasons Hartley gives in Volume 2 Section 3 of his book, 'A Future State After The Expiration of This Life'.  Here they are:
First, That if is not possible to produce any evidence against a future state; so that the probability for it must at least be equal to that against it, i.e. to the fraction ½; if we speak according to the precise language used in the doctrine of chances. We are apt indeed to conclude, that because what we see is, so what we see not, is not; and consequently that there is no future state; i.e. we make our ignorance of the means by which our existence is preserved after death, and of the manner in which we are to exist, an argument against it. But this is utterly inconclusive. Our ignorance is a nothing, and therefore can be no foundation to go upon; and we have every day instances of the mistakes which reasoning from it would lead us into.
'We cannot say there isn't an afterlife' is true, but a strange datum to adduce as the first point of your argument that there is an afterlife. More, I'm unconvinced that the balance of probability is 50;50 as Hartley asserts here -- I mean, on a strict understanding of how probability works. I don't know if there's a horse in the staff kitchenette of the Department of English at Royal Holloway. I don't know because I can't see into the kitchenette from where I'm sitting: but the fact of my ignorance does not lift the probability of there actually being a horse in the kitchenette to 50%. Other factors (who would bring a horse there? How would they get it up two flights of stairs? Why would it go into such a small room? and so on) reduce that probability markedly. It's possible that there's a horse in the kitchenette, but it's not as possible as the alternative that there isn't. The interesting thing here is that Hartley leads off with this argument, as if it's his strongest.
Secondly, The subtle nature of sensation, thought, and motion, afford some positive presumptions for a future state. The connection of these with matter, and their dependence on it, are perhaps more fully seen in the foregoing account of vibrations and association, than in any other system that has yet been produced. However, there remains one chasm still, viz. that between sensation, and the material organs, which this theory does not attempt to fill up. An immaterial substance may be required for the simplest sensation; and if so, since it does not appear how this substance can be affected by the dissolution of the gross body at death, it remains probable, that it will subsist after death, i. e. that there will be a suture state. Or if we take the system of the materialists, and suppose matter capable of sensation, and consequently of intellect, ratiocination, affection, and the voluntary power of motion, we must, however, suppose an elementary infinitesimal body in the embryo, capable of vegetating in utero, and of receiving and retaining such a variety of impressions of the external world, as corresponds to all the variety of our sensations, thoughts, and motions; and when the smallness and wonderful powers of this elementary body are considered in this view, it seems to me, that the deposition of the gross crust at death, which was merely instrumental during the whole course of life, is to be looked upon as having no more power to destroy it, than the accretion of this crust had a share in its original existence, and wonderful powers; but, on the contrary, that the elementary body will still subsist, retain its power of vegetating again, and, when it does this, shew what changes have been made in it by the impressions of external objects here; i.e. receive according to the deeds done in the gross body, and reap as it has sowed. Or, if these speculations be thought too refined, we may, however, from the evident instrumentality of the muscles, membranes, bones, &c. to the nervous system, and of one part of this to another, compared with the subtle nature of the principle of sensation, thought, and motion, infer in an obvious and popular, but probable way, that this principle only loses its present instrument of action by death. And the restitution of our mental and voluntary powers, after their cessation or derangement by sleep, apoplexies, maniacal and other disorders, prepares for the more easy conception of the possibility and probability of the same thing after death. As therefore, before we enter upon any disquisitions of this kind, the probability for a future slate is just equal to that against it, i. e. each equal to the fraction 4 ; so it seems, that the first step we take, though it be through regions very faintly illuminated, does, however, turn the scale, in some measure, in favour of a future state; and that, whether the principle of thought and action within us be considered in the most philosophical light to which we can attain, or in an obvious and popular one.
This is another odd one; as if to say 'I have shown in part 1 how consciousness may be produced out of purely material, physical phenomena; but I could be wrong.' Well I guess you could; but isn't this a rather self-defeating way of proceeding? The second paragraph is odder too: 'consciousness ceases at sleep and yet is restored on waking; perhaps death is like that' -- as if dreams and all the physical twitchings of the sleeping person mean that consciousness has ceased (of course it hasn't); or, even if it had, as if that had any necessary connection to what happens at death. What else?
Thirdly, The changes of some animals into a different form, after an apparent death, seem to be a strong argument of the forementioned power of elementary animal bodies; as the growth of vegetables from seeds apparently putrefied is of a like power in elementary vegetable bodies. And all these phænomena, with the renewals of the face of nature, awaking from sleep, recovery from diseases, and seem in the vulgar, most obvious, and most natural way of considering these things, to be hints and presumptions of a life after the extinction of this.
Following on from the former argument: three things are here lumped together. That some viruses or seeds may be deep frozen, perhaps for a long time, and still be viable when thawed out (although Hartley adduces no complex organisms, which he'd have to do if he wanted to suggest a parallel with human beings); that sleep is just like death and that therefore waking up proves we shall live after our death; that getting poorly is just like death, which proves that, since we get better, so shall we 'recover' from death. These latter two are not like the first one; and the last in particular is very weakly argued (since death by definition is the disease from which we don't recover).
Fourthly, The great desire of a future life, with the horror of annihilation, which are observable in a great part of mankind, are presumptions for a future life, and against annihilation. All other appetites and inclinations have adequate objects, prepared for them; it cannot therefore be supposed, that this sum total of them all should go ungratified. And this argument will hold, in some measure, from the mere analogy of nature, though we should not have recourse to the moral attributes of God; but it receives great additional force from considering him as our father and protector.
My young daughter's great desire for a huge unicorn made of glitter to carry her through the sky is, by this logic, proof that such an entity exists. Hartley goes on:
If it be said, that this desire is factitious, and the necessary effect of self-love; I answer, that all our other desires are factitious, and deducible from self-love, also; and that many of those which are gratified, proceed from a self-love of a grosser kind. Besides, self-love is only to be destroyed by, and for the sake of, the love of God, and of our neighbour. Now the ultimate prevalency of these is a still stronger argument for a future life, in which we may first love God, and then our neighbour in and through him.
But the problem with this is not that the desire for an afterlife is selfish, so much as that desire is not a correlative of necessary existence. I desire intensely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (not for selfish reasons, you understand; in order to do good works with the money). That very specifically doesn't mean it will happen.
Fifthly, The pain which attends the child during its birth or passage into this world, the separation and death of the placenta, by which the child received its nourishment in utero, with other circumstances, resemble what happens at death. Since therefore the child, by means of its birth, enters upon a new scene, has new senses, and, by degrees, intellectual powers of perception, conferred upon it, why may not something analogous to this happen at death? Our ignorance of the manner, in which this is to be effected, is certainly no presumption against it; as all who are aware of the great ignorance of man, will readily allow. Could any being of equal understanding with man, but ignorant of what happens upon birth, judge beforehand that birth was an introduction to a new life, unless he was previously informed of the suitableness of the bodily organs to the external world? Would he not rather conclude, that the child must immediately expire upon so great a change, upon wanting, so many things necessary to his subsistence, and being exposed to so many hazards and impressions apparently unsuitable? And would not the cries of the child confirm him in all this? And thus we may conclude; that our birth was even intended to intimate to us a future life, as well as to introduce us into the present.
'Why may not this be true?' doesn't cancel out 'why should it be true...?' The dissimilarities between a baby being born and an old man dying so massively outweigh the similarities. OK; I'm not very impressed with this reasoning so far.
Sixthly, It would be very dissonant to the other events of life, that death should be the last; that the scene should conclude with suffering. This can scarce be reconciled to the beauty and harmony of the visible world, and to the general prepondency of pleasure over pain, and subserviency of pain to pleasure, before-mentioned. All the evils of life, of which We are judges, contribute some way to improve and perfect us. Shall therefore the last which we see, and the greatest in our apprehensions, quite extinguish our existence? Is it not much more likely, that it will perfect all such as are far advanced, and be a suitable correction and preparatory to the rest ? Upon supposition of a future eternal life, in which, our happiness is to arise from the previous annihilation of ourselves, and from the pure love of God, and of our neighbour, it is easy to see how death may contribute more to our perfection, than any other event of our lives; and this will make it quite analogous to all the others. But that our lives should conclude with a bitter morsel, is such a supposition, as can hardly consist with the benevolence of the Deity, in the most limited sense in which this attribute can be ascribed to him.
'A loving God would not permit us to be born only to die' presupposes the Loving God, which is a cheat, in the present circumstances. But the problem with the reasoning here is that it says nothing about the survival of individual consciousness. Say, as many scientists do, 'DNA is immortal' and is continuing to 'perfect' its various ways for making more DNA and ensuring its continuing immortality.
Seventhly, All that great apparatus for carrying us from body to mind, and from self-love to the pure love of God, which the doctrine of association opens to view, is an argument that these great ends will at last be attained ; and that all the imperfect individuals, who have left this school of benevolence and piety at different periods, will again appear on the stage of a life analogous to this, though greatly different in particular things, in order to resume and complete their several remaining tasks, and to be made happy thereby. If we reason upon the designs of Providence in the most pure and perfect manner, of which our faculties are capable, i.e. according to the most philosophical analogy, we shall be unavoidably led to this conclusion. There are the most evident marks of design in this apparatus, and of power and knowledge without limits every where. What then can hinder the full accomplishment of the purpose designed? The consideration of God's infinite benevolence, compared with the prospect of happiness to result to his creatures from this design, adds great strength to the argument.
'Design' is a non-starter, I'm afraid.  The watchmaker's blind. Bong!
Eighthly, Virtue is, in general, rewarded here, and has the marks of the divine approbation; vice the contrary. And yet, as far as we can judge, this does not always happen; nay, it seems to happen very seldom, that a good man is rewarded here in any exact proportion to his merit, or a vicious man punished exactly according to his demerit. Now these apparent inequalities in the dispensations of Providence, in subordinate particulars, are the strongest argument for a future state, in which God may shew his perfect justice and equity, and the consistency of all his conduct with itself. To suppose virtue in general to be in a suffering state, and vice in a triumphant one, is not only contrary to obvious facts, but would also, as it appears to me, destroy all our reasoning upon the divine conduct. But if the contrary be laid down as the general rule, which is surely the language of scripture, as well as of reason, then the exceptions to this rule, which again both scripture and reason attest, are irrefragable evidences for a future state, in which things will be reduced to a perfect uniformity. Now, if but so much as one eminently good or eminently wicked person can be proved to survive after the passage through the gulph of death, all the rest must be supposed to survive also from natural analogy. The case of martyrs for religion, natural or revealed, deserves a particular consideration here. They cannot be said to receive any reward for that last and greatest act of obedience.
'It would not be fair if the just were punished and the unjust rewarded, as often happens in this life, and no restitution or compensation ever made for this unpleasant fact ...' Where is it established that life is, or must be, fair?
Ninthly, The voice of conscience within a man, accusing or excusing him, from whatever cause it proceeds, supernatural impression, natural instinct, acquired associations, &c. is a presumption, that we shall be called hereafter to a tribunal; and that this voice of conscience is intended to warn and direct us how to prepare ourselves for a trial at that tribunal. This, again, is an argument, which analogy teaches us to draw from the relation in which we stand to God, compared with earthly relations. And it is a farther evidence of the justness of this argument, that all mankind in all ages seem to have been sensible of the force of it.
'My feelings of guilt prove that there must exist, somewhere, a Judge.' Of course, perhaps the judge is, er, me? Isn't that actually a definition of guilt?
Tenthly, The general belief of a future state, which has prevailed in all ages and nations, is an argument of the reality of this future state. And this will appear, whether we consider the efficient or final cause of this general belief. If it arose from patriarchal revelations, it confirms the scriptures, and consequently establishes itself in the manner to be explained under the next proposition. If it arose from the common parents of mankind after the flood, it appears at least to have been an antediluvian tradition. If mankind were led into it by some such reasons and analogies as the foregoing, its being general is a presumption of the justness of these reasons. The truth of the case appears to be, that all these things, and probably some others, concurred (amongst the rest, apparitions of the dead, or the belief of these, dreams of apparitions, and the seeming passage to and from another world during steep, the body being also, as it were, dead at the same time); and that, as the other parts of the simple, pure, patriarchal religion degenerated into superstition and idolatry, so the doctrine of a future state was adulterated with fictions and fables, as we find it among the Greeks and Romans, and other pagan nations.
'Lots of people have believed in an afterlife. It's undemocratic of you to hold a contrary belief.' Can't argue with that.

One more thing: I hadn't realised, til I actually read his book (Priestley's version of Hartley's argument makes much of this too) that he believed in the doctrine of 'soul sleep':
PROP. XC. It seems probable, that the Soul will remain in a State of Inactivity, though perhaps not of Insensibility, from Death to the Resurrection. Some religious persons seem to fear, lest by allowing a state of insensibility to succeed immediately after death, for some hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, the hopes and sears of another world should be lessened. But we may affirm, on the contrary, that they would be increased thereby. For time, being a relative thing, ceases in respect of the soul, when it ceases to think. If therefore we admit of a state of insensibility between death and the resurrection, these two great events will fall upon two contiguous moments of time, and every man enter directly into heaven or hell, as soon as he departs out of this world, which is a most .alarming consideration.
That the foul is reduced to a state of inactivity by the deposition of the gross body, may be conjectured from its entire dependence upon the gross body for powers and faculties, in the manner explained in the foregoing part of this work.

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