Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Platonic Immortality

In the Phaedo, the Socratic dialog that Plato wants us to believe took place on the day of Socrates' execution by poison, the condemned philosopher and his young friends discourse on the question of immortality.  It all revolves around the "proof" of the soul as a permanent unchanging thing.  For one thing, if you can understand geometry then it must be that your soul existed before you were born and that you are merely "recollecting" what your soul learned before birth.  We can understand concepts like Equal even though there are no two things on this Earth that are exactly equal.  So we must have learned about Equal in the underworld.

But even if our souls were born before our births, what if the soul is dissipated away in death, ask Socrates' young friends?  Well, since the soul is unchangeable and nearly fixed, and is to the body as the Forms of the Good and the Beautiful are to actual instances of goodness and beauty, then it stands to reason that the soul is as immortal as the Forms are eternal.

In the Socratic argument by analogy, it is possible to argue almost anything, as long as you choose the right analogy.  We want to believe that we, or at least our soul or spirit, will live forever, so any analogy looks good to us.  For me, though, the meaning of immortality is closer to home; it is children.  All the rest--Heaven and Hell, sitting at the right hand of God, the life eternal in the next world, divine judgment--they don't resonate for me.

Modern philosophers, chastened by the shaking of the foundations of the last century, have come to this.  As you rise in complexity, each leap seems to involve an irreducible mystery, a secret ingredient.  For instance, we are as yet unable to describe chemical reactions in terms of physics.  Chemistry is not merely a branch of physics: there is something extra at work.  So also there something irreducible in the leap from organic chemistry to biology, chemistry in the service of living things, and then in the leap from vegetable to animal.  So also in the leap from great ape to human.  It is some spark, some spirit, some irreducible something, the mystery in-between body and mind.

This mystery, this spark, is kept alive from parent to child, from the ancestors to the living generation to generations yet unborn.  It is more than the contract between generations, it is a mystery.  We only know that, when a human dies without issue, that individual human spark dies forever, the spark of immortality quenched.  But all is not lost, because other humans, other children, pick up the fallen lantern, and hold it aloft once more.

For humans, as social animals, are not just their progeny, nor yet their footnote in history, an earnest increment to knowledge, to techne, or to affect.  Humans are not just individual egos but intersubjective communicators that affect each by speech actions.  All humans affect each other all the time, and the precipitate of their communicative reactions blend into the human destiny, immortal and forever, and this seeding of the future is not just broadcast by the genius from an ivory tower, but also those "who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Today we are bidden to release our grip on all foundations, all divine props, all familiar spirits, all relationships with the divine, and all hopes for immortality.  But humans still search for meaning, live as though life could last forever, and long to find eternal bliss.  It may be that the idea of immortality, and a divine judge at the gate of Heaven, is merely a device of social control to put the fear of God into mortals here below.  Now that God is dead, the court of divine judgment has been replaced by the judgment of history.

Through all the changes in religious and secular orthodoxy and the terrible threats issued from gods to humans as from masters to slaves, most humans most of the time instinctively shrink from betraying the future to the present.  There is no more damaging judgment on a fellow human than "he has no future."  Humans live as if their lives matter, forever, and so each human contributes, in her particular life, a single spark to human immortality.

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