Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Temporal Immortality


I just finished writing a chapter for a volume of commentaries on the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's masterwork "The World as Will and Representation". My job was to cover the paragraphs 53 to 59, which deal with the nature of ethics (which can only ever be descriptive and never prescriptive), the immutability of character, the ubiquity and unavoidability of suffering, and finally death, or more precisely the unreality of death. I’ve always been fascinated by this latter part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and I find myself very much inclined to believe that what Schopenhauer argues here must be true: that we don’t die, that death is not real, that it’s just an illusion.

For Schopenhauer this conclusion follows logically from his metaphysical premises, according to which the world we know and we live in is merely an appearance. What we perceive is not the world as it is, but rather what our cognitive apparatus makes of it. It is a representation. Of what? Of the will, which is the true nature of all things, ourselves included. The world is the way the will appears to itself. If we imagine the will to be looking into a mirror, then the image reflected would be the world. And we are that will, just as everything else is. By distinguishing the will, which is the only really real thing, from its representation, which is a mere shadow, Schopenhauer, drawing very much on Kant’s transcendental philosophy, manages to separate reality from its forms of appearance, which include causality, space, and most importantly, time. So in other words, time is an illusion. But if time is an illusion, then change must also be one. And if change is an illusion, then death is too. We don’t die. It just looks (to others) as if we did.

Now if we had to accept Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and its corollary, that time is not real, to appreciate his argument for what he calls “temporal immortality”, then it would perhaps be of little interest to anyone. It is just too difficult to believe that time does not exist. I doubt that it even makes sense to claim that. However, it seems to me that Schopenhauer’s argument for temporal immortality does not require us to believe in the non-existence of time. It is in fact very complex and draws on many different sources and reflections. Much of it is based on peculiarities of the way we experience life and death. For one thing, although we don’t really, on a theoretical level, doubt that we, too, will one day have to die, we are also, deep down, convinced of our own personal immortality. It is just impossible to imagine that one day we could have ceased to exist, that the world will continue to be, but we will no longer be in it. How can there be a world if we are not there to perceive it? From our perspective it will be as if the world had never existed. It will end when we end. So if the world continues to exist (as we suppose), then we will too.

The main point, though, is this: our individual existence is linked to our consciousness. This particular consciousness can cease to exist, but that is only part of what we are, and perhaps a very superficial part. What makes us alive in the first place is not consciousness, but something deeper and less fleeting: a material urge, a force that pervades physical nature, an élan vital (as the French philosopher Henri Bergson called it) or will to live (as Schopenhauer calls it). This force of nature, this will, will continue to exist when “we” die, and in fact it does already exist in many other forms and ways. This force is active in me, as it is active in you and every other living creature. And to the extent that each of us ultimately is this force, this will to live, we always exist not only in this particular form, which we call our individual self, but also in everything else. When you look into the world with your eyes, perceive it with your senses, live in it with your body and your mind, then I look and perceive and live with you, because you are only another version of myself, just as I am only another version of yourself. Accordingly, when I die I will live on in you, and when you die, you will live on in me. In any case, the presence cannot be lost.

“Since will is the thing in itself, the inner substance of the world, that which is essential to it, while life, the visible world, the phenomenon, is only the mirror of the will, the latter will accompany will as inseparably as its shadow accompanies a body; and if will exists, so too life, the world will exist. To the will for life, life is thus certain, and so long as we are filled with the will for life, we cannot be concerned for our existence, not even at the sight of our death.”

“Above all, we must distinctly recognize that the form pertaining to will’s phenomenon, thus the form of life or reality, is only the present, not future nor past: these exist only in concepts, exist only in the context of cognizance so far as it follows the Principle of Sufficient Ground. No human being has lived in the past, and none will ever live in the future; rather the present alone is the form pertaining to all life, but it is also its sure possession, which can never be torn from it. The present always exists, together with its content; both stand firm, without wavering, like the rainbow on the waterfall. For life is sure and certain for will, and the present for life.”

If you don’t find this whole idea total bollocks, I recommend that you have a look at the original argument, which can be found in both § 54 of the first volume of “The World as Will and Representation” (published in 1819), from which the above quotes were taken, and in chapter 41 of the second volume (published 25 years later, in 1844). My advice would actually be to start with that later exposition because it is more comprehensive and has more the character of an independent essay rather than that of a chapter in a book with an ongoing argument. Also of interest might be a more recent version of the argument developed by Arnold Zuboff in his article “One Self: the Logic of Experience” (Inquiry 33 (1990): 39-68). Zuboff argues, without recourse to Schopenhauer, that your self and my self are in fact the same self, that, based on the logic of experience, there is in fact only one self.  

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