Naturalism, Death, and Functional Immortality ABSTRACT I consider a naturalistic approach to death, seeking to articulate a naturalistic or “functional” version

of immortality. Making use of John Dewey and other classical American philosophers, I first articulate the naturalism of this project. I then discuss what such naturalism means for understanding the self and its survival. Finally, I consider the existential question about to what extent such a view of immortality is satisfying. I. Introduction I wish here to consider a naturalistic approach to the meaning of death. It is an approach that does not rule out the possibility of another perspective about immortality. However, the notion of immortality under consideration is not to be conceived in the traditional Western sense of an eternal, immutable, ongoing existence of one’s individual personality beyond the death of his or her physically lived body. That is, I am not affirming any doctrine of personal immortality according to which, in the words of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, “…after our death (as identified by others) we ourselves shall enjoy experiences, possibly after an interval, and shall live another life, and continue to do so forever.”1 On the contrary, I seek to articulate and consider a naturalistic version of immortality, or what I am terming a “functional immortality.”2 Such a functional or social immortality is alluded to, for example, by the classical American philosopher C.S. Peirce, who says “…that the carnal consciousness is but a small part of the man…”, and that “There is, in the second place, the social consciousness, by which a man’s spirit is embodied in others, and which continues to live and breathe and have its being

See the entry on “immortality” in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Simon Blackburn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 187. The entry goes on to recognize the two main forms of such immortality: “The doctrine may involve only the survival of our ‘*soul’ conceived of as an immaterial thinking substance contingently and temporarily lodged in our present body. Or it may involve resurrection of the body itself. In the Platonic tradition the former is possible. But for *Aristotle the soul is the form of the body, and cannot exist without it as a separate substance could, any more than a grin can exist without the grinning face.” Ibid. 2 I thank Larry Hickman for the phrase “functional immortality”.


2 very much longer than superficial observers think.”3 The real meaning of such a belief concerning death, as I believe in general pragmatist fashion about the meaning of any concept, is constituted by its consequences for living. In any case, in what follows, I first present the naturalism on which this project rests, making use of John Dewey and other classical American philosophers. I then discuss what such naturalism means for understanding the self. We are then in a better position from which to consider the existential question about to what extent such a view of immortality is satisfying.

II. Classical American Naturalism Whatever its particular form or manifestation, central to naturalism is an insistence that every hypothesis and phenomenon is to be examined by the same basic methods of inquiry. Another way of putting this is simply to say that what is and is knowable is fundamentally natural as opposed to “super”-natural. This is the philosophical attitude expressed by George Santayana in his 1905 The Life of Reason, encapsulated by his statement that “Men and gods are not conceivable otherwise than as inhabitants of nature.”4 Whatever exists is, so far as we can know, completely natural, and, contrary to Kant, reason itself is to be considered a natural activity as opposed to a transcendental one. Still, what exactly constitutes naturalism and where did it come from? There is, again, also the issue of exactly what kind of naturalism we are endorsing and employing in the present project.

By naturalism, I here refer to philosophical positions, quite often rooted in the classical American tradition, according to which, broadly speaking, nature is understood as what is given
See Peirce’s brief 1893 article “Immortality in the Light of Synechism” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Vol. 2 (1893-1913), eds. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 3. 4 The Life of Reason (New York: Scribner, 1955), p. 17.


3 or provided in experience. Nature, that is, is to be understood as continuous with experience. In his Epilogue to the classic 1944 Naturalism and the Human Spirit, John Herman Randall, Jr. says that naturalism “…is not so much a system or a body of doctrine as an attitude and temper: it is essentially a philosophic method and a program…”, and it is further characterized as “…refusing to admit impassable gulfs and dualisms, either ontological or methodological…”5 Randall adds that naturalism is the active antagonist of such dualisms and gulfs “…so long as they are flourishing.”6 Moreover, and directly relevant to the project at hand, there exists “…no room for any Supernatural in naturalism – no supernatural or transcendental God and no personal survival after death.”7 According to this view, there exist no supernatural or “spiritual” realities of whatever kind, at least not as separate from this world and of which we can have any indubitable knowledge. In other words, and especially for John Dewey’s naturalism, there are to be no appeals to transcendental entities. In his “Antinaturalism in Extemis”, Dewey characterizes naturalism as finding the values of the worth and dignity of men and women to be “…founded in human nature itself, in the connections, actual and potential, of human beings with one another in their natural social relationships.”8 Moreover, he says, naturalism “…is ready at any time to maintain the
Naturalism and the Human Spirit, ed. Yervant H. Krikorian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944), p. 374, 358. The Epilogue is entitled “The Nature of Naturalism”. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. It should be noted, however, that Randall immediately adds that “There is room for religion, to be sure, since that is an encountered fact of human experience.” (Ibid) This is, to be sure, Dewey’s position on religion (or the “mystical”) as well, as evidenced by his 1934 A Common Faith, in which Dewey says the following: “There is no reason for denying the existence of experiences that are called mystical. On the contrary, there is every reason to suppose that, in some degree of intensity, they occur so frequently that they may be regarded as normal manifestations that take place at certain rhythmic points in the movement of experience. The assumption that denial of a particular interpretation of their objective content proves that those who make the denial do not have the experience in question, so that if they had it they would be equally persuaded of its objective source in the presence of God, has no foundation in fact. As with every empirical phenomenon, the occurrence of the state called mystical is simply an occasion for inquiry into its mode of causation. There is no more reason for converting the experience itself into an immediate knowledge of its cause than in the case of an experience of lightning or any other natural occurrence.” New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 37-38. 8 The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Vol. 15: 1942-1948, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991) p. 54. “Antinaturalism in Extremis” (a rather aggressive article attacking Kant and German idealism, Thomists, and others) is the first piece contained in the 1944


4 thesis that a foundation within man and nature is a much sounder one than is one alleged to exist outside the constitution of man and nature.”9 This is to say that the naturalist looks to the human realm itself in order to understand any form of value. That is, human experience, of whatever kind, is understandable in natural terms. In seeking to account for or understand that which is problematic or difficult in experience, American naturalism asserts that there is not any need for appeal to that which is inaccessible to experience.10 Committing to such an adequacy thesis does not, of course, mean that we must embrace some crude materialism or physicalism, but, rather, simply that there are not adequate grounds for trying to comprehend that which is natural in nonor super-natural terms. We might say, simply, that what is natural is enough. That is, nature, without recourse to anything else, is quite experientially rich in and of itself. Such a naturalism, it should not be surprising, rejects strict dualisms, and, in particular, it rejects Cartesian dualism. To do this is a significant part of affirming continuity between the human and nature with regard to the totality of the realms of experience. The fundamental importance that experience plays for naturalism suggests its association or link with empiricism as opposed to rationalism, although, to be sure, naturalism’s link here is to a radical or immediate form of empiricism, one congruent with our lived experience.

We can from this perspective understand nature as experience, that is, as what

Naturalism and the Human Spirit volume, pp. 1-16. 9 The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Vol. 15, p. 54. 10 Thus, for example, the naturalist does not have to deny spirituality or “mystical” experiences (as the classical Humean empiricist would). He or she would rather be interested in what kind of human experience spiritual experiences are, as Dewey is, for example, in his 1934 A Common Faith, a work in which he defends the association of naturalism with a religious aspect of experience. As Dewey recognizes, the religious, which is a dimension of experience (along with the aesthetic), need not necessarily be associated with anything supernatural in order to still be quite meaningful as experience, although not as knowledge. See my earlier footnote #7.


5 presents itself.11 As Dewey puts it, “…things are what they are experienced to be…”12 Indeed, experience is Dewey’s most significant concept, the most significant statement of which is his 1925 Experience and Nature. For Dewey, it is imperative that whatever claims philosophers may raise be always traced back to experience itself, and that general philosophical conclusions have to be made consistent with experience. Moreover, it is important to emphasize that Dewey’s understanding of experience refers not simply to the experience of an isolated individual, but rather to something much broader. As commentator S. Morris Eames has put it, for Dewey, experience is inclusive of “…feelings, sensations, concepts, psychical events, physical things, relations, actualities, potentialities, the harmonies and disharmonies of life.”13 He adds that “Experience includes our memories and imaginations, our pasts and projected futures, our present awareness, our illusions and hallucinations; it includes truths and falsehoods, objects of beauty and ugliness, goods and evils…”14 Finally, experience is inclusive of events and of language, and to put it in a more metaphysical fashion, it includes everything that exists, has existed, and/or could exist. In any case, naturalism can be understood as a doctrine denying breaks or divisions within experience, and this, of course, is a part of naturalism’s strong tendency of anti-dualism. Now, contrary to this, an influential and widespread traditional postulation has been that there is a gap or separation between experience and nature. Descartes himself, of course, is the obvious
Regarding “Continental” philosophy, I believe this to be consistent with how Martin Heidegger understands the classical Greek notion of phusis. See Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959). 12 See Dewey’s 1905 essay “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism” in The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Vol. 3: 1903-1906, p. 159. Originally published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods Vol. 2, pp. 393-399. Also reprinted in Dewey’s The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1910, pp. 226-241) and in The Essential Dewey (Vol. 1), eds. Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 115-120. 13 See Eames’ “Experience and Philosophical Method in John Dewey” in Experience and Value: Essays on John Dewey and Pragmatic Naturalism, eds. Elizabeth R. Eames and Richard W. Field (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), p. 15. Originally published in the Midwestern Journal of Philosophy Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1976), pp. 15-29. 14 Experience and Value: Essays on John Dewey and Pragmatic Naturalism, p. 15.


6 exemplar of such a philosophical bifurcation or dichotomy. Naturalism flatly and wholeheartedly rejects such a separation. Instead, there is, according to the naturalist, an interrelation of nature and the human organism. There is a unity of organic interaction between these two aspects.

III. The Naturalistic Self I now need some such understanding of naturalism’s view of the self, for it is upon some such an understanding that the functional immortality view of death is based. Firstly, as I have noted, it is fair to say that naturalists are in large part responding to Descartes and, more specifically, to Descartes’ starting point for philosophy, namely the cogito. Now when Descartes articulated his formulation of the cogito, that is, the I that is thinking, he was doing much more than simply declaring the foundation for a metaphysical/epistemological dualism. That is, it is well known that he was also articulating the self as a mental substance, distinguished from extended, material substance. Modern rationalists, of course, are not alone in this understanding of the self, for it is also found within much of classical empiricism, according to which the basis for knowledge is experience in the sense of individually private perception. Thus we can say that naturalism is largely a response to classical modern philosophy in general, as well as at least in part to its twentieth-century empiricist heirs, such as, for example, the philosophers of logical positivism. In any case, the functional immortality to which I have refer follows from an understanding of the self as relational, as social, as opposed to being confined only to this or “my” body. That is, this understanding of death presupposes an organic self extending well beyond my personal body, experience, and/or thoughts. It assumes what Eugene Fontinell has


7 called “a Field Model of the Self”, according to which “…a self is composed of submicroscopic, microscopic, macroscopic, and ultramacroscopic fields.”15 As Fontinell, among others, points out, William James’ position is very much consistent with this, insofar as he rejects any notion of an encapsulated self, that is, any notion according to which the self is contained inside the boundary of one’s skin or simply within some mind or ego.16 Instead, the Jamesian self is viewed as a kind of non-dualistic outward radiation and overlapping with other fields, or, in Fontinell’s metaphorical phrase, it is fields within fields.17 As Fontinell reminds us, James talked of the self as all shades and no boundaries.18 Such a notion of the self eschews atomism, dualisms, and reductive materialism, to name a few of its foes. More positively, this involves the emphasis of context, of function, and, in short, of relationality. It is on the basis of such a naturalistic view of the self that I am identifying the functional immortality view of death, according to which the self lives past or through death not in the sense of one having continued personal or subjective experience of one’s own (although, as far as we know, this cannot be absolutely ruled out, a point Fontinell for his part emphasizes), but rather in the sense of living on through, for example, one’s children, one’s ideas, and the various relationships cultivated in life that do not and presumably cannot simply end as utterly simultaneous with one’s biological demise. Accordingly, while death is a significant limitation on the activities of the self in the sense that its former center is no longer making a contribution, the self nevertheless goes on in its exerting of influence upon and within the world, albeit in a sort of restructured way.

Eugene Fontinell, Self, God, and Immortality: A Jamesian Investigation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), p. 46. 16 Self, God, and Immortality: A Jamesian Investigation, p. 47. 17 Ibid, p. 46. 18 Ibid, p. 47.



8 Put simply, meanings are constructed and live beyond my own person, affecting other people in a personal way. We can see, for example, in Dewey’s Experience and Nature, a sense of the self, like that of James, which is quite consistent and required for the sort of immortality at issue here. The living person or self is primarily constituted by events and interactions inclusive of that which lies beyond our skin. In this regard Dewey says that of crucial significance is that the empirical activity of life is not merely located beneath the skin, but, rather that “…it is always an inclusive affair involving connection, interaction of what is within the organic body and what lies outside in space and time, and with higher organisms far outside.”19 That is, experience, indeed, meaning and our very embodiment within the world, is never something simply somehow merely internal to one’s person. Rather, experience or the self, or, in Dewey’s term, the organism, is interactive with what is beyond it and, moreover, includes these relations within experience itself. As such, the skin demarcates the boundary of self and world, as organism and environment, in what is ultimately an unimportant way. Instead, experience goes beyond the skin and is transactional, such that the richness of the self is dependent upon a context, and this includes cultural, historical, and societal aspects. Dewey elaborates on this in his 1934 Art as Experience, wherein he contends that the skin does not provide much along the lines of delineating where the environment begins and the organism ends.20 He says that there exist “…things inside the body that are foreign to it, and there are things outside of it that belong to it…”21 On a very basic level, air and food are two categories of such things, and, on a higher scale, Dewey says, there are tools, whether these be a writer’s pen, the blacksmith’s anvil, the various ornamentation and utensils commonly

19 20

The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Vol. 1: 1925, p. 215. See Chapter 4: “The Act of Expression”. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, Vol. 10: 1934, Ibid.

p. 64-65.


9 surrounding us, but also our social institutions and our families and friends.22 In this regard, Dewey writes that “The need that is manifest in the urgent impulsions that demand completion through what the environment – and it alone – can supply, is a dynamic acknowledgment of this dependence of the self for wholeness upon its surroundings.”23 The self, seen from this perspective, is dependent on its environment, on a context. It is contextual or relational.24 The final point, of course, is not only to show that the functional immortality view of death is at least implicit in the naturalism of such classical American philosophers as Dewey, but also to inquire into what such belief means in terms of consequences for living. Now it should here be emphasized that the functional immortality view is of a different sort than most other prominent beliefs or views about death, not only in the sense that this view affirms immortality without it being a personal or subjective immortality, but also in the sense that this view of death is, quite simply, an empirical fact. Regarding the consequences for living, there is, first and foremost, the existential question of whether one can live with the naturalistic take on the meaning of our living and dying and with that alone.

IV. Practical Consequences One’s biological demise, while a significant coming-to-be, does not and cannot erase that one did exist in this world, and by virtue of it, that one continues, in some degree, to exert an influence on and within the world. Even more, we might say that one continues, after one’s biological demise, to exist within this world insofar as existence is constituted by such influence, and so I would here point out that the functional immortality of which I speak is not a mere sentimentalism to the effect that one shall live on within the thoughts of family and friends. In
Ibid. Ibid. 24 Here, again, we can also find such a view of meaning and embodiment, that is, of the self, in William James. See James’ 1890 Principles of Psychology and his later Essays in Radical Empiricism.
23 22


10 any case, such a view of death does not constitute a belief that would be mutually exclusive with “metaphysical” beliefs concerning death, such as those of personal immortality and of reincarnation, the Epicurean view that death is nothing to us, or Thomas Nagel’s more recent deprivation view of death. Again, all must accept the functional immortality view of death as an empirical fact, regardless of whether it is supplemented by any of the other more metaphysical or speculative beliefs about the meaning or nature of death. So the question of “practical consequences” is here, at root, one of whether, as un-supplemented by any of the other views of death, a naturalistic or functional view gives us what we need. This brings to mind Albert Camus’ declaration, in The Myth of Sisyphus, that “I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.”25 To reformulate this question, and to make it more specific, we can ask about whether or not one can go about living with only the knowledge that our existence exerts an influence, makes a difference, upon at least some future affairs, that is, without any supplementary knowledge to the effect that death involves or means something more than this. In other words, to what extent, on its own, does the functional immortality view of death provide satisfaction? That is, can one live without faith in anything more? In the words of John McDermott, the question is one of whether or not we can “…live with this secular liturgy, stunningly apart from a meaning transcendent of our everyday affairs…”26 McDermott holds that, in an important sense, each of us is radically alone. That is, there can be no salvation at all apart from temporal salvation (if there can even be any such salvation at all). Thus the question is


The Myth of Sisyphus, and other essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Knopf, 1955), p. 51. See McDermott’s “America: The Loneliness of the Quest” in his Streams of Experience: Reflections on the History and Philosophy of American Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), p. 90.


11 one of whether we can live with the affairs of time only, that is, apart from any transcendent meaning.27 McDermott’s own answer is yes, and, moreover, that, as he writes, “…it is only in this way that we live a distinctively human life.”28 With regard to the proper response to living in the face of our death, he further elaborates that “…we should experience our own lives in the context of being permanently afflicted, that is, of being terminal…”, and, further, that “This is not to propose a morbid personal style, but rather to ask that this attitude ride as an abiding presence in the active recesses of our conscious life.”29 Now, while the answer may well be that it is possible to live in this way, it also seems worth adding that such living is by no means necessarily easy. McDermott declares that “The message is clear and twofold: avoid the temptation to invest in meaning which transcends our own experience of the life-cycle; and affirm the imminence of death as the gateway to an unrepressed life in which the moment sings its own song, in its own way, once and once only.”30 Of course, he recognizes that far from all of us respond to our terminality in this way. There are, indeed, various ways of responding. James, for his part, also recognizes the significance of the individual nature of our response to mortality, which is to say that he

Ibid, p. 90. See McDermott’s “The Inevitability of Our Own Death: The Celebration of Time as a Prelude to Disaster” in Streams of Experience, p. 164. 29 Ibid, p. 164. 30 Ibid, p. 163.



12 emphasizes the significance of the role of temperament and context.31 With regard to project at hand, this is crucial, because, as far as communal inquiry into whether we can live without extra metaphysical baggage or speculation about anything more, it is here that we are stranded. That is, as McDermott has described the situation, this is an existential question of the individual. I mean here that the question is one the answer to which can never be completely generalized and is always precarious, and particularly given that the answer to such a question can indeed change for the individual over time. So in concluding, I suggest in Jamesian fashion (we might say in existentialist fashion) that the question about whether functional immortality satisfies is always a decidedly personal question with the answer, in the end, only being able to be given by the individual person and varying according to temperament, need, and context.32

31 Regarding temperament, I have in mind here James’ relevant discussion in the first lecture of his 1907 Pragmatism (“The Present Dilemma in Philosophy”), but also some of his remarks in the 1879/82 “The Sentiment of Rationality”. It is from the latter that I draw a representative statement of James on this matter: “Men’s active impulses are so differently mixed that a philosophy fit in…respect for Bismarck will almost certainly be unfit for a valetudinarian poet. In other words, although one can lay down in advance the rule that a philosophy which utterly denies all fundamental ground for seriousness, for effort, for hope, which says the nature of things is radically alien to human nature, can never succeed – one cannot in advance say what particular dose of hope, or of gnosticism of the nature of things, the definitively successful philosophy shall contain. In short, it is almost certain that personal temperament will here make itself felt, and that although all men will insist on being spoken to by the universe in some way, few will insist on being spoken to in just the same way. We have here, in short, the sphere of what Matthew Arnold likes to call Aberglaube, legitimate, inexpugnable, yet doomed to eternal variations and disputes.” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 75. 32 I thank my dissertation director Ken Stikkers, and also Burdett Wantland, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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