Chapter 4: Human Nature


What about Us Might Be Immortal?


…what an absurd thing life is, looked at superficially: so absurd that you feel forced back on a stubborn, desperate faith in the reality and survival of the spirit. Otherwise—were there no such thing as the spirit, I mean—we should be idiots not to call off the whole human effort.


The above words (Teilhard, 1962, p. 202), were written back in 1934 by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in a letter to the paleontologist Abbé Henri Breuil, his mentor when they had first worked together and who had become his close friend. The occasion was Teilhard’s grief over the sudden death of his Canadian colleague, Davison Black, when he and Black had been working together in the same laboratory in Beijing where they were analyzing the fossilized remains of what was then called Sinanthropus—now classified as homo erectus pekinesis and thought to have lived about half a million years ago.

Even if we were to believe in the overall irreversibility of evolution—which is surely a kind of scientific faith—still, there is no hard scientific evidence that would seem to give us much hope for any personal immortality or life after death.  After all, it is usually argued that if whole species have died out, and even the mechanism of evolution within a species requires death, what makes us think that we ourselves as individuals can possibly live forever?  Yet, contrary to such an argument, belief in or at least hopes for some kind of life after death has been an almost universal human phenomenon.

Historically speaking, there have been basically two major forms of belief in the afterlife. Most ancient peoples believed that all living things, including plants and animals, possess “souls” that are supposed to explain how things come to be alive and retain life. This belief, generally termed “animism” by anthropologists, has generally been thought to represent the beginning stage of religion. But as our understanding of nature increased, and this belief in everything having souls became less credible, philosophical arguments were developed to defend belief that at least humans possess a soul or spirit, enabling them, unlike mere animals, to survive to live in some sort of future life, either in a heaven, or else again on earth in another body.  There have been countless variations of this belief, and despite the ascendancy of modern science, it still persists among many, perhaps even most, people today.

One of the few exceptions to this ancient view was to be found among the ancestors of the Jewish people whose scriptures still give us the grim warning that “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). In fact, strictly speaking, there wasn’t even a word in biblical Hebrew corresponding to the idea of an immortal soul.  Despite the frequent appearance of the word “soul” in most English translations of the Bible, the ancient Hebrews had no concept of or even a distinct word for what the Greeks called psychē or “soul”—particularly as any kind of immortal spiritual substance that can survive death, or even pre-exist birth, as Plato and most of his followers understood it to be. However, Aristotle, his best-known pupil, seems to have had a somewhat different concept of the soul, which for him was more or less synonymous with the principle of life that gave form (morphē) to matter (hylē), take away that “form”, and you only have dead, and eventually, unorganized matter left.

In contrast to either Plato or even Aristotle, the Hebrews spoke of the nephesh, which originally meant a “living being” or “self”. The word has also been associated with the idea of desire or thirst as well as “throat” (as in the opening verses of both Psalms 42 and 63), in which case the dynamic and still incomplete or unfulfilled aspect of the living being or self is all the more evident. Apparently, like so many other Hebrew words that began as physical terms (e.g., ruach or “wind” eventually meaning “spirit”), the word nephesh (or nefesh) only gradually, in more recent times, has come to mean “soul” (Alter, 2007, p. xxvii & xxviii).

      Far from being the cause of life, the nephesh could only exist as a result of God breathing his ruach, (“breath” or “wind”—hence “spirit”) into the human body, which otherwise, like that of the animals, was but mere bashar or even dead “flesh”.  For them, the life-force was a direct gift, breathed into us by God.  In fact, so down-to-earth is the biblical view of human nature that when the idea of another life after death first entered the Bible, it was strictly in terms of God’s spirit breathing directly into the same body that had died and bringing it back to life, hence the idea of a resurrection.

How literally this image or hope was to be taken was, even among the Jews of Jesus’ time, a topic of intense debate. Extensive passages in the synoptic gospels (Mk:18-27; Mat 22:23-33; Lk 20:27-40) give the impression that while the Sadducees and other Jewish conservatives rejected the idea of resurrection, the Pharisees very much believed in it. However, from the evidence provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the third significant religious party existing at the time of Jesus, the Essenes, believed in an angel-like existence after death. This could be very significant in view of Jesus’ words “they shall be as angels”, as recorded in the above-cited passages and growing speculation that Jesus himself, as well as John the Baptist, were in some way associated with the Essenes (Meier, 2001, p. 488-532, esp. note 90).

       We also know that, even prior to that, certain Greek ideas about the existence of an “immortal soul” had finally begun to enter Jewish thought, as is evidenced in the Hochma or Wisdom writings of the Bible. Yet, this too remained controversial. Thus while the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) evidences a rather skeptical attitude about what happens to the human “breath” when we die, its closing chapter leaves the question open.

 In contrast, the later deuterocanonical—termed apocryphal by many—Book of Wisdom or “The Wisdom of  Solomon” (3:1-3), written in Greek by a Jew living in Egypt around the time of Jesus, eagerly adopted the Greek idea of an immortal psychē or soul. Significantly, neither of these wisdom books speaks about resurrection at all.

       Nevertheless, this controversial idea of “rising again” has become, for the obvious reason that the Apostles claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, the primary symbol of Christian hopes in life after death as well.  So too for Islam, although the Koran (Surah 4:157-158) claims that Jesus really never died but instead gives the impression that Jesus was taken directly into heaven. At the same time, within Christianity, the idea of resurrection became gradually spiritualized to the point where sometimes it has become confused with belief in a naturally immortal or indestructible soul, similar that held by the Platonists. Much the same happened within Judaism. While the famed philosopher Moses Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204 CE) listed, in his Guide of the Perplexed, the resurrection of the dead as being among the beliefs held by faithful Jews, nevertheless, according to Rabbi David Wolpe, in an article on the subject on Beliefnet, Jews, at least since medieval times, have continued to hold a variety of beliefs regarding the existence of a soul and how we might continue to exist after death. 

Within Christianity, the tendency to reinterpret the idea of resurrection in a somewhat more spiritual manner began with St. Paul, if we can believe Luke’s account of the reactions of the crowd who had listened intently to Paul when he addressed them at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). Apparently these Greeks had become used to Plato’s ideas of the eternal, and thus naturally immortal, psychē or soul. Or perhaps they were imbued with Aristotle’s idea that the rational aspect of the human soul might just be able to achieve some degree of immortality, provided that, as he urged in his Nicomachean Ethics (Book X, Chap. 7) “…we strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, in power and worth it surpasses everything.” In any case,  Paul’s audience seemed to be entirely mystified or even amused by the claim that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead, especially when the Greek word for resurrection—anastasia, literally “to stand up (or rise) again”—may even have sounded like it might be the name of a goddess! Thus, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (15:35-53) we find Paul stressing the difference between the risen body and the earthly body that was buried in the grave.

      Christianity has often attempted to combine both approaches, sometimes down-playing the miraculous physical side of things, except for the temporary appearances of the risen Christ, and stressing the spiritual aspects of life after death. Yet it still calls upon the image of resurrection, not so much to paint a picture of some kind of heavenly paradise, as to reiterate its insistence on the material-spiritual unity of human nature, a point that was strongly stressed by the great medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas in both his Summa Theologica (Part I, q. 76, 98, 102) and his lesser known Compendium of Theology (Chap. 168-170).

      The upshot of all of this is that unless you are a religious fundamentalist, reading scripture, be it the Bible or the Koran, literally, or a Catholic traditionalist steeped in medieval theology, or perhaps one of those people who are having their body frozen in hopes that medical science will some day have the means of curing whatever ailment killed them, any literal resurrection or physical restoration to life seems highly unlikely or outright impossible.  The same might be said regarding the idea of achieving “cybernetic immortality”, that is, somehow reconstituting our thoughts, memories, indeed, even our personal identity, in a newly reconstituted body by means of advancing technology. Assuming that such technology requires a material infrastructure of some sort, would not such immortality be confined to the limited duration of the universe?

However, suppose we begin to rethink human nature in terms more compatible with modern science, and began to speak of soul or spirit, not as the cause of life, but as a kind of dimension of, or even as a product of, our living.  In a universe were energy and matter have long been recognized to be simply two forms or aspects of one and the same thing or in a world where structural complexity is the key to understanding the phenomenon of life, does it still make sense to speak of body and mind as if they were two distinct components of life?  It would hardly seem so, at least on scientific grounds. This certainly appears to be the message of such researchers and contemporary thinkers such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1999 book Philosophy in the Flesh.  It also seems to be implicit in the picture of the evolution of human life and thought described by Teilhard de Chardin in Chapter 3 of Part I of his great masterwork, Le Phénomene humain, which was quickly translated (not entirely with complete accuracy) and published in English as The Phenomenon of Man. The same approach was taken by some Catholic theologians such as Robert North in his 1968 study of the implications of Teilhard’s thought, and John Dudek in his much more explicit 2001 book on the subject.

Or, again, look at it this way: from a purely biological point of view, life and all the things that go with it, such as our thoughts, our will, and even our whole sense of self, appear to be qualities, operations, or even products of cellular organization and metabolism. If so, then why speak of soul as if it were some mysterious thing or component added to us from outside? Instead, it would seem to make more sense if whatever might possibly survive death be seen as an activity or energy that is generated within us, largely dependent on the same capacities that enabled us to develop as human beings from the very start.   

Likewise, from this same perspective, there can be no doubt that a truly holistic or unified view of human nature does not favor the possibility of personal reincarnation or the transmigration of souls from one body to another.  Just as our personal identity takes its origins from our own particular and unique physical mode of existence in this or that place and time, so too our “soul” or “spirit”—or whatever we choose to call the possibility of our trans-material existence beyond time—must be seen as rooted in our present material existence within space-time.  This fact, according to authorities such as Puligandla (1975, p. 226), accounts for the distinction made long ago by religious philosophers in India between the jiva, the lower or phenomenal soul or self which is rooted in our particular place in space and time, and the atman, the higher soul or transcendent self, which they hold to be identical with Brahman, the ultimate reality or divinity.

However, this view logically makes the idea of reincarnation something to be avoided as much as humanly possible, a point often ignored by those who would look on Hindu or Vedic religion as an attractive substitute for western beliefs or hopes for life after death.  In fact, the Indian word for salvation is moksha, which literally means “release”, “deliverance”, or escape from this world of change or illusion (maya) that is part of the whole cycle that is seen to be involved with reincarnation (Baird & Bloom, 1971, p. 267).

Instead, if we are to remain grounded in the world revealed by science, we must stress the fundamental relationship between or interchangeability of matter and energy, and the resulting wholeness of human nature, if we are to ever realistically assess the possibilities of eternal life.  While we tend to speak of our bodies almost as if they were not really ourselves—e.g., “My body aches all over”—too often this kind of language can serve as an evasion of reality. Nor, despite the popularity of such terminology in some spiritual and theological writing, I do not think we are “ensouled matter”, nor are we “incarnated souls”. Instead, it would be more logical for us to think of ourselves as this particular energy field known as “body”, which is presently capable of thinking, and loving (and hurting!) and caring about the future, and which just might, if enough energy is directed into the task and the proper conditions are present, be capable of living, thinking, and loving beyond this present life (Provanzano, 1993, 2000).

       In the same way, would it make sense any longer to speak of soul as distinct from body, or of resurrection as something that might happen to the body as somehow distinct from soul? This does not mean that it isn’t the fate of our bodies—and thus of the more material aspect of ourselves—to wear out and eventually disintegrate. But on the other hand, as the spiritual side of ourselves grows, it would mean that “resurrection” would be in some sense already taking place whenever there is a continuation beyond death of that personal center of energy or field of consciousness that we call the “self”.  

Is such a thing possible or even thinkable?  Again consider the alternative.  The biologist and evolutionary philosopher, Julian Huxley, once observed, in what has become a widely cited phrase, “Man is evolution become conscious of itself.”  Of course, “Man” in this sense of the word (humanity or humankind) is an abstraction.  Without individual human persons, individual men and women, there is no such thing as humanity. Given what we already know of the fate of the universe, then it must be that it can only be through some such process like that which I am trying to describe, that evolution, once having become conscious, can endure. So is such an outcome possible?

Thus, it was Teilhard’s firm conviction that the whole process of evolution, beginning to end, and the phenomenon of life, particularly conscious life, remains unexplainable unless one assumes that what we call matter and spirit are simply two sides of the same coin or two aspects of the same “world-stuff”. Or as some would prefer, considering the convertibility (according to Einstein’s famous formula that E=mc²) of mass to energy or vice versa, we might just call matter “congealed [in the sense of stabilized] energy”.  Evolution is simply the long and involved story of how the growing complexity of physical structures lead to greater and greater manifestations of consciousness, or as Teilhard wrote in his masterwork (1959, p. 165),  contrasting human self-consciousness to the earlier stages leading to it: “Admittedly, the animal knows, but cannot know that it knows.”

      Since Teilhard’s death in 1955, extensive observations and experiments, especially with higher primates and even porpoises, may indicate that these species begin to approach, at least at a rudimentary level, this self-awareness. This would put into question Teilhard’s often quoted statement. Yet, at the same time, it would help validate his emphasis on the evolution of reflective thought through the increasing complexity of the brain structure.

It is this human capacity for reflective thought or self-consciousness that, as Albert Einstein and many others have pointed out, explains our fear of death. Without that self-consciousness, we might instinctually avoid life-threatening situations, but we would have no clear idea as to why we were doing so. So it is that, in the same way, and for much the same reasons, humans seek to find ways to deny death, or if that can’t be done, cling to a stubborn or desperate faith, hoping to somehow escape its consequences. Name this effort “spirituality” or “soul-making”, even “soul-growing”, or call it whatever you wish, it would then have to be seen as the conscious and deliberate process by which that energy which has become matter is turned into a higher form of energy, this time as a fully evolved and conscious energy that might escape or transcend death.  

 If this might be possible, it is only then that we might say that evolution could remain conscious of itself.  And if this is true, then it follows that it is only through the transformation of matter into spirit that evolution might surpass the constraints imposed by space and time. 


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