A Séance with an Immortal
Sorensen (Roy)
Source: Philosophy, Vol. 81, No. 317 (Jul., 2006), pp. 395-416
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. To understand death, you need to dwell on the alternative. If you knew an immortal, then you could ask him to speak from experience.
  2. Immortals are forbidden, unequivocally, to communicate with human beings. Equivocal immortals interpret this as permitting equivocal communication. They hint through oracles and omens, dreams and divination.
  3. As an anthropologist, I am incapable of brevity. I am resorting to a medium. There would be a commotion if I employed a carpenter to explain the nature of immortality. To preserve plausible deniability, I have chosen a philosophy professor.
  4. There are fewer loose ends if the medium thinks he is faking. My philosophy professor, for instance, acknowledges the theoretical possibility that this séance is the genuine article. But he does not take this suggestion seriously. He placidly compares it to the unverifiable hypothesis that an evil demon is completely deceiving him. The professor even congratulates himself for presenting his philosophical views as news from an immortal anthropologist.
  5. Like human anthropologists, I have become attached to the people I have studied. I am sorry they must die. Sympathy moves me to compromise the anthropological ethic of non-interference. I also feel an obligation to reciprocate for the insight human beings have given me. Just as mortals deepen understanding of their condition through a comparison with immortality, immortals deepen understanding of their condition through a comparison with mortality.
  6. By my reckoning, the human failure to come to grips with mortality exacerbates the terrible fact of death. People compromise their pursuit of finite goods to gamble for infinite goods. They pooh-pooh the price they pay for these grandiose lottery tickets by exploiting the infinite's intoxicating ability to dwarf the finite into insignificance. The sense of insignificance sticks, generating escapism by the listless and fanaticism by the energetic. The disorienting scale effects make people behave like hypoxic mountaineers.
  7. My séance is designed to strengthen understanding of death by strengthening understanding of immortality (and some infinitistic varieties of mortality). This effect is achieved even if my tale of immortals is received like Gulliver's Travels. Whether read as fact or fiction, my stories can curb some habits of thought bred by a monotonous diet of finitude.
  8. One theme is that the difference between mortality and immortality is largely a matter of degree. There are a few qualitative differences between mortals and some types of immortals (generally but not invariably to the advantage of the immortals). The strategy is to achieve insight by a sequence of contrasts. Just as an entomologist best understands the ant species Tapinoma sessile by locating that house-loving species along the larger biological continuum of possible insects, the philosopher best understands human mortality by locating mortals in the larger space of possible mortals and immortals. Whether these beings actually exist does not affect the principles governing mortality and immortality.


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