Motives for disbelief in life after death
Price (H.H.)
Source: Price (H.H.) - Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, 1971, Chapter 5
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. In Book XI of the Odyssey Odysseus visits the Next World, and has a conversation with Achilles, who 'holds mighty sway' among the dead. It turns out, however, that Achilles is very far from being content with this exalted situation. This is what he says; 'I would rather be a serf tied to the soil, serving a man with few possessions and a poor livelihood, than reign as king over all the departed dead.'
  2. I have quoted these splendid lines in order to suggest that the belief in life after death is not necessarily a comforting one at all. Achilles, you notice, was not in some Hell or Purgatory. He had the best position which anyone in the Next World could have, at any rate in Homer's opinion. These words of Achilles are relevant to the very widespread view that belief in life after death is no more than 'wishful thinking' — believing a proposition to be true merely because we wish it to be true.
  3. It is indeed obvious that the question whether human personality continues to exist after death cannot be settled by considering our wishes. It is a complicated question: partly a question of fact, but partly also a conceptual or philosophical question concerning the concept of 'a person'. For example, does it make sense to speak of 'a disembodied person'? Or again, suppose that after Mr. A's death there is an entity which remembers Mr. A's experiences in this life and accepts them as having been its own, but no longer has the capacity for thinking new thoughts or making voluntary decisions. We might then want to say a part of Mr. A's personality continued to exist after death, but not the whole of it.
  4. Thus the question divides into two; a factual question on the one hand, and a theoretical or conceptual question on the other. But our wishes are entirely irrelevant to both these questions. On the face of it, at any rate, however much people wish to survive death, this has no relevance whatever to the question whether they will in fact survive it. There are also those who wish not to survive death — one life is quite enough for them — but it is still perfectly possible that they will in fact survive whether they like it or not. Again, there may be some who wish not to survive death themselves, but wish that other people may survive it; I suspect that there are a good many persons, especially in our present too strenuous society, who have this combination of wishes. But of all the possible alternatives, this is perhaps the one which is least likely to be fulfilled.
  5. It would seem, then, that in discussing the problem of life after death we should put our wishes entirely out of our minds, just as we should in discussing a question of geology or astronomy. But we all know that this is a very difficult thing to do. There are indeed some people who say they are emotionally indifferent to the question whether they will survive death or not. What matters, they tell us, is the quality of one's life, not its duration. 'One day in Thy courts is better than a thousand.' We can all sympathize with such people; more than that, we can and should congratulate them. This kind of emotional indifference is something wholly admirable.
  6. But there is another kind of indifference which is less admirable. There are some — many perhaps — who are indifferent to the question of life after death, in the sense that they never think about the question at all. Or at least they never think about their own deaths at all. It is surely very common (and I suppose there are good biological reasons for it) to repress the thought of one's own death. ‘All men are mortal, and I am a man, therefore …’ but one does not draw the conclusion, or one assents to it in a purely verbal way. Frederick Myers, it is said, once asked his neighbour at a dinner party, 'What do you think will happen to you after death?' The man replied, 'Oh, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I do wish you would not talk about such a depressing subject.' This man surely was emotionally concerned about his own death and what would follow it, but was doing his best to repress this emotional concern.
  7. The repression operates not only in the individual, but also at the social level — in the form of a taboo — as indeed this story illustrates. And the taboo, I think, is even stronger now than it was in Myers's day. But a subject which people take care to avoid is not one to which they are indifferent. They avoid it because it concerns them too much. In some people, indeed, this process of 'social conditioning' may have succeeded so well that they never even think about their own deaths. So far as their conscious thoughts and feelings go, they really are indifferent to the question 'Is there life after death or not?'. But this does not show that they have no emotional interest in it or concern about it. Perhaps they do have such an interest or concern, but in a 'repressed' form, below the threshold of consciousness. In support of this view, we may notice that when they refuse to discuss the question of life after death, their refusal has an edge to it, so to speak. It is not that the subject does not interest them, or that they have no anxiety or concern about it, but rather that it is too painful and too alarming to talk about. They prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, and this creature certainly is a dog (perhaps he is the dog Cerberus). He might very well wake up and bite you if you gave him any encouragement.
  8. I conclude, then, that for the majority of human beings, with the possible exception of some mystics, it is very difficult to put their feelings — their emotions and wishes — entirely out of their minds when they consider the problem of life after death. The feelings and wishes are there. Even though some of us have succeeded in 'repressing' them — keeping them out of consciousness — they are still there, subconsciously or unconsciously.

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