Human Immortality: Questions to Ponder

“Human Immortality” by William James was published in 1896. In this lecture James offers two arguments in support of human immortality. The excerpt
from this work selected for the next discussion group meeting contains the first of these two arguments.

Some questions to consider:

a) What does James mean by ‘functional dependence’? Which types of functional dependence does James describe?

b) What exactly is James’ ‘transmission-theory’?

c) James argues that not only is his transmission-theory just as plausible as the production-theory but that it also has certain advantages lacking in the other theory. What are these advantages?

d) James anticipates several possible objections to his theory and replies to them. How successful is he in addressing these objections? Can you think of any other objections to his theory that he has not addressed?

Please feel free to come up with more questions of your own for the discussion group meeting. I hope to see you there next Monday!



One thought on “Human Immortality: Questions to Ponder”

  1. I find James’ transmission theory a beautiful poetic metaphor and one that can serve as a useful model for a distinct form of consciousness by holding that consciousness operates through the brain rather than the brain producing consciousness.My concern is in James positioning the transmission theory in opposition to the production theory of consciousness may lead one to inappropriately judge them as mutually exclusive by confusing the two distinct form of consciousness as the same in question. The metaphor improperly lends it to mistake this consciousness as of the same category as when we speak of the more specifically human consciousness. It is in this personally human kind of consciousness that we tend to take any psychological comfort in for our immortality and so relevant to why it matters to most of us. What we care about the theory is that it allows for the emotional attitudes of our personality and personal memories of our relationships with others to be concluded as surviving death.My worry more exactly lies in one being misled by this metaphor to take that there are ontological claims that can then be deduced from taking of functional dependence of consciousness on the brain as not productive function, but a transmitting function.One disadvantage of the James’ transmission theory is it lacks the ability to explain something that the productive theory can account for. “If the human body corresponds to a colored glass … then the living personality corresponds to the colored light that is the result of the glass…. Now while light in general will continue to exist without the colored glass … the specific red or blue or yellow rays that the glass produces … will certainly not persist if the glass [is] destroyed” ( In The Illusion of Immortality, Corliss Lamont p. 104).The ontology one adopts can be quite consequential. When determining between contending ontologies, I find Quine’s ‘What There Is’ useful and agree that we should accept the simplest ontology that fits our experience

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