The Expectation of Immortality

"Ten Ingersoll lectures having now been delivered and published, one in each year since the bequest became available, it is proper to consider what has been said thus far"  

In founding at Harvard a lectureship on the Immortality of Man, the donor, Mr. George Goldthwait Ingersol, provided for entire freedom of discussion. He proposed, indeed, the establishment of his foundation 'on a plan similar to the Dudleian lecture,' but in this referenda he had no more in mind than a separation of the lecture from the ordinary instruction of the college. Judge Dudley, in 1750, prescribed not only the theme, but the manner in which it should be treated. Mr. Ingersoll did not follow his example.

It illustrates a characteristic difference between Dudley's day and ours. The men of the eighteenth century did not differ from the men of the twentieth century in their regard for the truth. They believed it to be the most precious of all possessions. They were quite as intent upon getting and keeping it as are the most conservative or the most radical of our own contemporaries. But they felt that truth needed a good deal of protection. They were unwilling to have her go about without an escort. Dr. Holmes said that they thought that Truth was an invalid, and that it was unsafe for her to take the outer air except in a closed carriage with a gentleman in black upon the box. Dudley, accordingly, made provision for the defense of the truth. The lecturers on his foundation were not only to discuss certain subjects, but were to arrive at certain conclusions; as, for example, that 'the Church of Rome is that mystical Babylon, that man of sin, that apostate church, spoken of in the New Testament.'

Mr. Ingersoll made no such arrangement. What he himself thought about the Immortality of Man does not appear in the statements which are quoted from his will. It is plain, however, that he did not expect that his lectures would become a series of Easter sermons. He specified that the choice of the lecturer should 'not be limited to any one denomination, nor to any one profession, but may be that of either clergyman or layman.' The fact that he chose this theme indicates his inclination toward belief, and also his experience that such belief is beset with difficulty. But, whatever his own position may have been, he offered to the truth the homage of his perfect confidence. He was content, in Milton's phrase to let truth and falsehood grapple. He was in no doubt as to the consequences. Thus he set his theme, and left his lecturers to affirm or deny it as they would. The Dudleian lecture and the Ingersoll lecture are milestones on the road of theological progress.


Ten Ingersoll lectures having now been delivered and published, one in each year since the bequest became available, it is proper to consider what has been said thus far. These ten small books on one of the greatest subjects contain the untrammeled opinions of ten wise men. Two of the lecturers, Professor Ostwald and Professor Osler, are physicists. Two others, Professor James and Professor Royce, are psychologists. Mr. Dole and Dr. Crothers are Unitarian ministers. President Wheeler and Dr. Bigelow illustrate the theme by the ideas of other religions, one reporting the mind of ancient Greece, the other of modern India. Dr. Gordon and Mr. John Fiske may be set together as philosophers. Mr. Fiske's brilliant work was done indeed in various fields, but to no study did he bring a more earnest mind than to the consideration of the idea of God and the destiny of man, and no writing of our generation has been more effective in resolving the doubts of those to whom the language of technical theology is a unknown tongue; he alone of all the ten knows at this moment what the arguments are worth.

It is an unconventional list. Dudley would no more have committed such a subject to such a succession of lecturers than he would have proposed a discussion of the validity of congregational orders by a series of poets, schoolmasters and lawyers. The choice, however, has been justified by the size and interest of the audience. Nobody could predict beforehand what any lecturer would say. People came expecting to be surprised, and some of the lecturers fulfilled this expectation. So strong and constant is the note of independence that few of the contributors to this series seem to have risked the peril of prejudice even by reading the arguments of their predecessors. Professor Ostwald, for instance, in his discussion of individuality is completely unaware of Professor Royce's treatment of that subject.

A curious fact is the abstinence of most of the lecturers from any serious consideration of the Christian religion. The Buddhist idea of immortality admirably expounded by Dr. Bigelow, and the doctrine of the Eleusinian Mysteries is excellently explained by Dr. Wheeler, but there is no exposition of the Christian point of view. In this respect, the lectures are like the schoolrooms adorned with pictures of Minerva and Diana, and in which the only religions whose details are systematically taught are those which are remote in time or place from our contemporary life. This omission has recalled to some impatient minds the associations which were connected with the name of Ingersoll some years ago. There is, of course, a difference between a university lecture and, a parochial sermon. The sermon is for the most part to those who are ready in possession of certain firm convictions. These convictions are fundamental. They assert, for example, being and nature of God, the divinity of Christ, the immortality of man. These are not open questions. They may be discussed for the greater confirmation of the faith, but the discussion ends affirmation. The religious teacher who finds himself at variance with these convictions resigns his place. That is expected of him. The university lecture, on the other hand, is addressed to those who are engaged more or less seriously in the interpretation of the universe. It is their purpose to consider truth without regard to convictions or to the consequences. All questions are open. Any position, no matter by whom held, —though all the philosophers and all the prophets were agreed upon it,—is open to interrogation; and whoever can show just cause may follow his interrogation by denial.

This description of the difference between the sermon and the lecture exaggerates the contrast. In the actual conditions of the pulpit and the chair, the two are not so wide apart. But it will serve to indicate a characteristic distinction between the preparation of a sermon and the preparation of a lecture, to which these teachers have had regard. Thus an eleventh Ingersoll lecturer, Mr. Lowes Dickinson, whose thesis has just been published, begins by saying, 'There may be those who are convinced, on the grounds of revealed religion, that man is immortal. To these I do not speak, for anything I could say must be an irrelevance or an in impertinence.' This is the posting of a notice of intention to debate the matter quite apart from considerations of religion. Immortality is to be affirmed, or denied on grounds of philosophy. Most of the lecturers are of this mind.

What do they say? Supposing ourselves to be desirous of knowing what ten learned men have to teach us as to our future, what do they say?


Two of them say very little. These, of course, are the physicists. Being asked to consider the subject in the light of their special studies, one of them says bluntly that he finds nothing to confirm or even to suggest the notion of immortality; and the other, while unable to deny that his investigation of the human body gives him no expectation of immortality, still prefers to be in error, as he says, with Plato. That is, two ingenious men being provided with a hammer apiece, a pound of nails, two saws, and two smooth boards, are asked to see what each can do in the war of making a violin. One of them actually sets to work, and for the space of an hour demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that a violin cannot be made with a hammer, a saw, and any quantity of boards and nails. The other looks ruefully at his impossible materials, but maintains his confidence in violins. Beethoven, he says, believed in violins.

The assertion of these lecturers, that as physicists they find no ground for any expectation of immortality, dismisses a whole class of possible witnesses. We can learn nothing about our subject from the processes of physical research. So far as the study of the body goes, intelligence and the nervous system are bound up together. Mr. Fiske puts the matter with customary clearness when he says that 'we have no more warrant from experience for supposing consciousness to exist apart from a nervous system than for supposing the properties of water to exist in a world destitute of hydrogen and oxygen.'

Not only is it impossible to prove the immortality of man from the facts with which the physicist deals, but it is equally impossible to imagine the conditions under which such an everlasting life might proceed. The descriptions which are given in the sacred books are plainly in the language of symbol, and have no concrete significance. He who wrote of golden streets and gates of pearl, and crowns and harps, was only using the words which lay at hand to describe the indescribable. He did not expect his vision to be read like the specifications of an architect. This is true also of the discussion by St. Paul of the spiritual body. The adjective means that, as we have now a body adapted to the conditions of a natural or physical world, we shall presently have a body adapted to a spiritual world. This is no more a definition than the famous description of the duties of an archdeacon as consisting in the performance of archidiaconal functions. The whole matter is not only beyond the range of the physicist's instruments of precision, but it is beyond the scope of imagination.

When, however, it is securely proved that a violin cannot be made by a carpenter out of a piece of board, the case against the possibility of violins is by no means established. There may be other workmen with other materials. So it is with the immortality of man. The physicist says that he is unable to affirm it; but inability to affirm is no ability to deny. Not only, says Mr. Fiske, does the position of the physicist fail to disprove the validity of the belief in immortality, but 'it does not raise the slightest prima facie presumption against it. This will at once become apparent if we remember that human experience is very far indeed from being infinite, and that there are in all probability immense regions of existence in every way as real as the regions which we know, yet concerning which we cannot form the faintest rudiment of a conception.'

One remembers, in this connection, the assertion of Mr. Edison that nobody knows a seven-billionth of one percent about anything. The physicists are are outside the province of their special knowledge. The question under discussion has to do with the possibility of consciousness when all the materials with which the physicist deals are removed. Plainly, the hypothesis of their removal transfers the whole debate into quite another line of research. 'The last place in the world,' says Mr. Fiske, 'to which I should go for information about a state of things in which thought and feeling can exist in the absence of a cerebrum would be cerebral physiology.' That is, the opinion of a student of the body regarding the immortality of the soul is of no more value than the opinion of a maker of kettledrums regarding the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The debate is outside his department. It belongs to the psychologists.


Accordingly, Professor James in his lecture, beginning with the formula of the materialist, 'thought is a function of the brain,' shows that this is no objection to our faith in immortality. For a function may be transmissive rather than productive. The formula need not mean that the brain produces thought as the kettle produces steam. It may mean that the brain transmits thought as a prism transmits light.

'Suppose, for example,' says Mr. James, 'that a dome opaque enough at all times to the full supersolar blaze, should at certain times and places grow less so, and let certain beams pierce through into this sublunary world. These beams would be so many finite rays, so to speak, of consciousness, and they would vary in quantity and quality as the opacity differed in degree. Admit now that our brains are such thin and half-transparent places in the veil. What will happen? Why, as the white radiance comes through the dome, with all sorts of staining and distortion imprinted upon it by the glass, even so the genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in all its fullness, will break through our several brains into this world in all sorts of restricted forms, and with all the imperfections and queernesses that characterize our finite individuality here below. When finally a brain stops acting altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness that it subserved will vanish entirely from the natural world. But the sphere being which supplied the consciousness would still be intact; and in that more real world with which, even whilst here, it was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us, continue still.'

Mr. James' emphasis is on the independent reality of this vast outer world at which we look by consciousness. Mr. Royce, on the other hand, emphasizes the truth of our being, the fact that within us is an individuality which looks out. We know ourselves, he says, to be individuals, and we recognize the same quality in our neighbors. We cannot define this quality either in them or in ourselves, but it is the one thing of which we are absolutely certain. Philosophy is doubtful about things, and has sometimes denied the reality of the visible world, but it is sure of persons. The affirmation of individuality is an invincible assertion of the human mind. No conceivable identity of appearance or of characteristics can persuade us that two men standing side by side are one and the same man. If, having formed an accurate idea of Abraham Lincoln, we were able to create a man conforming to that idea in every particular, that man would not be Lincoln. Every one of us has the inalienable and indestructible quality of individuality. 'I know not in the least,' says Mr. Royce, 'I pretend not to guess, by what process this individuality of our human life is further expressed, whether through many tribulations as here, or whether by a more direct road to individual fulfillment and peace. I only know that our various meanings, through whatever vicissitudes of fortune, consciously come to what we individually, and God in whom alone we are individuals, shall together regard as the attainment of our unique place, and of our true relationship both to other individuals and to the all-inclusive individual, God Himself.'

Thus the psychologists, coming into the debate from which the physicist by reason of the irrelevance of their studies are excluded, maintain the immortality of man on two grounds, negative and positive. Mr. James takes the negative position, that although consciousness is a function of the brain, the brain may be no more essential to it than a prism is essential to the existence of light; in another life, we get along very well without it. Mr. Royce takes the positive position that we are conscious of individuality and that this individuality, which we can define neither in ourselves nor in our friends, is the hint of a completion of consciousness and of expression for which we need a life larger than this.


When we turn from the physicists and psychologist to the theologians, we find a confident expectation of immortality on the basis of certain fundamental assertions. All reasoning depends on fundamental assertions. When the theologian begins his argument by taking certain things for granted, he is in the company of the man of science who starts with the assertion of the reality of the world of the senses, and of the philosopher who starts with the assertion of the reality of the processes of the mind. The necessity of taking things for granted has its source in the limitations of our intellectual powers, and in the consequent limitation of our intellectual accomplishments. At the end of three serious questions about anything, we find ourselves in the region of the unknown. 'A man surveys his field,' says Dr. Corthers, 'and fixes his boundaries. He is satisfied with his finite possession, this bit of space inclosed against all trespassers. Then in the night he looks up, and there is no inclosure.' over his scanty acres shines the ancient and everlasting mystery of the stars. We live enshrined with mystery. Life is a mystery; matter is a mystery. The known is related to the unknown as the cultivated farm with fences is related to the stars. That which can be proved by mathematics or chemistry is insignificant in comparison with the vast areas where such proof has no standing. Such knowledge as we have of these astronomic regions is got by looking from the heights of the fundamental assertions. Here we know because we know.

These assertions are accredited by their universality. They are the common property of all men in all generations. They are phenomena of humanity, facts about us, like breathing and seeing. We find ourselves in possession of them as a part of our human inheritance. They are conditions of our intellectual being. They cannot, indeed, be proved by instruments of precision, but we perceive that we are unable to get along without them. We assume them in order to prove anything else. Hence we infer that they correspond to reality, as the optic nerve corresponds to light. Being universally in possession of these ideas, we are convinced that they mean something.

Also, the fundamental assertions are accredited by their accordance with our best understanding of the general order of things. We apply to them the method of the naturalist who tries his hypothesis to see how it will fit, and proceeds upon the hypothesis which on the whole appears to explain the greatest number of phenomena in the most reasonable way.

Thus Dr. Gordon, Mr. Dole, and Dr. Crothers base the expectation of immortality, first, upon the fundamental assertion of the being of God; then upon the assetion of the reasonableness of the universe; and then upon the assertion of the worth of human life.

'The presposterous,' says Mr. Dole, 'will not be suffered to happen. We could not respect a God, much less love or worship any being, who brought ranks of creatures into existence, shared the mightiest of thoughts with them, inspired infinite hopes in them, lifted the noblest of them into rapturous communion with Himself, continually unfolded their minds and hearts and disclosed the unexhausted capacities of their being, only to drop into nothingness, as children blow their soap-bubbles and drop them out of the window to burst and vanish.' Such an idea of God and of man is out of accord with the reasonableness of the world.

Moreover, 'the man's life,' as Mr. Dole again reminds us, 'not only belongs to the realm of the senses and what we call material things, but it belongs essentially, in respect to all that most concerns us as human, to the invisible realm of thought or spirit.' In the material realm the eminent facts are force and matter in the spiritual realm the eminent facts are consciousness, personality, thought, will, and love. And to all this we apply the doctrine of the conservation of value. The material facts persist: on they go, through manifold transformations, into existence without end. What shall we say as to the spiritual facts? Shall oxygen and hydrogen continue, while faith and reverence and self-sacrifice and honor and affection perish? 'The idea of immortality is an assertion of the indestructible worth of the values that characterize humanity at its best.' And these values are not satisfied by any immortality of lasting influence, or by any merging of the soul of man into the soul of the universe. They demand a conscious, individual existence. Justice and truth and love have no meaning apart from persons. Personality itself is one of the precious facts of human life. Man has been too long in growing, through the ages of the universe, to live a few years, to make a beginning of an endless life, and then perish. Man is of too much value to be outlived by a brick wall, or even by a mountain.

The being of God, the reasonableness of the world, the value of man, and the immortality of the soul, these theologians say, belong together.


The discussion, however, as thus far conducted, is like a debate on the making of the world, without reference to the doctrine of Darwin. The criticism of a man of science upon such a presentation of the matter would be that a great range of new ideas has come into our possession since 1859. To lecture now upon the process of creation as one might have lectured in 1858 is to bring a belated contribution. The criticism of a man of religion upon the Ingersoll series is of the same sort. Something happened in the year one of our era. There entered then into our thought and life a new person, who at least and lowest taught a body of new truth, and at the most highest was Himself a disclosure of the divine nature. This new truth was a revelation of God, as revolutionary in regard to the relation between God and man as was the revelation of Copernicus in regard to the relation between the sun and the earth. It was an assertion of the fatherhood of God.

This had, indeed, been dreamed of by saints and philosophers and poets, but it was Jesus Christ who brought it clearly and definitely into the consciousness of man. It differentiates the Christian conception of man and of God from that of any other religion. It is confirmed by that valid process of reasoning whereby we argue from the known to the unknown, from man at his best to God, from human love to divine love. Hosea got a sight of it by inference from his own experience. But back of all reasoning is our immediate perception of the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ. God is our father; gradually, in the recognition of this truth, superstition and propitiation and the dread of God fade away. We are the sons of God and brothers in one family; gradually, in the recognition of this truth, tyranny and oppression and the merging of the man in the multitude give places to democracy and liberty. And these two truths, the contribution of Christianity to our understanding of life, this fatherhood and this brotherhood, are the syllables which spell the immortality of man. They certify it.

Not only do they certify the life everlasting, but they bring into it the new elements of satisfaction. The eleventh Ingersoll lecturer discusses the desirability of immortality. Apart from Christianity, this is an open question. By the Greek, even by the Hebrew, the life whose gate is the grave was accepted with foreboding. The soul entered into a dim, shadowy, and cold existence; 'in the darkness,' says the psalm, 'as the men that have been long dead.' To the Buddhist, the blessed end is to escape at last from individual life into final absorption into the divine. The life everlasting is not desirable, says Mr. Dickinson, unless it implies a state of constant progress. Certainly not. But such constant progress is assured by the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Here again, Christ brought both life and immortality to light. It is by reason of Him that the future is a splendid expectation.

The lectures are all interesting, but one of the elements of their interest is that they show how strong a defense of truth may still be made with bows and arrows; and how much we may see of the planet of Mars without the aid of telescopes. The lecturers summon us to meet them in the Painted Porch of Zeno, or in some philosophic grove whose trees were felled for firewood before the Christian era. It is a long way to go, in space and time. Much of high importance has happened, not only in science, but in religion, since those days.