NOTES on Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): Do We Survive Death? No

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Bertrand Russell has a simple answer to the question “Do we survive death?” His answer is, “No.” According to Russell, “When I die, I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive.” Despite the flat denial, Russell is a philosopher, and as a philosopher, he provides reasons for his answer in his essay “Do We Survive Death?”

Russell begins his essay by discussing “the sense in which a man is the same person as he was yesterday.” According to Russell, “The continuity of a human body is a matter of appearance and behavior, not of substance.”

By this, Russell means that our body is constantly changing. Each day some of our cells die and are replaced by new cells. Indeed, Russell writes, the atom that exists now cannot be said to be the same atom that existed a few moments ago, according to modern physics. In any case, the matter that makes up your body is completely replaced every seven years or so.

So what does it mean to say that we are the same person that we were yesterday? Russell’s answer is that we are the same person because of our memories and our habits. These are the things that make us the persons we are. That is why Russell writes, “If … we are to believe that a person survives death, we must believe that the memories and habits which constitute the person will continue to be exhibited in a new set of occurrences.”

What does this have to do with whether we survive death? Russell believes that our memories and our habits are dependent on our bodies and especially our brains. Without bodies and brains, we will not have memories or habits, and so we will no longer exist as persons. Once we die and our body and brains decay, we will no longer exist.

(To this, someone such as St. Paul would respond that, through the power of God, our bodies will be resurrected. Once our bodies are resurrected, then we will exist as persons again.)

According to Russell, “It is not rational arguments but emotions that cause belief in a future life.” Rational arguments, Russell believes, support belief in the finality of death. It is emotions such as the fear of death that make us believe or hope that we shall survive death.

However, in contrast to many people, Russell believes that it would be a bad thing if people wholeheartedly believed in a future life and so ceased to fear death. If that were to happen, people would be even more likely than they are now to give up their lives in wars. On the other hand, if people knew that death is final, Russell believes that the effects would be very good. For example, people would be much less likely to fight in wars.

A book titled Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaustby Steve Lipman tells a story that supports this. The Nazis were against much religion; however, one German general disliked this — but not because he was religious. According to Lipman, the general said, “I look at it from the technical point of view, and I know that no army which goes into battle without some hope of an afterlife will fight well. Hitler and his Nazis are ruining our raw material.”

I am not so sure as Russell is that it is good to believe that death is final. I think that if people believed this, many of them would become selfish. If all we have is one go at life, we may want to grab all the gusto we can, and if our actions hurt other people, too bad for them. Today, some people devote themselves to doing good, hoping for a reward in an afterlife. Russell, on the other hand, thinks that if people believed that death is final, then they would want everyone to have an equal chance at a good life and so would work for social justice.

Russell next considers the argument for immortality that stems from “admiration of the excellence of man.” Certainly Humankind has done many excellent things. After all, Humankind is capable of much good — just think of Mother Teresa!

Russell gives two main responses to this:

1) “In the first place, it has been found, in the scientific investigation of nature, that the intrusion of moral or aesthetic values has always been an obstacle to discovery.” Russell gives much evidence for this. For example, people once believed that the orbits of planets must be circles “because the circle is the most perfect curve.” (Scientists have discovered that orbits are elliptical.)

To this, I reply that science must make assumptions that are different from the assumptions that philosophy or religion makes. When investigating nature, one ought not to be concerned with whatever lies outside of nature — for example, God. (To say “a miracle occurred” is to make a poor explanation of an experiment.)

2) Although one of the good things about Humankind is their discovery of good and evil, Russell criticizes this by pointing out that it is difficult to tell who is correct about what is right and wrong. After all, many theories have been proposed about this subject. (In his own life, Russell seems to have been able to distinguish right from wrong, as he was a prominent advocate for world peace and a prominent opponent of nuclear weapons.)

Russell also asks whether we should have “such a high opinion of man.” Yes, Mother Teresa existed, but so did Adolf Hitler. Yes, Humankind is capable of much good, but Humankind is also capable of much evil — murder, rape, slavery, the Holocaust, etc. I suppose that one reply to this is that not everyone will deserve eternal life.

Russell’s conclusion seems pessimistic to me: “The world in which we live can be understood as a result of muddle and accident; but if it is the outcome of deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend. For my part, I find accident a less painful and more plausible hypothesis.”

Russell’s story of Humankind is much different from the story of many religious people. To Russell, the universe and Humankind are both accidents. To many religious people, the universe was created by God, who placed in it people with free will so that they could develop souls and earn a place in Heaven.

Note: The quotations by Bertrand Russell that appear in this essay are from his essay “Do We Survive Death?” in Why I Am Not a Christian (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1957).

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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