Corliss Lamont (1902-1995): I Am Mortal


The question of whether we are mortal or immortal is important because the answer can affect the way we live our life. After all, if we are afraid of death, we may be afraid to live. Also, a person who believes we have only one life — with no possibility of resurrection — may choose to live his or her life selfishly.

Corliss Lamont (1902-1995) is the author of The Illusion of Immortality(1965, revised edition). In this book, Lamont argues that we are mortal. He is a clear and interesting writer, and he makes some important points to support his belief that we are mortal.

First, Lamont does what many good philosophers do: He defines an important term. By the word “immortality,” Lamont writes that he means personal immortality — the survival for an indeterminate time after death of the person. This means that what survives after death — if anything does survive — would have the memories of the person who has died, and would have an awareness of self-identity.

There are other concepts of immortality, but Lamont — although he mentions them — is not writing about them in his argument that we are mortal. Other concepts of immortality include these:

a)ideal or Platonic: Attaining a certain eternal quality in life or thought.

b)impersonal psychic entity: The survival of an entity which is absorbed into some kind of All or Absolute or God.

c)material or chemical: The elements of our body will remain after we die; they will become a part of the Earth.

d)historical: We have lived, and nothing can ever alter that fact.

e)biologic or plasmic: We achieve a kind of immortality through our children and descendants.

f)social or influential: If our lives achieve greatness, we will influence future generations. Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr., have achieved this kind of immortality.

h)eternal reoccurrence: This interesting theory says that everything that has ever happened will happen over and over again in precise detail. This theory was spoken of by the Stoics, and in the 19th century was taken up again by Friedrich Nietzsche. (So make sure you have some fun in your life.)

However, the fundamental issue for the kind of immortality — personal immortality — that Lamont is considering in his book is the relationship between body and personality. Synonyms for personality include mind, soul, and spirit. If the relationship between body and personality is so strong that the personality cannot survive the death of the body, then we are mortal, according to Lamont. After all, we know what happens to our body after we die.

Lamont will in fact argue that the personality cannot survive the death of the body. As you can tell, Lamont is not a Cartesian dualist. According to Cartesian dualism, human beings have both immaterial minds and material bodies. This means that it is possible for our immaterial mind to survive the death of our material body.

However, Lamont believes in what he calls psychological monism. According to this theory, human beings are composed of only one thing. This means that when the body dies, the human being — including its personality — dies.

The First Strategy

Lamont has two strategies for convincing his readers that we are mortal. In his first strategy, he tries to show that thinking and emoting and other activities — in other words, personality — that we associate with the mind or soul or spirit are so intimately connected with the body, that they cannot survive the death of the body. He makes four major points in using his first strategy:

1: As the body develops, so the personality develops.

Lamont points out that we begin life with the union of two germ cells: the egg of our mother, and the sperm cell of our father. No personality is present at that time. However, as our body grows and develops, so does our personality grow and develop. The personality of an infant is different from the personality of a toddler, which is different from the personality of a five-year-old child, etc. This shows that personality is dependent upon the development of the body, according to Lamont.

2: Genetic material determines both physical and mental characteristics.

When the germ cells of our parents unite, we are created. Of course, our heredity helps determine how tall we will be, what our sex is, and what color eyes we have, but the germ cells of our parents also help determine how intelligent we will be. After all, it is genetic material that determines whether we shall be born mentally retarded or be born a genius. Also, the sex we are helps determine some of our personality traits.

3: Disorders of the brain result in disorders of the mind.

For example, some people’s bodies don’t produce enough lithium. Because of this, they can acquire a bi-polar personality: One day they are ecstatic, the next day they are suicidal. Also, all of us have seen sitcoms (like those on Nick on Nite) in which a character is hit on the head and forgets who he or she is (amnesia). In addition, some operations on the brain can cure some personality disorders (a bit of bone may be pressing on a person’s brain, causing problems; remove the bit of bone and you remove the personality problems).

4: “Men are born with brains, they acquire minds.”

Here Lamont has a very vivid example: He writes about the wolf-children of India. In 1920, two girls were found in India who had apparently been raised by wolves. Kamala was about eight years old, and Amala was around one year and a half old. The two girls had survived by adopting the habits of wolves. Kamala ran faster on four limbs than on two, howled at night, and insisted on going naked. Lamont finds it significant that Kamala did not even learn to walk upright while living with the wolves.

According to Lamont, these two wolf-girls show that brains come first, then personality develops. This helps show, according to Lamont, that personality is dependent upon the body — the environment of the body affects the personality that we develop.

The Second Strategy

Lamont’s second strategy is to make use of the law of parsimony. According to the law of parsimony, we ought to be stingy with our assumptions (economy of hypothesis). If we can explain something by making only one assumption, that is better than explaining the same thing with two assumptions.

For example, a number of theories can explain the movement of the planets in the solar system. The Ptolemaic theory used 79 assumptions, while the heliocentric theory of Copernicus used 34. Later came Newton, who explained the movement of the planets with only one assumption: the Law of Gravity.

Lamont’s point is that we can explain human beings by using psychological monism. Because of this, there is no need to assume the existence of both a material body and an immaterial mind. Why assume that two things exist when the assumption of the existence of only one thing will explain the facts of human personality?

Lamont’s Conclusion

Lamont’s conclusion is very simple: We are mortal.

Lamont believes that the mind is dependent on the body. When the body dies, the mind dies, and we die. We call this the Argument from Dependence. According to this argument, consciousness depends upon the brain and the central nervous system. Unless there is a brain and a central nervous system, there can be no consciousness.

Note: The quotations by Corliss Lamont that appear in this essay are from his book The Illusion of Immortality(New York: F. Ungar Pub., 1965, revised edition).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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