NOTES on Curt John Ducasse (1881-1969): The Question “Are We Immortal?” is Still Open


Curt John Ducasse (1881-1969) is a philosopher who believed that it is possible that we are immortal. In his essay, “Is Life After Death Possible?”, published in the Forester Lecture Series, Vol. 2(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948), he doesn’t attempt to prove that we are immortal; instead, he merely tries to show that the question of “Are we immortal?” is still open.

First, Ducasse answers the question, “Why do people want to be immortal?” Of course, people want personal immortality for various reasons. Some people want to be reunited with their dear ones who have died previously. Others — who have led unhappy lives — want to have a second chance at gaining happiness. Still others want to continue learning, and yet others want to continue counting in the affairs of Humankind. And, of course, others see an afterlife as a chance to redress injustices that went unpunished in this life.

Ducasse describes two arguments commonly advanced against immortality. First is the Argument from Dependence, which Corliss Lamont made much use of. 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. Advocates of this argument point out that consciousness is always associated with a living body, and that drugs (alcohol, LSD) that affect the central nervous system also affect consciousness.

The second common argument used to deny immortality is the Identity Theory. According to this theory, consciousness is identical with minute events in the brain. Advocates of this theory ask, “How can a non-material idea affect a material brain?”

In addition, people who argue against personal immortality ask, “Shouldn’t the survival of a human personality require a human body?” After all, if a human personality were placed in the body of a shark, the human personality perhaps would be unlikely to survive very long.

However, Ducasse believes that these two arguments do not prove their point. About the Identity Theory, Ducasse points out that saying love equals these minute events in the brain is like saying that “wood” is another name for “glass.” This, of course, is a re-definition of the word. It seems unlikely that we can ever say that love is the equivalent of breathing fast, having a racing pulse, and having certain neutrons in the brain doing something or other.

About the Argument from Dependence, Ducasse admits that head injuries do extinguish consciousness. When these happen, the person suffering the head injury has no memory of what happened for a time after the head injury. However, Ducasse suggests, perhaps the consciousness still exists but is dissociated from the body. (This would mean that the consciousness is in another realm.) After all, lack of memory does not mean lack of consciousness. We can remember very few days of our life specifically; however, we can be pretty sure that we were conscious most of the days of our life.

Ducasse also considers some possible empirical evidence for postdeath survival. This may sound eerie, but Ducasse is interested in ghosts, as are many other philosophers. Why? Because if ghosts really exist, then we have empirical evidence that human consciousness can survive for at least some time after death.

In writing about ghosts, Ducasse tells some interesting stories. For example, the ghost of a dead girl appeared before her brother. The brother noticed a scratch on her cheek. After telling their mother about the ghost, the brother discovered that the mother had accidentally made the scratch while preparing her daughter’s body for burial. However, the mother had immediately covered the scratch with powder and had told no one about the scratch. In another case, the ghost of a child appeared before several people in a room. A dog noticed the ghost first, barked at it, and then seven people saw it.

Another type of possible empirical evidence for postdeath survival may be found in experiences with mediums who claim to be able to contact the dead. Ducasse admits there are a lot of fakes in this field; however, he believes that some mediums are genuine — these mediums have been investigated by the Society for Psychical Research in London, which has pronounced them to be genuine.

Still, Ducasse admits, there are two explanations for the phenomena of mediums. One explanation is that the phenomena are real, that the mediums really are able to contact the dead. If this is so, then there really is empirical evidence for postdeath survival.

However, a second explanation is that the mediums have telepathic powers. Thus, when a medium reveals something that only a dead person and one living person could have known, the medium may have been reading the living person’s thoughts. In this case, there is no empirical evidence for postdeath survival.

In the next part of his essay, Ducasse exposes the assumption that makes many people regard the arguments against immortality as being much stronger than they really are. Ducasse states that such people are making a metaphysical assumption: “To be real is to be material.” In other words, reality consists of matter in motion — planets moving in space, human beings moving on the surface of the Earth, etc.

Ducasse writes,

Now the assumption that to be real is to be material is a useful and appropriate one for the purpose of investigating the material world and operating upon it; and this purpose is a legitimate and frequent one. But those persons, and most of us, do not realize that the validity of that assumption is strictly relative to that specific purpose. Hence they, and most of us, continue making the assumption, and it continues to rule judgment, even when, as now, the purpose in view is a different one, for which the assumption is no longer useful or even congruous.

In other words, the metaphysical assumption “To be real is to be material” is great for scientists, who investigate the physical universe. However, it is not an appropriate assumption when one is investigating things that exist, but that do not exist as material (physical) things.

What kind of things are these that exist but are not material? They include (or may include) these things:

  • Metaphysical entities such as minds or souls.
  • God.
  • The ideas we have in our mind.
  • Emotions such as love.
  • Fictional characters such as Huck Finn. We can talk meaningfully about Huck Finn, so in some sense he exists, but Huck Finn is not a physical human being.
  • Geometrical objects such as squares, triangles and circles. These neverappear in the material universe.
  • Numbers. No one has ever seen a “one” before, although many people have seen one apple, or one this, or one that.

Ducasse points out that most of what we perceive consists of vivid color images. We assume that these vivid color images are associated with material objects, but we are not sure of that. Most people we see in the world we never hear or smell or taste or touch — they are just vivid color images.

Of course, Ducasse has not proven that we are immortal. All he has done is to say that people such as Corliss Lamont have not proven their case and so the case against immortality is much weaker than many people probably think. As Ducasse would say, The question of “Are we immortal?” is still open.

Note: The quotations by Ducasse that appear in this essay are from his essay, “Is Life After Death Possible?”, published in the Forester Lecture Series, Vol. 2(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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