Saturday, December 27, 2008


When I was still teaching, one day a boy approached me looking a little worried and asked me if I could sort something out for him. I asked him what the matter was and he said,

“My parents have always told me that I would go to heaven when I die. But today, Mr Newman said in RE that there was no heaven to go to, that when we die we’re finished and that this world that we see around us is the only world there is.”

“And you’re worried about who’s telling the truth?” I asked.

“Yes. What do you think? You’re the philosopher.”

“Do you think it matters what I think?”

“Not really, but it matters to me what I think and you might have something interesting to say.”

“Well if you’re really interested in what I think, I’d say that you’d be better off ignoring Mr Newman and going along with what your parents say.”


“Because Mr Newman is asserting something that he doesn’t really know to be true. Your parents are doing the same thing; but I assume they love you.”

“Yes, they do.”

“So at least they probably have your best interests at heart and say what they say with love. They want you to have the chance to live for ever. Mr Newman, by contrast, is only interested in debunking people’s deeply held beliefs because he thinks they are held without evidence or reason. He wants to appear wiser or more knowledgeable than they.”

“Is he?”

“No, I don’t think he is. I think you can on balance ignore your teacher and go on believing what your parents tell you.”

“But why?”

For one very simple reason. Neither your parents nor Mr Newman really know what they are talking about, but on balance your parents are liable to be less wrong about things than Mr Newman.”

“D’you think so?”

“Well just think about it: Mr Newman thinks that he is equipped to pronounce upon what sorts of things are in the universe and assert with certainty that some things – like life after death – just can’t exist. Your parents, too, think they can pronounce upon what sorts of things – like life after death – are in the universe; but the difference with your parents is that they are less likely to be wrong than Mr Newman because they think the universe is more complex than it appears to us.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Well, just think about it this way: Mr Newman is convinced, on the basis of what he experiences through his senses and what he thinks with his logical mind, that he can know essential things about the universe; but one has to ask whether this is so. Why should human beings think that they can know essential things about the universe? If you think about what used to be called the ‘Great Chain of Being’, the ‘Web of Life’ or what have you, you can go right down to the simplest creatures at the bottom levels and ask what sorts of things they know about the universe. Imagine an amoeba, for example. It doesn’t know much. It knows about how to move towards nutrient-rich bits of water. It knows how to catch its prey. But that’s about it. Its world is a bit of water and what it knows about that world is pretty limited. What does it know about you, for example?

“Not much.”

“Then if you come up through the levels of complex life, through multicellular organisms, through fish, reptiles, birds mammals and so on, the more complex creatures are still handicapped by limited experience of the world and limited ability to deal with the experience they have. We think that animals are pretty ignorant compared to us. Think of a chimp or a gorilla. What do they know about the dark side of the moon, about nuclear physics, about the moral dilemmas of the modern health service, about the wonders of Bach’s fugues, the mysteries of art and finance and so on? The answer is, nothing at all. So if they, our nearest cousins are so handicapped that they can know nothing of what we as humans take for granted, why should we suppose that on rising to the human level of the web of life, suddenly creatures are not limited anymore and can know everything there is to know about the world? Why do humans suddenly think that they’re not limited at all?”

“So you’re saying my teacher is as limited as a chimp or a gorilla?”

Well put like that it sounds like an insult; but, yes, that’s what I do mean.”

The boy laughed out loud, frankly and with obvious pleasure.

“I guess it’s obvious, if you think about it. There’s no reason why, if creatures are handicapped by their nature, human creatures should not also be handicapped.”

“That’s it. Man is a limited creature, as limited, potentially as a slug, a thrush or a so-called ‘higher mammal’. He is limited in intellect, in perceptual apparatus – i.e. sense-organs – and he is limited in imagination. We’re not so far above the chimps and gorillas as we like to think. We’re pretty close to them. Some of them can do many things better than we can. They can remember better than we can. Some of them can even do maths better than us. But it seems obvious that just as we think of all the non-human animals on this world as limited as far as what they can know is concerned, so we ourselves must be limited.”

“Yes, O.K. but I don’t see that it really helps me to say that Mr Newman is as limited as a chimp.”

“I didn’t say that; and don’t go telling him that I did. I meant simply that all the creatures on this planet from the lowest to the highest are strictly limited in their cognitive capacities and can only know what evolution has equipped them to know.”

“So why should I believe my parents more than Mr Newman?”

“Because it seems to me likely that the universe is far more complex than Mr Newman claims. It’s more likely that it’s as complex as your parents think it is. It seems to me likely that just as we are able to grasp things that our simpler cousins cannot even conceive, so there are probably levels of awareness, consciousness and experience far above what we can know or imagine. It seems to me that there are probably levels of reality far more complex and wonderful than anything we can think of in our limitations. It also seems to me likely that each level is sealed off from the ones above and below it precisely by the perceptual and cognitive abilities of the creatures that inhabit it.”

“By their brains, you mean?”

“Yes, if they have brains.”

“I guess it would be pretty presumptuous of an amoeba to assert that the only world is the one it knows. But it would have to assert that because it cannot know any other world. For it, the world really is as it experiences it.”

“Yes, and the same can be said of humans: it is pretty presumptuous of them to assert that they can know everything there is to know about the world and that their world is the only world there is. It’s pretty presumptuous of Mr Newman to assert that there are no levels of reality above the human level.”

“And my parents? Aren’t they being presumptuous as well?”

“Well maybe, but at least they think that the world is more wonderful than it appears to us. In that I think they are almost certainly right.”

“But that doesn’t prove that they are right to claim that we have the chance of living on after death.”

“No, it doesn’t; but the whole trend of evolution is towards more complex levels of experience and thought. It seems to me entirely reasonable to believe in the possibility of progressing to such more complex levels after the death of our human body. After all, we, ourselves, may be no more than the recycled minds of creatures that were lower down the evolutionary ladder than us.”

“But what could be above us? Angels?”

 “Who knows?”

“But why can’t we see them? Why can’t we examine their brains, to get some idea of the more complex experience they enjoy?”

“Perhaps it’s better we can’t. We’re pretty touchy creatures and we’d feel very intimidated and possibly resentful of creatures who are vastly more intelligent than we are. We don’t like to think that there are more intelligent and wiser creatures than us.”

“Maybe they inhabit another universe, or other universes.”

“Maybe. And maybe their more complex experience and knowledge gives them the ability to move between universes. Or maybe they just have the ability to move between levels of this universe.”

“That’s a very exciting thought.”

“Hold onto it; it might just give you a handle on what your parents mean by being immortal.”

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