William and Henry James on the Immortality of the Soul

By Duncan, Roger | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

William and Henry James on the Immortality of the Soul


Duncan, Roger, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


The issue of personal immortality would seem not to be a burning question to a great many of our contemporaries. Yet books like A Proof of Heaven receive great attention and achieve best-seller status. Perhaps we should say that the question and the longing smolder there under the ash of philosophical scientism and materialism. The very idea of the reality of the spiritual soul seems to offend the reputable conclusions of scientifically informed thought.

This general intellectual discouragement on the topic was already in place at the turn of the last century, when William and Henry James each devoted an essay to the question of the immortality of the human soul. (1) It is not that these two great writers communicated and entered a collaboration around ultimate issues; such a thing could hardly come to pass, as their published correspondence reveals. (2)

Yet on this question they happen to have a lot in common. William and Henry, who both remark that the problem has not exercised them terribly much throughout a good piece of their lives, both develop positions of thoughtful openness to belief in the immortality of the human soul, conscious of their opposition to the intellectual proclivities of their time. What is more, and the point of this essay: they advanced the question; each contributed something new to the possible revisiting of the theme in our day, William to the objective metaphysical side as the slow return of metaphysics now struggles to come to grips with modern science, Henry, contributing a phenomenological gem to the more subjective side, assessing individual experience ensuing in personal conviction.

It is worth mentioning at the outset that an accomplished writing style, so different yet so fine in each, makes paraphrasing their arguments approximate that trahison des clercs usually attributed to translators. So I must lay out a caveat to the reader: you really must read these essays.

William

Forewarned, let me summarize. William argues like a philosopher of course, and, with a view to relaxing the hold of unthinking philosophical materialism, begins with a distinction. He says that everyone agrees these days (1898) that human thought as we experience it and express it is a function of brain activity; modern science has done so much to reinforce any mere common sense intuition that our thought is in some sense going on in our heads. We increasingly know places and configurations in the neuronal activity of the brain corresponding more and more precisely to patterns of thought and speech. Let us suppose then that these correlations are absolute and one-to-one. What then?

Well, says William, we need to make some distinctions among the "functional" relationships we discover in the physical world around us. Certainly there is a productive function, as when we say "power is a function of the moving waterfall." And in such cases, remove the cause and you remove the effect, and that is the end of it. Yet there are other types of functional relationships. Take for instance the trigger of a crossbow. Here we have a releasing or permissive function. The pull of the trigger merely unlocks a pent-up force, permitting it to do what it has been held back from doing. Finally there is the transmissive function of, say, a stained glass window in relation to light: the window serves as a medium shaping and selecting the color of the light.

If we limit the functionality in question to that of productivity the argument is over and the materialists have won. But once we recognize that the registered dependence of consciousness on the brain need not be interpreted in this way, but might just as easily be a case of releasing or transmitting, or some combination or the two, as, for instance, the whole of the idealist tradition has done, the picture looks a lot different. "Suppose, for example, that the whole universe of material things--the furniture of earth and choir of heaven--should turn out to be a mere surface-veil of phenomena, hiding and keeping back the world of genuine realities. …

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