The meaning of death and immortality

In philosophy, the ideas of death and immortality are important and they are perceived differently by many scholars. While each has the ability to stand alone as a philosophical concept, the issues of death and immortality are often studied together, since so much of their meaning is linked in the research of many modern philosophers. When studying these two items, one must consider a host of different considerations, including religious theories, metaphilosophy, and issues regarding the human condition. The research on these two topics has been extensive and it has been diverse. As such, it is impossible to pour through all of the research, both old and modern, about the subjects. It is possible, however, to come up with a working context for why death and immortality are some important to the study of philosophy. For many, death is defined as the end and it can stand in direct juxtaposition of immortality. For others, death is only the beginning, and thus it can be directly tied to immortality, since death serves to perpetuate the never-ending cycle indicated by a belief in immortality. There are some thinkers that believe immortality does not exist in any form, and there are others that believe immortality to exist only in a certain context. The complicated, deep nature of these two ideals is something that drives the differing opinions from even the most respected philosophers who happen to study death and immortality today.

Death has become a much more highly studied subject over the last few decades, especially from a medical perspective. When trying to understand the philosophy behind death and immortality, one must first seek to understand the literal meaning of death as it is set forth by the medical community. For the longest time, the medical community had been concerned with defining death just so they would not bury a person prematurely. This was a fairly simplistic approach, but it meshed with the practical views of science at the time. Today, one of the major issues surrounding death has to do with the human ability to delay death through modern medical systems. This is one of the major ongoing issues and it stands as a huge point of contention for many. Some believe that death is a natural thing, brought about by a higher power at a pre-determined time. Others believe that the delaying of death is completely right, and that humans should be required to use the technology that they have developed to delay death as much as possible.

In defining death, Roy W. Perrett had some interesting thoughts on the matter. He cites a meaning of death that came from Blacks Law Dictionary, published in 1968. That book defined death as being, The cessation of life the ceasing to exist defined by physicians as the total stoppage of the circulation of the blood, and a cessation of the animal and vital functions consequent thereon, such as respiration, pulsation, etc (Blacks Law Dictionary, 1986). This very literal interpretation of death presents many problems for Perrett, who sees it as something much more complicated than is represented in the legal form. Though he concedes some truths in the books definition, he offers something much more useable from a philosophical context. He writes, There is much wrong with this definition. First, to say death is the cessation of life the ceasing to exist is not very helpful in practical legal terms, for it just saddles us with the problem of the meaning of life. Second, it is now false that physicians define death as total stoppage of the circulation of the blood etc (Perrett, pg. 8). In this, one can see that even the most basic question of the definition of death is something that comes with questions and much debate. Before even addressing the philosophical questions, the medical community has a difficult time making a uniform declaration on what death means and more importantly, when it occurs. In a philosophical sense, death can be viewed in three different ways. As the work of Pascal indicates, death is simply seen as an interruption in a larger context (Pascal). It is not the beginning or the end rather it is a part of life and a portion of the journey towards immortality for those who believe in God. Others see death in a more final sense, noting that it is a culminating act for a person who has lived a full life. For these people, death stands in direct opposition of the idea of immortality, as death represents the end of an era for that particular person (Rahner, 1975). The work of Karl Rahner indicates this line of philosophical, as he indicated in his work, Ideas for a Theology of Death. Rahners view is the one that is most certainly in opposition to many of the traditional religious thinkers, who have theorized about the role of death when specifically talking about Gods plan and the after life. Lastly, death can be defined as a part of life, which must be accepted by any person that wants to live a sane and happy life throughout. This is something that was first brought forth by Heidegger, who discussed these issues in his work, Being and Time. According to this philosopher, death is something that is final, and all people must come to terms with it at one point or another. Though each person deals with death and inevitability of it all at his own pace, it is something that will eventually be faced by each and every person who is to be happy while living on earth. These views of death are all very different, and they serve as a solid representation of the theories that are out there. As with an topic as complex and complicated as death, it figures that many interpretations will exist. Death is especially ambiguous in that sense.

In the most literal sense, the idea of immortality is defined as living in a physical or spiritual form for an infinite or inconceivably vast length of time (Oxford Dictionary). This might seem simple enough, but the idea is one that has long been difficult for people who try their hardest to wrap their heads around the idea. Immortality, in its purest sense, stands in the way of death. A work by Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel entitled A Philosophy of Immortality discusses the idea as something that can only be discovered for ones self. While the seeking for immortality has taken place in the context of entire religious groups, people can only come to grips with the idea for themselves, and each must find his or her own meaning in terms of immortality (Noel, pg. 2). Immortality, in the philosophical sense, can be described as the continuing of life in one form or another. It is the ability to live, whether in physical or spiritual form, for an amount of time that the human mind cannot fathom. Though some have opined that this means living forever, others disagree, citing the view that all being will someday come to an end, at which time all beings will cease to exist. Whatever the case, it is certain that immortality is the ability to continue on, and in many cases it stands in the way of death. For those individuals who view death as being something finite, the idea of immortality is one that is impossible. In this way, one can clearly see how the two ideas come together in certain instances and how they stand in opposition in other instances.

The most important consideration that one can make when reviewing the roles of death and immortality in philosophy is to study and determine their relationship. These are two central ideas, and it is difficult to view them on their own. There are many ways in which death and immortality interact with one another, both on the most basic levels and the most advanced levels of philosophy. As one of the worlds most foremost philosophers offered, the soul is perfectly living and does not possess the ability to perish. For that reason, it lives forever and cannot die (Plato). In this way, it can be said that death is something that only touches a small part of the human condition. Individuals are made up of both a body and a soul, and death is only able to touch the body. The soul is something that continues to live in the same state, and its immortality is not challenged, even when the body goes through the process of death. This is something that is reconciled with the views of traditional medicine on the absolute meaning of death. In the eyes of the medical professionals who make decisions on time of death, the definition is concrete. Individuals are deemed dead when their body ceases to function in the most vital way. The soul, however, is not bound by these traditional legal terms, as it is a completely separate entity from the body.

The separation of the soul and the body is an important idea to consider when trying to come up with the relationship between death and immortality. This separation is something that is usually studied in a religious context, as the majority of religions make note of the distinction. Christianity is one religion where this is most evident, as there are philosophies pointing to the rebirth of the human soul when a person accepts Jesus Christ. In this, individuals become more than one entity, with their body just acting as the carrier and the earthy house for the soul. Many teachings in the Christian religion goes so far as to call the body a Temple and describes the body as a resource. It is something that should be used for good while it is still useful, whereas the soul is something that is viewed as everlasting and immortal. This is a distinction that must be made if one wants to be able to reconcile the idea of death. It is clear to all that death will come and the inevitability is an issue that cannot be avoided. If the teachings are to be true and individuals are to live the fulfilled lives promised to them by various religions, then the soul must have a different fate from the body. Though there exists some disagreement on exactly happens to the soul upon death of the body, almost all philosophers who believe in immortality understand that the two are separated in this sense.

While the view that death is only a short interruption in the immortality of the soul is a popular one, many hold that death is actually a new beginning, starting over a new life for the soul, which also represents immortality. Some religions, like the Hindu faith, interpret this to mean that when a person dies, the soul is given a new chance to live on earth in a different form. This long held belief in reincarnation has taken many forms over time, but this is a vastly different view than the one held by other religions. Under this interpretation, the immortality brought about by death is more of a cycle than anything else. While death provides a bump in the road on a long journey to inevitable immortality for those people who believe in the first theory, others offer that each death brings about a new birth for the soul. This is a different take on immortality to be sure, but it is essentially the same conclusion. If one is to believe that immortality means the souls ability to sustain itself for an indeterminate amount of time, then the philosophy of reincarnation falls well within its bounds. As mentioned previously, this is another example of the inevitability of death, as it stands as something that all individuals must come to accept.

Death and immortality can also be said to interact in other ways, depending upon the philosophy that one accepts on the souls eventual destination. Some believe that the certainty of death puts an end to any thought of immortality. This is something that Rahner has presented in many of his different works, offering the opinion that the soul dies along with the body. No matter which religion a person chooses to follow, if they choose to follow one at all, the soul has a purpose on earth just as the body does. When the body dies, according to the previously stated medical definitions, life is also cut off for the soul. Philosopher Charles Hartshorne held onto this view, as well. He also brought into play the idea of objective immortality, which is considerably different than the literal immortality that has been supported by many. In his work, A Natural Theology for our Time, Hartshorne describes a persons ability to live on after his or her death. Instead of having a soul that is either reincarnated in another being or having a soul that is allowed to live forever in some other form, a persons only attempt at immortality comes in his or her legacy. If that person has done things that will have a lasting impact on people of the earth, then they have some sort of immortality. In his view, this is the only kind of immortality that is appropriate after death, since the soul sees a literal death of its own when the body passes away.

Some taken an even more extreme view of the relationship of death and immortality, believing that it is possible for a person to experience literal, physical death, then have their body resurrected along with their soul shortly after. The most obvious example of this comes from the Bible, where Jesus Christ was resurrected. In this instance, death is nothing more than a short-term internment, but the soul is actually put to death. Immortality is still an inevitable idea, but both the body and the soul are interred for a short time before the resurrection takes place. There are differing views on when this type of resurrection might take place, as some hold to a last day theory, while others cling to an immediate resurrection of both the body and the soul. This theory is one of the few that holds onto the immortality of both the body and the soul. While others view death as a way of separating the two things, this primary Christian belief puts together the body and the soul, allowing for the eventual continuance of both. In this view, the relationship between death and immortality is an interesting one. Death serves as a gateway, so to speak, allowing individuals to enter into their own special place of indefinite immortality. The waiting period is a part of the theology of the given religion, but the result remains the same.

In many theological circles, death can be seen as a symbol, which puts away all of the old, wicked ways and allows for the promotion of new, fruitful actions. Because the afterworld is a place where the soul will supposedly prosper, there had to be a clear separation from one to the other. Whether the soul is banished to hell, to heaven, or to some other being as with reincarnation, death acts as the clear turning point. In that way, it can always been seen as a new beginning, even for those philosophers who view death as a mere interruption. Given the nature of the souls immortality and its eventual destination, death can only be viewed as something that allows for a clean slate and a new twist on the road to immortality. That is how the two items primarily function together in this context.

In terms of current issues, some of the largest discussions are taking place over the use of certain technologies to extend life and dictate physical immortality. As life expectancy rates grow, a number of issues are created globally, as the worlds natural population flow is thrown off by the fact that more lives are being extended. Philosophers are struggling with long standing questions about the role of technology and what it is meant to do, if anything. Additionally, some argue that todays religious leaders are using the idea of spiritual immortality to lure people into their causes. This has been mentioned in conjunction to many extremist groups, which is especially troubling in todays context.

Death and immortality are complicated matters, which is evidenced by the fact that so many individual philosophers have taken opposing views on the matter. They most certainly interact in many different ways, though individuals argue over exactly how this interaction takes place. Some see death as a gateway to immortality, while others believe that death contradicts the idea of immortality. Some believe that death allows for only an indirect form of immortality, while others offer that immortality is a physical state achieved by the soul. These long-held views are often discussed in a religious framework, which makes sense because of the strong theological influence in many of the theories. As with many topics in philosophy, this is one that brings about more questions than answers, and discussion has been continuing for centuries with many enlightening viewpoints, but no clear answers as of yet.


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