Full Text for Whitehead et al. vs. Human Death (Text)

THE SPRINGFIELDER July 1974 Volume 38, Number 3 Whitehead et al. vs. Human Death (A pl~zzled query by a concerned coznzsellor) FRANK MORGRET The a~rthol- is pastor of Zion %.rlthern~l Ch?.~rc>h, .Dnsh~oood, Ontario. "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." Ben Frankliri, the coiner of the above immortal phrase, was only partially correct. The very rich and the very poor are now finding it possible to avoid taxation, but it seerns that all of LIS are still becoming objects of the undertaker's art. I an1 cligageci in counselling my fellow? human beings as they pass through the trials and vicissitudes of this life. One of those trials is the clcath of a loved one. Another is the inlmirlent approach of one's own death. 'Tl~erefore, when the opportunity recently pre- sented itself, I was interested to see .tvhat Alfred North \Vhitehead, as well as those process theologians who claim (l~erhaps with varying degrees of justification) to be followers of IVhitehead, had to say on the subject of death. Far from ans-cvering any of my questions con- cerning how the counsellor ]night best deal with the expericnc.e of human death, a study of the works of these men raised questions concerning the ~vhole idea of counselling the dying and the bereaved, its. validity, and even its necessity. Thus, the reader must not expect: this article to be 3 learned dissertation; on the contrary, it is precisely what the subtitle indicates it to be, the written ruminations of a head- scratching (as opposed to a head-shrinking) counsellor, seeking to co~lle to better grips with the problem of death so that he Inay bctter assist those who are in its presence. As ~vith so many things, it seems best here for us to start at the beginn~ng and then work toward the end. Thus, it seems better to discuss what LI:hitcheacl's idea of life is, before we attempt to explain the idea of death in his writings or the writings of his (alleged) disciples. If wc are to start at the beginning, then it is necessary to give a very brief outline of a portion of LVhitehcad's metapllysical thougllt. For \Vhitehead, reality is composed of actual entities, or moments of experience. An actnal entity is a brief monlent of experience in which data is prehended by the subject.' All actual entities, with the sin le P exception of God (who is the eternal actual entity) arise, endure or a brief nioment, and then perish. However, in the act of perishing, an actual entity makes available data for all subsequent actual elltities to prehend. \Vhen a group of actual entities is related by the inlmallence in all but the first of data made available by the first, such a group or chain of actual entities is called a nexus. A society of actual entities is a more complex chain of actual entities, all manifesting a co~nmon eternal objcct, (An eternal object corresponds roughly to a universal or to a Platonic form; the manner in which Whitehead makes use of eternal objects is far different from the manner in which Plato used his forms.) Allan, as an enduring percipient, is a personal society of actual entities.? Thus, a living person is a chain of actual entities, a long line of mon~ents of experience, each of n:Ilich has perished except the present one." Traditionally, the living person has been considered to bc com- posed of a mind and a body. There has been a great deal of debate .concerning the relationship between the two. For \,'I'ltitehead, this debate is by and large a fraud. He considers the body and the rllind to be closely related, the body being the mind's link to the outside world. Thus, the individual is a unity composed of two distinguishable aspects, body and mincl. To try to divide the two is a fool's errand." IVhitehead has very little to say about human death. Ne speaks of perishing and of objective in~mortalit!~. TVith the single exception of God, each actual entity perishes. In perishing, it provides data for other actual entities. This data can be providcd only by perishing. Actual entities achieve objective immortality in that the data they provide is prehended by other actual entities, especially by God. Thus, while actual entities are of a very short duration, much of the data which they provide is immortal, having been prehencled by the eternal Gocl."t is well to emphasize that what lives forever is not the actual entity. It 1xus1: perish before it can provide data for any other iictual entity, including Gocl." 'IVhen LI7hitehead deals with the subject of human death, his treatment is not so complete as we should like it to be. In lieligio~z i~z the Makitzg, written in 1926, he says, ". . . at present it is generally held that purely spiritual being is necessarily imn~ortal. The doc- trine here developed gives no warrant for such a belief. It is entirely neutral on the question of immortality, or on the existence of purely spiritual beings other than God."' Later, in Adventzires of Ideas, (in 1933) hc writes, This personal society is the man defined as a person. It is the soul of which l'lato spcaks. How far this soul finds a support for its existence beyond this body is: -another question. The everlasting nature of God, which in a sense is non-temporal and in another sense is tem- poral, may establish with the soul a peculiarly intense relation- ship of mutud immanence. Thus in some important sense the existence of the soul may be freed from its complete dependence upon the bodily organization. Now, if we add these statements together, what do we get? It would seen1 that this articular sum is, at least in part, dependent on who does the adding. John 13. Cobb argues for the possibility of life after death in the form of an immortal soul which has a memory continuous with that of the menlory which that person had in life. He admits that, in so arguing, he has gone beyond the limits of what Whitehead has said in his writings.Wowever, he feels that his entire theological structure is based on the thought of \Vhitehead.Io On the other hand, Norman Pittenger argues, "We all die; and all of us dies."" In l?j.ttenger's thought, death is the final end of each person, and all people come to that final end. Thus, because we pass this way hut once, it behooves us to live lives filled with love in order that we may fulfill those lives which we lead." Charles Iiartshorne feels that the question of existence after death has been posed in an illegitimate "either-or" manner. Either 1 stop being \+lhen I die or I go on living in some sort of heaven or some sort of hell. I-Iartshorne points out that because we are con- tinually in process, I am now but a tiny fraction of my total existence. Thus, at death, I do not perish, but rather far, far less than one per- cent of me perishes, for all of the rest of me has perished already.13 In this f.inal act of perishing, I, as in all of my other acts of perishing, leave available data which is gathered into God. By being gathered into God, this data achieves inlmortality. Three men have added up the statements of Whitehead and have arrived at three different sums. Just what are we to make of that? On the face of it, the two statements quoted by Whitehead con- cerning death do not seen1 to support at all the traditional idea of the "immortality of the soul." iVhiteheac1' seems to say that such a I thing is a possibility, but that there is no evidence (except what he calls special evidence) to support such a theory. Thus, before we investigate the special evidence, 'ive should exhaust the possibilities of general evidence, that data made available by the multitude of human experiences in this world. /issun~ing .that this is a correct interpretation of IVhitehead's tllought, then John B. Cobb is very correct in being so very cautious in trying to establish the possibility of the "immortality of the soul" on the basis of Whitehead's writings. In fact, if the two passages from \Vhitehead sz.Lpra are read carefully, it can be seen that from them alone an argument of at least equal strength may be derived for the non-existence of an irlmmortal life for the soul. Actually, of course, the t\vo statenlents are by the~nselves inconclusive. They merely state the possibility of such a route of being and may hint at Whitehead's doubt that such a route exists. l'ittenger and Hartshorne seem to be capable of being brought into agreement with one another on this subject without pressing either bf them beyond the limits of their arguments. Furthermore, their views may be somewhat inore in accord with the overall pattern of Whitehead's metaphysical thought. It can be seen that when Pittenger says that we die completely, he is not in. disagreenlent with Hartshorne. We die, and all of us dies; we leave behind data from that last moment of perishing, just as we have made data available in>all of the other moments of our existence. That data, or at least a portion of it, has achieved objective inlmortality in God. Yet, if we are to accept Hartshorne and Pittenger, we are still not being absolutely true to the thought of Whitehead. By their posi- tion, Hartshorne and Pittenger rule out the immortality of the soul; what achieves immortality is the data made available by the person, not the person himself. And this idea goes beyond the point where Whitehead stopped-stopped, I think, because he had no further data. Thus, while their position is closer to the general trend of iVhiteheadian thought, it is not a part of that thought, but yatIler an extrapolation built upon it, just as is the position of Cobb. There seems to be a bit more justification for the Harlshorne-I'ittenger extra- polal.ion than for thc Cobb extrapolation, but extrapolations they 110th are, and subject to the faults of extrapolations the!; both remain. A FEW I'UZZLEZ) QUERIES Now wherc does all this leave the counsellor? And if the reader is about to say that he does not really see the problem, then I invite him to come and walk in my nloccasins a mile or two. The coljnse]lor is placed in the unenviable position of trying to explain death, ,lot just death the phenomenon, death the eternal object, but the deatll of a real person, death ns it is prehendcd and actualized in a monlent or a nexus of nloments of human expcrience. Death in the abstract is one thing. One's o~vn death is cluite another. Death in the abstract is perhaps a morbitl s~~bject for dis- cussion, but it may he discussed without a great wcight of enlotionol pressure, at least by most people. Dcath as exemplif-led in the death of a friend is another thing. 'The death of a close lovecl one is yet another. And onc's own death-the most inlportant death in one's life--is still another. As the instances of death increase in importance they also become increasingly difficult to cuntenlplate or discuss until tllcy force conten~plation And disc~lssion upon a person l)y conling to yass. Evcn when an important death is experienced, the fact of expel-iencing it does not necessarily facilitate the ease with which it 171a)-' be discussed by the experiencing subject. Slidc your feet a little further into my nloccasins and feel a few of thc spots where they become uncomfortable. I am called upon to con~fol-t thc bereavetl. 'These occasions are seldom pleasant. They are often attended by distraught, weeping, even hysterical people. Seldom do thcse l~cople corlsider the dcath which has occurcd as insignificant. For thc over~vhelming majority of mourners whom I have met, it is true th~t they are mourners, not only in name, but also in fact. They are nmurnink thc fact of the dcath of a loved one. Because of the way in which I conduct nly ministry, I have had, on more than one occa- sion, 011~ or the other (or both) of my lapels conlpletely sodden with the tears of a bereft widow or daughter. On more than one occasion I have put my arm around a bereft widower or son. And, on many of thesc occasions, I have shed tears of my own. Nor can the reader beg off at this point by saying, "Frank, shame! You arc turning what was philosophical discussion into a soap- opcra. You have stopped dealing in facts and are wallowing in sheer emotionaIity." That response simply will not do. If we are going to Ile good philosophers, MJC must deal in that which really is. More- over, if we ;Ire going to follow the guidance of \,Vhitehead, we are going to attempt to deal in practical matters. Emotions are real. Study- ing them is 13ractica1, for wc all have them and they affect the behavior of us all. Elnotions are very real. The bereaved people whom I have o~et lverc experiencing, rightly or wrongly, real pain. They cried real tears. Some lost their appetites and lost real, measurable weight. Some became nauseated and vomited real, tangible vomit. Thus, to try to shv away froin emotions because they are in some sense unreal is sil;lplg not valid. If the reader examines his present inomcnt of eaper- ience, 11c: will discovcr that he is experiencing an emotional tone within it. The 1:eader may not like all of them, but he does have emo- tions; so do I; so does everyone. In dealing with a person who has a problem, I, as a counsellor, seek to do two things. First I seek to help the person to see clearly what the ~>roblem actually is. When the person has a clear idea of what he is confronting, I seek to bring him to apply the tools which he already has or to develop new tools so that he may cope with the prol)len~. Notice that 1 did.not say "solve the problemJ1; soine problems are incapable of solution. Growing a new leg woulci solve the am- putee's l~rol)lem. However, he cannot grow a new leg, so he will have to develop some alternatives to cope with the prohleln rather than solve it. Give11 that I counsel in this manner, how do I provide a bereaved person wit11 data so that he nlay get a clear picture of what confronts him, usii~g the infornlation concerning hun~an death provided by IVhitehead, Cobb, Pittenger, and Hartshorne? It would seem that, for ;dl these philosophers, ];urnan death is the normal, expected conclusion to human life. In this sense, it is just as nor11131 as human birth. Now, if. that be true, why then do people mourn death? I47hy have people for centuries concocted ideas lo refute this notion of the normality of death? And, even more 4 curious, if death is so very normaI, then why do we spend lnillions of dollars each year to prevent it? Why does the field of medicine, considered in the broadest sense., include tllerapeutics and preventa- tive medicine instead of merely concentrating on analgesia? Why do we hnvc seat belts in automobiles, laws against murder, and suicide prevention centers? If death really is as normal as birth-if it merely puts the period to the sentence of our lives-why then is it either outlnwcd or prevented whenever possible? Viewing death as nornlaI and life as precious, it is under- standable to 'punish a nlan severely for damaging the quality of another man's life. But, under this view, how may we justify punish- ing a 111a11 for slaying another man? Has the slayer not merely put the period to the sentence of the deceased's life? (Can we, viewing these circunlstances in this way, call the deceased a victim? I thinlc not.) The shyer has in no way damaged the quality of that life; he 11as ended it, and the end of life is normal, what we may all look forward k. to, what we all must expect at some moment of our existence, at, in f fact, the last moment of our existence. J i., ,,. k, It inay be rejoined that when philosophers say that: death is :- normal, they are not implying that all deaths are normal. Well said. *,- * "" However, if this be so, then on what criteria are we to judge that !,$,$ . G'!... L #-:. certain deaths are "abnormal" when we have already concluded that ". death per se is non~lal? Let us suppose that the alleged "victims" of - Jack the Ripper died abnormally. Given that, in what sense may I describe to a bereaved teenage daughter whose father has just begun to understand her and respect her personhood that the death of her father by a sudden and massive coronary occlusion is 'hormal"? 1s not the death of her beloved father a far inore abnorn~al thing than the deaths of a few whores? Just where are we to draw the line between "normal" and "abnormal" as far as deaths are concerned? Will we areuue that death is abnormal when it ends life pre- maturely? We nqht, but this strikes me as an inlpossible rule to apply in practice. Let us take the case of "A," an unattractive prosti- tute in nineteenth-century London, who is lured into a dark allevway, lulled into a false sense of security, murdered, and subseq;ently mutilated by "B," a lunatic medical student. Can we show that "B" has shortened "A's" life? I rather think not. Let us also imagine "C," a drunken hansom driver, who would have run over "A," killing her at 10: 00 p.m. if "B" had not commenced his luring and lulling at 9 : 45 p.m. mds~~bsquently nlurdered "A" at 1 1 : 00 p.m. Can I prove that "C" would have killed "A" at 10:00 if "B" hacl not been already in the process of luring and lulling her to her end? Of course not. But neither can anyone else prove that "(1." wo~ild not have killed her. Is t.hc case of "A," "B," and "C" an isolated one? Again, I rather think not. Certainly, counter-cases may be proposed that would tend to sho~v that a murderer did shorten the deceased's life, but such evidence would be inconclusi\ie, just as the case of "A," "13," and "C" is inconclusive. How are we to say how long a deceased would have lived Ilad he not died when and in the manner that he died? On what evidence are we to base our conclusions? We have presun~ptions, to be sure, but often presumptions l~rove to be rather flimsy. Those who bet that Coluinbus \vould go over the edge and never be heard from again bet on the basis of the very strong presuinptions which tllev lleld, and they also lost their money. Following this line of reasoning, then, if I am to explain one death as normal, 1 am at a loss to see how I am to explain any death as ahnormal. If death per se is normal, hmv may ivc classify any death as abnormal? This may be perplesing, but far more perplexing is the consid- eration that, if death is a .normal as birth, then holv am I to account for its tragedy ;u11c1 the unique grief that it produces? If death is normal, thcn 11o.c~ can grief at death be anything else than abnormal? Cc~:tainly a portion of the grief of the bereaved is grief over relation- ships ilisrul>tecl. But: that grief is heightened and rendered unique by thc fact that it is tlenth that is the disrupter. Now, how am I to account For this l~artic~~lar fornm of grief in the face of what is said to- be just allot-hcr of life's many nor~nal happenings? To wcdg~thc rcacler further into my tight moccasin, am I to tell the ;~foren~cnt~oricd 'l~ereavcd teenager that the death of her father is just ai~othcr of life's normal little l~appenings lilte the birth of her niece? I strongly thi~lk not! 'There might be a grain of truth in such a stiltc~ncnt~ brlt such n statcmcnt totally misses the point of pb- 1em. \\'hat the teenager mollrns is the end of her relacionship ilrith her father, a relationship which involved her as a person and her father ;is a person, a relationship uniquely and terribly ended by death. To describe that final disr~lption as just another of life's normal little Il z~r~~nn Dcnth -. .-A -- -- 19 1 --- happenings denies the depth of the relationship and the depth of the personhu(jd of the people involved. To bring this particular aspect of my problem into clearer focus, let us imagine that the reader's doctor has told llilll tllat he has an incurable and inoperative brain tumor. The reader's condition is such that he will experience no pain, no lessening of mental acuity, no physical disabilitv, no discomfort of any sort. On the other hand, within two weeks he will most assuredly die. Let us forther imagine that he n~entions this prognosis to me in my capacity as a pastoral counsellor. How should I respond on the basis that death is as norillal a part of life as birth? If the reader's situation is as described above and if cleat11 is normal, I can see no reason to offer hiin either con- gratulations or condolences, conlfort or rebuke. His death is just another of life's little occurences, a rllonlent of experience that is here for approximately .63 seconds and then is gone forever, just like all of the rest of the monlents cif his csperience. What makes that one moment so important? There, at last, we come to the biggest question, the biggest prob- lem. The reader's death is imbortant, import;mt to the reader if to no one elsc. I-Iis death is inlportant to him because he is in~portant to him. But it ~voulcl secrn that: in the thought of FIartshofne, q~~ite. possibly in the thought of Pittenger, and even, possibly, in the thought of Cobb, the reader's death has been reduced in importance to (1 ,1 most insignificant proportions. But if we detract fro111 his death's impor- tance, wc likewise nuke him unimportant. If the utter end of him amounts to merely the last .63 seconds of his existenye and nothing Iriore nor anything less, then it would seen1 that we cannot assign much significance to his going out of existence. And yet, the end of hi111 seems. significant to him. It seems significant to him because he seem significant to him. It is the reader that is being brought to an. end, then, not just some chain of events. Or is he sin~ply a chain of . . events? How shall I answer that cluestion?' Fro121 the preceding, it should be obvious that I an1 completely at n loss as to how to apply the thoughts of Cobb, Pittenger, and Hartshorne to the problem of human death. The final problem here adduced seenls to be the most serious of all the problenls raised. I am unable to see ho\v me call get an adequate measure of the stature and dignity of man, of the possible quality of human life, and of the profound tragedy of human death unless man is something 111ore than just a chain of events. In ~articular, if we suppose death to be merely the last link in that chain of moments of experience, tllerl death is merely the last moment of experience and nothing more or less. In defining death in this fashion it becon~es alnlost trite in its normality. But experience indicates that, at least for the pcrson doing the dying, death is never trite. If this experience possesses any validity, then Cobb, Hartshorne, and Pittenger need to do some rethinking. In their attempt to go beyond ivhitehead and delvc into the problem of l~muan death, these Inen have turned up no information of prac- tical value. It is interesting to peruse their work, but now I shall cease scratching my head and go back to the concepts of human death I have been us~ng and which seeill to have a real, practical value to the counsellor. Those are the concepts found in the teachings of Jesus, the Christ, 1vho said, "He who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live." FOOTNOTES 1. For a tl~oro~~gh, readable explanation of Whitehead's metaphysics, see A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Theory of Reality (Ncw York: Dover Publi- cations, Inc., 1962), especially pp. ix-57. 2. Ibid. p. 51. 3. lbid. 13. 75. 4. Ibid. p. 76. 5. Ibid. p. 77. 6. ibid. 7. Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New Yorlc: The World Publjshing Company, 1960), p. 107. 8. Whitehead, Ad.ventztucs of Idcns (New Pork: ?'he Frec Press, 1967), p. 208. 9. John B. Col~b, A Christian Natztral Theology (I'hiladelphia: Thc West- minster Press, 1965), pp. 63-79. 10. The sub-title of his book reads, "Based on the thought of Alfrcd North Whitehead." 11. Norman Pittenger, 'The Last Things' in a Process Perspcctive (1,oncton: Epworth l'rcss, 1970) p. 35. 12. lbid. p. 43f. 13. Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead's Philosophy (Lincoln: University of Ncbraslta Press, 1972), pp. 122f. Hartshorne may not have calculated just how little of a pcrson dies at death very accurately, for his statement that "far more than 99 percent of my personal actuality has already pcrishcd" is a hit of an understatement. The author, using data estab- .Iished by Whitchead, determined the duration of a moment of experience cnipirically. This duration is approximately 0.6'3 seconds. For the sake of simplicity in calculation, without producing more than 5 % crror, this value was rounded off to 0.6 seconds. This author was born .on October 11, 1938, at 6 p.m. 'l'hus, at 10 a.m. on May 13, 1974, he was 18, 409, 820 nlinutes .old. By the process of simple arithmetical calculation, had he died at that moment, then in line with Hartshorne's reasoning, only .00000054 percent (54 one hundred millionths of one percent) of his pc'rsonal actual-itg would have perished. Thus Hartsllornc could have been far rno1.e accurate had hc stated that (at least for us over 35) "far more than 99.9999 percent of our personal actuality has already perished."