We cannot suppose that an individuals thinking survives bodily death, since death destroys the organization of the brain. All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases.
All that constitutes a person is a series of experiences connected by memory and by certain similarities of the sort we call habit. If, therefore, we are to believe that a person survives death, we must believe that the memories and habits which constitute the person will continue to be exhibited in a new set of occurrences. No one can prove that this will not happen. But it is easy to see that it is very unlikely.
Our memories and habits are bound up with the structure of the brain, in much the same way in which a river is connected with the river-bed. The water in the river is always changing, but it keeps to the same course because previous rains have worn a channel. In like manner, previous events have worn a channel in the brain, and our thoughts flow along this channel. This is the cause of memory and mental habits. But the brain, as a structure, is dissolved at death, and memory therefore may be expected to be also dissolved. There is no more reason to think otherwise than to expect a river to persist in its old course after an earthquake has raised a mountain where a valley used to be.
Bertrand Russell, Do We Survive Death? (1936)
Of this physical world, uninteresting in itself, Man is a part. His body, like other matter, is composed of electrons and protons, which, so far as we know, obey the same laws as those not forming part of animals or plants. There are some who maintain that physiology can never be reduced to physics, but their arguments are not very convincing and it seems prudent to suppose that they are mistaken.
What we call our thoughts seem to depend upon the organisation of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways. The energy used in thinking seems to have a chemical origin; for instance, a deficiency of iodine will turn a clever man into an idiot. Mental phenomena seem to be bound up with material structure.
If this be so, we cannot suppose that a solitary electron or proton can think; we might as well expect a solitary individual to play a football match. We also cannot suppose that an individuals thinking survives bodily death, since that destroys the organization of the brain, and dissipates the energy which utilized the brain tracks.
All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases.
Bertrand Russell, What I Believe (1925)
The essay Do We Survive Death? by Bertrand Russell was published in 1936 in a book entitled The Mysteries of Life and Death; Great Subjects Discussed by Great Authorities. The essays What I Believe (1925) and Do We Survive Death? (1936) along with the highly popular Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) rank for many as articulate examples of Russell's thoughts. The ideas contained within were and still often are, considered controversial, contentious and - to some of the religious - blasphemous.
Bertrand Russell died from influenza at his home in Penrhyndeudreath, Gwynedd, United Kingdom on the night of 2 February 1970 just after 8 pm at 97 years old. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh hills in unknown locations. In accordance with his will, there was no religious ceremony but one minute's silence, with only five people present (the number five being Russell's favorite number).
Back to Miscellany
|Back to Leigh's Home Page||Site Map||Site Search|