Where are we going? Toward death. Even if we came to the point, thanks to new discoveries, of reversing the direction of physiological time, of periodically rejuvenating ourselves and even of prolonging our lives for two or three centuries, death would not be overcome because the structure of our body makes death a necessity. From the very inception of its existence in the womb, the young organism begins to age. This process of senescence is much more rapid in the fetus and the young child than in the adult and still more than in the old. The progress toward death slows down considerably with advancing years but it never stops and never changes its direction. Whatever the future successes of science may be, every human being is condemned sooner or later to disappear from this world.
What is the significance of death? We know very well what our body will become, some gases and a handful of ashes. And our spirit? It appears to be annihilated at the same time as the organs. Since, during life, it is inseparable from the tissues and the blood, it is logical to think that it decomposes when they do. Nevertheless, feeling has always refused to accept this verdict of reason.
Men of the West ardently desire life, not only in this world but also beyond the tomb. It is not enough for them to survive in their works, in the trees they have planted and the houses they have built, in the inventions of their brain, in the immediate or remote consequences of their actions. Neither axe they content to perpetuate themselves in their descendants through the medium of the genes which they themselves received from their ancestors. What we desire above all is personal survival. We long to see, after death, those whom we love; we long to enter into the realm of justice and peace and to enjoy the ineffable companionship of God.
The peoples who have succeeded each other on the earth have nearly always believed in at least the temporary survival of the spirit. The Church has even elevated belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body to the rank of a dogma. Though the majority of civilized people have abandoned religious faith, many of them still ponder deeply on the mystery of death. They ask themselves anxiously whether spiritual development is truly the aim of life; whether the spiritual treasures accumulated by the heroes of charity and by the saints are inevitably doomed to be swallowed up in nothingness. To these questions science can, at the moment, give no answer. It is still ignorant of the relations between the mental and the cerebral; nor can it say whether the dissolution of the cerebral necessarily entails that of the mental. It is equally ignorant of the nature of spirit. Perhaps this ignorance will be permanent for spirit, though involved in living matter, is beyond the spatio-temporal world and hence beyond the jurisdiction of science. Even if disembodied souls were pullulating all about us, we should not know it for we possess no means of ascertaining their presence.
What, then, do apparitions of the dead signify? There exists a large number of undoubtedly authentic cases where a deceased person has appeared to a relative or friend at the moment of their death, or very shortly after, and has told them in what circumstances it took place. Thanks to automatic writing or through the channel of a medium, alleged communications come to us from beyond. These messages usually deal with the unverifiable conditions of the life of disembodied spirits. But sometimes they contain a surprising revelation of things known only to the deceased person. Sir Oliver Lodge always believed that he was in communication with his son for several years after the latter's death. Spiritualists teach that messages thus received are a proof of the survival of the spirit. They believe that, if not the whole consciousness, at least a psychic principle persists after death. This principle unites itself with the spirit of the medium and constitutes a kind of consciousness belonging at once to the medium and to the dead person. Its existence seems to be transitory. It gradually disintegrates and finally disappears.
The importance of the facts on which these speculations are based is undeniable, but their interpretation is certainly not correct for the spiritualists leave clairvoyance out of account Yet we know that clairvoyants perceive past events as well as future ones. For them there is no secret. The revelations attributed to the spirit of the dead person may merely be due to the clairvoyance of the medium. We cannot distinguish a phenomenon of survival from a phenomenon of clairvoyance so that, for the moment, we have no scientific proof that the spirit survives death. Nevertheless, no one can definitely state that such a science is impossible. The systematic study of metapsychical phenomena will no doubt help us to know the properties of spirit just as pathological phenomena have given us a better understanding of the physiology of the nervous system. Unfortunately, this study is discredited by the charlatans who claim to deal with it. The moment has come for science to venture into the terrae incognitas whose discovery may perhaps throw some light on the nature of the spirit.
Religion gives a very different interpretation of death from that of science. For religion, death represents not the end of life but its beginning. Instead of dissolving at the same time as the body, the spirit continues its ascent and, without losing its personality, is absorbed in God.
For the last two thousand years, hundreds of millions of men and women have died at peace, with the certitude of living an after-life with their dear ones, with the saints and angels and with God Himself. The mystics who have succeeded in crossing the threshold of the unitive life experience, even in this world, the indescribable joy of contact with God which the beatific vision will give eternally to the elect after death.
The Church promises man not only the immortality of his body and soul but also, if he is worthy, the possession of God and endless happiness. Thus the answer of faith to humanity's anguish when confronted with the mystery of death is incomparably more satisfying than that of science. When feeling takes the form of intuition and love, it discovers what remains hidden to the intellect. "Thou wouldst not seek Me if thou hadst not already found Me," says the mystic. Religion brings man the answer which his heart desires.
Ought we to accept the answer of science or that of religion? Should we let ourselves be guided by reason or feeling? Some men obey feeling, others reason. Wisdom consists in conforming one's conduct both to reason and to feeling, to science as well as to faith, to the true as well as the beautiful. It is impossible for us to refuse to think about the significance of death. Two hypotheses present themselves. Either we completely dissolve when we die or else something of us survives. "We are embarked," as Pascal said. We have to choose. Between two working hypotheses we must choose the more audacious, the one which can lead to the greater results even if it is not the more rationally certain. We must, therefore, adopt the hypothesis of immortality though only on condition that the adoption of this hypothesis does not prevent us from obeying the laws of life. We must never forget that our evident raison d' etre, the imperative order of nature and the aim of our existence, is to live in the fullness of our physiological and mental activities.
Is belief in immortality opposed to the laws which axe inscribed in our body and our soul? Is it an encouragement or an obstacle to the preservation of life, to its propagation and the advance of spirit? Obviously, faith in the survival of the personality can only incite us to develop our consciousness in the course of our lifetime. It definitely favors spiritual advance. A very high degree of spirituality is frequently observable in those who devote their lives simultaneously to the service of others and to that of God. It is also true that, all too often, a misunderstood asceticism separates the progress of the spirit from that of the body. Consciousness cannot, in fact, attain its finest development without a corresponding organic development. To prepare the spirit for its meeting with God, the body is indispensable. Furthermore, obedience to the laws of life becomes a sacred duty. For the mystic, the laws of life are the very expression of the will of God.
Although reason considers the total dissolution of our being at the moment of death as more likely than the survival of the spirit, it cannot accept the hypothesis of immortality otherwise than favorably. The annihilation of consciousness would be just as inexplicable as its persistence. If our personality is to disappear at the same time as the body, what is the use of this spiritual development which nature seems to assign as one of the objects of individual existence? Individual existence is not directed only by the propagation of the species. For the spiritual personality continues to develop long after the time when man, and particularly woman, have lost their powers of reproduction. The evolution of the individual, like that of the race, would be a mere jest on the part of nature. The huge effort of spiritualization which living matter has accomplished over untold ages would have no sense if man's soul is destroyed at the same time as his body.
All the same, we are still no nearer to understanding how the spirit which is inseparable from the body can exist without it. Perhaps thousands of years will go by before the secret of this riddle is revealed to us. Meanwhile we may be allowed, perhaps, to consider spirit as an emanation of the brain analogous to the light produced by the tungsten filament in an electric bulb. The light is born in the filament as though in the brain but the photons of which it is composed escape from the lamp and set off on an unending journey through space. When the lamp is extinguished, the photons it has emitted do not perish. Astronomers in Galifornia register photographically the arrival of photons emitted by stars which have been dead for perhaps four hundred million light years. It is not absurd to believe that the spiritual energy radiated by the brain into regions situated beyond time and space continue its existence in this unknown world after our death.
Death has a different significance for every human being for death depends on life and the meaning of life varies according to individuals. Nearly always, death is like the end of a sad monotonous rainy day. Sometimes it has the beauty of twilight in the mountains or it resembles the sleep of a hero after the fight But it can be, if we so desire, the immersion of the soul in the splendor of God.