What do Schopenhauer, Mark Twain, and Richard Dawkins have in common? They all thought that it made perfectly good sense to refer to an individual prior to birth.
Consider, first a selection for Schopenhauer’s essay “The emptiness of existence”
“A man to his astonishment all at once becomes conscious of existing after having been in a state of non-existence for many thousands of years, when, presently again, he returns to a state of non-existence for an equally long time.”
What he writes is that people have been in a “state of non-existence” for thousands of years prior to having been born. Does this imply that each individual did not exist prior to birth? Then his claim is merely that at certain periods we have not existed and at other periods we have existed. This is a harmless statement. But confusion sets in if we think that if an individual is in a particular state, the implication is that the individual should be identifiable as “an individual in that state.”
A similar idea is contained in a quote attributed to Mark Twain in a recent book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Dawkins quotes Twain has saying that he
“does not fear death since he was dead for millions of years prior to being born and did not suffer any from it.” (See page 354 of The God Delusion).
Did Mark Twain assume an identity of ‘death’ and ‘nonexistence’? He surely suggests that some entity, namely Mark Twain, could be identified as being dead for millions of years prior to birth.
And finally, Richard Dawkins, evolutionary scientists and critic of religion, makes similar statements in his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow and then repeats much the same in his later book The God Delusion. He refers to the billions of people who were not lucky enough to be born.
He opens the first chapter of Rainbow book with the following observations:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. (p.1, op.cit., Houghton Mifflin Co., N.Y., 1992) [my highlighting]
And in The God Delusion he writes referring to his earlier book:
I tried to convey how lucky we are to be alive, given that the vast majority of people who could potentially be thrown up by the combinatorial lottery of DNA will in fact never be born. For those of us lucky enough to be here, …. (God Delusion, p. 161)
Is Dawkins telling us that there is a vast crowd (trillions) of unborn people (or “ghosts”), who were not lucky enough to get born and who can be insulted by us if we don’t appreciate our good fortune? Yes, this is what he appears to say.
Does it really make sense to refer to individuals who were in some mysterious way somewhere (in a state of nonexistence) prior to birth, as Schopenhauer, Mark Twain, and Richard Dawkins do?
Caveat: The remarks by Schopenhauer, Twain and Dawkins are just ways of getting us into the subject. Did they really believe that disembodied ghosts existed prior to birth or will exist after death? It is doubtful that either Twain or Dawkins actually believed that. However, Schopenhauer, who reportedly had great interest in the Hindu religion-philosophy, likely accepted the idea of reincarnation, hence, likely believed in a prior life. But the important point, for this discussion, is that they assume that reference to such existence is not problematic.
Preliminary sorting out:
Sometimes we opt for wordiness over succinctness and say things like “I am in a state of loneliness” when we could have said simply “I am lonely.” Sometimes it seems more appropriate, as when we say “He is a state of depression” rather than merely “He is depressed.” Although some of this practice may involve more words than necessary, it is correct and unproblematic. “Henry is in state ecstasy” implies that Henry exists and is the appropriate type of entity to be ecstatic.
Someone might qualify Schopenhauer’s statement as simply using more words than needed: that he only meant to say “Before birth I did not exist.” On this reading we don’t see him as making reference to a subject capable of a strange state of non-existence before birth. Schopenhauer merely states that he did not exist for thousands of years prior to being born and will not exist for thousands of years following his death. The problem with this ‘interpretation’ is that, in the same essay, Schopenhauer follows with these remarks:
“Of every event in our life it is only for a moment that we can say that it is; after that we must say for ever that it was. Every evening makes us poorer by a day. It would probably make us angry to see this short space of time slipping away, if we were not secretly conscious in the furthest depths of our being that the spring of eternity belongs to us, and that in it we are always able to have life renewed.”
The mention of an “eternity which belongs to us” and our ability to have “life renewed” suggest that Schopenhauer really meant to refer to a period when he was in a state of non-existence, having some kind of reality. Just as being in state of depression requires a subject who is depressed, so being in a state of nonexistence calls for a ‘subject’ who is real somehow but does not exist.
The remark attributed to Mark Twain also implies a subject’s “presence” in the period prior to birth. ‘Twain’ reportedly said that he was dead for millions of years prior to being born and he did not suffer any from it. Now we have a subject in a state of nonexistence (death?) for millions of years who did not suffer. The remark doesn’t merely state that the man called “Twain” did not exist during that long period; it suggests that ‘Twain’, as an entity of some sort, was ‘there’ and did not suffer. The implication is that an entity (a ghost? spirit?), whose temporal extension exceeds that of the earthly, mortal Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), had a reality of some kind prior to the birth of the earth-bound Mark Twain.
Another point to notice is that both Schopenhauer and “Twain” assume that death and non-existence are equivalent. I was “dead” prior to being born, says ‘Twain’; and someday (at death) I will return to the same state of nonexistence that I knew prior to birth, says Schopenhauer. When applied to an organism (such as a human), “death” implies a preceding period of life. Generally speaking, only an organism that has lived can properly be said to die. I will someday experience death and will no longer exist; but in the 1930s I did not exist at all, but I wasn’t dead.
With the passage by Richard Dawkins, we hear about “unborn trillions” of people who were not lucky enough to get born and who will be insulted if we lucky ones who were born squander the gift of life. Obviously Dawkins was speaking metaphorically, but his metaphor has a point only if we refer to un-born individuals in some state of ‘non-existence.’ Someone might argue that he was merely referring to the fact that at any period after humans evolved many more people could have been born than were actually born. But in this case, Dawkins misleads us by making reference to those unborn “ghosts” who are “unlucky” and insulted by our lack of appreciation for the gift of life.
By analogy, the fact that Bill’s parents chose in 1945 to postpone pregnancy until 1954 (when Bill was born) allows us to say that an offspring “Billy” or “Hillary” potentially could have been born in 1945. But it does not allow us to say that a potential offspring was somehow present in 1945, who might be classified as fortunate or unfortunate, depending on our perspective of things.
On the basis of Dawkins’ own statements, the reader could justifiably conclude that Dawkins — the great evolutionary scientist and skeptic regarding fantasy and the supernatural — believes in the reality of “unborn millions” who reside in some mysterious dimensions. I’m sure that Dawkins would protest.
We see then how our three figures (philosopher, writer, scientist) apparently make reference to individuals (entities?) who existed prior to birth, and by the same pattern of thought, will exist after death of the body.
Elaboration of the skeptical response:
Any skeptic or materialist worth his salt will raise a series of questions regarding the prevalent view that, although we cannot produce proof that this picture of prior existence is factual, it is nonetheless coherent and ‘possible.’
People assume that we can coherently talk about a subject (an “I”) who has continuity beyond (both prior and following) the earthly period between birth and death. But it has not been made clear what this “continuity” consists of. Is it a personal continuity? Spiritual? The mind or consciousness? The eternal soul (of religions)? A psychological continuity: memories, tendencies, tastes and preferences?
Any philosophical examination of the key concepts and terms will result in questions regarding the continuity-unity of the subject; the way in which this subject can be identified as one and the same. In additions, there are questions about how we differentiate between different subjects in this strange, spiritual dimension. Finally there are basic questions about the place or location for these multitudes.
With regard to Schopenhauer’s man, who is purportedly identifiable as a particular being that was in a prior state of non-existence, we can ask: Was he really aware of “having been in a state of prior non-existence”? How could he identify this continuous being, who was aware of having been in a prior state? In other words, how would he show identity, continuity and unity? (“I am the same guy who was back then…”)
With regard to the “Twain” character, we have someone who allegedly ‘remembers’ a prior period of non- existence and ‘remembers’ not having suffered any from it. The skeptic could ask: How can he know he did not suffer? By having no memory of it; presumably: he does not remember having suffered. How could we verify accuracy of his memory? Why does he assimilate ‘death’ and ‘non-existence’? This seems to be a conceptual error.
Thirdly, we have the passages by Richard Dawkins in which he refers to many potential people (“ghosts”) who were never born, who were not fortunate enough to be born, and who vastly outnumber those who were born and enjoy earthly life.
By implication, we have a large set of multiple, potential people waiting somewhere (in some place) for the possibility of being born. They are such that can be differentiated from each other and counted. The easiest way of conceiving this is to think of them as quasi-spatial-physical entities located in some quasi-spatial world (place).
Questions: If there is a place where these “unborn souls” await, where is this place? How do we know about this place? If there is no such quasi-spatial place, then the realm where the souls await is purely spiritual. If purely spiritual, then how would they be differentiated as comprising multitudes? How can they be differentiated and counted?
Does Dawkins merely commit the error of moving uncritically from the premise that ‘there might have been many persons’ (potentially millions more births could have occurred)”
to asserting that “there was a vast number of potential persons” (millions of potential ‘people’)?
In other words, does he move from “possibly X could be here”
to “a possible ‘X’ is here”? If so, this is conceptual muddle. For example, while it is true that in 1960 I could have remained in Colorado instead of moving to California (which in fact happened), it is conceptually misleading and confused to say that after 1960 a potential ‘Juan’ (a “ghost”) remained in Colorado.
Because of such questions and doubts, the skeptic has reason for thinking that talk of ‘disembodied’ existence, while widespread and ‘natural’ to the most people, may not even be conceptually coherent. Hence, such existence may not point to a real possibility after all.
Concerning all this talk of disembodied existence, states of nonexistence, states of being prior to birth and after death, I prefer the attitude of Epicurus who is quoted as saying:
“Where death is, I am not. Where I am, death is not.”