The following is excerpted from a letter from an uncommonly astute correspondent, Brodie Bortignon:
. . . some time ago I read a series of your posts on immortality. You covered what are the orthodox views on immortality, including the various materialist denials. What you didn't address was one of the views of some process theologians, one that has a claim to being the 'orthodox' process view. Immortality, for them, is the eternal, unblemished remembrance of the individual in the divine mind: 'objective immortality'. This, they say, is all the immortality worth wanting. In the words of Hartshorne, to desire 'a career after death' is, in a sense, blasphemous: it is the vaunted wish to attain the everlasting existence distinctive of God, and only God. In Dombrowski's words, 'To think that we should live forever in subjective immortality is hubris. What makes God distinctive is necessary existence and other perfections' (Rethinking the Ontological Argument, p.134).
For my own part, this is deeply inadequate. Take the example of a child who was born into an abusive family; she was beaten, sexually assaulted, emotionally abused. She finally dies from neglect. That God will eternally remember her abuse, or that he will somehow 'redeem the memories' he has of her life, seems wholly inadequate--perhaps not to God, but certainly to the girl. Such a view of immortality would then, to my mind, reflect negatively on the love and justice of God, which process theologians of this stripe do not wish to deny. 'God will remember your horrible life' is hardly recompense for that horrible life; there is no redemption there, or justice.
What is supposed to be the philosophical basis for this 'divine memory' view of immortality seems to me obviously unsound. It is based, I think, on a false equivocation between everlastingness and immortality. When people, such as you, speak of personal immortality, they are not speaking of everlastingness in the sense of being wholly uncreated, that is, of having existed at all times necessarily (I assume most people don't believe in the pre-existence of individual souls). There was a time when I came into existence; if human immortality is true, there will never be a time when I go out of existence. But this sort of immortality isn't the same as divine everlastingness. To put it differently, all everlasting persons are immortal, but not all immortal persons are everlasting. This conflation of two clearly distinct types of immortality--created and uncreated--renders the charge of 'hubris' against believers in an unending afterlife philosophically unjustified. Or so it seems to me.
There is one more objection leveled against the believer in subjective immortality by the orthodox process theologian: the claim that such a belief leads to an immoral and socially dangerous renunciation of material existence. But this objection is not unique to process theology, so I won't go into it. Needless to say I don't find it very convincing.
Do you have any opinion on the 'objective immortality' view of process theology?
If I understand it, then, the 'orthodox process view' of Charles Hartshorne and some of his students is that (i) we are objectively immortal in that our lives, in every last detail, continue to exist as objects of divine memory, and that (ii) subjective immortality -- immortality as a continuing subject of experience -- is neither available to us in the nature of things nor worth wanting. My reaction to this is that it is a rather sorry substitute for the Genuine Article.
1. Whether or not God exists, what was always will be as it was: nothing that happens in the present or will happen in the future can alter what happened in the past or how it happened. And so one can conceive of a form of objective immortality even more attenuated than Hartshorne's. Suppose the past is completely determinate but that there is no being such as God who remembers the whole of it in every detail infallibly. Still, the events of a person's life cannot be expunged or altered by the passage of time. Kant no longer exists, but it will always be true that he was born in 1724, published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, suffered Kopfschmerzen on such and such dates, died in 1804, and so on for all the details of his life including those that no one remembers. So there is a sense in which Kant and indeed everything that once existed is immortal. But just as I wouldn't call this immortality in any serious sense of the term, I wouldn't call being an object of divine recall immortality either.
What's it to me if an omniscient being recalls every last detail of my life? I am not a collection of third-person facts but an irreducibly subjective diachronic and synchronic unity of experiences. If that unity becomes a dis-unity, then I am 'toast' whether or not an omniscient being recalls the details of my life.
2. If Hartshorne is right, then absolutely everything that once existed is objectively immortal. But then objective immortality has so little to do with what we normally mean by 'immortality' that talk of objective immortality is tantamount to a changing of the subject. When we normally speak of immortality we presuppose that only some beings are capable of it.
3. In #1 I spoke of third-person facts. But there are certain pesky first-person facts that may pose a problem for Hartshorne's view. Consider the fact that I am BV. 'I am BV' obviously says more than 'BV is BV' and cannot be reduced to the latter. ' BV is not BV' is a formal-logical contradiction. 'I am not BV' is not. The thought that I might not have been BV is eminently thinkable and noncontradictory, whether or not it targets a real possibility. Now it seems that not even God could have epistemic access to an indexical fact such as the fact that I am BV. How could God know such a fact? Even if he knows every third-person fact about BV, and remembers every such fact about me after I have died, it would seem that the fact that I am BV is beyond his ken. If this is right, then we have an additional reason for thinking that objective immortality is not the genuine article. It is not the genine article because it does not penetrate to what most intimately makes me me.
4. Bortignon makes good points about justice and redemption. The countless millions who have suffered injustice in this life have no hope of redemption in a future life if Hartshorne is right. Think of the victims of Vlad the Impaler, etc. etc. Without subjective immortality the problem of evil that theists face becomes much more difficult to solve.
5. Bortignon is right to point out that to be everlasting is not the same as to be immortal. The everlasting is that which exists at every time. But immortality, as when we speak of the immortality of the soul, is consistent with the soul's having a beginning in time, and so not existing at every time. It is also worth pointing out that to be everlasting is not the same as to be eternal. The everlasting is in time but exists at every time. The eternal is not in time (whatever exactly that means). One should also not confuse a necessary being with an everlasting being. An everlasting being exists at every time, whereas a necessary being exists is every possible world, and at every time in every world in which there is time. Necessity is a modal notion; everlastingness a temporal notion. A being that exists at every time could nonetheless be contingent (existent in some but not all possible worlds). This is why 'It always existed' would be a very bad answer to the question 'Why does the universe exist?'
As Bortignon suggests, God is immortal and uncreated, while souls are immortal but created. "This conflation of two clearly distinct types of immortality--created and uncreated--renders the charge of 'hubris' against believers in an unending afterlife philosophically unjustified." I think Bortignon is right about this. There is nothing hubristic about desiring immortality. One is not thereby desiring an uncreated existence, let alone a necessary existence. One does not desire to slough off one's creaturely status or one's modal status as a contingent being; one desires that one's selfhood continue beyond the death of the body.
It is also a mistake to think that the desire for immortality (as understood by sophisticated Christians such as A. E. Taylor) is a desire for a mere continuance of one's petty self for selfish purposes. The desire is as much a desire for transformation (moral and intellectual and spiritual improvement) as for continuance. One does not desire it in order to play some heavenly form of golf, but to share in the divine life. Nor is the main rational motive for believing in immortality the desire to escape death as utter annihilation, but the desire for justice, redemption, and meaning.