Friday, March 18, 2016

Death, materialism and resurrection

Consider two Christian materialist theories about how life after death works:

  1. Snatching: At the last moment of life, God snatches a central part of the person (say, the cerebrum), transports it away to heaven, purgatory or hell, keeps it alive there, and replaces it in the corpse with a replica.
  2. Fission: At the last moment of life, the cells in the body or a central part of it get the power to split into two cells. One of these cells is a dead cell found in the corpse and the other is in heaven, purgatory or hell.

Here's problem both Snatching and Fission face: there is no death on these stories, since death requires the cessation of biological life. But on both, biological life is continuously maintained. These are stories about life after teleportation rather than about life after death. But we do in fact die: Scripture is completely clear on this.

Maybe one could modify my formulations of Snatching or Fission to solve this problem. Rather than the snatching or fission happening at the last moment of life, it happens at the first moment of death. Thus, God snatches or fissions a central part of the person after the person is already dead, and then resuscitates the part in heaven, purgatory or hell. The problem with this is that Snatching and Fission are meant to preserve biological continuity. But while typically after death cells remain with some semblance of biological life, this need not always happen. Suppose that someone dies by having a laser blast their brain. That person dies precisely when those cells central to biological life have been destroyed. But it is precisely those cells that would need to be snatched or fissioned after death.

(I used to think, by the way, that the interim state--the state between death and the resurrection of the body--was also an objection to Snatching and Fission. But it's not. For the materialist can say that after Snatching or Fusion, the person exists as a mere brain in a vat in heaven, purgatory or hell. And then only at the second coming does that brain regain the rest of the body. The materialist can even say that the brain plays the functional role of the soul here.)


Michael Gonzalez said...

How do you feel about the prospects of an actually cessationist view (no biological continuity)? Do you think that such a view could, even in principle, still permit the resurrection of the very same person?

Thom Atkinson said...

Maybe God suspends your biological life processes (and since your biological life has ceased, in this case, you're 'dead' but your life processes can start again since you life has not been disrupted). In the laser beam case, though, he'd have to do this moments before you get hit by the laser beam.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Thom, does suspension of life count as "dying"? What about the science fiction concept of "suspended animation"?

Edward T. Babinski said...

Isn't life after teleportation something discontinuous with living cellular life since the cells have to be broken down into information that is teleported and reconstructed elsewhere?

How exactly do you move living cells into other dimensions without first breaking down what existed in this dimension?

Of course some presuppose that an aetherial body arises and emerges as this physical body develops on earth. And the aetherial body can pass over to another dimension and become re-embodied later.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't know. If we take a watch down to gears and wheels and put it back together, we have the same watch. But what if we grind it to dust and then reassemble?

Mr Babinsky:

I am not sure this is the right way to understand teleportation, but in any case it doesn't seem right to think of teleportation as death.

Richard Davis said...

Dr. Pruss, about "If we take a watch down to gears and wheels and put it back together, we have the same watch. But what if we grind it to dust and then reassemble?" Would the affirmative answer be more plausible in the case of a unique painting rather than a watch? I also wonder if God's intent to be restoring the very same watch (painting, or person) might make the difference here.

Still, boo to cesssationism.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: Peter van Inwagen talks about "snatching" theories sometimes, and he seems to think that all that is needed is a "bare kernel" which is material and identity preserving. What if we have some physical part which is nevertheless non-biological, so that our biological life could cease, and all those parts could be vaporized and scattered to the four winds, and yet the continued existence of that extra piece (whatever it is) is sufficient so that, when a new body is constructed and hooked up to that piece, then we are the same person by causal continuity? The issue is causal continuity. I am the same being as the one in these photographs of a toddler, not because I share many personality traits or memories or anything like that, but because his life led to mine in an unbroken, causally continuous way. If we have a "bare kernel" that continues to exist long after we biologically and consciously cease, then could it not still be the case that there is causal continuity and so we are the same person when re-created and hooked up to that kernel?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Gonzalez:

That's an interesting suggestion: a kernel that is sufficient to preserve identity but not sufficient for your existence. Some people read Aquinas as doing this, except that the kernel is the soul on Aquinas's view.

Mr Davis:

I don't know.

Thom Atkinson said...

I don't think so. But if PvI holds a death = cessation of live view then he can hold that suspension = death. It's one of the responses I'm considering for my PhD on the topic. Most don't think suspension = death, however. Cody Gilmore has a good paper on the topic in The Oxford handbook for the philosophy of death.

Thom Atkinson said...

for this idea to work it would have to be the case that human persons were not human animals essentially. Now animalists could hold this view but many would not be happy with it. I think PvI may be one of them. Moreover, if the kernel continues life processes (which it must for causal continuity) then PvI faces the original problem, no?

Thom Atkinson said...

Also sorry for hijacking the post, but I have a paper on the topic of the "bare kernel" incase anyone's interested

Michael Gonzalez said...


Does the large number of Bible passages which compare death to sleep contribute anything to this discussion? I mean, here is just a sample of the many places where the Bible just says "sleep" and clearly (contextually) means "death" (Ps 13:3; Joh 11:11-14; Ac 7:60; 1Co 7:39; 15:51; 1Th 4:13). Could a "snatching" or "fissioning" view make more sense in light of the fact that the being is now (in some sense) "asleep"? He would still satisfy the condition of being unconscious (Ecc. 9:5, 10; Psalm 146:4; etc). And he would satisfy (at least in some sense) the requirement of "returning to the dust" (Genesis 3:19; Psalm 104:29; Ecc. 3:20; 12:7).


I may check out that paper when I get a moment. Let me ask you a couple of questions in the meantime, please:

1) Why would humans have to not be animals essentially? It may just be a feature of animals that some special piece of them can be preserved, and then a body rebuilt around it, such that we consider that animal as having persisted in existence. As it is, I think that most of us would consider that as having been accomplished of the brain were perfectly preserved, then a body reconstructed around it, and the brain re-started.

2) Why does the kernel have to "continue life processes" in order for their to be causal continuity? What about suspended animation of a sort? When van Inwagen talks about the bare kernel, he doesn't seem to think of it as continuing to do any of the things we associate with living. It is more of a placeholder, no?

Thom Atkinson said...

Thanks Michael,

(1) You're right, there is that alternative. I meant if one doesn't want to say that the part of the animal is now the animal. A plausible position to hold for a variety of reasons (see, for example *the role of the brainstem in personal idenity* by Eric Olson). PvI does this with brains, and gives us an explanation of how it's supposed to work with brains, but for anything other than brains this is going to require some further explanation. This leads us back to the original problem. If it's a brain the simples of which are caught up in a life then we face the no death problem. If it's a brain the simples of which are caught up in a suspended life (and we allow for suspension = death) then he faces the problem I put forward in the aforementioned paper. An animal that has had its life suspended is disposed to have its life begin again on the supply of a certain amount of energy (like a frozen cat). But this isn't true of frozen brains.

(2) It would have to continue life processes because that is the kind of causal continuity that PvI requires (see *Material Beings* p145). Otherwise, God would be providing a mere collection of simples with a new life. What's important is that it's the same life processes. Now admitedly those life processes may be 'squeezed' (Material Beings 147) (as in the case of suspension and van Inwagen claims that the life is still *there*), I'll give PvI that, but there's reason to be sceptical that this is sufficient for causal continuity. After all, PvI doesn't tell us what the relations are that persist between the simples that constitute a life that has been suspended. What's the relevant difference between the simples that compose a corpse that's had it's life suspended and the simples that virtually compose a corpse that's had its life recently distrupted?

Yes, I think it's a kind of placeholder. That's what I argue at the end of the aformentioned paper and this is what I think gets PvI out of trouble.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It does seem unlikely that suspension is death. It seems morally unproblematic to subject someone to a temporary suspension as a necessary part of a healing medical procedure--it could be a superior form of anaesthesia. But it is problematic to kill someone as part of a medical procedure, even if the person is going to be resurrected soon. (Suppose one saw the signs of the Second Coming and came to the conclusion that the resurrection of the dead would be in five minutes. Murder would still be murder.)

A dualist can give a good account of how death is death and yet like sleep. In sleep, we exist, but have little use of our senses, no bodily control, and our mental functioning is significantly impaired. The dualist can say that death (a) robs us of the senses, (b) takes away the body and hence control thereof, and (c) destroys the brain, which impairs our mental functioning to the extent that this functioning depended on the brain.

I don't know if the biblical comparisons with sleep should be taken as any evidence for unconsciousness after death. Sleep includes both conscious and unconscious periods. I don't know which would have been paradigmatic of sleep for the biblical authors.

Michael Gonzalez said...


I think what's wrong with suspending via killing is that you do not have the ability to un-suspend, and in the absence of supernatural help, the being will indeed cease to exist. You are taking their existence into your hands, as opposed to intentionally suspending them for the sake of un-suspending.

The comparisons to sleep could indeed be a bit ambiguous if there weren't specific passages that explicitly say we have no consciousness. Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 would be one example, as would Psalm 146:4. Taken cumulatively, the Biblical teaching overall about death seems to be that one enters a state of deep-sleep-without-dreams and returns to the dust. But, of course, I'm sure there is much room for theological dispute on the matter.

One thing I've always been curious about is where anyone gets inherent immortality of souls (even if we have souls) from the Bible...?? It's already problematic to get an immaterial part of the human person from any direct Bible statements; but to go on and say that thing is inherently immortal just seems extremely gratuitous and unfounded. Indeed, everlasting life is spoken of as a gift that God bestows on the righteous by means of Jesus Christ; it is not something we just have inherently (see Romans 6:23, and notice that it is contrasted with the natural wages for our sins: death).

Anyway, interesting stuff. I find myself inclined toward something like a van-Inwagen approach, but I am far from having worked out all the kinks....

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the literary form of Ecclesiastes sometimes makes it a description of appearances rather than reality. Psalm 146:4 is often translated as saying that plans come to nothing.

I know of no indication in Scripture that the state of people in sheol was a special gift from God. Whether the people in sheol were conscious or not, they were *existent*. And that suggests that there is some sort of shadowy existence after death apart from special divine gifts. That's exactly the kind of existence we would expect one to have if the soul is immortal. Absent special divine gifts, we would expect the soul to have at best a shadowy mental life apart from the brain.

Of course, the very early Christian tradition of the descensus ad inferos holds that the status of at least the righteous in sheol changed radically with Jesus descending into sheol and pulling many to heaven.