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Antony Flew Survival

Could We Survive Our Own Deaths? (1998)

Antony Flew


Part I: The Great Obstacle

(a) Could we survive our own individual deaths? Surely it is obvious that we do not, that we could not? For is anyone prepared to contest the truth of the major premise in that most famous of all exemplary syllogisms: ‘All men are mortal’; ‘Socrates is a man’; and, therefore, ‘Socrates is mortal’? Again, after some disaster when the ‘Dead’ and the ‘Survivors’ have both been listed, what logical space is left for a third category, ‘Both’?

Nevertheless, in defiance of these apparent factual and logical impossibilities, most of us are probably at first inclined to agree with Butler–one of the two greatest philosophical talents to have graced the episcopal benches of the Church of England. In his Dissertation of Personal Identity Butler wrote: “Whether we are to live in a future state, as it is the most important question which can possibly be asked, so it is the most intelligible one which can be expressed in language.”

Surely Butler was right? Suppose we read, for instance, The Koran. Can we not all understand perfectly well the gloating descriptions of the tortures which Allah is threatening to inflict on unbelievers and–for men only–the exciting promises of sexual ecstasies to be provided by compliant black-eyed houris? Of course we can. And since the future life in which these tortures are to be suffered or these ecstasies are to be enjoyed is supposed to be going to last forever, then dearly the question of whether or not we shall have it (and, if so, the consequent problem of ensuring that we shall pass it agreeably) is of quite overwhelming importance. For what are three-score years and ten compared with all eternity?

But surely, urges the sceptic, something crucial is being overlooked? For this future life is supposed to continue even after physical dissolution; even after the slow corruption in the grave or the swift consumption in the crematorium. Of course we can understand the Myth of Er in Book X of Plato’s Republic or the Nordic stories of Valhalla. But to expect that after my death and dissolution such things might happen to me is to overlook that I shall not then exist. To expect such things, through overlooking this, is surely like accepting a fairy tale as history, through ignoring the prefatory rubric: ‘Once upon a time, in world that never was . . .’?

(b) The previous subsection got us to the heart of the matter, by establishing two fundamentals. One of these is that the essence of any doctrine of personal survival (or personal immortality) must be that it should assert that we ourselves shall in some fashion do things and suffer things after our own deaths (forever).

The second fundamental which the four paragraphs of subsection (a) force us to face is this. Any doctrine of personal survival or personal immortality has got to find some way around or over an enormous initial obstacle. In the ordinary, everyday understandings of the words involved, to say that someone survived death is to contradict yourself: while to assert that we all of us live forever is to assert a manifest falsehood, the flat contrary of a universally known universal truth, namely, the truth that ‘All men are mortal.’

Part II: A Possible Route round that Obstacle?

In the fullest but much too long version of the present paper I distinguish three sorts of ways in which we might attempt to circumvent or to overcome this formidable barrier: the Platonic-Cartesian Way; the Reconstitutionist Way; and the Way of the Astral Body. But here and now I have to confine myself to the Platonic-Cartesian Way. This is certainly the most familiar. It consists in two assumptions. The first is that what is ordinarily thought of as a person is in fact composed of two utterly disparate elements: the one, the body, earthy, corporeal and perishable; the other, the soul, incorporeal, invisible, intangible, and perhaps imperishable. The second and equally essential assumption is that the second of these elements is the real person, the agent, the rational being, the me or the you.

Traditionally, these assumptions have been taken absolutely for granted; and, in discussions of survival and immortality, they still are. They are rarely even stated and distinguished. Still more rarely do we find anyone attempting justification.

(a) Whether or not these two assumptions which together define the Platonic-Cartesian Way can in the end be justified, it most certainly will not do, notwithstanding that this is what usually is done, to take them as from the beginning given; as if they either required no proof or had been proved already. The truth is that it is very far from obvious that disembodied personal survival is conceivable; that is, that it makes sense to talk of persons as being immaterial, incorporeal souls. For in their ordinary everyday understanding person words — the personal pronouns, personal names, words for persons playing particular roles (words such as ‘spokesperson,’ ‘official,’ ‘President,’ ‘pilot,’ etc.), and so on — all such words are employed to name or otherwise to refer to members of a very special class of creatures of flesh and blood.

In this ordinary, everyday understanding — what other do we have? — incorporeal persons are no more a sort of persons than are imaginary, fictitious, or otherwise non-existent persons. ‘Incorporeal’ is here like those others, an alienans adjective. To put the point less technically but more harshly, to assert, in that ordinary everyday understanding, that somebody survived death but disembodied is to contradict yourself.

(b) This absurdity is very rarely recognized and admitted as such. Even Richard Swinburne, whose theological trilogy constitutes the most formidable of all contemporary philosophical defenses of theism, is sometimes inclined to take these two Platonic-Cartesian assumptions as given. Thus the second sentence of The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977) reads: “By a ‘God’ he [the theist] understands something like a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) . . .” Later we are told that “Human persons have bodies: he [God] does not” (p.51). Again, in the course of a discussion of ‘What it is for a body to be mine’ Swinburne, having first listed various peculiarly personal characteristics, tells us that “we learn to apply the term ‘person’ to various individuals around us in virtue of their possession of the characteristics which I have outlined.”

This, surely, is all wrong? If persons really were creatures possessing bodies, rather than — as in fact we are — creatures which just essentially are members of one special sort of creatures of flesh and blood, then it would make sense to speak of a whole body amputation. Who is it, too, who is presupposed to be able sensibly to ask which of various bodies, is his, or hers? How is such a puzzled person to be identified, or to self-identify, save by reference to the living organism which he or she actually is?

As for Swinburne’s suggestion that we could, and even do, learn to apply the word ‘person’ to “various individuals around us” by first learning how to pick out certain peculiarly personal characteristics and then identifying persons as creatures of the kind which possess these characteristics; this constitutes a perfect paradigm of the literally preposterous. For the manifest truth is that our only experience of any peculiarly personal characteristics is, and indeed has to be, of these as characteristics peculiar to that particular kind of creatures which we have first learnt to identify as mature and normal human beings. The identification of such peculiarly personal characteristics therefore is and must be posterior rather than prior to the identification of members of the particular kind of creatures to which alone these characteristics can be and are attributed.

Swinburne thought to deflect the ferocity of such critical onslaughts by making the emollient point that no one has any business to argue, just because all the so-and-sos with which they happen themselves to have been acquainted were such-and-such, that therefore such-and-suchness must be an essential characteristic of anything which is to be properly rated a so-and-so (p.54). This is, of course, correct. Certainly it would be preposterous, and worse, to argue that because all the human beings with whom you had so far become acquainted had had black skins; therefore anyone with any other skin pigmentation must be disqualified as a human being.

Incorporeality, however, is a very different kettle of fish; or, more like, no kettle and no fish. For to characterize something as incorporeal is to make an assertion which is at one and the same time both extremely comprehensive and wholly negative. Those proposing to do this surely owe it both to themselves and to others- not only to indicate what positive characteristics might significantly be attributed to their putative incorporeal entities but also to specify how such entities could, if only in principle, be identified and reidentified.

It is not exclusively, or even primarily, a question of what predicates these putative spiritual subjects might take. It is of how they themselves might be identified in the first place, and thereafter, through an effluxion of time, reidentified as numerically the same.

(c) The main reason why the need to attempt answers to these questions is so rarely recognized must be, surely, the easy and widespread assumption that common knowledge of the untechnical vernacular equips us with a concept of incorporeal persons; and hence that what ought to be meant by talk of the identity of such entities is already determined. It is this assumption which supports and is in turn supported by those reckless claims to be able to image (to form a private mental image of) personal survival in a disembodied state. The assumption itself is sustained by the familiarity both of talk about minds or souls and of talk about survival or immortality. Since both sorts of talk are without doubt intelligible, does it not follow that we do have concepts of soul and of mind, as well as of disembodied personal existence? No; or, rather, yes and no.

Just because we can indeed understand hopes or fears of survival or immortality it does not follow that we can conceive, much less image, existence as persons, but disembodied. No one has ever emphasized and commended incorporeality more strongly than Plato. Yet when, in the Myth of Er in Book X of The Republic, Plato labors to describe the future life awaiting his supposedly disembodied souls, everything which even that master craftsman of the pen has to say about them presupposes that they will still be just such creatures of flesh and blood as we are now and he was then.

On the other hand, the familiarity and intelligibility of talk about minds and about souls does entitle us to infer that we possess both a concept of mind and a concept of soul. But these particular semantic possessions are precisely not what is needed if doctrines of the survival and perhaps the immortality of souls or of minds are to be viable.

The crux is that, in their everyday understandings, the words ‘minds’ and ‘souls’ are not words for sorts of — in the philosophers’ sense — substances. The nature of this philosophers’ sense is best appreciated by considering passages on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. For to construe the question whether she has a mind of her own, or the assertion that he is mean-souled man, as a question, or assertion, about some putative incorporeal substances is like taking the Red Queen’s dog’s loss of temper as if this was on all fours with his loss of his bone; or like looking for the grin remaining after the Cheshire Cat has vanished.

Certainly the fact that we can say so many sensible and intelligible things about minds or souls does show that we have concepts of minds or souls; just as the facts that we can talk about sensibly about grins and tempers shows that we have concepts both of grins and of tempers. But none of this shows: either that we can talk sensibly of grins and tempers existing separately from the faces of which they are configurations or of the people who sometimes lose them; or that we can talk sensibly about the mind or soul surviving the dissolution of the flesh and blood person whose mind or soul it was.

(d) Earlier I mentioned, and described as reckless, claims that we can not merely conceive but also image — form mental pictures of — disembodied survival. In the twentieth century literature this claim was, I believe, first made in 1937 by Moritiz Schlick, the Chairman of the original Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists:

In fact I can easily imagine, e.g. witnessing the funeral of my own body and continuing to exist without a body, for nothing is easier than to describe a world which differs from our ordinary world only in the complete absence of all data which I would call parts of my own body. We must conclude that immortality, in the sense defined, should … be regarded … as an empirical hypothesis, because it possesses logical verifiability. It could be verified by following the prescription ‘Wait until you die!’

A more puckishly picturesque version was later provided by John Wisdom: “I know indeed what it would be like to witness my own funeral–the men in tall silk hats, the flowers, and the face beneath the glass-topped coffin.”

This is a thesis which was, so far as I know, first challenged by me, in a paper first published in 1956, nineteen years after that of Schlick. In the subsequent forty two years there has, again as far as I know, been no counter-challenge; although my paper has been at least five times reprinted.

My point, which I now repeat, was that Schlick’s thesis can and should be challenged, and the challenge can be pressed home without presuming to draw limits to Wisdom’s no doubt extremely extensive powers of private mental picturing. The crux is that there is a world of difference between: on the one hand, imagining what it would be like to witness my own funeral; and, on the other hand, imagining what it would be like for me to witness my own funeral. What Schlick and Wisdom and everyone else can certainly do is the former. What would be needed to warrant Schlick’s conclusions is the latter. The question at issue is a question about possible pictures and possible captions. Everyone knows what picture fits the first caption. What picture is it which fits, and justifies, the second caption?

If it is really I who witness, then it is not my funeral but only ‘my funeral’ (between disclaiming inverted commas). If it really is my funeral, then I cannot be witness; since I shall be dead and in the coffin. Of course I can imagine (image) what might be described as watching ‘my own funeral’ (between disclaiming inverted commas). I can remember Harry Lime in the film The Third Man watching ‘his own funeral,’ and of course I can imagine being in the same situation as Harry Lime. But it was not really Lime’s funeral. The crucial question remains: ‘Was the flesh and blood creature Flew really there, alive, or only as the corpse in the coffin.’

(e) Recently it has often been suggested that the conclusions drawn by Schlick from an exercise of his imagination might be derived legitimately from the Out of the Body Experiences (OBEs) sometimes reported by patients after recovering from periods of apparently deep unconsciousness.

The only OBE’s of this kind which have any claim to possess a cognitive status higher than that of any other dream are those which apparently contain information not normally available to the patient in question. If and insofar as OBEs of this apparently cognitive kind do actually occur this ought to be taken as evidence for the reality of Extrasensory Perception (ESP) rather than as evidence for the making of explorations by some temporally disembodied soul. For even if sense could be given to this idea postulation of the involvement of such an incorporeal explorer would be grossly uneconomical. For how save by Extrasensory Perception could a disembodied soul acquire information?

Part III. The Problem of Personal Identity

To say that Flew will survive what would ordinarily be accounted Flew’s death is to say that someone or something then living will be the. same person as I am now. So our present problem is, if not the same as, at least inseparably connected with, the philosophical problem of personal identity; the problem, that is to say, of what is meant by the expression ‘same person.’

(a) Swinburne, who recognizes similarly serious and heavy problems about The Coherence of Theism, and who in that book labors long and hard to solve those problems, quickly concludes, about persons, “that the identity of a person over time is something ultimate, not analyzable in terms of bodily continuity or continuity of memory or character” (p. 110). Given this conclusion, Swinburne allows — while still taking it for granted that people are essentially incorporeal — that “We may use bodily continuity to reach conclusions about personal identity” (p. 109).

This will not do. For what we actually use bodily criteria for is to establish bodily continuity. And this is not just a usually reliable criterion for, but a large part if not the whole of what is meant by, personal identity. (It would be, wouldn’t it, if persons just are, as I maintain that we all know that we are, a very special sort of creatures of flesh and blood?) Starting, like so many of the great and the good, from the false assumption that people are, if not essentially incorporeal, at least not essentially corporeal, Swinburne proceeds to address the problem of personal identity; the problem, that is, of what it means to say that this at time two is the same person as that at time one. And, like everyone else who has started with a similar false assumption, Swinburne first tries somehow to give an answer in terms either of true memory, or of honest but possibly mistaken memory claims.

Then, once again like so many others, Swinburne: both overlooks the theoretical possibility and actual frequency of honest yet mistaken claims to be the same person as did this or suffered that; and fails to appreciate the decisive force of Bishop Butler’s refutation of any analysis of ‘being the same person as did that’ in terms of ‘remembering being the same person as did that.’

In consequence, whatever difficulties other people might confront in trying to reidentify some putative person as the same who did that particular deed, or who enjoyed or suffered that particular experience, Swinburne is inclined to assume: first, that there must be a true answer to all possible questions about personal identity; and, second, that the putative person in question must always be in a position to know that true answer–if only he would tell us, and tell us true.

But now, first, if there is or even could be a true answer, then the question to which it is a true answer must already have sense. It must, to particularize, already make sense to speak of a disembodied person, and to go on to wonder whether “the identity of a person over time is [not] something ultimate, not analyzable in terms of bodily continuity or continuity of memory or character.”

Arguing against Penelhum, Swinburne mistakes it that the objection to giving an account of the identity of disembodied persons in terms of memory claims is that such claims could not be checked; which he contends that they could be. But the decisive objection, put first and classically by Bishop Butler, is that true memory presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute, personal identity. (When I truly remember doing that, what I remember is that I am the same person as did it.)

Swinburne’s second mistake here, and again it is an error in which he has a host of companions, is a matter of method. In a word, this seductive and popular mistake consists in the misuse of possible puzzle cases; cases which, if they actually occurred, and were thought likely to recur, would require us to make new decisions as to what in future correct verbal usage is to be. What is wrong is to assume that decisions, even the most rational decisions, about responses to purely hypothetical challenges, and usually challenges which we have no reason or less than no reason to expect to have to face in real life, must throw direct light upon the present meanings of the words concerned.

The truly disturbing conclusion to be derived from a proper employment of puzzle cases is one to which Swinburne seems to have blinded himself. It is that it is possible to conceive, and even to imagine (image), situations giving rise to questions about personal identity to which, in the present meanings of the key terms, there could be no unequivocally true or unequivocally false answer. So not even the person or persons themselves could know that answer. Consider — to reuse the example which I first introduced over forty years ago — consider the questions which would arise if someone was told that she was going to split like an amoeba; and did.

(b) The key to the philosophical problem of personal identity is, as so often, to start right. Against the whole Platonic-Cartesian tradition we have to insist that our paradigm persons are standard specimens of one particular visible, tangible, utterly, familiar kind or species of essentially corporeal creatures. Given this, then it becomes inescapably obvious what is the meaning of the question which the courts of justice want answered when they ask whether the prisoner in the dock is the person who did the deed. It is essentially a question about physical continuity. Had witnesses to the crime pursued the criminal, never letting him out of their observation, would they be able to stand up in court and honestly testify: “That is the man!” Certainly no court is ever likely to have such superlative evidence of guilt. Nevertheless it is the import of this ideal testimony which the prosecution is endeavoring to establish by the deployment of whatever inferior kinds of evidence happen to be available.

Of course the courts expect that the prisoner, like other members of our species, will possess all those peculiarly personal characteristics which Swinburne takes care to pick out. If it so happens that he does not, then the defense will certainly want to argue that he was incapable of forming a mens rea (guilty mind). Again, if there has been some drastic personality change in the defendant since the commission of the crime, similarly wide-awake defense lawyers will want to argue that, in a secondary sense, the defendant is now ‘quite a different person’ from the man who did the deed; and hence should suffer some lesser or no penalty. (This secondary presupposes the primary sense: no one would say that their son was quite a different person since he passed through Marine Corps boot camp if they were not sure that he was, in the primary sense, the same.)

Of course, too, we might someday discover that some other species, perhaps in some other inhabited world, also possessed some or all of our peculiarly personal characteristics. But, before any ‘survival hypothesis’ can get off the ground, proponents have got to explain: both how an incorporeal or spiritual substance could be identified as a bearer of these peculiarly personal characteristics; and how, even if it could be identified in the first place, it could then be reidentified as numerically the same as some former, flesh and blood human being.

Until, and unless it appears that this can be done, I propose to conclude with a one verse Chinese burial song; a song sung, the translator tells us, only at the burial of kings and prices.


How swiftly it dries

The dew on the garlic-leaf

The dew that dries so fast

Tomorrow will fall again.

But he whom we carry to the grave

Will never more return.

“Could We Survive Our Own Deaths?” is copyright © by Antony Flew. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Antony Flew. All rights reserved.

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