Dispatches From the Physicalist Frontier, Part 2

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Note: Today, Part 2 of an essay from Calvin College philosopher Kevin Corcoran continues our foray into contemporary Christian thinking on the materiality and/or immateriality of the human person in light of recent scientific study of the body and brain. Leaving the specific claims of neurobiology and physiology aside for now, our focus remains on finding philosophical frameworks that help us put such claims in a biblical context as well as a scientific one; Corcoran’s proposal is to re-think the problem of human persons from aphysicalist perspective that has no need of a non-physical soul. Yesterday, in Part 1, Corcoran laid out the basic premise of physicalism and addressed two common Christian objections to it concerning the incarnation and the imago Dei. Here he takes up a third objection–the question of life after death–and expands on his sense of how human persons exist in relation to our physical bodies, what he calls the Constitution View.

Dispatches From the Physicalist Frontier, Part 2


Life After Death

In the first part of this essay I argued that neither the doctrine of the incarnation nor that of the imago Dei presented an insurmountable theological challenge to being a Christian physicalist—that is, to believing that human persons are wholly physical objects. In today’s post I will say a little more about the content of my own physicalist conception of human persons (the Constitution View), but not before considering—if all too briefly—a third objection often raised against physicalism: the Christian doctrine of life after death.

Since it seems that bodies peter out and eventually cease to exist, and that on any plausible physicalist account of human persons one’s body is necessary for one’s own existence, how is it that a body that peters out and ceases to exist can somehow turn up in the hereafter? Or if the physicalist happens to believe in either an immediate survival or an intermediate state between death and a resurrection, then how exactly can a body that has apparently died nevertheless continue to live? After death, a corpse is often right before our eyes. How then can that dead body be enjoying any kind of meaningful afterlife? Doesn’t the doctrine of an afterlife require a non-physical soul that survives death?

Let’s make things really difficult. Suppose you believe that a single thing cannot have twobeginnings; that a thing cannot begin to exist, cease to exist, and then begin again to exist. I don’t myself believe this, but let’s suppose it’s true nonetheless. Is it possible for there to be a body in heaven numerically the same as a body I watch die if there’s no such thing asgappy existence?

As used here, simples is a term used to refer to whatever turns out to be the fundamental physical constituents of material objects, though in philosophy, it may also more broadly refer to things which have no proper parts.

In different places, Dean Zimmerman and I have argued that one answer to this question lies in the fissioning of causal paths. It seems possible that the causal paths traced by the simples caught up in the life of my body just before death can be made by God to fission such that the simples composing my body then are causally related to two different, spatially segregated sets of simples.1 One of the two sets of simples would immediately cease to constitute a life and come instead to compose a corpse, while the other would continue to constitute a body in heaven or wherever an intermediate state of existence is enjoyed.2 In other words, at the instant after fission, the set of simples along one of the branching paths fails to perpetuate a life, while the other set of simples along the other branch does continue to perpetuate a life. If this is at least possible, as it seems that it is, then we have a view of survival compatible with the claim that human bodies cannot enjoy gappy existence.

Note that this view just needs to be possibly true in order to show that belief in an afterlife does not require the existence of a non-physical soul. And let me also point out that if you are a dualist and a Christian theist, you believe in the resurrection of the body yourself and not just the survival of a non-physical soul into an afterlife. So making sense of the resurrection of the body is an “equal opportunity employer”: the dualist, no less than the physicalist, has to make sense of it.

Resurrection. Incarnation. Imago Dei. None requires for its explanation a non-physical soul. All can be understood within a physicalist conception of human persons.

The Constitution View

As I’ve said already, I believe that I am a wholly physical object. I don’t believe that there are non-physical souls in the natural world, so I can’t be one of those. I must, therefore, believe that I am the physical object that is my body, right? Wrong. I don’t believe that I am identical with my body. But wait! How can that be? If I’m a wholly physical object, then what physical object might I be if not the physical object that is my body? Well, I believe that I am the physical object that is me, of course; and I don’t believe that I am identical with anything other than me—including, for instance, the physical object that is my body. Let me explain.

I believe that I am constituted by my body without being identical with my body. I stand in the same relation to my body as a statue stands in to the piece of bronze (say) of which it is composed. It is plausible to believe that a statue is constituted by the piece of bronze but not identical with it. The piece of bronze, we can imagine, might exist before the statue exists. It might also exist after the statue ceases to exist. Imagine the sculptor is unhappy with the statue and smashes it flat, leaving only the original piece of bronze. Similarly, I believe my body came into existence before I did and if things should go badly for me, I believe my body may outlast me. I can’t have come into existence before I did, nor can I outlast myself. My body and myself, therefore, must be numerically distinct.

Am I saying that I am one physical object and my body is another, numerically distinct physical object? Yes. And no. It’s like the U2 song “One.” You know, “we’re one, but we’re not the same . . . ” My body and I are one in the sense that we’re made out of exactly the same stuff; every part of my body is a part of me. That’s why when I stand on the scale it registers 150 pounds and not 300 pounds even though I am one physical thing and my body is another. We share exactly the same matter. We’re not the same in the sense that I am a person and my body is not. My body can exist and fail to constitute a person. I cannot exist and fail to be a person. A tragic accident could destroy me, end my existence, without destroying my body or ending its existence. Imagine the accident destroyed my cerebral cortex but left my brain stem functionally intact. My body would continue to exist. It would respirate, circulate blood, metabolize, excrete, etc. But lacking a functionally intact cerebral cortex there would be no consciousness and, therefore, no person. So, as I say, I believe that I am constituted by my body without being identical with it.

Now, could I be wrong about all this and it turn out that the dualist was right all along? Absolutely! I’m just presenting how things seem to me and giving some reasons for believing that things are in fact the way they seem. But when it comes to human persons, incarnations, resurrections and the like, well, I simply must confess that I am walking in the neighborhood of mystery. And when in that neighborhood one simply must humble oneself. I could very well be wrong in my views. But, they’re the best I can come up with given everything I know of nature and myself.


1. Dean Zimmerman was the first to suggest this view in a paper presented at the Pacific Division APA meeting in 1994. I take up the view in my “Persons and Bodies” 15 (1998) 324-340 and Zimmerman develops it further in his “The Compatibility of Materialism and Survival: The ‘Falling Elevator’ Model,” Faith and Philosophy 16 (1999) 194 - 212.
2. We will assume not only that persons are essentially persons, but that being alive or conscious is a necessary condition for human personhood. Therefore, there is after the fissioning only one possible candidate for a person-constituting object since the surviving corpse is not a living organism and so not capable of subserving consciousness.


About the Author

Kevin J. Corcoran

Kevin J. Corcoran is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. His research interests include metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and the emerging Church. Corcoran received his doctorate of philosophy from Purdue University, a master’s degree with honors from Yale University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of several books including Church in the Present Tense; Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons; Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Souland the upcoming Incurably Human.

More posts by Kevin J. Corcoran