Is Seamless Post-Mortem Existence Necessary
P. Eddy Wilson
Imagine three trapeze artists at the circus. The man
on the left has a firm hold on his partner. As he swings her toward the center
of the tent the man on the right swings in to receive the woman. The audience
is in suspense as they await the hand-off. For a moment the woman flies
through the air with no visible means of support. Her life is suspended in
mid-air. Were the man on the right not in position to receive the woman she
would fall to her death.
Suppose the trapeze artist on the left represents
life, and the man on the right represents after-life. Were the man on the left
not to release his partner until she was firmly in the grasp of the man on the
right, they would complete a seamless hand-off. The hand-off would occur
without allowing the woman to slip into free fall. Some non-Cartesian
philosophers like Peter Van Inwagen and Kevin Corcoran have given a seamless
account of the passage from life to after-life. Seamless solutions require
that there be no spatial or temporal gap between life and after-life. In this
essay I shall challenge the notion that seamless accounts offer the most
adequate description of post-mortem survival. I want to suggest that
post-mortem survival is not necessarily gapless survival.
Only after I have examined the assumptions made in materialists’ accounts
shall I suggest an alternative. The type of survival I shall argue for shall
be more analogous to a hand-off where the person must enter and exit a
I. Survival and the Threat of the Gaps
The problem of the gaps haunts philosophers who
choose to reject the Cartesian solution to the problem of survival. To be a
Cartesian soul is to exist incorruptible. So, William
Hasker is justified in making the following claim, “There is no
metaphysical question about the identity of Cartesian souls over time.”
It is this problem of identity over time that troubles the non-Cartesian
The materialist maintains that identity over time is
sacrificed if inexplicable spatial and temporal gaps arise in the life of
inanimate objects. To survive persons must meet the same criteria of
uninterrupted material and causal connections. Peter Van Inwagen says, “If a man does not simply die but is totally destroyed (as in
the case of cremation) then he can never be reconstituted, for the causal
chain has been irrevocably broken.” Van Inwagen’s
illustrates this with his familiar story of the two ancient manuscripts. On
the one hand, a monastery claims to have an extant autograph of Saint
Augustine. On the other hand, Arians burned the same monastery and its
contents in 457 AD. The available manuscript is supplied by a miracle of God.
Van Inwagen claims the spatio-temporal gap between the two manuscripts renders
false the claim that it is the same manuscript. Van Inwagen says,
It would immediately occur to me to ask how
this manuscript, the one I can touch, could be the very manuscript that
was burned in 457. Suppose their answer to this question is that God
miraculously recreated Augustine’s manuscript in 458. I should respond to
this answer as follows: The deed it describes seems quite impossible, even
as an accomplishment of omnipotence. God certainly might have created a
perfect duplicate of the original manuscript, but it would not be that
Given Van Inwagen’s material criterion for survival,
the gap would falsify the claim that we are dealing with the same entity. Death
terminates existence for the person as the fire ended the existence of the
manuscript. Suppose Sam is alive at one moment (T0). At some intervening time
(T1) Sam ceases to exist, but a person composed of the same atoms and calling
himself Sam is alive at a later time (T2 ). Is it the same person that exists at
T2, if there is a gap between the times when Sam is said to be alive? Van
Inwagen would say No.
II. Sealing the Gaps in Post-Mortem Survival
Here I review the solutions of three well known
philosophers to the problem of survival. Each requires that God intervene to
insure that the person survives his or her bodily death. Van Inwagen’s
proposal involves body switching, while Kevin Corcoran’s proposal involves
body splitting. William Hasker introduces an extra-bodily account of survival.
In Van Inwagen’s account it is not possible to
survive one’s death without the intervention of God, given the fact that the
body undergoes corruption. The preservation of the body is a necessary and
sufficient condition for survival in Van Inwagen’s account, since the person
is a material body. If the same body is not preserved intact, then Van Inwagen
would contend it is only a replica. Van Inwagen says,
a former corpse in which the processes of life
have been “started up again” may well be the very man who was once before
alive, provided the processes of dissolution did not progress too far while
he was a corpse.
Van Inwagen appears to be making use of strict
Aristotelian criterion for identity. Only if the individual is able to overcome
the problem of the gaps is it possible to claim that he or she has survived. How
could someone survive, when it is evident that at the time of death the person
becomes a corpse? Van Inwagen suggests that a body switch occurs. The person is
removed by an act of God. In the place of the person’s corpse is a simulacrum.
Van Inwagen says,
It contradicts nothing in the creeds to suppose
that [total annihilation or disintegration] is not what really happens, and
that God preserves our corpses contrary to all appearance. Perhaps at the
moment of each man’s death, God removes his corpse and replaces it with a
simulacrum, which is what is burned or rots. Or perhaps God is not quite so
wholesale as this: Perhaps he removes for ‘safekeeping’ only the ‘core
person’ – the brain and central nervous system – or even some special part
of it. These are details.
Kevin Corcoran finds the body switching solution
unacceptable, since it may invite the criticism that the surviving person is a
mere replica. So, Corcoran has developed a body splitting theory to resolve the
problem of survival. Corcoran makes a distinction between
human bodies and masses of cell-stuff. Masses of cell-stuff he regards as
merelogical sums. He says, “By the words human body I mean, for starters,
to pick out that kind of entity usually associated with the words physical
organism of the species homo sapiens.” A body that is a
merelogical sum could satisfy the material conditions for survival but not the
causal conditions. Corcoran insists that there is no survival, unless the
following immanent causal condition (ICC) is satisfied:
If an organism O that exists some time in the
future is the same as an organism P that exists now, then the (set of)
simples that compose P now must be causally related to the (set of) simples
that will compose O in the future.
Corcoran proposes two solutions to remedy the temporal
gap problem. Corcoran devotes only part of a paragraph to the view that an
individual could survive a gap in his or her existence by God’s intervention.
Without further detail, one must assume that Corcoran’s gappy-view would fail to
meet Van Inwagen’s strict identity conditions for material objects.
The alternative that Corcoran develops at greater length is a type of non-gappy
survival that requires fission of a body’s causal paths. Here I shall focus on
Corcoran’s second solution of non-gappy survival.
In Corcoran’s view a person could be identified as
the same person throughout his or her lifetime, if he or she met the material
and immanent causal conditions. At the moment of death there is an event that
allows the same human to exist post-mortem, and that event is body fission.
The surviving human would meet the material and causal criteria to count as
the same person. The fission would also produce a corpse that is sloughed off
as a snake’s skin. Since the corpse never was energized in the way that the
body was, Corcoran maintains it would not become a contender for the identity
of the dying individual. Only one survivor and one corpse are produced in this
account, and the causal path of both is traceable to one human body prior to
death. Corcoran says,
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. 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.
The fission process is meant to safeguard against the
objection that only replicas succeed the dying person. It is likewise meant as a
defense against the objection that the survivor is merely the closest contender
of two viable duplicates. Since the corpse is never conscious, Corcoran claims
that just one human emerged from fission to survive death.
The issue of when fission occurs produces a dilemma.
If the fission occurs before death, there would be two bodies to replace the
original. Then one might argue that the person had ceased to exist when he or
she was split apart. If the fission occurs after death,
there is the possibility that two replicas replaced the person who had died.
To go between the horns of the dilemma Corcoran must maintain that the fission
is simultaneous with death.
William Hasker raises two objections against
Corcoran’s body-splitting proposal. First, it asks us to
alter our assumptions about the continuity of matter, since the body is
replaced with a corpse instantaneously. Second, Hasker believes it asks us to
accept a closest contender view of identity. Corcoran thinks we are not
dealing with a closest contender, since the body splitting example can satisfy
the immanent causal condition. So, Corcoran thinks the claim that the survivor
is the same person is warranted.
I shall not venture to guess whether that rebuttal
would put down Hasker’s objection. What does seem problematic to me is the
notion that the body can undergo fission in this way. Even if the temporal
dilemma can be avoided, I would suggest the proposal falls prey to a criticism
analogous to the criticism by Eric T. Olson against compound dualism. The
compound dualist must explain how a compound entity can produce an immaterial
successor. Corcoran must explain how a human body can slough off an additional
merelogical sum, i. e., a corpse and continue as a surviving human body. To
the compound dualist Olson says,
Where could this new, immaterial part come from?
The only players on the stage before my death are my soul, my body and its
parts, and myself. Afterwards my soul is still a soul, my body has perished,
and I supposedly, am made up of the soul and something else. The destruction
of my material body can’t logically entail the existence of some new
immaterial thing. It seems that disembodied survival would require some sort
of deus ex machine.
Among materialists’ solutions William Hasker favors
the body switching solution of Van Inwagen. However,
Hasker offers his own novel solution. In Hasker’s emergent dualism the body is a
sufficient condition for the emergence of consciousness.
Hasker suggests that the consciousness is analogous to a magnetic field. While
the magnet is sufficient to generate the field and sustain it, the field’s
existence is distinct from the magnet. I assume the field requires material to
sustain it, though its continuation may not require that the same material
sustain it. Hasker says,
The mind, like the magnetic field, comes into
existence when the constituents of its ‘material base’ are arranged in a
suitable way – in this case, in the extremely complex arrangement found in
the nervous systems of animals. And like the magnetic field, it exerts a
causality of its own . . . 
In Hasker’s view survival of an emergent mind would
require that God replace the material source of the field to allow the same
field to persist. This suggests that the mind-field must
remain constant while the bodies that sustain it are interchangeable. In that
case Hasker has provided another body-switching scenario. Hasker also says,
“[God] could directly sustain the field by his own power, without the need for a
material ‘generator’ of any kind.”
I find the latter proposal to have the greater
potential for development. On the one hand, Hasker’s description requires that
the mind-field continue uninterrupted. So, the threat of a temporal gap
between a natural life and a post-mortem existence is remedied by an
uninterrupted existence. On the other hand, Hasker’s mind-field is not
dependent upon the identity of matter requirement, since he is not a strict
materialist. In Hasker’s view the body is a necessary condition for the
emergence of the mind-field only, and the body is a sufficient and
non-necessary condition for its survival.
III. Survival and Everyday Gaps
In the three accounts of survival examined above the
authors develop views where human survival is described as an uninterrupted
conscious experience. If the seamless conscious existence were interrupted,
then there would be warrant for the claim that the person did not survive. The
successor could be a replica or a simulacrum, but it would not be the same
person. Though body switching and body fission are different accounts of
survival, they both make this same assumption about the nature of survival.
Hasker’s view of the emergent self does suggest that the material criterion
for survival may count as a sufficient condition for survival rather than a
necessary condition. Even in Hasker’s account of survival there is the
implicit assumption that survival entails an uninterrupted conscious
The gap poses a threat to survival when we make
certain assumptions about time and personal existence. In the account of Van Inwagen and Corcoran one assumes that time is an uninterrupted flow and matter
is located in time. It is assumed that existing matter
will be present in time. Individuals are situated in that flow of time as
particular organizations of matter. When an individual’s existence is
interrupted, the conscious experience of the individual halts within time; and
he or she is dead. Survival consists of not failing to be present as a body
that has an uninterrupted conscious experience in time. The unstated
assumption in the three accounts of survival is that time is an objective
reality and that the consciousness of persons must be coextensive with time.
This view suggests the following statement: No moment is a moment when a
living person fails to exist as a subjectively conscious being. Both
psychological and metaphysical reasons may be offered to suggest that notion
is false. If the implicit psychological understanding of the survival in time
is mistaken, then our concerns about survival may be misplaced. If the
implicit metaphysical understanding of the survival in time is in error, then
the threat of the gaps may be a gross blunder.
William James devotes some thought to the
psychological notion of time. He suggests one may experience time as an
uninterrupted flow. That is how I perceive time is conceptualized in non-gappy
accounts of survival. In an earlier writing Corcoran claims to adopt a block
view of time, but he believes that a continuous view of time would not alter
his theory. I am suggesting there is a fundamental
difference. In the continuous-flow view time moves onward like a Greyhound bus
on tour. Its passengers are survivors. As an alternative James suggests that
time may be block-like discrete events or moments that are experienced with
such rapidity that one moment of time cannot be distinguished from another.
James, the pragmatist, concludes that for practical purposes we may find the
two views indistinguishable, and we would have no awareness of “empty time”,
that is, time when we were not conscious. James says, “we can no more
intuit a duration than we can intuit an extension, devoid of all sensible
I find it difficult to dispute the wisdom of James.
If time were block-like discrete events, then there would be gaps in our
stream of consciousness. We could not give a subjective account of such gaps
in our conscious experience. Suppose you regain consciousness after a blow to
the scull, or you awaken from sleep. Subjectively you do not question your
survival, since you resume your conscious experience.
You have transcended the interruption subjectively.
Perhaps an analogy will prove helpful. Suppose we
have two patients diagnosed with cardiac disease. The one is a candidate for a
massive heart attack, and the other suffers from mini-strokes. I would suggest
that Van Inwagen and Corcoran see the human’s predicament as an analog of the
former individual’s condition. I would suggest this is a misdiagnosis. It is
not just a single gap in conscious experience that threatens to undo our
existence. A better analog would be the patient whose diagnosis suggests he or
she is a candidate for mini-strokes. Since the danger is recurrent, one may
erroneously suppose the danger is reduced. It is not.
Transcending temporal gaps subjectively may seem
like child’s play. What if the gaps were not merely subjective gaps but
objective gaps, that is, what if they were metaphysical gaps? In that case we
would need to rethink how we account for survival. If there were metaphysical
gaps in existence, then we would be mistaken to suppose that non-intermittent
bodily existence supplies the necessary and sufficient condition for survival
of material entities. And that is the metaphysical predicament I would suggest
Quantum mechanics suggests that earlier notions of
matter inherited from the Greek atomists were mistaken. One feature of the
emerging world-view produced by quantum theory is the property known as
wave-particle duality. At the sub-atomic level matter
lives a double life as both energy and particle. Central to this theory is the
notion that these packets of energy pass in and out of existence. In other
words, their life is characterized by intermittent existence. Process
philosophers have endeavored to create a world-view from this insight. They
see the existence of finite creatures as an intermittent or gappy existence.
If their metaphysical description of the world is correct, then it suggests
that the notion of survival be revised. The difference between ordinary
existence and post-mortem survival would be a matter of degrees and not a
difference of kinds.
In what way could our understanding of the
metaphysics of time and matter impact our understanding of survival? Van
Inwagen’s account of survival relies upon strict material criterion about
identity over time. Hasker is no process philosopher.
Nonetheless, he has relaxed the material requirement for survival, and I
suspect that is a prudent move. Hasker says,
I believe the re-creationist should not hold that
the matter of the re-created body needs to be the same as that of the body
that perished. There is after all the very real possibility that some or all
of the matter of someone’s body might be destroyed (perhaps annihilated in a
nuclear reaction) or might become part of someone else’s body.
Perhaps some critic will say I should assume a
process world-view from the outset and demonstrate how one survives in that
world-view. Far more space would be required for a project of that magnitude.
Instead I have set out to investigate how three notable philosophers
understand survival. I expose some of their assumptions about seamless or
non-gappy existence. Corcoran and Hasker speculate that an account of survival
could be developed that would include spatial and temporal gaps in an
individual’s history. As a prolegomenon to an
alternative description of survival I suggest gappy accounts of survival would
be more consistent with the nature of existence as we now understand it. 
P. Eddy Wilson October 23, 2003
 I suppose there may be some
exceptional cases where survival would be seamless, but I take it to be the
case that most cases of survival are cases where the individual must transcend
some spatial or temporal gap.
 Rene Descartes maintains that
I am a thing that cannot undergo bodily corruption. He says, “I am a real
thing and really exist; but what thing? I have answered; a thing which
thinks.” The Philosophical Works of Rene Descartes, Vol. I ( New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 152.
 William Hasker, The
Emergent Self (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 210. Hereafter
cited as Hasker, Emergent Self.
 In this essay I shall speak of
the person surviving death. I shall not here make any distinction between
persons and souls. I do not assume that souls are Cartesian minds.
 Peter Van Inwagen, The
Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics
(Boulder, Colorado: Harper-Collins, 1998), p. 45. Hereafter cited as Van
 Van Inwagen, Possibility, p.
 The problem of the gap has
resulted in the laying down of no less than two conditions for survival.
First, the person that survives must demonstrate that he or she has the same
body. A sufficient quantity of the same matter that comprised the person at T0
must comprise the person at T2 to say that is a survivor. Second, the person
who survives must demonstrate an immanent causal connection with the person he
or she was said to be earlier. Although the gap threatens the causal
connection between the persons in question, it is the material criterion that
must be met. During extended intervals there is the possibility that Sam’s
atoms may be assimilated by a cannibal or some other entity. Likewise the
atoms may be assimilated into the life of some person who is psychologically
remote from the survivor. Van Inwagen suggests that there might be a boy of 10
years and an adult of 50 years who appear simultaneously to lay claim to his
identity. The short intervals of non-existence raise the possibility that the
person is replaced by a replica. So, the survivor is not the same person but
the nearest contender. In both cases the gap creates a discontinuity in the
material and causal connections between the phases in Sam’s life, and that
discontinuity is sufficient to warrant the claim that Sam has not survived the
 Van Inwagen adds,” But if a
man does not simply die but is totally destroyed (as in the case of cremation)
then he can never be reconstituted, for the causal chain has been
irrevocably broken. If God collects the atoms that used to constitute that man
and ‘reassembles’ them, they will occupy the positions relative to one another
they occupy because of God’s miracle and not because of the operation of the
natural processes that, taken collectively, were the life of that man.” See
Van Inwagen, Possibility, p. 47.
 Ibid, p. 49.
 Kevin J. Corcoran, “Dualism,
Materialism, and the Problem of Postmortem Survival” Philosophia Christi
4 (2, 2002): 411- 426. Hereafter cited as Corcoran, Dualism.
 Corcoran, Dualism, p. 419.
 Corcoran, Dualism, p. 424.
 Even if Corcoran’s survivor
could meet the ICC condition, the survivor would not meet the material
condition in Van Inwagen’s view. The atoms that comprised the person might be
put to use in another life form so that the same person could not survive.
 Corcoran, p. 424.
 I suppose Corcoran would
argue that the one body was merely inert matter sloughed off. Perhaps the
duplicate is like a snake’s skin that is sloughed off. If so, then the claim
that this is a type of materialism may come into question.
 Hasker, p. 227.
 Eric T. Olsen, in Soul,
Body, and Survival, edited by Kevin Corcoran (Ithaca, New York: Cornell
University Press, 2001), p.
 William Hasker has endorsed
Van Inwagen’s body switching solution as the best available account of
survival for materialists. See Hasker, Emergent Self, p. 231.
 William Hasker in Soul,
Body, and Survival, edited by Kevin Corcoran (Ithaca, New York: Cornell
University Press, 2001), p. 116. Hereafter cited as Soul, Body, and Survival.
 Hasker grants that the field
exists as an entity distinct from its material source. See Hasker, Emergent
Self, p. 232. The possibility that there could be non-material energies in the
universe may raise questions about the nature of the material universe. One
must assume Hasker to believe it is not a universe of cold, hard matter.
 Hasker in Soul, Body, and
Survival, p. 117.
 Hasker in Soul, Body, and
Survival, p. 117.
 Hasker, in Soul, Body, and
Survival, p. 117. I find this idea to hold the greatest potential for
development. The idea that God could maintain the mind-field apart from a body
is not unlike the thought of some idealist that it is God’s perception of the
person that sustains the person. I have great sympathy with the latter view.
 In Hasker’s view to qualify
as same person we would need to meet the material criterion for personhood
only if the same body were sustaining the consciousness-field.
 See note 28 below.
 Corcoran says, “I suppose it
could be objected that so far I have been working with a view of time
according to which time is composed of discrete instants with very neat
boundaries which bump smoothly up against one another. But suppose time is
continuous and not discrete. What then? Well I think nothing much follows with
respect to the view of the resurrection here entertained. . . . Either way, on
a continuous or discrete view of time, the view of resurrection suggested here
can be maintained.” See Corcoran in Soul, Body, and Survival, p. 213.
 William James, Principles
of Psychology (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981),
 David Hershenov defends the
reassembly model of resurrection against Van Inwagen’s objections. He believes
that Van Inwagen dismissal of the reassembly model falsely assumes that any
reassembly of the parts would not count as the same person. If a ten year old
Van Inwagen and a fifty year old Van Inwagen were both reassembled we would
have too many Van Inwagens to count as a survivor. Hershenov believes that the
continuity of matter resolves the problem. Survivors must be identifiable as
the same matter that died. He says, A baseball game suspended in the sixth
inning due to rain or darkness cannot resume the next day in the second
inning. But just as the game can resume in the sixth inning, my intuition is
that a person who died when he was eighty could exist again if the parts he
had at the last time of his existence were reassembled. In my account it must
be the same subjective consciousness that is resumed and not just the same
atoms. See David Hershenov,” Intermittent Existence and Resurrection”,
Faith and Philosophy 20 (1, 2003): 31. Hereafter cited as Hershenov.
 For a lively discussion of
how quantum theory has impacted our theory of human consciousness see J.
Richard Eiser, Attitudes, Chaos, and the Connectionist Mind (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1994). For his discussion of quantum theory see pp.
 Alfred North Whitehead is one
notable philosopher who sees the world as a process. He says, “The actual
world is a process”. See his work, Process and Reality (New York: Free
Press, 1978), p. 22.
 Van Inwagen, Possibility, p.
 Hasker, Emergent Self, p.
 Corcoran says that a gappy
account of survival would succeed if it could be shown that immanent causal
relations could cross a temporal gap. See Corcoran, Dualism, p. 423. In
Hasker’s view this field of consciousness could be sustained by God
independent of its material source. He says, “[God] could directly sustain the
field by his own power, without the need for a material ‘generator’ of any
kind. Perhaps there Is no reason why God would do this. But Christians believe
there is indeed reason for God to concern himself with the continued existence
of rational souls.” See Hasker, Emergent Self, p. 233
 If one searches, one may find
in the process world-view echoes of idealism. For the idealist there is no
need to resort to materialistic criteria to determine whether there is
survival. Survival is determined by perception. Hasker has suggested that the
field of consciousness may be sustained independent of its material origins.
This strikes me as the sort of claim that an idealist could sympathize with.
Unlike the Cartesian’s soul that is self-sustaining, the emergent self is a
contingent self. Its origins are material, but its survival is not necessarily
contingent upon matter. Rather God could sustain it. How? Hasker does not give
additional details, but I would suggest that the answer is as a thought.