DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

6. The survival of death

For a variety of reasons, many are deeply troubled by the question of whether we will survive death. The question is open to several interpretations. Different interpretations arise from different conceptions of the metaphysics of persons, and from different conceptions of death and survival.

Materialists of one traditional sort maintain that people are just physical objects – their own bodies. On this view, there are no souls. People have psychological properties simply because their brains are functioning properly. A materialist of this sort might take the question about survival to be ‘will I (= my body) continue to exist after I die?’. On this interpretation, the person is taken to be the human body, the survival of which is taken to be continued existence. If we interpret the question in this way, the answer is fairly obvious. In the vast majority of cases the human body does continue to exist for at least a few months after it dies. However, since the brain is no longer functioning, it presumably has no experiences. It is difficult to understand how anyone could take this sort of survival to be of any value to the deceased.

Such a materialist might reinterpret the question to mean ‘will I continue to live after I die?’. Almost certainly, the answer to this question must be no. If you are just your body, and your body becomes dead and ceases forever to live when it dies, then you become dead and cease forever to live when you die.

Dualists maintain that each person has both a body and a soul. In classical forms of dualism, the soul is taken to be a non-physical object – not made of atoms or molecules. During life, the soul and body are intimately associated. Some would say that during life the soul ‘animates’ the body. Dualists of one tradition take each person to be a unified complex of body and soul. Descartes sometimes seems to endorse this view of persons (‘I am not lodged in my body merely as a pilot in a ship, but so intimately conjoined, and as it were intermingled with it, that with it I form a unitary whole’ – Meditations VI (1958): 239). It would be natural for such a dualist to adopt the Platonic conception and take death to be the dissolution of the soul-body compound. For such a philosopher, the question about survival may be put thus: ‘Will I (= this complex of body and soul) continue to exist after I am dissolved by death and my parts have gone their separate ways?’. Once we have accepted the metaphysical assumptions of this sort of dualism, the answer to this question seems to be no. If the person is the complex of body and soul, and the complex is destroyed by death, then the person is destroyed by death. Though the parts may continue to exist, the compound itself must cease to exist and to live at death (see Descartes, R. §8).

Dualists of another tradition take persons to be embodied souls. On this view, each living person is a soul that happens to be attached to a body. Descartes seems in other passages to endorse this view of persons (‘I have a body with which I am very closely conjoined, yet…I am truly distinct from my body, and can exist without it’ – Meditations VI (1958): 239). A philosopher who accepts this metaphysical conception of persons might understand the question about survival in this way: ‘Will I (= my soul) continue to have experiences after my body has died?’. Although some have denied it, the correct answer to this question is conceivably yes, and it is somewhat easier to understand why someone who accepts this metaphysical conception of persons might be interested in this sort of survival.

It is interesting to note that on this second dualistic conception, it is not quite clear that people actually die. Of course, human bodies die. However, on the view in question, no person is a human body. Each living person is just a soul – albeit a soul that happens to be ensconced in a mortal body. That which continues to live after the death of the body is a thing that does not die – the soul. That which dies – the body – typically deteriorates and eventually goes out of existence after death (see Dualism §1).

Citing this article:
Feldman, Fred. The survival of death. Death, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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