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Is Disembodied Existence Central to Christianity?

Lynne Rudder Baker

Critical Response to Dean Zimmerman

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at University of Massachusetts
April 29, 2017

The theological difference between Zimmerman and me is that he believes that there is disembodied existence, and that that doctrine is central to Christianity; whereas I believe that there are no finite immaterial souls that could exist disembodied, and that Christianity requires no disembodied existence. This theological difference rests in part on two deep philosophical differences, which I want to explore first.1

The first philosophical difference is a fundamental disagreement about how to understand the material world. Zimmerman takes the identity of material objects to reside in their parts and what they are made of. With this presupposition, he infers, quite reasonably, that material parts of a person and what they are made of are inadequate to account for persons. So, he thinks he must add a part, an immaterial part or soul.

Allow me to show by way of example that Zimmerman’s conception of a material object, although widespread, is anemic and that material objects cannot be understood in terms of their parts and what they are made of.

Consider an old-fashioned carburetor. A carburetor is defined as “a device that vaporizes a liquid fuel such as gasoline and mixes it with air in the proper ration for combustion in an internal-combustion engine, such as the gasoline engine.”2 Suppose that people had invented devices that mixed water and air in the process of making soft drinks. Call these soft-drink-making machines ‘drinkalators’.

Exactly the same set of structures (parts, what they are made up of, and how they are related to each other) could make drinkalators and carburetors: The difference between being a carburetor and being a drinkalator is a difference in their intended function: if something of the right structure were in front of you, and you had all the instruments for discriminating its parts, you could not detect whether it was a carburetor or a drinkalator without information about what it is intended to do.

For all that, a carburetor is not a drinkalator: A world could contain either without the other. This is not just a linguistic point, that we have two names for the same kind of thing. The point is ontological; it concerns inventions and their places in our collective lives. In short, x and y can be things of different kinds without any difference in parts or what they are made up of.3

This example should warn us off the assumption that the identity of material things is a matter of their parts and what they are made of.4 So, I agree with Zimmerman that what he calls ‘Standard Materialism’ fails to account for persons; but the problem lies with the narrowness of ‘Standard Materialism,’ not with a material conception of persons per se. Rejection of the notion that the identity of an object is determined by its parts and what it is made of does not lead to any sort of dualism.

A more satisfactory way to understand material objects is in terms of “constitution.” A chair—essentially intended for sitting—is not identical to the sum of its parts, but is constituted by a sum at a time. That way, the chair can undergo a change of parts without loss of identity. Similarly, a person—essentially the bearer of first-person perspective—is not identical to a body (or to the sum of a body’s parts), but is constituted by a body at a time, perhaps by different bodies at different times.5

The second philosophical difference between Zimmerman and me concerns consciousness. I agree with Zimmerman that consciousness is not reducible to “some computational or chemical or biological process.” But I do not think that this is any reason to be a dualist, as opposed to a nonreductive materialist. There is probably not a precise place in the course of evolution where consciousness got its start. The Sphex wasp is not conscious, but by the time there are mammals with flexible behavior, consciousness and intentionality have been selected for. As species become more complex, consciousness and intentionality become richer and richer. This process has culminated so far in human organisms that come to constitute human persons, who can learn complex languages and develop the robust stage of first-person perspectives.

We have no physical account of consciousness, and probably never will have. So what? We can take consciousness to be a dispositional property and see how consciousness and then, with language, self-consciousness conferred an advantage in fitness. And we have no physical account of many things that do not smack of anything immaterial: governments, operas, changes in stock prices, and so on.

What makes a person the very person she is—what makes you you—is that you are this exemplifier of a first-person perspective. A person survives any change, even a change of body, if she remains the same exemplifier of a first-person perspective. (The circularity here is unavoidable since persons cannot be understood in nonpersonal or subpersonal terms; persons are basic entities.)

Nevertheless, persons are essentially embodied: they are constituted by bodies; constitution is a contingent, time-indexed relation. So, logically, a person can have different bodies at different times, and advances in biotechnology give us empirical reason to believe that a person can survive with a different (nonorganic, or even “spiritual”) body.

A human person comes into existence over time: there is no sharp instant when an organism (human or not) comes into existence, and there is no sharp instant when a human organism comes to constitute a person. When a fertilized egg is implanted in a uterus, an organism comes into existence; when the fetal organism develops to the point of having consciousness and intentionality (near birth), it comes to constitute a person. Consciousness and intentionality are dispositional properties that I call a “rudimentary first-person perspective.” Persons and higher animals both have rudimentary first-person perspectives (the first stage of a first-person perspective); a person has a first-person perspective essentially, and an organism has a first-person perspective only contingently.

What is distinctive about persons is that only persons go on to acquire the second stage of a first-person perspective, what I call a “robust first-person perspective.” As a toddler—already a person—learns a language, she acquires the ability to conceive of herself as herself in the first person. With a language, the first-person perspective, now robust, can be manifested in uncountably many ways.

The theological disagreements between Zimmerman and me are connected to each other: I deny that persons have souls and endorse essential embodiment of persons. The death of an organism is the permanent cessation of biological functioning; the death of a person occurs when a person’s body can no longer support a first-person perspective. However, the dead, as Zimmerman says, “continue to exist.” How? Disembodied? I don’t see how. Indeed, I do not understand what a finite immaterial particular would be. I have no idea of how a disembodied immaterial soul could operate or even what function such an entity would serve.6 If there is an intermediate state,7 God creates an intermediate body; if people go straight to heaven, God creates a resurrection body.

Whether there is an intermediate state or not, finite persons are always embodied, but the postmortem body (or bodies, if there is an intermediate state) is not the same body that the person had on earth. The earthly body is corruptible; the resurrection body is incorruptible. (A replacement of a corruptible body by an incorruptible one is a change in substance, which no single body can undergo.)

What about Biblical teaching? A cursory glance at the Bible reveals stories, poems, fables, admonitions, and more. If a person is identical to a soul, as Zimmerman suggests, why should Christianity be committed to bodily resurrection? Since I do not believe that Christianity, or the Bible, requires disembodied existence, I continue to deny that there are souls.


1. There is a third philosophical disagreement that I will not discuss. Zimmerman appears to think that if there is no “precise instant” at which something (an organism or a brain) comes into existence, then it is either a “vague object” like a cloud, or that its beginning is settled by stipulation, or that we “speak indiscriminately about the whole host” of candidate objects “ready to be picked out by our [semantic] decisions.” I think that this is simply false. It presupposes a semantic account of vagueness, but there is no reason to rule out a priori an ontological account of vagueness. Everything in the natural world comes into existence gradually, and hence has no precise beginning, but we do not think that everything is like a cloud, or that our words pick out whole hosts of things. We simply think that things have ontologically indeterminate beginnings and that they come into existence gradually—quite independently of our language.

2. “Carburetor” 1989.

3. For details, see Baker 1995, 195–199.

4. For a different example about a bronze statue and a piece of bronze marble in a plumbing system, see Baker 1997.

5. For details of my view of constitution, see Baker 2000; Baker 2007; Baker 2008; Baker 2013.

6. The existence of God doesn’t present the same difficulty because nobody thinks that we fully understand Him.

7. Cooper 1989. 


Baker, Lynne Rudder. 1995. Explaining Attitudes: A Practical Approach to the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1997. “Why Constitution Is Not Identity.” Journal of Philosophy 94: 599–621.

———. 2000. Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2007. The Metaphysics of Everyday Life: An Essay in Practical Realism. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2008. “Response to Eric Olson.” Abstracta: Revista de Filosofia 1: 43–45.

———. 2013. Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“Carburetor.” 1989. Academic American Encyclopedia. Danbury , CT: Grolier.

Cooper, John W. 1989. Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.