The Table Video

Tim O'Connor & Thomas M. Crisp

O’Connor on Human Persons and Life After Death: Pt. 1, The Intermediate State

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
September 11, 2012

Tim O’Connor (Baylor University) discusses his “Emergent Individuals” view of the human person in light of the Christian doctrine of an intermediate state between death and the resurrection.


So as opposed to the dualistic view according to which we have two parts an immaterial part and a material part our body which are joined together in some way, when we die the immaterial part separates and has some kind of intermediate state and is later joined up in resurrection with the body, on your view there aren’t these two parts we are material organisms and we have features or characteristics that can’t be explained in terms of the underlying, or can’t be wholly explained in terms of the underlying physics, but we’re just material organisms?

Right, and so these capacities that we have that don’t reduce to merely physical, biological capacities these psychological capacities we have are nonetheless on the picture I’m entertaining wholly sustained by, it required an intact functioning brain and nervous system that’s fed nutrients and oxygen and so on, all the precursors of biological life all of this is necessary for those capacities to persist as they do throughout our lives.

But at death of course, the physical processes break down. Our bodies slowly decay in the typical case or very rapidly in certain unfortunate cases but our bodies break down. And so then, it would seem those capacities simply cease to be.

So the worry’s gonna be that, some Christians will raise is well what about an intermediate state? what about dying and being with Christ and what about an eventual resurrection? And so how does your view think about those things?

Yes, so the worry would be that at death we cease to be, if what defines us fundamentally are those capacities and they cease to be and the brain disintegrates then we cease to be and how could there be an intermediate state, and you might even worry how could we even come to be at a later time, you might think well what God does is regather the fundamental particles that composed my body at the time of my death and reanimates them.

This was a popular way of thinking about the resurrection but the problem is it’s unclear that that would be me of course for multiple reasons, one of which is parts of me might eventually enter the biosphere and become parts of other human beings and so then we’d have people vying for control over these cells, who gets to have them.

But another more fundamental worry is that this picture of ourselves as a special kind of biological organism suggests that material physical continuity is essential to our nature, and simply regathering parts in the form that they once were it’s not clear that that is going to be me as opposed to another individual who’s made to be like me and a way to bring this out is science tells us that our bodies are constantly taking on and shedding parts, and there’s now even reason to think that that’s true even of our brain cells, so perhaps the parts that composed me on my 10th birthday none of those parts are now part of my body now, or maybe very, very few.

And so those parts have entered the biosphere suppose God were to, as he could, regather those parts right now and put them in the exact form of my body and my state at some moment on my 10th birthday and plop that individual down right next to me.

A human version of the ship of Theseus puzzle

Yes, but I would say that’s not me, that’s someone, that would be a quite startling state of affairs, it would be as if I were looking at my younger self, but that would not be me I’m me, I am the continuation of that individual who was once 10 and is now much older. We can’t both be me since I’m not him right?

We’re not identical to each other and so it seems like we go with the individual who is a continuation of the original individual not someone who just happened to have had the parts recycled and reanimated. And so then if you apply this to the resurrection scenario the worry would be well that’s just God creating an individual recycling old parts that once were part of me to create an individual a lot like me, but of course I care, the Christian hope is that I myself will persist in the afterlife.

So I’m trying to emphasize the difficulty for my view, of how to make sense out of survival of death. One scenario that was proposed about a dozen years ago by philosopher Dean Zimmerman that I like, and I think can be adapted to my view is to suppose that, well let me set it up this way, think of this as a kind of science fiction-y story, what we’re after here is an attempt to show that it’s at least possible there’s some way in which I could survive death consistent with all the observable facts, okay?

Now this scenario will sound very strange but, how we actually survive death if anything like my view is correct I don’t really know God probably has more imaginative possibilities than I can contemplate but here’s one possibility where we could at least see a conceivable way it could go, all right so suppose that just as you are about to die whether of disease or because you are unfortunately situated with respect to a very large bus that is right in front of you, suppose that at just that moment the cells of your body fission right? Like amoebas fission right?

So each individual fundamental particle of your body fissions into two duplicate sets okay? One product of that fission is just your body right where your body was prior to the fissioning and the other set, God, miraculously causes to appear in a different space, safely out of harms way.

Some other region of space time disconnected space time somewhere.

Yes, right, wherever the intermediate life might occur. If that’s the case then I would say there is reason to say that that product that safely preserved product would be me, right? The body that subsequently dies it too, it might be the very stuff of which I had been created it is the dead body, the remains of me but I continue to exist in an embodied state somewhere else.

So then the questions gonna be well, of these two results of the fission why do you go with the living one instead of the one that bought it when it got hit by the bus.

Yeah, right, well I think the reason to say that is that what defines me as me, as not merely a material hunk of matter that’s recycling parts but as a human person are my capacities, psychological capacities, moral capacities even spiritual capacities, capacity for awareness of God that’s what defines me as a human being made in Gods image, and those capacities are preserved in a continuous way in the body that survives, and so it seems like that’s the continuation of my life, my full blooded life as a living, thinking human individual.

Whereas the, now dead hunk of matter lacks those capacities and so that seems appropriate to say that’s an offshoot of me whereas the other product is me, that’s the continuation.

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