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What Is Our Relationship to Our Bodies?

Dean Zimmerman

Reply to Lynne Rudder Baker's Critical Response

Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University / Director of Rutgers Center for the Philosophy of Religion
April 29, 2017

Before talking about our differences, which have mostly to do with the metaphysics of material objects, I should like to underscore how much we agree about. This should be no surprise. Christians can be in full agreement concerning substantive matters of doctrine while disagreeing deeply about the metaphysics in terms of which such doctrines should be fleshed out. The right metaphysics of physical objects and of persons is a matter of great contention within philosophy, and always has been. I have argued elsewhere that, on all of the main philosophical accounts of the nature of persons, an afterlife remains possible.1 This includes not only Baker’s version of materialism, which seems especially hospitable to postmortem survival, allowing as it does for physical objects that jump from place to place without so much as the motion of a molecule or the transfer of a byte of information. Even more conservative forms of materialism, which require some kind of biological or psychological continuity, can make space for life after death. Miracles would be required in every case; but on most of the particular materialist theories on offer, one can at least see roughly how it could be done. (Even according to my own favored dualist picture, souls do not naturally persist “under their own steam,” not without the brains that generate them; so miracles are required all around.) I do not pretend to know that dualism is true, and that all of these versions of materialism about human persons are false. So I would never pretend to know that God secures our survival in one way rather than another. But I take heart in seeing that, on most of the plausible metaphysical stories about human nature, there is no impossibility in my continuing to exist after shuffling off this mortal coil.

Baker and I do not just agree about the possibility of an afterlife, we agree about the importance of bodily resurrection. The natural state of a human person is an embodied one. Both Baker and I expect that our “corruptible bodies” are like seeds that will be sown in the ground, to use St. Paul’s metaphor; and that what is sown dies, and is not “that body that shall be” (1 Corinthians 15: 36-7), but something that is succeeded by an “incorruptible body.” We disagree only about whether persons are essentially embodied — whether a person could ever possibly exist without a body. On my favored view, a person is an immaterial thinking thing that, in its natural state, needs a brain in order to think or even to continue to exist; and that when we exist disembodied between death and resurrection, we are in an unnatural or maimed state, sustained only by God’s gracious miracle.

We do disagree about the centrality to Christian doctrine of an intermediate state between death and resurrection; but even here, the disagreement is not deep. As Baker points out, it is perfectly consistent with her view about persons that “God creates an intermediate body,” one that is presumably not made of ordinary matter and yet not made of the incorruptible stuff of which Paul speaks. (In 1 Corinthians 15: 39-44, Paul draws suggestive contrasts between kinds of flesh and kinds of bodies; and contrasts the stuff of our current bodies with that of the incorruptible.)

Our deepest differences are, then, all on the metaphysical side of things. Let me try to sum them up in a rather impressionistic way. I find physics telling me that all of the complex physical objects that interest us human beings — planets, pipes, carburetors, crows, you-name-it — consist fundamentally of particles and fields, and that their causal powers ultimately derive from these particles and fields. I’m prepared to revise this picture of things as physics makes further progress, but I don’t expect that we’ll ever stop talking about atoms and molecules and the way they constitute crystalline lattices, DNA, RNA, cell walls, and so on. Baker and I agree that collections of these smaller physical things together constitute larger solid objects, some of which are mere hunks of metal, say; others of which are artifacts, such as carburetors and her “drinkalators.” What we disagree about is what metaphysicians like to call “the ontological status” of these constituted objects. Are they mere constructions out of the swirling hunks of matter that physics describes in more fundamental terms? Or are they bona fide entities with new causal powers of their own, and ways of lasting through time that are quite independent of the goings-on at the level described by physics?

Everything turns here upon what one means by “mere constructions,” “bona fide entities,” and “new causal powers” — and there are many things metaphysicians could mean and have meant when drawing contrasts using such terminology. This is not the time or place to try to achieve greater clarity. It is, however, clear that my own views put me on the “mere construction” side, and Baker’s put her on the “bona fide entities” side of this sort of contrast.

Consider a factory built to make carburetors. One day it is purchased by a manufacturer of soft drinks who realizes the very same bit of machinery can be used to carbonate soda in her bottling plant. With the stroke of a pen, the output of the factory’s machines at, say, noon suddenly becomes an entirely new kind of object, one that hadn’t existed before. That, I take it, is a consequence of Baker’s metaphysics. I should rather say: the factory takes hunks of metal, shapes them into objects with various causal powers that are grounded in that constitution and shape, and we can call these hunks of metal whatever we please — but we won’t thereby cause the factory to be making different objects. It is the hunk of metal that does the work of forcing gas or liquid to move. If we do want to recognize the existence of an “extra object,” something that is constituted by the metal but that only exists because of a signature on a piece of paper, this should be a shadowy, second rate sort of thing — one that only has an impact on its environment in virtue of the powers of the hunk of metal.

One way in which Baker sees her constituted entities as showing their bona fides is by their ability to change parts with more freedom than their constituting masses of particles or hunks of matter. A chair can survive the replacement of a leg, while the hunk of wood from which it is hewn cannot. I do not see this as a reason to deny that the chair deserves a “lower ontological status”; quite the reverse. I take it to suggest that the chair is a “mere construction” — i.e., a function from times to hunks of matter (the kind of constructed entity I discussed in my first reply to Baker). And when one comes to entities that are able to undergo massive and instantaneous changes of all their parts, I feel even more confident that we have moved from the realm of the real into that of the ideal or merely constructed. I do not deny that we sometimes seem to refer to such things. For example, one might talk of that train, The Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and Seattle (or Portland), a train constituted by different engines and cars at different times. Supposing there is engine trouble in St. Paul, it is conceivable that The Empire Builder switches from Track 1 to track 4 without a single piece of the train moving from the one track to the other (though the passengers would have to move if they want to continue their trip). This sort of entity is certainly second-class, having all of its powers derivatively. Its ability to accelerate, its size and shape and mass, these are all due to the engine and cars that happen to make it up at any given time. The world contains hunks of metal and rubber and wood, and we draw circles around different bits at different times to suit our interests, and with great freedom; and one way of drawing circles is called “The Empire Builder.”

On Baker’s conception of persons, we seem rather like The Empire Builder, except that it is God who gets to draw the circles. The resurrected bodies that will be ours could, by her lights, all be exactly the same intrinsically, appearing all at once with no differences in their origins — except for God’s declaring that one be you, the other be me, and so on. When one has this kind of complete freedom to draw circles as one pleases, that is a sign that one is picking out a second-rate entity with no real powers of its own — an epiphenomenon, as the philosophers say. I should like to think that I am something more; and that, within my very limited sphere, I exercise powers in my own right — for example, that I can cause my fingers to type, and that there is not someone else causing this for me; that I can work out an intellectual puzzle, and that no one else is working it out for me. So I don’t believe I’m the sort of thing that could have its history determined with this much freedom by someone else — even if that someone were God.


1. Zimmerman, Dean. 2012. “Personal Identity and the Survival of Death”, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, ed. by Ben Bradley, Fred Feldman, and Jens Johansson (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 97-153