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The Table Video

Tim O'Connor, Richard Swinburne& Steve L. Porter

Surviving Death: What Happens When We Die?

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
Emeritus Nolloth
 Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of 
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
September 11, 2012

Richard Swinburne (Oxford University) and Tim O’Connor (Baylor University) discuss their views on what might happens to us when we die—both in the case that we’re just material beings, and in the case that we have (or are) a soul.


On your view, what comes at the moment of death? How would you explain, the traditional belief in continued existence?

Well, I should say, first of all, I have no idea how how it is that God preserves us. And so, but I think it’s incumbent upon a thinker that wants to have a reasonable coherent view that it at least be possible that we survive death. So it’s so it’s important. As a philosopher, if you think we are sent, as I do, tentatively, that we are essentially embodied beings, survival of death does seem hard to understand, it can even look impossible on reflection.

And so it’s important that we be able to at least imagine some kind of scenario on which it could happen consistent with facts, the facts of death as we know them. So here’s one way it might go. It’s a very speculative of science fiction, sounding suggestion, but it’s again, it’s just intended to be a possibility proof, right, an indication of one way it could go, presumably, God is more imaginative than I am.

And maybe there are other ways that are better ways that it actually goes but so here goes suppose that, right at the moment of your death as you’re about to die, let’s say you’ve unfortunately situated yourself visa via fast moving bus and you are right in front of it, and you are a fraction of a second from being hit by that massive, fast moving bus, and so are going about to die very quickly. Suppose that the matter that composes you right at that moment, each of the fundamental particles fission split in two, as amoebas fission, right.

Suppose that God has endowed the Fundamental stuff that constitutes you with that the capacity to vision maybe God miraculously brings to bear some sort of something that is a necessary condition, God triggers some kind of latent disposition. Right. And so then what happens is, there are now two body products of this visioning one, right? Where you were at the beginning of the process which dies instantly, right?

And another, we might suppose, and here’s where it sounds very science fiction it in a discontinuous manner, it shows up in another location safely out of harm’s way. Or if you’re the manner in which you’re dying is of the decay of a disease, right? God prevents that death from occurring and brings about restoration of health. Okay, and I say that would be you. And what remains on the ground in lifeless form is a mere offshoot of you and what the reason I say that’s not you, is because there’s no longer a continuity, of the mental function that is constitutive of you as a living person that these mental functions that give you an identity as a composite hole that make you a particular being that’s preserved in this other body.

So I think it’s possible then. So I think this very sketchy, bizarre sort of picture shows that perhaps shows that we could survive death. But it’s an embodied survival of death. And this is contrary to the way Christians have traditionally thought about the immediate survival of death they have thought that we’ve survived in a disembodied state until the time that the general resurrection, whereas on my view, if I’m essentially an embodied thing, that would be impossible. I have to be embodied in some form or other. And then you might think that makes the resurrection a rather anticlimactic affair, rather than the object of Christian hope as it has been represented in the Christian tradition.

But the reason that the general resurrection is held out to us as a something to to long for and to hope for is that, we’re, it’s not just a time where we are restored to a bodily state, but we are clothed with immortality, as the Apostle Paul says that we now with our bodies sewn into the ground, perishable bodies are raised imperishable. And so there’s some kind of dramatic transformation that takes place.

And I think that’s consistent with my view that God could dramatically, right we are changing things even on on Earth as biological organisms, and who knows what the possibilities are for God to bring about, still far more dramatic changes in the Constitution of our nature consistent with our continuing on is conscious thinking things such that as at the end result of perhaps a very rapid process that subjectively feels like it’s instantaneous, but it’s actually a highly compressed Rapid dramatic transformation, we now have bodies that are not subject to decay and so forth. And it may also be a function of a very different sort of environment that we inhabit to that accounts for some of the difference.

May I make a comment on that. That seems to me a wildly speculative ad hoc hypothesis suggestion that death, we split into two, and a total duplicate of our bodies is produced, but we don’t see it because it’s taken away into a fifth dimension or something like that. It’s not the slightest evidence that this is true his own, only been brought in in order to make sense of how it could be that we survive death.

Whereas the more traditional account which I have given is motivated originally simply by the need to describe mundane phenomena there, you couldn’t describe the history of the ordinary world without bringing in the sale because you couldn’t describe the ordinary history of the world without telling who had bought experiences. And that’s not a matter of there, who had what body? And given that, then, as it were at death, clearly there are two parts, and clearly the part that decays is the bodily part. So there is another part there.

It doesn’t need speculative science to give you that mere analysis of what being conscious involves gives you that, of course, it’s a further claim that this continues to exist, but it’s perfectly compatible with death that it should continue to exist. It doesn’t involve any new speculative science of any sort. And so I think, the traditional view is much to be preferred on that basis.

If I could just briefly respond to that I agree with that, there are interesting philosophical arguments for substance dualism and Richards’ he has defended such arguments in several places. And if he’s right then of course then those arguments alone give us a reason to prefer that view it’s because I’m not persuaded by those arguments and that I do see at least a tension with developmental biology with the substance to least view that I’m inclined towards this mo monistic view of of human nature and then it’s true the survival of death scenarios look a lot more, It looks like a lot more contrivance is required in order for that to occur. And I agree, but I guess the one thing I would emphasize is that, even if substance dualism is true, and I survived death, because God preserves my soul. I think that’s something miraculous in any case.

That is I don’t think it’s the Christian view that the view that Plato held, that the soul is naturally immortal, right that it just is liberated at death and it’s just its very nature because it’s a simple object, it must persist. I think that a reasonable substance dualism will say that the soul naturally depends on the body. And so it when the body decays, and it’s no longer capable of playing that sustaining function, it requires divine intervention to keep it into being so both of you, require that God act in a special way outside of ordinary natural processes in order to give us, everlasting life.