Antony Flew argued against immortality in his book The Presumption of Atheism(1976). As you may suspect, Flew was at the time an atheist. (He later became a believer in the existence of God.) In this book, he examines three possible ways in which one could have personal survival, and he rejects each way. According to Flew, the best theory for immortality is that of the astral body; however, he does not believe that the evidence supports the existence of an astral body.
I. The Enormous Initial Obstacle
Flew writes about the “enormous initial obstacle” to belief in personal immortality. According to Flew, the “huge obstacle lying across the path of any doctrine of personal survival or personal immortality is the familiar fact that — with the possible exceptions of the prophet Elijah and Mary the mother of Jesus bar Joseph — all men die and are in more or less short order buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of.”
II. Survival and Immortality
Flew identifies the kind of survival that he is considering in his book. As always, a good philosopher is careful to define his or her terms. What Flew is considering is personal survival after death. He is aware that there are many differing kinds of immortality — for example, biologic immortality in your children or social immortality in the influence that your fame and/or works have on succeeding generations — however, here he is considering the survival of the person after death.
III. Three Ways for Survival
According to Flew, there are three different ways in which one could achieve personal survival. Before criticizing these three ways, he first identifies them.
1. The Platonic or Platonic-Cartesian Theory
This theory is one that is familiar to many Jews and Christians, among other people. According to the Platonic-Cartesian theory,
a) A person is composed of two things: body and soul.Of course, this is familiar to many people from Sunday school.
b) The soul is the real, essential person.The body is the least important part of what we are, according to the Platonic-Cartesian theory. Instead, what is really important is your soul, since this is the part of you that is eternal and immortal. Socrates, of course, among many other philosophers, believed that we ought to take care of our soul and not be so concerned about our body.
2. The Astral Body Theory
This theory finds its home in psychical research. According to the Astral Body theory,
a) Shadowing a person is the person’s astral body.According to the Platonic-Cartesian theory, the soul is immaterial. However, according to the Astral Body theory, the astral body is material. Flew writes that according to the Astral Body theory, “… inside, and so to speak, shadowing what is ordinarily thought of as the person is another being of the same form.”
b) The astral body is the real, essential person.Once again, one’s ordinary, corporeal body is not the real, essential person; instead, one’s astral body is. Hollywood movies such as Topperand Blithe Spiritand Ghost Dadshow astral bodies.
3) The Reconstitutionist Theory
Religious people often believe in this theory; for example, Peter Geach believes that one day we will be resurrected. Our corporeal body will be reconstituted and we will again exist with our own body.
IV. The Reconstitutionist Theory Criticized
Flew criticizes each of these theories, maintaining that none of them is acceptable. Against the Reconstitutionist theory, he makes what he calls the Replica Objection. According to this objection, God will make a replica of me; however, this replica is not me. Flew writes,
For thus to produce even the most indistinguishably similar object after the first one has been totally destroyed and disappeared is to produce not the same object again, but a replica. To punish or to reward a replica, reconstituted on Judgment Day, for the sins or virtues of the old Antony Flew dead and cremated in 1984 is as inept and as unfair as it would be to reward or to punish one identical twin for what was in fact done by the other.
However, I do not accept this objection. Such an objection could be made against a physical object without a mind; however, if in my resurrected body I still have the same memories and sense of personal identity that I had while alive, I would consider myself to be the same person I was while alive and not a replica.
V. The Platonic or Platonic-Cartesian Theory Criticized
As you will recall, these are the assumptions of the Platonic-Cartesian Way:
- A person is a combination of a corporeal, perishable substance (that is, a body) and an incorporeal, perhaps imperishable substance (that is, a mind or soul).
- The incorporeal mind is the real, essential person.
Flew spends several pages criticizing the Platonic-Cartesian Theory. First, in order to show how easy it is to make these two assumptions, he discusses Curt John Ducasse and what Ducasse wrote about paranormal occurrences such as telepathy. According to Flew, Ducasse made the two assumptions of the Platonic-Cartesian theory in that discussion. These two assumptions, of course, are dualist in nature.
However, according to Flew, Ducasse and other dualists like him fail to do two important things:
- They have not shown conclusively that such paranormal experiences are not explainable in terms of the ordinary and natural; that is, Flew believes that ESP [extrasensory perception] can be best described as communication between people rather than as communication between minds or souls.
- They have not shown that the concept of an incorporeal personal being — that is, a disembodied mind or soul — is intelligible and coherent.
Flew criticizes the Platonic-Cartesian assumption that a person is a combination of a material body and an immaterial soul. He does this by pointing out how closely related are a person’s personality and a person’s body. For example, if you were to teach a young child about persons, you would do so by pointing to bodies. For example, you would point to a person’s body and say that this is a person. In addition, much of what we say about persons — that they laugh, cry, eat, etc. — can only be said about corporeal entities.
Flew writes that “personality is essentially some sort of function of persons; and persons are — surely equally essentially — corporeal.”
Flew also tries to show that even if we grant that ESP exists, it can be explained in terms of communication between people rather than in terms of communication between minds or souls. One point that Flew makes is that it is very hard to determine when ESP occurs. For example, someone may be subjectively quite certain that ESP has occurred in his or her experience; however, subjective certainty is very often a poor criterion of determining what is the truth. Frequently, we are mistaken in what we believe.
According to Flew, “The upshot appears to be that the concepts of ESP are essentially parasitical upon everyday and this-worldly notions; that where there could not be the normal, there could not be ESP as the exception to that rule.” He adds that “the truth appears to be that the very concepts of ESP are just as much involved with the human body as are those of other human capacities.”
Flew’s next point is that the concept of an incorporeal personal being — that is, a disembodied mind or soul — is not intelligible and coherent. Of course, unless this concept is intelligible and coherent, it makes little sense to say that the incorporeal mind is the real, essential person.
One point that Flew makes is that Plato believed in the concept of a disembodied soul, yet even Plato — in his Myth of Er in his Republic— was unable to describe the experience of such a disembodied soul except in terms of a physical body.
In addition, suppose there were such a disembodied soul. What would its experiences consist of? Basically, they would be a string of memories; however, if we are to make sense of this string of memories and to have the concept of a self, we must be a substance, defined by Flew as “that which can significantly be said to exist separately and in its own right, so to speak.”
VI. The Astral Body Criticized
Flew’s objection to the astral body is that it is difficult to “find some sort of positive characterization for an astral body: such that an astral body really would be a sort of body in a way in which an imaginary body, or a non existent body, or an incorporeal body are not sorts of body; and at the same time such that the hypothesis that we have, or are, astral bodies is not shown false by any presently available facts.”
This kind of positive characterization is unlikely to be found. One may try to stipulate that the astral body is undetectable by present-day scientific instruments, but that in the future it will be detectable by the more refined instruments, but that seems to be fakery, according to Flew.
Flew writes, “My conclusion is, therefore, that if there is to be a case for individual and personal survival, what survives must be some sort of astral body; but that, in the present state of the evidence, we have no need of that hypothesis.”
The quotations by Flew that appear in this essay are from his book The Presumption of Atheism (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976).
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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