NOTES on Peter Geach (1916-2013): Dualism Rejected But Survival Affirmed


Peter Geach (born 1916) is a philosopher who believes that we can survive death. However, in his book God and the Soul(1969), he takes a different approach from that taken by Curt John Ducasse and Robert Almeder. Geach rejects the type of evidence allegedly presented by reincarnated spirits, ghosts, and mediums, and instead presents a theory that is compatible with Jewish and Christian belief.

I. An Important Distinction

First, however, Geach makes an important distinction between mere Postdeath Survival and the Endless Survival that we associate with Immortality. Some philosophers that we have looked at have considered Postdeath Survival — the survival of the personality for a period of time after death. However, when most people think of Immortality, they think of Endless Survival.

Now even if the evidence of reincarnated spirits, ghosts, and mediums turns out to be true, it establishes only that the personality survives death for a short time — not for forever. After all, the supposed ghosts of the pilot and the second officer of Flight 401 were around for only a couple of years after death. Did their personalities then vanish forever?

II. Geach’s Rejection of Three Viewpoints About How People Survive Death

No. 1: The Astral Body

Before Geach presents his own theory about immortality, first he examines and rejects three other theories. The first theory that he examines and rejects is the theory that an astral body (or subtle body) survives the death of the material body.

Geach’s objection to the astral body is that if it is in fact a sort of body, it would then produce physical effects. Of course, if astral bodies produce physical effects, then the very sensitive instruments of physicists could measure these effects. However, no physicists have ever found such effects.

Some people have suggested that Geach ought to examine the evidence for himself instead of waiting for physicists to do it. However, Geach points out that this is not the way that real science works. When scientists discovered X-rays and electrons, they did not invite laymen to examine the evidence. Instead, they appealed to other scientists to examine the evidence. So, if physicists refuse to take astral bodies seriously, Geach says it is pointless for him to take astral bodies seriously.

No. 2: Platonic Dualism

Plato believed in a form of dualism that Geach rejects. In this kind of dualism, a human being is composed of both a material body and an immaterial mind. (Descartes believed this, too.) When the material body dies, the immaterial mind (or soul, or spirit) is able to continue in existence.

Geach’s first objection to Platonic dualism is that it doesn’t make sense to say that an immaterial mind is able to sense things. The five senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling are so connected to the body that we ought not to say that an immaterial mind that is not connected with a material body does them. Therefore, Geach says, we ought not to say that a disembodied mind is capable of feeling such sensations.

Geach’s second objection to Platonic dualism is that a disembodied mind of the sort that Platonic dualism supposes would not in fact be Peter Geach if it were incapable of feeling the sensations that Peter Geach feels in life. In other words, Geach believes that he is not his soul. Instead, a very important part of Peter Geach is his body.

No. 3: Reincarnation

Robert Almeder believes in Reincarnation. However, Geach rejects Reincarnation. Suppose that someone claims to be a Reincarnation of someone else. Geach asks, How would we confirm that in fact such a Reincarnation had taken place? One answer would be, By similarities of character and by memories. Geach rejects this answer.

Similarities of character are not enough to establish the identity of an alleged reincarnated person. Memories are also not sufficient, in Geach’s opinion. Even if someone were to have memories that “only” the dead person could have had, Geach believes that this is not sufficient to establish the identity of the alleged reincarnated person. In such extraordinary circumstances, it is best to give up our “ordinary assumptions about what can be known.”

In addition, mediums do not provide evidence for postdeath survival. Geach points out several odd things that mediums have done: They have communicated with Martians, and with Red Indians (Native Americans) who could not speak any Indian language, and with people who were alive and well at the time the medium was communicating with them.

III. Geach’s Alternative: Bodily Resurrection

Now Geach is ready to give his answer to the question of immortality: Bodily resurrection. First, though, he examines the criteria of personal identity. For Geach, material continuity is an important criterion of personal identity. A baby grows up to be an old man. During that time, every atom of the infant’s body will be replaced, yet we still believe that the old man is the same person as the baby (but grown older, of course). So material continuity does not mean material identity.

In addition, mental continuity is important. However, Geach believes that mental continuity is not enough to establish personal identity. Suppose a person claims to be another person — someone who is from Australia. This person seems to have the same memories as the person from Australia, yet further suppose that we find the dead body of the person from Australia — the body has all the relevant scars, body characteristics, etc. Many of us would not believe that the new living person is the dead person from Australia.

However, let me point out here that many of us have intuitions that are different from Geach’s. If we were to suddenly wake up and discover that we had a new body (if you were white, you became black overnight; or if you were a girl, you became a boy, etc.), most of us would still suppose that we were essentially the same person, only with a different body. Several Hollywood movies show that people’s intuitions support this: Big, Watermelon Man, Freaky Friday, etc.

Now Geach brings up his theory of bodily resurrection. According to Geach, we can claim personal immortality only if we undergo bodily resurrection. As Geach points out, this is compatible with Christian and with Jewish doctrine.

The Christians take much of their belief about immortality from St. Paul’s I Corinthians 15. There St. Paul points out that Christ was raised from the dead, and that hundreds of eyewitnesses, including St. Paul himself, saw Him. The Christian belief in immortality rests on the claim that Jesus Himself was dead for three days, then conquered death and lived again.

Without bodily resurrection, there is no hope of immortality, according to Geach. As Judas Maccabeus said, “If there is no resurrection, it is superfluous and vain for me to pray for the dead.” However, I should make the point that St. Paul seems to be speaking of the resurrection of a spiritual body, whereas Geach seems to have in mind the resurrection of a material body.

A final question: Does Geach’s bodily resurrection provide an answer to Corliss Lamont and his Argument from Dependence? According to this argument, consciousness depends upon the brain and the central nervous system. Unless there is a brain and a central nervous system, there can be no consciousness.

Note: The quotations by Peter Geach that appear in this essay are from his book God and the Soul (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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