Survivalism, Suitably Modified

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A SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE to those views according to which human beings have immortal souls or minds that survive their bodily death is that this appears to entail substance dualism. One must hold, it would appear, that humans are essentially their minds or souls; otherwise, a human person would cease to exist at death. Substance dualism, however, is a controversial view in large part due to the difficulty in giving an adequate account of the interaction between body and mind. To some, including myself, dualism also seems patently false because humans are essentially animals of a particular species, not immaterial minds. The view that human beings are essentially animals, nevertheless, does not intuitively sit well with the claim that our souls can survive bodily death. Yet if sense can be made of how these two claims are compatible, the resulting view would be far more friendly, or closer, to typical naturalist views of body-mind relations than is traditional dualism.

There has been a revival of interest in hylomorphic theories of material composition, and some have applied these insights to mind-body identity, arguing precisely that a human being is a metaphysical composite whose form, his mind or soul, structures his matter to constitute what is essentially a certain kind of animal.1 Consequently, the hylomorphist identifies as holding a position resembling "animalism" among contemporary theories of personal identity.2 Nevertheless, there is significant controversy over the status of a soul that would survive the death of the body and whether extant explanations are coherent. I focus in this paper on one prominent debate among Thomists on the question as to whether the soul post mortem comes to constitute the same human person as in life, although persons are not identical to their souls in ordinary circumstances, or whether the human person ceases to exist at death.

I do not think the Thomistic debate can be resolved by further interpretation of the texts of Aquinas, as it seems that all parties in the Thomistic controversy are taking stands on a matter that goes beyond those texts. After outlining the dialectic of that debate, and engaging with a famous paper by Elizabeth Anscombe, what I will propose is that my soul comes to constitute my personality after I die, and that this allows a satisfying way to say that I survive my death, without violating any claims made by Aquinas. My view is a Thomistic account of the personhood of the separated soul—constrained by what Thomas Aquinas claims about human beings as matter-form composites and presuming other features of his metaphysics—but it has implications beyond Aquinas. My proposal is intended to give us an adequate theory of the semantics and metaphysics which allow a hylomorphist to say that I survive my death, in virtue of my soul surviving my death, even though that which I am identical to—the animal that is me—ceases to exist when I die. What I will propose is that there is a coherent hylomorphic account that permits me to survive my death, because hylomorphism can accommodate theories of personal identity that otherwise seem to be out of bounds to the substance dualist.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-376
Number of pages28
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


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