Is Heaven a Place We Can Get To?
Johnston (Mark)
Source: Johnston (Mark) - Surviving Death, 2010
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryNotes Citing this PaperText Colour-Conventions


  1. In the opening chapter, Johnston articulates why the issue of death needs the philosophical attention which it often lacks. Death threatens the importance of goodness itself. As Johnston states, "Death is the great leveller; if the good and the bad alike go down into oblivion, if there is nothing about reality itself that shores up this basic moral difference between their lives, say by providing what the good deserve, then the distinction between the good and the bad is less important. So goodness is less important." (p. 5)
  2. The threat is clearly evident if one is committed to a form of naturalism as opposed to a form of supernaturalism, as is Johnston. Johnston's goal is thus to address this threat within a naturalistic framework.
  3. Johnston's conclusion that one can survive death through good actions relies upon a particular view of goodness2. Johnston asserts that his view of the good person is one shared by forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, namely that a good person lives a transformed life by overcoming her own self and living in such a way as to respond to the needs of others. Johnston's view of the good person is thus of a person who, in his language, has "undergone a death of the self." (p. 14)
  4. After setting up the issue, the opening chapter proceeds to provide a careful discussion of various views of personal identity focusing upon various aspects of Christian views of identity and Neo-Lockean views of the self.
  5. Johnston concludes that the soul3, or some similar substance, does not exist. Importantly, Johnston is committed to overcoming supernaturalism and providing a naturalist account of the self and personal identity that does not rely upon anything outside of the natural realm.

  1. Introduction4
  2. The Popularity5 of the Other World
  3. What Does Death Threaten6?
  4. Death and the Importance7 of Goodness
  5. Can the Threat be Dismissed8?
  6. The Aim9 of These Lectures
  7. The Passage of the Soul10
  8. Locke11 and The Wisdom of Solomon
  9. Locke12 and Personal Identity
  10. The Irrelevance13 of the Soul?
  11. Neo-Lockeanism14 and Survival
  12. Neo-Lockeanism and Christian Mortalism15
  13. Bypassing the Bodily16 Criterion
  14. The Problem of Perimortem Duplicates17
  15. The Argument Anatomized18
  16. Mundane Necessity
  17. "Christian Physicalism"
  18. How Do We Know What We Are19?
  19. Saving Cognitive Labor by Offloading
  20. The Overall Plan of the Lectures
  21. Endurance, Perdurance, and “The Same Thing Again"
  22. The Real Problem with Neo-Lockeanism
  23. The Moral Problem with the Appeal to Neo-Lockeanism
  24. Are We Worms?
  25. Are We Stages?
  26. The Unhelpfulness of Reference Magnetism
  27. Only Souls Can Save Us
  28. Questions and Replies

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: From "Caldwell (Christopher M.) - Review - 'Surviving Death' by Mark Johnston".

Footnote 2: Goodness and “death to self”:-
  1. I agree that Johnston’s definition of “goodness” as “death to self” has this illustrious provenance, but there are other definitions consistent with naturalism that have equally august pedigrees – for instance the Aristotelian one whereby the good individual is the one with the right balance of virtues and that fulfils its proper function. In this tradition, a non-self cannot be good.
  2. I also think that while a literal “death of the self” is true of Buddhism, it is not true of Christianity. The good Christian is exhorted to “love his neighbour as himself”, which is not very much unless he loves himself too. Also, the discussion of resurrection – eg. in 1 Corinthians 15 – very much presupposes the survival of the individual.
  3. It is also clear that a “death of self” doctrine is very radical – it is one of the unrealistic elements of a crude consequentialism, where the calculations of the overall net good or bad consequences of an action take no account of who enjoys or suffers which of the consequences (provided the consequences are noted in the widest possible sense, including precedent and such-like).
Footnote 3: There is no obvious reason why the soul might not be natural rather than supernatural.

Footnote 4: Introduction:-
  1. These are lectures, and I worry slightly that, as they still read like lectures, they will not be as rigorous or as complete as is necessary for the subject matter.
  2. Johnston sees the topic as taboo in academic circles because there’s perceived to be a dilemma:-
    • Either the lecturer rehearses materialism – that the mind just is the functioning of the brain, and can’t survive the death thereof. This insults people’s religious beliefs and hopes for themselves and their loved ones.
    • Or, the lecturer provides special pleading for a particular religious tradition – debarred in an academic context.
  3. Since the topic is avoided, the malign impression is given to society at large that “you can believe what you like”.
Footnote 5: The 2003 Barna Research Group Survey of American views about life after death. This appears to be Link (Defunct).

Footnote 6: Three threats posed by death:-
  1. Loss of life with others,
  2. The end of presence, ie. conscious awareness, and
  3. The importance of goodness.
    … I’d add:-
  4. The end of achievement – ie. the cessation of (hopefully worthwhile) projects undertaken by the individual.
Footnote 7: Quotations from:-
  1. Ecclesiastes 2:12-17; 9:2-3: the same fate comes to all, and
  2. Wisdom 3:1-4: an allegedly valid, though unsound argument: given the above, we can act wickedly and get away with it.
Footnote 8: Kantian attempts to show that the argument presented in Wisdom is invalid rather than merely unsound are rejected, since the world itself is deaf to our cries for justice.

Footnote 9: Focus on the relation between death and goodness, so:-
  1. Ignore Epicureanism, whereby death should be of no concern to us as we won’t experience it (being non-existent).
  2. Ignore cryonic life-extension.
  3. Accepts the challenge of Phaedo 63c; that in death, there is something better for the good than the bad.
  4. Survival of death is a matter of degree. Actually (despite the title of the book), Johnston is explicitly talking about overcoming death, rather than surviving it, and this is where “those with a good will” do better than the bad. By “overcoming” he means “diminishing the threat to the one who is dying”, which is easier on those who have already undergone “death of the self” to one degree or another.
  5. For the good person, “my” self is just one of many selves over which I have stewardship, albeit to a higher degree, and to which I have an objective relationship.
  6. agape: the death of one individual (myself) is of much less importance to the good person than the “onward rush of mankind” (Mill).
  7. Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying”.
Footnote 10: The Passage of the Soul:
  1. Johnston is not dogmatically anti-supernaturalist – he just takes supernaturalism to be empirically false.
  2. He (also? therefore?) has a methodological commitment to naturalism.
  3. He wants to rescue (“ransom”) salvific religious ideas from their supernaturalist context. As a by-product, this will show what, if anything, supernaturalism adds.
  4. He takes our need for salvation to be an empirical matter, stemming from our “fallen condition”, explained naturalistically – we are referred to "Johnston (Mark) - Saving God: Religion after Idolatry". He sees “large-scale structural defects in human life”, including:-
    • Arbitrary and meaningless suffering,
    • The decay of aging,
    • Untimely death,
    • Our profound ignorance of our condition,
    • The destructiveness generated by our selfishness,
    • The vulnerability of all we cherish to chance, the state, and other massed institutions.
    He doesn’t think these can be remedied by psychological adjustment or natural prudence.
  5. He takes it that supernaturalist salvation was aiming in the right direction – justifying goodness in the light of the above evils – but should now be outgrown.
  6. The trouble is that, however we conceive of the afterlife in a supernaturalist sense, we can’t get there. That is, not on any plausible view of personal identity.
  7. A brief account of the cover painting by El Greco, of the soul of some pious Spanish nobleman being ushered to heaven. This represents the classic western view of post-mortem survival: the soul – the bearer of the identity and psychological qualities (including consciousness, personality and moral qualities) of the individual – is re-housed in a spiritual body for judgement and eternal life in the appropriate place. Corporeality of some form is essential for the soul to communicate. Johnston also states that the view is that heaven is the awakening from the dream-world of the earthly. This sounds a bit Platonic, without Plato’s insistence on the need of the soul to escape the body.
Footnote 11: Supernaturalism:
  1. During the Enlightenment, Hume and Spinoza rejected supernaturalism, but Locke through Kant thought it essential to justify the triumph of goodness.
  2. And (even up to) Anscombe – in "Anscombe (G.E.M.) - Modern Moral Philosophy" – considered that it is only a future divine judgement that gives the power to the “musts” of moral action.
Footnote 12: Locke and Personal Identity:-
  1. Locke is closer than Descartes (or El Greco) to NT Christianity where resurrection, rather than an immortal soul freed of the body, is what awaits the dead. For Locke, no mental or spiritual substance is required to carry the person’s identity to heaven.
  2. This was partly to avoid the Catholic insistence on purgatory, and the indulgences that sparked the Reformation.
  3. Luther derived psychopannychism – soul-sleep – from Ecclesiastes 9:5 (“ … the dead know not anything”) and parallels. This doctrine was accepted by some Catholics – eg. Karl Rahner – in the 1970s, but this was condemned by the now present Pope in the 1980s in his role as head of what used to be called the Inquisition.
  4. Milton, Hobbes and others – in particular Richard Overton – went further to thnetopsychism, the doctrine that the soul is annihilated between death and resurrection (indeed, that man is wholly corporeal).
  5. The wheeze of moving the comma in Christ’s words to the Good Thief “Verily I say unto you today, you shall be with me in Paradise” is down to Milton. Johnston seems somewhat scornful of this syntactical resource, because it is not available to resolve the difficulty posed by the parable of Dives and Lazarus to psychopannychism or thnetopsychism.
  6. There’s an interesting Wikipedia entry on Christian Mortalism (Link) that points out, amongst much else, that psychopannychism – meaning “the all-night vigil of the soul” – is Calvin’s term used to reject soul-sleep, and that the correct term for this idea is hypnopsychism, a term coined sometime after 582 by Eustratios of Constantinople in condemning Christian Mortalism. The confusion came from a mistranslation of Calvin’s Latin into French.
Footnote 13: The Soul’s irrelevance:-
  1. The usual exposition of Locke, which I won’t repeat.
  2. Johnston notes that Locke is neutral when it comes to adjudicating between the “soul sleep” and “soul death” camps.
Footnote 14: Neo-Lockeanism:-
  1. This is the “Wide Psychological View” – otherwise known as “wide psychological reductionism” – which expands Locke’s inadequate “memory criterion” of personal identity to include other psychological qualities and capacities involved in the holding of psychological continuity and connectedness.
  2. The “width” is down to the claim that the normal means of securing psychological continuity – persistence of the same body or brain – is not deemed necessary.
  3. This was the dominant view 20 years ago; Johnston cites as paradigm exponents:-
    "Lewis (David) - Survival and Identity",
    "Quinton (Anthony) - The Soul",
    "Swinburne (Richard) - Personal Identity: The Dualist Theory", and
    "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Persons and Their Pasts".
  4. Johnston notes that, in the absence of an requirement for a “substrate” for identity preservation, there’s a temptation to suppose that minds are software programs or information-bearing patterns that can be run on different hardware, or re-instantiated having been held in the mind of God. He finds a sophisticated version of the “remembered pattern” idea in Polkinghorne’s The Faith of a Physicist.
Footnote 15: Christian Mortalism:-
  1. Johnston notes that Christian Mortalism, which allows that the mental supervenes on the physical, is not a hostage to fortune concerning increasing scientific demonstration that the mind depends exclusively on the brain.
  2. Additionally, we don’t have to worry how Soul + (material) Body1 is identical to Soul + (spiritual) Body2. Why isn’t that situation better described as the spiritual remnant of the deceased with a new part tacked on? Mind you – it seems to me (and no doubt to Johnston) – at least we have identity of a part; for resurrection, we might not have identity at all. But, for the neo-Lockean, provided the appropriate psychological continuity is there, and there is uniqueness (the difficult issue) we do indeed have personal identity.
Footnote 16: Bodily Criterion:-
  1. The Bodily Criterion view of personal identity seems, at first sight, to fit the resurrection account of life after death. The idea would be that God recreates the very same body that died, and then repairs it into the resurrection body. This requires that intermittent existence of physical objects be coherent.
  2. Johnston seems insufficiently to distinguish supporters of the Bodily Criterion from Animalists. He lists the following supporters:-
    "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance",
    "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings",
    "Snowdon (Paul) - Persons, Animals, and Ourselves", and
    "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology".
  3. Johnston sees correctly that this form of Mortalism confuses identity with exact similarity: we have a copy that is exactly similar to the original (even if made up of the exact same atoms in the exact same relations).
  4. He quotes "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Possibility of Resurrection" to this effect; which uses a reconstituted manuscript as an example. But, Johnston considers the Ship of Theseus as a counter-example, saying that the ship reassembled from its plans would be the original ship.
  5. This illustrates the distinction between what Johnston calls immediate parts (planks, half a manuscript, …) and remote parts (atoms).
  6. He sees an application of this distinction in Pharisaic double-burial where, after the flesh has decayed, the bones of the deceased – presumably considered as immediate parts to which flesh may be added in the resurrection – are re-buried in an ossuary.
  7. Johnston considers a stepwise reconstruction starting from the deceased’s perimortem atoms: building up to molecules, cells, organs, … at each stage the constituents being immediate parts of the higher-level structure.
  8. The problem with this is that the atoms are (over time) shared by multiple organisms that all require resurrection. The classic case is of cannibals, but it applies equally to the transfer via worms to animals to food … to other human beings, as was noted by Robert Boyle in the late 17th century. A solution – whereby there is equitable sharing of atoms, so the resurrected just end up with smaller bodies – is described by Johnston as “even more ludicrous”.
Footnote 17: Perimortem Duplicates:-
  1. Johnston imagines the situation whereby two individuals, separated by 200 years in time, are – either by chance or by divine fiat – composed of exactly the same atoms in exactly the same configuration. Then – on this account of post-mortem survival – both these individuals will be resurrected as the same individual. As Johnston points out, this is a contradiction. He doesn’t use the transitivity of identity but the necessity of distinctness.
  2. We might cavil at this example. If having the same atoms in the same configuration is sufficient for personal identity (as is taken to be the case for the reductio), then the two pre-mortem individuals would “themselves” be identical: we would have a very special case of re-incarnation. I think this would then remove the contradiction, because the case of two identically-configured perimortem individuals could not arise – but see further explanation, and a clear objection, under the next Footnote.
  3. Johnston notes a “conceit” of David Lewis whereby – by treating people as 4-dimensional worms – we do, in resurrection have two co-located individuals that share all their post-resurrection stages. He promises to deal with this notion later (but Click here for Note).
Footnote 18: Johnston’s Perimortem Duplicates argument formalised:-
  1. It’s not necessary to repeat the full formalism in these notes. Johnston claims that it’s not the Bodily Criterion that causes the contradiction, but the auxiliary assumption that a body can be reassembled from its constituent atoms like a disassembled artefact. Consequently, a human body cannot have scattered or intermittent existence.
  2. While I agree with the conclusion, there seems at first sight to be a problem with Johnston’s argument which might mean there’s no contradiction in the first place; in which case the alleged contradiction could not be used to refute the possibility of the intermittent existence of human bodies (though there are other reasons for rejecting this idea).
  3. Let’s imagine a bicycle, say, disassembled, then reassembled 200 years later, then “resurrected”. Since the “two” pre-resurrection bicycles would have been identical, there would be no contradiction that they should “both” be identical to the “resurrected” one. What’s the difference between this TE and Johnston’s about human bodies? He cannot just (at this stage) assume that a body cannot be re-assembled, as that’s what he’s trying to prove – so he has no principled reason for denying that the two pre-mortem bodies are identical, and hence that there’s no contradiction.
  4. Consider his auxiliary assumption:-
      Necessarily, if at some time t after the death of a body x a body y comes together out of simple elements in such a way as to reproduce x's perimortem state then y is numerically the same body as x; that is, y is the very body x come back into existence.
    Now, the two pre-mortem bodies are presumably both perimortem, as they are both to be resurrected in this state. But how did the later one come into being? It came from a natural reassembly of the atoms that had made up the former body into the identical configuration of that former body. So, why is it not identical to that former body? I can’t see how Johnston could, using the principles of the auxiliary assumption, deny their identity, unless he has some objection to supernatural resurrection that doesn’t apply to natural resurrection. So, he needs to come up with some other objection – other than duplication – why scattered or intermittent existence is OK for bicycles but not for human bodies.
  5. Johnston almost considers this objection, as he tries the standard modus tollens versus modus ponens trick to show, given the assumed falsity of the conclusion …
      Necessarily, there are no distinct bodies x and z with the same perimortem state such that y comes together out of simple elements in such a way as to reproduce both x's perimortem state
      and z's perimortem state.
    … that (given the validity of the argument), one of the premises must be at fault.
  6. But, is this conclusion necessarily false? Johnston correctly points out that it’s very unlikely that x and z have the same perimortem state, but that’s neither here nor there. All we need is logical possibility. But the key assumption is that bodies x and z are non-identical, which, I claim, might (at this stage in the argument) be false.
  7. But, we need to consider the claim that the identity-claim for x and z is in fact false. What it amounts to is that because (as I have claimed) x and z are identical at one point in their life-trajectories they are identical tout court. This doesn’t seem impossible given that they live 200 years apart. But, might not their life-trajectories overlap in time? This would seem to be possible – even if we have to extend life-spans beyond the normal – this is a TE, after all. All x’s atoms at time t1 ultimately get replaced and recycled so they, by design or fluke) constitute z at time t2 > t1. But x exists from t0 < t1 until t3; and z exists from t4 < t3 until after t2, so x and z in this telling are clearly NOT identical as they coexist at the same time (between t3 and t4) and we can see that they are not the same individual (we do not allow a single individual to have two bodies). So, there must be something wrong with the claim that the identity of the perimortem states of “two” individuals makes them into one.
  8. So, the objection to Johnston’s argument fails for a similar reason to that which causes Johnston’s argument to succeed – the logic of identity undermines it.
  9. Johnston points out that Peter Van Inwagen (where?) accepts the argument (which?) that denies that a human body can be reassembled, claiming that (in Johnston’s words?)
      The survival of a given body depends on the survival of the particular token dispositions to life functions that maintain that body. When the body dies those particular token dispositions come to an end forever, even if the same type of dispositions are reproduced in a duplicate body reconstructed from the same matter.
    I’m not sure what these “token dispositions” are, but they are important when we consider the lives of organisms.
  10. Johnston deals with the difficulties of the bodily criterion which he (incorrectly, I believe) takes to be Animalism in "Johnston (Mark) - 'Human Beings' Revisited: My Body is Not an Animal".

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