Life After Death and the Devastation of the Grave
Olson (Eric)
Source: Martin & Augustine - The Myth of an Afterlife, Part 2, Chapter 19, 2015: 409-423
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract1

  1. This paper – written for non-specialist readers – asks whether life after death2 is in any sense possible given the apparent fact that after we die our remains decay to the point where only randomly scattered atoms remain.
  2. The paper argues that this is possible only if our remains are not in fact dispersed in this way, and discusses how that might be the case.

  1. Life After Death3
  2. Total Destruction
  3. The Soul
  4. Body-Snatching
  5. Radical Resurrection
  6. Irreversibility
  7. Atomic Reassembly
  8. The Transporter
  9. Duplicates and Originals
  10. Survival and Causal Connections

  1. As Olson says in his Abstract, this paper is for non-specialist readers.
  2. It is basically a re-working of parts of "Olson (Eric) - Immanent Causation and Life After Death", without the difficult – but important – sections on Immanent Causation5. We are referred to this paper, and to Dean Zimmerman’s original ‘falling elevator’ paper for a continuation of this discussion.
  3. As I’ve written extensive Notes6 on Olson’s paper above there’s no point repeating them here. I just note the correspondences and any change of emphasis, or anything new that struck me. The comments below are indexed to the Sections of this paper.
  4. Life After Death7:
    • The question is not so much whether there is an afterlife8, but whether there could be (for beings such as us).
    • Just how would our post-mortem survival9 be accomplished? We need an explanation.
    • Otherwise, it might be something that even God couldn’t accomplish10.
    • Olson effectively defines death11 as “an event in which one’s biological functions cease and cannot be restarted by any possible medical intervention” (eg. after incineration).
    • He ignores trivial cases such as
      1. Freezing and subsequent repair and resuscitation12.
      2. Living on in the memories of others.
    • The interesting cases are:-
      1. “The life of the world to come”, whether this be in heaven, hell or more generally in some time or place somehow removed13 from the one we currently inhabit, or
      2. Reincarnation14.
    • Olson will not focus on reincarnation15, as he doesn’t consider it a majority16 view, and he thinks it has “special problems” to be addressed later.
    • Instead, he considers just what it would take for us to exist post-mortem in the next world conscious and with memories17 of our past life in this world.
  5. Total Destruction:
    • Olson rehearses what this means – the scattering of your atoms at random across the void – and contrasts the situation where some recognisable ruins remain – so that you might be reconstructed – with a sandcastle washed away by the tide.
    • Olson can think of two reasons why – despite appearances – you might persist though totally destroyed
      1. One – preservation – is that the total destruction of death is largely an illusion18.
      2. The other is radical resurrection, whereby God restores us to being despite our total destruction.
  6. The Soul:
    • According to this view, an immaterial part of us – the soul19 – survives death and
      1. Either finds its way (somehow) to the next world, where it may – but need not – acquire a new body,
      2. Or attaches itself to a newly conceived foetus20 – the only possibility for reincarnation21, thinks Olson.
    • The soul must be a very special part of you, because the mere fact that a part of you – a carbon atom (say) – survives your death doesn’t mean that you do! The soul must enable you to be conscious and remember your past life.
    • The usual claim by those who hold this view is that it’s your soul that experiences and does these things pre-mortem, with the body its tool for action.
    • This view has been endorsed by great thinkers of the past – and is accepted by the vast bulk of religious people today. "Swinburne (Richard) - The Evolution of the Soul" (1997) is a contemporary defense of this – the Platonic Model of life after death22.
    • There’s disagreement amongst philosophers as to whether the Platonic Model is even possible, but even if it is, it’s very unlikely to be actual because:-
      1. On the “soul view23” a sharp blow to the head ought to leave the soul fully conscious, albeit disconnected from its body, but this isn’t what we find. So, if a minor brain assault leads to unconsciousness, how could you remain conscious if your brain was totally destroyed? We’re referred to "Van Inwagen (Peter) - Metaphysics", pp. 196-824.
      2. Every mental phenomenon we know of varies with the state of one’s brain. Even where the connections aren’t known, we know there must be some. These facts suggest that mental goings-on are physical processes in the brain rather than events in the soul. So, it looks like there is no immaterial soul; and that even if there is, it has nothing to do with our mental abilities, and so25 of no more post-mortem interest than our carbon atoms.
    • For these and other reasons, most contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists regard this model as a lost cause. While we might hope the experts are wrong, it’s unwise to bet against the settled scientific consensus.
  7. Body-Snatching:
    • See section 3 of "Olson (Eric) - Immanent Causation and Life After Death" – this account is much the same.
    • The advantage is that no immaterial soul is required – though this advantage is (for atheists) outweighed by the need for a supernatural being (on the “soul view26” we might be naturally immortal).
    • While it appears to show that life after death27 is indeed possible28, but Olson thinks the main objections are theological. The objections are the same as previously given.
  8. Radical Resurrection:
    • So, rejecting souls and body snatching – how else might we survive death?
    • Olson rehearses the “Colossus of Rhodes” example introduced in Section 2 of "Olson (Eric) - Immanent Causation and Life After Death". As the Colossus has been totally destroyed (rather than broken into pieces that might be rediscovered and reassembled) no amount of ingenuity can do more than create an exact replica.
    • While God might create a perfect replica from the very atoms that made up the Colossus, even he cannot recreate the original29.
  9. Irreversibility:
    • This is a recapitulation of the rest of Section 2 of "Olson (Eric) - Immanent Causation and Life After Death".
    • Olson’s objection – the “irreversibility principle” – is effectively an intuition that others might not share.
    • He says that it’d be open to debate if your organic parts still existed and could be reassembled and repaired, but this isn’t the case envisaged.
  10. Atomic Reassembly:
    • For all that, some people don’t share Olson’s intuition and claim that a person could be restored after total destruction. Olson cites:-
      1. John Hick - Philosophy of Religion 4th Ed. 1990, pp. 122-430, and
      2. "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Death and the Afterlife".
    • Just what is wrong with the reassembly model, in which God gathers our atoms and reassembles them as a watchmaker the scattered parts of a disassembled watch?
    • Olson considers the following difficulties:-
      1. A continuous space-time path is required from this world to the next, as for the body-snatching case.
      2. Even atoms aren’t indestructible, so life after death31 could be prevented by atomic destruction that even God couldn’t repair.
      3. Our atoms enter the food chain and will eventually form part of other people. This32 becomes a greater problem as (geological) time goes by.
      4. Given metabolism33, there’s no such collection as “your original atoms”.
      5. Having the same atoms is not necessary for persistence even in this world – Olson imagines that sometime in the remote future some other person might possess the same atoms in the same configuration as you – yet not be you – as (apart from for an instant) that person’s career would bear no similarity to yours.
    • How does this compare with the watch-repair? Well, the disassembled watch hasn’t been totally destroyed. Its parts remain – otherwise there would be no difference between reassembling a watch and manufacturing a new one from new materials.
    • Your atoms are not like the gears of a watch, but like the grains of sand making up a sandcastle. There’s no natural or salient34 way of putting them back together.
  11. The Transporter:
    • So, as the particular atoms we’re made up of is irrelevant, cannot God just take any appropriate atoms and arrange them as you are now: would that person be you?
    • This resembles Star Trek teletransportation35. As Olson describes it, the process involves scanning and dispersing the local body – thus totally destroying it – and sending information to the destination, where new atoms are configured as were the originals.
    • Olson isn’t claiming this is how God gets us to the next world – but it shows that – if teletransportation36 is possible – he could do so: indeed, he could “note” the configuration of your atoms at the “appropriate” moment of your life without disturbing you at all, and recreate you at Judgement Day. Does the Star Trek model of radical resurrection work?
  12. Duplicates and Originals:
    • While the Star Trek model solves many of the problems associated with the reassembly model, it has many new problems of its own.
      1. The first is the problem of duplication.
        • If it becomes possible to exactly duplicate a Rembrandt, the original is still the version that should be displayed as the genuine article, even if there’s no aesthetic difference between it and the copy.
        • Olson applies this model – rather obscurely – to the Colossus37. What would you do differently to send a copy than to transport the original? And how would you know38 which was which?
        • Some processes – like tossing a coin – have chance outcomes (so we might toss a coin to determine which is the original), but this doesn’t help in this case – if we repeat the process we might end up with two39 “originals”, which is impossible.
        • So, if the Star Trek model is correct when applied to life after death40, there’s no difference between you being recreated and a duplicate being created, and having life after death41 ceases to be a fundamental question of human existence42.
      2. A second43 problem is the case44 where the scan does not disperse the original, but just grabs the information.
        • The scanned individual would be universally considered to remain self-identical, with the teletransportee a duplicate.
        • But, the previously considered logic of the teletransporter as a means of transport would imply that this man is also the original, and the logic of identity implies a contradiction45.
        • So, it looks like we have a situation whereby whether the original is or isn’t destroyed affects whether the teletransportee is or isn’t identical to the original, which Olson takes to be absurd46.
    • So, for these and other (unspecified) reasons, teletransportation47 only leads to a duplicate being transported.
    • So, why do viewers of Star Trek not share this intuition? Olson’s answer is that Star Trek is a work of fiction, and that we suspend disbelief and go along with the plot unless it’s so absurd that we lose patience. But teletransportation48 isn’t obviously absurd. Olson imagines that most people would go along with the notion of Captain Kirk discovering the largest prime number, despite there being a mathematical proof that this is impossible. So, the fact that audiences go along with fictions is no guide to their possibility49.
  13. Survival and Causal Connections50:
    • Olson draws things together, and gives the reason why radical resurrection and teletransportation51 don’t work. While the individual would think of themselves as the prior person, they would be wrong.
    • The reason is the wrong sort of causation52. To continue to exist, an individual has to at least partly cause itself to continue existing; all the work cannot be done by an external agency.
    • The bottom line is that if the devastation of the grave isn’t an illusion, we’re doomed. We must hope we’re souls or our bodies are snatched away.
    • See the footnote for the details.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Repeated by the Editors at Link.

Footnote 4: Footnote 5: Though Olson does mention this briefly in Section 10.

Footnote 10: Footnote 12: Footnote 13: Christian materialist and maybe some Biblical literalists seem to agree, but most Christians probably consider heaven and hell to be – along with God – outside of space and time altogether.

Footnote 16: Maybe not, but there are a lot of Buddhist and Hindus who believe in reincarnation.

Footnote 17: Olson allows for the case of a reincarnated infant remembering her past life – but – while so-called evidences of memories of past lives are often used to support claims for reincarnation – this isn’t supposed to be the normal case.

Footnote 18: Footnote 24: We’re referred to the 2nd edition, 2002. I have the 3rd edition, 2008, and the pagination seems to differ. I’ll chase this up eventually.

Footnote 25: Footnote 28: This was the intention of "Van Inwagen (Peter) - The Possibility of Resurrection" - the suggestion was to show logical possibility, not to demonstrate how it’s done.

Footnote 29: Footnote 30: Footnote 32: Considered as the “cannibalism” objection in medieval times.

Footnote 33: This is – as always – important. We are organisms (Click here for Note) not “bodies” (Click here for Note).

Footnote 34: This is the key point – they could make anything you like that’s made of the same raw materials.

Footnote 37: Footnote 38: Footnote 39: This duplication objection is defeated by perdurantist (Click here for Note) considerations.

Footnote 42: Footnote 43: This looks rather like the first problem to me.

Footnote 44: Footnote 45: Footnote 46: Footnote 49: Footnote 50: Footnote 52:

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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