Non-Reductive Physicalism – Some Problems (Part 2)

Yesterday, I mentioned one challenge that non-reductive physicalists face. Today I’d like to mention two more.

The Problem of the Intermediate State…

A second challenge that the nonreductive physicalist faces is the problem of the intermediate state and the afterlife. All physicalist accounts face the problem of a “gappy existence” during the intermediate state. That is, if humans are merely composed of matter, then it seems as though the intermediate state—a state in which a material human does not exist—presents a problem for the persistence of identity of that person. The nonreductive physicalist has a few options for avoiding this problem of a “gappy existence.” First, they could just deny the intermediate state. This seems like the least attractive solution as it pushes against a key element of the biblical tradition. Second, they could posit a view according to which the body of the dead person continues to exist in the intermediate state. This is the view entertained, but not adopted, by Peter van Inwagen. He suggest that perhaps God creates a simulacra of deceased person, leaves this simulacra in the grave and then takes the dead person to heaven. This is an odd view for it posits that God is decieving us every time someone dies. Another version of an account in which the body of the person continues to exist in the intermediate state is the “falling elevator view” advocated for by a number of philosophers. In this view, the moment a person dies, an act of fission occurs. Part of the body stays on earth but another part is taken up to be with God. One problem with this view is that there is no basis for thinking that an act of fission occurs upon death. A third, and perhaps the best option for the non-reductive physicalist to avoid the “gappy existence” problem is the view according to which God stores the configuration or memory of the deceased person so that upon the resurrection God reinstantiates the configuration of mental states into a person. In other words, God remembers the information about the dead person and instantiates it in the eschaton. In such a view, there is a gap in the person’s existence, but the gap doesn’t undercut the identity of the person persists through death and into the eschaton. The problem with this view concerns the uniqueness of the new person. After all, it seems as though God could create many copies of humans with the same exact configuration of mental states as the original person. At that point, it would be impossible to differentiate between those persons and thus it would be impossible to say which one is identical to the deceased person.

The Definition of “Matter”

A final challenge that nonreductive physicalism faces is one brought up by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. In Creation and Humanity he points out that a number of scientists are beginning to question the definition of matter. Accordingly, it is no longer as clear that matter and mind are as different as we once thought. If this is correct, then it seems as the impetus for adopting physicalism is severely undermined. This is because we might be able to affirm dualism or some kind of multi-dimensional monism, like that of Polkinghorne or Kärkkäinen.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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