Many atheists and agnostics like to declare that only religious people have faith. However, if by “faith” one means a belief that ventures beyond the evidence or what can be strictly proven, then every (sane) person has significant faith. In fact, all of us exercise lots of faith in many ways every day. It is not only the “religious” folk who do so.
I explain why this is so in my article “You Gotta Believe” in the latest issue of Salvo. I show how even some of our most basic and common sense beliefs are as unprovable as they are irresistible and that even the most rigorous scientist makes a number of assumptions that are essentially faith ventures. Faith, it turns out, is unavoidable, despite what popular clichés might suggest to the contrary.
By the way, Salvo is a really cool magazine about society, sex and science. So after you read my piece, be sure to subscribe. And encourage all your friends (and enemies) to do so as well.
The doctrine of purgatory is naturally associated with Roman Catholic theology, but some Protestant philosophers and theologians affirm the doctrine (albeit a version of the view which sees purgatory as serving the function of completing sanctification rather than providing final satisfaction for sin). One of the most prominent of these is Jerry Walls, who has published a trilogy of Oxford monographs on personal eschatology, as well as Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, a single volume treatment of the subject.
Walls, who is a Wesleyan, defends the doctrine of purgatory beginning with the basic idea that salvation is not just about forgiveness of sins but is mainly about spiritual transformation. So if salvation essentially involves transformation, “what becomes of those who plead the atonement of Christ for salvation but die before they have
been thoroughly transformed?” Such people, he says, “do not seem ready for a heaven of perfect love and fellowship with God, but neither should they be consigned to hell.” The standard Protestant view is that for such people full sanctification is accomplished immediately and painlessly “by a unilateral act of God at death.” This view, which some scholars call “provisionism” is deeply problematic, according to Walls. One of his arguments appeals to human temporality. Since all human moral growth and maturation on earth is a process that takes time, then it makes sense to assume that our moral progress in the next world will be a temporal process. This suggests something like a purgatorial completion of our sanctification. Walls also uses an argument from human freedom. The idea here is that all human sanctification on earth involves free human choices as we cooperate in the process of moral growth. A unilateral act of God that instantaneously perfects us would be a radical departure from this basic aspect of our experience.
Another Protestant advocate of purgatory is philosopher Justin Barnard. In his Faith and Philosophy article “Purgatory and the Dilemma of Sanctification,” Barnard emphasizes two further considerations. One of these is the problem of personal identity that provisionists face. With such a radical sudden transformation of one’s moral nature, as provisionists propose, how can one be properly considered the same person afterwards? Preservation of personal identity through time requires more gradual change, Barnard would say, and this suggests a slow purgatorial transformation.
But Barnard’s primary concern regards the problem of evil. If God can perfect us morally suddenly after death, then why doesn’t he do it now? The fact that God waits suggests that there is a lot of evil that God cannot remove “without thereby sacrificing any significant good.” Here some appeal to the idea that God refrains from perfecting us on earth in order to respect our free will. But then this implies that God takes away our freedom when he perfects us in heaven. But if that’s not problematic in heaven, then why would it be problematic here? Barnard proposes that the doctrine of purgatory—or his “sanctification” version of the doctrine anyway—avoids this problem, as it says that the process of moral perfection that we begin on earth is simply completed in the afterlife—gradually and eventually completely.
Personally, I am not a proponent of the doctrine of purgatory, but I must admit that such arguments give me pause. While they might never ultimately persuade me to accept the doctrine, I certainly respect the view and see why it has been affirmed by so many great Christian thinkers down through history.
William James was one of the leading American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although highly empiricistic in his bent, his openness and increasing sympathy with belief in a transcendent reality is remarkable. Especially through his research for his Gifford Lectures on religious experience, which culminated in the classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’s views seemed to shift from openness to bona fide belief.
In his 1898 essay “Human Immortality” James argues that even if we assume the brain-dependence of the mind, this does not rule out the possibility of life after death. James begins with the assumption that “thought is a function of the brain” and so asks, “Does this doctrine logically compel us to disbelieve in immortality?” He answers negatively, and all he needs to do to support his thesis is offer a reasonable way in which such survival is possible even given this assumption. This would show that the functional dependence of the mind on the body “has in strict logic no deterrent power” when it comes to belief in immortality.
“The fatal conclusion of the physiologist,” says James “flows from his assuming off-hand another kind of functional dependence, and treating it as the only imaginable kind.” The truth is that there are several kinds of functional dependence, only one of which is the productive function that materialists assume about the brain-mind.
James asks us to consider two other kinds of functional dependence: (1) a releasing function, as when an obstacle is removed from the bow, allowing the bow to bounce back and, thus, the arrow to be shot away or when a plug is removed from a drain, allowing water to flow into the pipe and (2) a transmissive function, as when a prism or refracting lens allows light to pass through while determining the color, path, and shape of that light as it proceeds. In both of these cases there is functional dependence, but in neither case is the dependence productive.
So the question is whether the functional dependence of the mind on the brain must be productive. James says no, “we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this is what the ordinary psycho-physiologist leaves out of his account.” So James is proposing the possibility that the brain does not produce but rather transmits or releases mental activity, in the sense that there is a realm of consciousness beyond this physical realm—whether a single, monolithic consciousness, as conceived by pantheists or innumerable individual consciousnesses as conceived in orthodox Christian and Jewish traditions—which breaks into the physical realm via our brains.
James writes, “Consciousness in this process does not have to be generated de novo in a vast number of places. It exists already, behind the scenes, coeval with the world. The transmission theory not only avoids in this way multiplying miracles, but it put itself in touch with general idealistic philosophy better than the production-theory does. It should always be reckoned a good thing when science and philosophy thus meet.” As a Berkeleyan idealist myself, I am especially pleased to see James make this important observation. He continues: “On the production-theory one does not see from what sensation such odd bits of knowledge are produced. On the transmission-theory, they don’t have to be ‘produced,’—they exist ready-made in the transcendental world, and all that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through.” So, on this view, death doesn’t bring destruction of the person. Rather, “all that can remain after the brain expires is the larger consciousness itself as such” whether conceived in a pantheistic or traditionally theistic way.
I find James’ perspective here to be refreshing for a couple of reasons. In the first place, the theory he proposes here is quite plausible—it has significant explanatory power, and it avoids many philosophical problems related to the two major theories of mind—physicalism and substance dualism. Secondly, James’ approach is refreshing because of his open-mindedness and theoretical adventurousness. James’s views evolved throughout his philosophical career, and as he explored issues in the area of religious experience, he showed an admirable willingness to allow his findings to open his mind to the pervasive reality of the supernatural. The proposal he makes in “Human Immortality” is just one instance of this.
In a posthumously published essay entitled “Theism,” the great 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill takes an agnostic stance on life after death. Here I will review some of Mill’s arguments in this essay.
Mill rehearses the standard “correlation argument” against survival (formerly deployed by Lucretius, Hume and others). He observes that “the different degrees of complication of the nervous and cerebral organization, correspond to differences in the development of the mental faculties; and . . . diseases of the brain disturb the mental functions and . . . decay or weakness of the brain enfeebles them. We have therefore sufficient evidence that cerebral action is, if not the cause, at least . . . a condition sine qua non of mental operations.” Mill rightly concedes, however, “these considerations only amount to defect of evidence; they afford no positive argument against immortality.”
Mill further notes that belief in immortality isn’t grounded in philosophical or scientific arguments anyway but rather is inspired by “our own wishes and the general assent of other people.” There is also the fact that immortality is naturally desired, which some (such as Aquinas) have parleyed into an argument in favor of the belief. Mill writes, “We are told that the desire of immortality is one of our instincts, and that there is no instinct which has not corresponding to it a real object fitted to satisfy it.” Mill critiques this argument by comparing it to an inference from the desire for food to the conclusion that we will always have plenty to eat. This is clearly a misunderstanding of the argument, however. Since the inference is not just from the presence of desire to the conclusion that the desire will be fulfilled. Rather, the argument reasons from the fact that there is a natural human desire to the conclusion that that desire can be fulfilled (not that it necessarily will be). So Mill’s criticism doubly misconstrues the argument from desire.
Mill notes another line of argument, which is based in the goodness of God and “the improbability that God would ordain the annihilation of his noblest and richest work . . . and the special improbability that he would have implanted in us an instinctive desire of eternal life and doomed that desire to complete disappointment.” He says the problem with this argument is that it assumes we know more than we do about God’s broader purposes, some element of which might have made it best to give us this desire without its being fulfilled. Mill is certainly correct on this point.
Mill concludes that we have “no assurance whatever of a life after death on grounds of natural religion. But . . . there is no hindrance to his indulging that hope.” This tempered conclusion makes sense given the arguments he discusses, even despite his misconstrual of the argument from desire. Philosophical arguments (or those based on “natural religion,” as he puts it) for life after death, much less human immortality, are probably fall short of providing anything like assurance, at least those arguments available in Mill’s day. (Contemporary arguments based on recent near-death experience research, however, might be a different story. I will explore such in some upcoming posts.) But Mill is also wise to allow for the reasonableness of indulging in the “hope” of life after death. I would certainly say so, given (1) the nearly universal desire for survival, (2) the Kantian point that ethics depends upon immortality, and (3) the theological grounds for immortality, which are considerable.
Last week I watched the first two Godfather films with one of my sons, and I was struck again at the brilliance of these movies, both as works of cinematic art and for their insightful themes about human nature, especially regarding moral psychology. So here I am going to highlight three of the more significant “lessons” from the Godfather I and II. I will assume that you have already seen both of these films. (If you haven’t done so, then in the name of aesthetic excellence, please do so as soon as possible!)
The first lesson is this: human beings are capable of rationalizing even the worst forms of wickedness. In the Godfather films, Vito, Michael and other members of the Corleone mafia family consistently refer to their illegal activities, including their most gruesome hits on various enemies, as “business.” This handy euphemism enables them to see all of their murders as somehow legitimate. As bizarre and alien as this might seem to us as viewers, it is important to remember that this only differs in degree, not kind, from rationalizations of which we are all guilty. We may not glibly refer to murder as “business,” but we might reconceive our arrogance as “self-confidence,” minimize our inconsiderateness as “competitiveness,” or dismiss our temper tantrums as “venting stress.”
Another important reminder from the Godfather films is that even the best of us is vulnerable to corruption, given the right circumstances. At the start of the film, Vito’s son Michael is the only innocent adult male in the Corleone family. A recent war veteran, Michael is an honorable young man—brave, respectful, self-controlled, and principled. With such virtue, how could he ever be corrupted? Well, when your father is gunned down and you see your family suffering severely as a result, this can tempt anyone to revenge. And, of course, Michael succumbs in dramatic and protracted fashion. Perhaps the only reason you and I have not followed the path of Michael Corleone is—thank God—we’ve never been put in those same circumstances.
Thirdly, some of the most powerful temptations to evil are those which invite us to achieve good consequences. It was Michael’s love for his family and his sense of justice that prompted his outrage at the assassination attempt on his father. And it was this outrage which was the doorway to his corruption. Thus, while the usual temptations to power and wealth were insufficient to turn Michael to the dark side, a reasonable desire to see a wrong made right was sufficient. This serves as a powerful reminder that we are never so virtuous as to be out of the reach of evil, for even our strongest virtues can be leverage points for the most severe moral failures.
The story in the Godfather serves as a cautionary tale about the universal human potential for extreme wickedness. In many ways, the films realistically highlight a significant, if painfully dark, aspect of human nature and the need to guard ourselves in light of this. It is a theme succinctly expressed by the Lord himself in his famous remark to Cain—a man who, like Michael Corleone, faced temptation to murder and who likewise succumbed: “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you. But you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Amen and Amen.
Since I am getting ready to offer a negative movie review for a film which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, I might as well start with a bang and admit it: I don’t like Tom Hanks—as an actor, of course, since I have never actually met the man. Can’t really think of a movie I have liked with him in, other than Toy Story, since The Burbs. If you haven’t caught this forgotten oldie but goodie starring Hanks and Carrie Fisher, I highly recommend you grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready for a good giggle.
Anyhow, back to Hanks and his tendency toward preachy, sanctimonious characters. I have learned just to avoid him, along with Julia Roberts who also puts me in a foul mood, but recently I made an exception. While staying with my folks and having had the movie recommended to me by friends and family alike, I agreed to watch Bridge of Spies. Unfortunately, the movie did little to change my opinion of Hanks.
Bridge of Spies has a lot going for it: based on a true story which takes place during a tension-filled period of history; one man of honor standing up against the tide of popular opinion to uphold justice and what is right; great writers (the Coen brothers) and, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood as its director (Steven Spielberg). What could possibly go wrong?
Well… I really wanted to like it. As the credits rolled and my dad talked about how this was his “kind of movie,” I really hated to be that person, the annoying one who feels the need to burst everyone’s feel good bubble. At least my family is used to it. So here is what I hated—yes hated—about this film. Jim Donovan, Hanks’ character, is a lawyer defending a known Soviet spy on trial for espionage.
Donovan doesn’t believe his personal or political feelings should get in the way of his defense of Rudolph Abel, the accused. In fact, he doesn’t reveal his feelings one way or another about what Abel has done—to Abel, his colleagues, or even his wife. This is my first criticism. This lack of conflict during the trial and after as events unfold in a way which pulls Donovan even further into the complex world of international diplomacy makes him a very one-dimensional character. Perhaps the filmmakers were portraying Donovan as he was in real life, maybe he was entirely comfortable with defending this man and having his personal and professional life severely disrupted, but, knowing human nature, I doubt. And knowing storytelling, the character who does what he believes to be right despite his own mixed feelings makes for a much more interesting and believable story.
The other aspect of the film that got my undergarments all in a tangle was the obviously negative slant towards the U.S. government and military during this period of history. I find it symptomatic of Hollywood’s blinding liberal bias that they continually cast government agents and institutions in a negative light when their own political viewpoint calls for more government intervention and control. There was not one positive CIA agent, judge, or military personnel in the entire film, unless of course, you count the Soviets. Jeez-Louise, this was a story about an evil, yes evil, system of government that wanted to topple democracy and end our political system of rights and civil liberties, who captured one of our soldiers, tortured him, along with an innocent grad student and only surrendered them in exchange for one of their own. In Bridge, the two countries, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, are represented as equal at best, with the U.S. sometimes coming off as worse. For the generations who didn’t grow up in the shadow of the Cold War, the message is “It’s all relative. Your country, my country. We are all the same.” Jim Donovan is the hero of the movie without a doubt, but what is entirely lost is that he is the hero because he is an American, a true American who believes in the Constitution of the United States of America and is willing to make sacrifices in order to defend it. Bridge of Spies makes us believe he is a nation unto himself, with everyone else against him. One of the incidents depicted in the movie, where Donovan’s house is being shot at, didn’t even happen but that didn’t stop the makers of the film from sneaking in an anti-police scene where officers confront Donovan about his defense of Abel.
After Donovan, the second most positive character is Abel, the Russian spy who is portrayed as a gentle, loving soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly, though he would work to subvert the freedom and security of the American people.
So there you have it. There’s my old fashioned, flag-waving criticism of Bridge of Spies. I assure you that I don’t see our nation through rose-colored glasses. I know that we have made grave mistakes and often fail to live up to our founding principles and ideals. But isn’t that all the more reason for those principles and ideals to be portrayed fairly, to inspire us to work hard, to do better? I would like to see Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks go back in time and try to make an anti-government movie behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps then they might be a little more, dare I say it, fair and balanced in their films.
I am happy to announce the release of a two-volume book series entitled Idealism and Christianity, which I edited with the help of my colleagues Steve Cowan, Joshua Farris, and Mark Hamilton. The books are published by Bloomsbury Press and constitute what we hope will be the start of a renaissance of scholarly interest in metaphysical idealism. This is the thesis that mind is most real, and that the entire physical world essentially constitutes the thoughts of that wise and almighty mind—God.
The first volume in the series, entitled Idealism and Christian Theology, explores a variety of issues in theology, including Christology, the resurrection of Jesus, the doctrine of creation, and the knowledge of God. Contributors include Oliver Crisp, William Wainwright, and Keith Yandell. The second volume, Idealism and Christian Philosophy, features essays treating such issues as time, truth, perception, science, miracles, and the mind-body problem. Contributors include Doug Blount, Howard Robinson, Charles Taliaferro, and Keith Ward.
The heroes of the volumes are two 18th century thinkers: George Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards. Both of these great scholars regarded Idealism as amenable to a Christian perspective because it constitutes the most biblical and philosophically plausible way of conceptualizing the world. Idealism effectively addresses skeptical challenges to theism and it provides helpful resources for dealing with all sorts of knotty problems that have plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries.
In addition to the scholarly benefits of Idealism, this perspective also has tremendous personal benefits and is a powerful boon to faith. This was the constant refrain of Bishop Berkeley who concluded his classic defense of Idealism by confessing that his purpose in writing was to “inspire my readers with a pious sense of the presence of God and . . . the better dispose them to reverence and embrace the salutary truths of the Gospel, which to know and to practice is the highest perfection of human nature.” Amen to that, good Bishop!
Last month, Jim and I put our oldest on a plane to South America for a semester studying abroad. Bailey and I are pretty close considering his age and gender and I will miss him as much in my capacity as his friend as I will as his mom, but don’t tell his friends that. It would be totally not cool which probably isn’t the “in” way to say that. Saying goodbye for five months was not easy, but frankIy, I have been surprised that it wasn’t harder. Sitting at the gate, waiting for him to board, I clearly heard God speak to my tear-clenched heart and I hope that what He said will influence the way I parent forever.
When Bailey was conceived, God placed Him right where he needed to be, buried deep inside my body where he could grow and be nurtured until he was ready to hatch. When he was physically ready to meet the world, it would have been unhealthy, not to mention more than a little uncomfortable, for him to have stayed longer. He had outgrown my body. In fact, when he was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he very easily could have died. His connection to me was literally killing him. See where I am going with this?
Once our children leave the relative comfort and safety of our bodies, they obviously still need us. We feed them and watch over them. We teach them little lessons like how not to poop in their pants and why the Beatles are the greatest rock band ever. And not so little lessons like who God is and what His plan for our lives is.
Since Bailey left, I have realized that Jim and I are in a new phase of parenting. One that involves a lot of protection and guidance but, thankfully, less bottom wiping. One that involves a lot more letting go and standing back. In a way, it is a death of sorts, the ending of one thing and the beginning of something new. The way I described it to a friend is that the boy must die so that the man must live. And this process of death and life, of metamorphosis from one stage of life to another isn’t something that should make me sad. It should be something to rejoice in. It’s the miracle I have been working toward since each of my kids first drew breath.
Since I started this post, I have had cause to regret its title. On his first day of school in Bolivia, Bailey, who is allergic to peanuts, chowed down some carrots in peanut sauce and end up in the hospital. I had anticipated the day being a challenging one, but more in the will-someone-sit-with-him-at-lunch kind of way not in the trouble-breathing-anaphylactic-shock kind of way.
As I tried not to panic, listening to the hoarse and groggy voice of my son coming from so many miles away, I had to ask myself “Who do I think Bailey belongs to?” God had told me to let go and it didn’t seem too hard a thing to do when he was healthy and safe and allergen-free. It’s easy to say “let the boy die” when it is just a metaphor for “let the boy grow up and get and job, do his own laundry and pay his own cell phone bill.” But what about when it means “let the boy make mistakes and suffer the consequences and experience pain and not have you to comfort him”?
My only comfort on the days when things don’t go well for my kids, or really my only comfort on any day is in remembering another son. It comes from remembering and trusting in the story about a son who had to leave his home and His Father. Who had to grow and learn and suffer on his own. The story that brings me such joy brought God a great deal of sorrow. In that story, the man died so that we all might live. Now it’s just up to me to believe it’s true and be brave enough to live accordingly.
I’ve never been so satisfied by the outcome of a game that did not feature one of my favorite teams. Why? Because this time I was rooting for a player—Peyton Manning, the so-called “Sheriff” of the NFL. Yesterday was the perfect culmination of an 18-year NFL career, vividly illustrating that most beautiful of narrative arcs: the exaltation of the humble. Here is a guy who has always done it “the right way.” Of course, we hear that phrase frequently regarding various athletes, but nowhere is it more aptly applied than in the case of Manning.
Unfortunately, Cam Newton illustrated the inverse principle: the arrogant shall be humbled. Many of us cringed when we saw his pre-game garb, featuring flashy gold “MVP” shoes, which brought to mind the biblical proverb, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Pr. 27:2). Then there was Newton’s post-game presser. Ugh. (Sports columnist Bill Reiter nails it here, I think.) Newton is not a bad guy. He’s just an immature 26-year-old who needs to master his emotions in public. He’ll grow up and hopefully become a model of professionalism. Twenty years from now, he’ll cringe at how he behaved yesterday—just like
we all cringe at how we behaved in our twenties. Thankfully, most of us don’t have our youthful petulance broadcast for millions of people to see!
Newton’s lack of maturity and composure serves as a sharp contrast to Peyton Manning’s classy comportment which he’s displayed his entire career (with a few exceptions), including after tough Super Bowl losses. During the Broncos’ playoff run this post-season, Manning’s humility has been especially evident, as he’s consistently (and correctly) insisted that Denver’s defense was leading the team, rather than his QB prowess. But this, too, contributed to the beauty of the Manning career narrative. How fitting that he would conclude his career (yes, I’m assuming he’s retiring) by winning a Super Bowl on the strength of his team’s defense when for so many years Manning dominated at QB on a Colts team with a weak defense (which possibly cost him an additional ring or two).
Also, it is interesting to note that Manning’s final pass of the game yesterday was a completion for a 2-point conversion. If that turns out to be the final pass of his career, then this too is fitting. Not only was it perfectly thrown, but the 2-point conversion is, appropriately, a play that provides an “added bonus” point. And that’s precisely what Peyton Manning has been, not just for NFL football but the sports world generally, for the better part of two decades—a real bonus.
So kudos to the Broncos for winning it all. But especially congratulations to the class of the NFL, Peyton Manning. Hats off to you, Sheriff, as you ride off into the sunset of a stellar career.
This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Philosophy of the Afterlife,” which covers a range of issues, including the concept of human immortality, near-death experiences, reincarnation, the doctrines of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and the prospect of achieving immortality via computer technology. Since this is my first time to teach such a course, I thought it would be fun to post some of my thoughts along the way. I begin with a critical reflection on one of Joseph Butler’s arguments for human immortality.
In his 1736 book The Analogy of Religion, the English bishop and apologist Joseph Butler offers some arguments in defense of life after death. His overarching aim with these arguments is not to prove that human beings are immortal but rather to show that we have no good reason to believe that our lives end with the death of our earthly bodies. Here I will explain and critically assess one of his arguments.
Butler asks us to “consider what the analogy of nature” might suggest to us regarding what death truly entails. And he observes that throughout nature we find immense variety, constant change and “degrees of life and perception” among living things. And in each individual human life we find a vast transformation from our lives in the womb to adulthood. Thus, Butler concludes, “that we are to exist hereafter in a state as different (suppose) from our present as this is from our former is but according to the analogy of nature.”
Furthermore, Butler argues, there is no evidence that death brings complete extinction of the self. What we do observe is merely “the dissolution of the flesh, skin, and bones,” but “these effects do in no wise appear to imply the destruction of the living agent.” Such physical decay indeed “destroys the perceptible proof which we had before their death of their being possessed of living powers, but does not appear to afford the least reason to believe they are then, or by that event, deprived of them.” In other words, when person dies, the destruction of her body only eliminates positive evidence that she is still alive. But it does not prove she is no longer alive. This is an important distinction. Lack of evidence for X does not necessarily constitute evidence for not-X.
In this way, Butler defends what I will call the “survival thesis”—the notion that human beings survive death in the sense that their conscious lives continue somehow despite the destruction of their physical bodies. So what are we to make of his claims? While Butler’s argument is carefully nuanced, aiming just to show that we have no good reason to reject the survival thesis, as opposed to positively arguing for that thesis, some counter-arguments might rebut his defense.
First, one might argue that Butler’s analogy from nature has been rendered irrelevant by the advance of science. As many naturalists have pointed out, neurophysiology reveals a much more specified analogy that points in the direction of extinction of the self. As a person develops from infancy to adulthood and then to old age, her cognitive capacities correspond entirely to her brain functionality. As brain function deteriorates, so does one’s mental function. And where there is serious damage to the cerebral cortex, there is likewise damage or even complete elimination of the cognitive operations for which that part of the brain is responsible. What this suggests is that with the complete destruction of the brain there will likewise result complete cessation of cognitive function, and this is tantamount to extinction of the person.
Second, one might challenge—as again many naturalists have—Butler’s assumption that the burden of proof is on the naturalist to show that the survival thesis is false. Why make this assumption when arguably there is no independent philosophical or scientific evidence to suggest that the survival thesis is true? Presumably, Butler helped himself to this assumption because at the time and place of his writing—early 18th century Europe—belief in life after death was far more widely affirmed among scholars than it is today in the West. So this presupposition regarding evidential burden was not controversial for his readers. Things have changed dramatically during the intervening 280 years, however. These days most Western scholars are religious skeptics, and a large number are bona fide naturalists. Accordingly, among scholars today the burden of proof regarding the survival thesis seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of those who affirm it. One wonders how Butler’s approach to the issue would be different were he writing on the subject today.