Three essays on the concept of disembodied existence.

These are all A grade essays with the mark out of 35 given at the end.


Essay 1.

The concept of disembodied existence can often be taken by advocates of dualism, the belief that humans consist of a body and soul which are separate and can be separated at death, as a coherent explanation for the question of life after death. For a dualist the soul holds the relevant qualities of personhood so that we can say a ‘person’ ‘survives’ death.

However, this theory would be greatly opposed by those who believe in materialism, or monism, the belief that we as humans exist as a single unit of body and soul (or mind) which cannot be separated. It would therefore not be coherent for a monist to believe in disembodied existence as the soul does not have intrinsic value outside of the body. It is perhaps first necessary to look at the nature of personhood and different beliefs on what constitutes a person.

One of the major problems with life after death theories is the problem of continuity and identity and in what way we are said to ‘exist’ after death. It is necessary to look at different opinions on what constitutes a person. Some believe that the only real continuity is bodily continuity and therefore it is our bodies by which we identify who ‘we’ really are. The concept of disembodied existence would therefore be incoherent as there is no bodily continuity and therefore no real existence of a person. Other philosophers such as John Locke argue that it is the memories of man that make up his identity and therefore if memories remain it is coherent to say that that person ‘exists’ even if they do not have a body. This view however does have many problems. Locke insists that as soon as memory is lost identification and personhood is lost but this has inconsistencies, if 1 person, for example, lost their memory due to amnesia or an accident would we not call them the same person they were before?

So the question remains that in what way would disembodied existence seem a coherent possibility after death? Disembodied existence seems to sit comfortable with the classical views of Platonic dualism. Plato believed that the soul was imprisoned within the body and that the ultimate goal of the soul was to be released (at death) back to the world of the Forms where it could be reunited with the Form of the Good (God). Thus the body which is purely material dies for Plato and the soul returns to the world of the Forms and is immortal. However, the concept of disembodied existence does not seem so cohesive with other dualistic models. Descarte’s dualistic model, as interactionism, maintains that bodily states can causally affect mental states and mental states can causally affect bodily events. Thus although the soul or mind has a higher fundamental value, and the body is still matter capable of decay, they do exist within interaction of one another. Therefore, it would be conceivable to conclude that one could not survive without the other? Either they both perish at death or they both survive death. It could also be questioned whether the dualistic model of epiphenomenalism coincides with the concept of disembodied existence. Since bodily states can causally affect mind states, even though mind states are of a higher reality than bodily ones, how would a mind or soul survive without the body? It seems to have little or no control over the body, so how can we suggest that it has an objective existence of its own after death?

Of course the main opposition to the belief in the concept of disembodied existence after death will come from the view of the materialists or monists who hold that body and soul are one and are inseparable. Gilbert Ryle holds this view and criticised Descarte’s thinking calling it ‘the ghost in the machine’. Ryle held that there was no such thing as body and mind as different entities and that the confusion had come about through a ‘category mistake’. Thus when we refer to our ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ we are referring like a collective noun as the way in which our body acts or behaves. Thus there is no such thing as an immortal soul and so the concept of disembodied existence is incoherent and incomprehensible. Since for monists continuity after death must involve bodily continuity, an alternative theory for monists on existence after death is that of resurrection or reincarnation.

However, there do seem to be fundamental flaws in both of these monists views as well. Resurrection implies bodily continuity or similarity argued for in Hicks ‘replica theory’ however Greach argues that bodily similarity is not enough, it has to be exact continuity and therefore a replica theory is rejected. Penelbaum also rejects this theory on the grounds that it does not maintain mental continuity and it also has implications for the theories of ethics and moral judgements. How could a replica be divinely judged for something they did not do? Reincarnation also fails as a plausible theory on existence after death as the reincarnated being bears no resemblance either physically or mental (memories) of its past lives and therefore in what way can we say that it is the same person who previously existed?

Perhaps a coherent view of resurrection can be seen in the teachings of St Paul regarding Jesus’s resurrection. St Paul maintains that after resurrection we change by a spiritual process but are still the same person. Like a plant comes from a seed but does not bear any physical resemblance to that seed so we are at resurrection. Perhaps another good example is of a caterpillar into a butterfly, physical resemblance is not there but it is still the same being. It must be remembered for Christian believers that after his resurrection Jesus was unrecognisable to his friends but was still the same person.

So, it can be seen that disembodied existence can be taken as coherent or incoherent depending on ones views of personhood and what constitutes a person (whether we are a psycho-physical unit that is indissoluble, as Hick believes, or made up of both a body and soul which can separated as dualists believe). Disembodied existence is coherent with Platonic thought however it raises questions in other dualistic models on the nature of the interaction between body and soul. However, attempts to prove corporeal existence after death have also failed as continuity of the body is questionable after the death and decay of the body. Perhaps disembodied existence is not objective but means that we exist only in the mind of God or in the minds and memories of others. This too has problems however when regarded to whether this actually constitutes immorality or existence, in what way are we existing or participating in the Mind of God? This would also mean that the mind of God was tainted with our sins. Perhaps the only real evidence of disembodied existence can be brought forward through ESP (extra sensory perception) or the existence of telepathy or clairvoyance. However, these all have dubious grounds and cannot be counted on for reliable evidence for the cohesive concept of disembodied existence. Personally I therefore reject the statement that ‘The concept of disembodied existence is coherent’ as the arguments for any form of after life experience fail unless we presuppose an existence of God which requires faith and cannot be empirically verified. (29/35)


Disembodied existence is an incoherent concept. There is a long standing division in the debate of what the human being consists of – whether it be a composite of body and soul or a indistinguishable unity. This impinges on what kind of existence, if there is any, will occur after death. However, evidence on either side is slim – how can we ever know until we die? Which is a notion put forth as an escatalogical verification/falsification of the after life.

However, before we can begin to tackle the question of what kind of existence there is, we must first establish the identity of self and personhood. Flew notes that personal pronouns such as “I”, “you”, “they” and so on apply on to physical entities so if I was to speak of Miriam, I am identifying her as a physical being. I can see, hear and touch her rather that a substance or spiritual self. However, what Flew does not consider is the difference in the application of the word “I”. When one is in use of the personal pronoun, they are not simply talking of physical characteristics, but are referring to something beyond that. For example, I can refer to my self as if my body is separate to me, in phrases such as “my bottom looks big in this dress” or “my body looks fat” so its almost as if your mind can have an objective view of your physical self. On the other hand, your physical characteristics do affect your personality. For example, Mrs Wilson is a short, firey woman with purple hair. If she was tall and blond her personality would be different because her loudness and firey nature are a product of her height – there is a need to compensate in some way to retain control. In the same way, we can see ourselves in this light.

With this in mind, we must run alongside identity with continuity so that we can ask the question, if we do exist after death, how? And how of “me” is there (how am I identified)? In the case of monism, we face many difficulties. In term of subjective immortality, there is , as the traditional Christian church put forth, a resurrection of the dead with Jesus Christ. This would mean that your physical body on earth would die, then your soul would be placed in a new body so you could enter into heaven. However, we have problems with this in relation to our concept of heaven – is that a physical state, requiring physical bodies, and if so why? And to what extend can my new body be me. John Hicks poses that, as we a psycho-physical entities, when our earthly body dies ( as we know occurs because of observation of decay in science), our soul is placed into another body – a replica of what we looked like in our previous life. However, in terms of judgement, how can God condemn or reward our new selves/body on the basis of the behaviour of our previous bodies. This seems unfair. Moreover, a replica is a replica; if I had a replica of the ‘Mona Lisa’ it still would make it the original painting, despite its similarities. Again, to what extent is this truly “me”?

With dualism we do not face so many difficulties in terms I continuity. Firstly, we have disembodied existence. This can however take a number of forms. We, as humans can have a resurrection of the disembodied self. Whereby your substance/soul or form continued to existence after the death of your physical body. In terms of what structure that existence will take, the is a theory that existence could exist objectively, in the awareness of God since God is infinite and immortal, and human being are not. But what kind of existence is this? Surely an omnipotent, benevolent God would be interested in the individuality of His people. After all, it is not our immortality. Furthermore, where sin is concerned – does God then allow sin to enter with Him? We could suggest that He is a compassionate God but then God would be temporal because He would be changed every time somebody else came into His awareness – this is not the simple God of Aquinas.

On the other hand, it is possible that we could exist as a commune of minds, thoughts and dreams. So our after life would consist of all of our ‘paradise-like’ dream and desires. But what happens when the desires of one person conflicts with another? It seems that although disembodied existence does contribute greatly to the discussion of life after death, it appears to be the most incoherent in all of its forms.

Yet, maybe there is a alley that we have forgotten. Reincarnation is a form of life after death that helps to overcome some of the obstacles monists face and that of disembodied existence. Reincarnation bases its belief on the immortality of the soul. The body ceases to exist in the phenomenological world, as Kant put it – whilst the soul transports or is incarnate into another body. However, like all of the theories we have assessed, we are back where we began, with the idea of personhood. Which of the bodies in reincarnation is your ‘self’? – the first, second, third, fourth or fifth? Though some may say that memory of past lives is evidence for the existence of reincarnation – this is not enough. Maybe it is better to take the view of Duns Scotus …… ………; we can never know whether there is an existence of an after life and what form it takes until we die. (30/35)


The argument for the concept of disembodied existence being coherent is largely followed by dualists, who believe the body and mind are two separate entities and the soul can live on eternally. However, the argument against dualism is monism that sees the body and mind as one. Flew in particular argued that it was incoherent according to language to conceive the concept of disembodied existence as he saw it as a contradiction in terms and likened it to the phrase “Dead survivors”. This essay will now examine in more detail the arguments for and against the concept of disembodied existence being coherent.

Disembodied existence can be considered coherent from the argument of dualism. Plato believed the mind was separate from the body and from the world of Forms. The mind, for Plato, was seen as immortal, and was what continued to live on after death, whilst the body ceases to exist. Another argument was added to dualism by Descartes and became known as ‘cartesian dualism’. Descartes famously said ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. For Descartes the mind can continue a disembodied existence. The body and mind interact with each other at all times. There has been evidence to prove that the body produces states on the mind, as well as the mind producing states on the body. But how can something non-spatial effect something spatial? And also if there is so much interaction, would the idea of the mind continuing without the body not be seen as illogical?

Gilbert Ryle saw Descartes model as a ‘ghost in a machine’ with the belief of the mind in the body. The misunderstanding of dualism was seen by Ryle as a category mistake as we are in fact a mind and body unity. To show this he used an example of a foreigner looking at all the colleges and buildings that make up the university and asking where the university was. Ryle swathe university as the mind, and all the colleges and buildings as brain patterns of behaviour. But what about brain states that do not provoke a pattern of behaviour such as lying or pain?

But perhaps disembodied existence is incoherent. Following the beliefs of Richard Dawkins perhaps we are just bytes of digital information and there is in fact no concept of a soul. However, it must be asked then what is our purpose here on earth? The reason put forward by Dawkins that we are here just from successful DNA replication seems to be missing something. Disembodied existence linguistically does seem a contradiction of terms, likened by Flew the same as ‘Dead Survivors’, but the evidence of near death experiences seem to show a pattern in the description of yourself out of your body looking down. Schlick too argues that viewing your own funeral as an after-death experience is imaginable as well as being conceivable.

However, problems with language arise here. Are you really viewing yourself, or just an empty vessel of what is left of your body? Flew believes you cannot even imply the words ‘you’, ‘her’, and ‘I’ to a possible after-life as they are only coherent in this physical world. However, we cannot know for certain that that is the case. A J Ayer believes the words could still be applied to another possible reality. If we are to have disembodied existence, we may still be recognisable. Also, the use of ‘I’ can be seen as distinctly different to other pronouns such as ‘her’ and ‘you’ as it involves a sense of self knowledge, argued also by Badham.
Perhaps what must be argued is if there is continuation after death, what form of life is it? Maybe it is not disembodied existence and we are in fact reincarnated with a new body. In this way the problem disembodied existence is removed, but others still arise. If we are reincarnated how are we continuing as we would be different? The argument against this view is that our soul is still however continuing and able to develop. But one major problem arises if there is to be judgement at the end of time is it morally fair to punish the ‘new’ body because of its soul? So perhaps an after-life consists of another form of existence. We could continue to exist as a product of the mind living from our basic desires, a view held by H Price. But this seems to imply no sense of community, but rather isolation and an after-life created by ourselves could be difficult. People may be driven by selfish desires.

Therefore, the concept that disembodied existence is not coherent (held by monists such as Aristotle and Dawkins) is argued from the view that the mind and body are one, and one cannot continue without the other. But the challenge against this is that there is continuation after death with evidence stemming from the bible. But the term disembodied existence does bring difficulties with language, but just because there is confusion does not mean it could not be conceivable. However, perhaps a solution is brought forward by Hick’s replica theory. Hick saw people as a psyche-physical unity so the mind and body cannot be separated. So maybe an exact replica of ourselves becomes apparent after we die. (29/35)

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