The other day I was reading Antony Flew’s opening statement in a debate on the existence of God (back when Flew was an atheist) when I came across an interesting argument against substance dualism. Flew writes:
“If persons really were creatures possessing bodies, rather than–as in fact we are–creatures who just essentially are members of one special sort of creatures of flesh and blood, then it would make sense to speak of a whole body amputation.” (“The Presumption of Atheism,” in Terry Miethe and Antony Flew, Does God Exist? A Believer and an Atheist Debate (Harper Collins, 1991), 5.)
The argument seems to go like this.
(1) If substance dualism were true then it would make sense to speak of a whole body amputation.
(2) It doesn’t make sense to speak of a whole body amputation.
(3) Therefore, substance dualism isn’t true.
It’s an interesting argument. But it faces at least two problems. To begin with, the force of the argument seems to be negated by the following counter-argument:
(i) If reductive or non-reductive materialism were true then it would not make sense to speak of persons surviving the demise of their bodies.
(ii) It does make sense to speak of persons surviving the demise of their bodies.
(iii) Therefore, neither reductive nor non-reductive materialism is true.
And there we are. A standoff.
Is there a way to break this standoff? I think there is. While there are many good thought experiments to support premise (ii), I don’t think there is much at all to support premise (2). In fact, it seems to me that whole body amputation makes perfect sense as a concept. After all, this is precisely what death is for a dualist: the separation of soul from body.
I will concede this: describing death as whole body amputation is strange. We’re certainly not familiar with this kind of language. However, such queerness is not grounds for a rational objection. Often we will find that formal definitions of familiar realities might strike us as strange. For example, a person who feasts daily on apples, pears, cherries, oranges and watermelon may not be accustomed to using the definition of fruit as “the developed ovary of a seed plant with its contents and accessory parts”. But that doesn’t mean the definition is problematic.
In summary, it makes good sense to describe death as the amputation of the subsistent soul from the physical body. And so Flew’s argument against substance dualism fails.