Edward Feser distinguishes two accounts of post-mortem existence:
Survivalism is the label that has come to be attached to the view that the human being in some way continues to exist after death. It is defended by (among others) Thomist philosophers like David Oderberg and Eleonore Stump. Corruptionism is the label that has come to be attached to the view that the human being ceases to exist after death
Feser’s fundamental argument for his own survivalism is:
The human soul exists after death. But a soul is a substantial form, and a substantial form only exists when informing the substance of which it is the form. So, the substance of which the human soul is the form must exist after death. But that substance is a human being, where a human being is a single substance rather than two substances. So, the human being must exist after death.
Here’s my friendly challenge to both sides:
This debate fails to address what people – including Thomas – mean by existence after death, and when we consider existence after death in this way Feser’s views are best described as a sort of corruptionism.
I don’t say this in search of a fight but in the hope of pressing a point where I see Thomism needing development. Now let me explain my challenge:
Life and existence are sorts of act, but act is either first act (mere existence) or second (acting and operating). Most people who raise the question of life after death – including Thomas – mean life as a properly human second act, e.g. an act with some conscious awareness of the isle of the blessed, or a Near Death Experience, or its punishment, purging, or beatitude. True, the Greek and Hebrew underworld suggest something like mere existence without operation, but both of these proved to be muddled and unsustainable ideas that had to be resolved into either accepting post-mortem second act or denying post-mortem existence altogether, and neither is an acceptable position for a Christian philosopher.
Feser’s arguments for survivalism are consistent with the denying the (second act) existence of the person after death, and his anthropology points decisively in this direction. He’s always compared the separated soul to a mutilated animal, but a maximally mutilated organism cannot have its highest operations in second act. St. Thomas partially agrees with this so far as he denies that a separated soul understands things by abstraction, which is the highest personal act of the person in union with the body, but to leave it at this would ignore Thomas’s extensive discussion of the soul’s non-abstractive cognition when separated from the body.
Put in modo Scholasticorum:
1.) People have always understood the question of “existence after death” as the existence in second act of the person, not mere first act existence or the maintenance of an act of any kind that is not properly personal. Those who deny such existence after death deserve to be called corruptionists. Call them reformed corruptionists.
2.) Feser gives no account of the existence of the person in second act and his anthropology cannot support one since the highest operations of an organism are incompatible with the greatest possible mutilation of that organism.
3.) Therefore, Feser’s thomism is a denial of what people have always understood as the existence of the person after death and can reasonably be understood as a kind of corruptionism.
I think St. Thomas’s anthropological committments are unstable and that the best way to harmonize them all is to recognize that hylomophism has a limited scope of applicability to the person since the theory arose to solve the properly natural and inter-cosmic problem of becoming and human existence is not limited to the properly natural and inter-cosmic. A soul in separation is not a mutilated person but in the second of his three stages of life, the first two of which a philosopher can understand. Informed by revelation, the hypothesis I’d want to explore is that physical death is a punishment only in connection with vice (though this vice became practically unavoidable by the same act that gave physical death) and the Resurrection is not a mere return to union with the body but a transcendence of the person in a state of union and separation.