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A Review of Fontinell’s Self, God, and Immortality

J.P. Moreland, Review: Self, God, and Immortality: A Jamesian Investigation by Eugene Fontinell, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32 (June 1989), pp. 244-5.

This work is a technical monograph in pragmatist, process metaphysics. It seeks to answer this question: Given the inadequacies of materialism and classical dualism, can we still believe in personal immortality today? Fontinell answers with a tentative “yes” (in keeping with his pragmatism) by developing a doctrine of the self along Jamesian lines in two steps. Chapters 1-6 focus on the possibility of life after death, and chaps. 7-8 discuss the desirability of an afterlife.

The strategy of part 1 is to flesh out a framework of pragmatism as a metaphysical outlook and philosophical methodology, one that provides a context for defending a view of the self that could survive death.

Chapter 1 states that reality consists of a plurality of fields: processive-relational complexes composed of ever-changing, concrete centers of activity (i.e. pure processes or activities) individuated by relations within and among other fields and their centers of activity. Fields replace a world of self-identical entities with natures.

Chapter 2 develops a doctrine of the self as a field within fields (i.e. as a processive, relational complex formed by transactions with other fields). Chapters 3-4 continue the focus on the self by analyzing James’ distinction between the empirical self (which includes the thing-body, the body-as-object) and the pure ego (which includes the lived-body, the body-as-mine). While I do not agree with many of Fontinell’s conclusions, these chapters are valuable for evangelicals who need to do more work on a phenomenological analysis of the body. Chapter 4 is the real crux of Fontinell’s case for immortality. He spells out a doctrine of personal identity that seeks to maintain a significant mode of sameness through change without a substantive ego by operating within a field ontology and a functional dualism. Personal identity is constituted by (1) feelings of warmth for earlier selves, (2) resemblance, (3) continuity (understood as a continuous transition from earlier awarenesses to present ones), and (4) individual thoughts that pass on to later thoughts their contents so the latter can appropriate the former.

In chaps. 5-6 the book picks up the relational aspects of the self as a field. Chapter 5 argues that the self is constituted by the relations it sustains with other fields. Chapter 6 argues that in religious experience we realize that God is one of our constituting relational fields, and thus, after death, we can continue to exist because we continue to be constituted by our relationship to God.

Part 1 is an invaluable introduction to pragmatism in general and James in particular. It is also a good example of how metaphysics is done with a process ontology and a pragmatist methodology. But part 1 fails to make its case for reasons that J can only list without much comment. First, Fontinell has no room for real identity but only similarity, which is itself a relation in flux. This implies an ancestral chain model of personal identity. But this is simply not a form of individual, personal survival after the grave. Second, Fontinell’s doctrine of relations is inadequate. He substitutes for sameness through change a set of similarity relations that vary in rate and that are themselves in flux. But change is impossible without sameness. He has no real distinction between internal and external relations and seems to collapse all relations into the former. It is hard to see how Fontinell can avoid some form of monism here, especially when we remember that he has rejected essentialism. He substitutes a fleeting part/whole relation for the relation of predication, which among other things leads Fontinell to deny that we can truly (in a correspondence sense) talk about the world. Such a position seems self-refuting. Finally, it is simply impossible to accomplish individuation of anything, including the self, by relations. For p cannot be related to q unless p exists. Only a metaphysic of essentialism and substance can avoid these problems, and only a substance view of the self allows for literal personal identity after death.

In part 2 the book turns to consider the desirability of life after death. This part of the book is excellent in introducing the reader to some of the problems in this area and in some (but not all) of the solutions offered. Chapter 7 raises two problems for a desirable afterlife: the problem of boredom, and the fact that such a belief can devalue this life. The chapter focuses on the latter question, concluding that belief in life after death can enhance one’s involvement in this life and need not devalue existence this side of the grave. In the process, Fontinell offers a good critique of versions of Christian theology that seek to maintain Christian faith while denying life after death.

Chapter 8 considers the problem of boredom. Fontinell’s solution includes the idea that in the afterlife we will continue to grow, to have meaningful work to do, and to enter into significant relationships with God and others. He also believes that the afterlife will include the possibility of loss, struggle, and suffering for all, and not merely those in hell (which he says is real). While I disagree with these negative aspects for those in heaven, the philosophical problem of removing them is a real one. For if boredom can be solved only if some form of continued growth is embraced, a precondition of growth is lack. Evangelicals need to work on this problem. It seems possible to allow for growth without suffering or without a form of struggle and lack, which is evil. In any case Fontinell is to be thanked for introducing us to the full force of problems in this area, even if his solutions are often not wholly satisfactory.