Personal Identity and the Afterlife

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Jared White
Don Wacome
Philosophy and Christianity
May 2, 2010

Personal Identity and the Afterlife
Inquiring about personal identity will inevitably give birth to questions dealing with our being people, or, as many philosophers like to say, persons. To the thoughtful person, these questions may be familiar, but still remain complex: What am I? When did I begin existing? What is going to happen to me when I die? Others are more complex: How is it that a person can persist from one time to another? What is it to be a person? What does it mean when I say the word “I”? These questions are capable of being answered in numerous different ways. I seek to answer these questions in light of the resurrection as conceived in Christian theology. Human beings, just like any other organic creature, die and their bodies decompose and rot away. Nonetheless, there is still a widespread and longstanding belief that one can survive death; that there is life after death. This is an especially popular belief within the realm of Christian theology. My intent is to look at how this is logically possible through different metaphysical views that concern the nature of mind/body/soul and to point out the complications of these views and give my own account for what I think is a plausible way to answer the question of personal identity and how this can help make the resurrection possible. Before embarking on this adventure, I must admit something: while I am a Christian, I do not believe in an afterlife or the resurrection for reasons that are irrelevant to the questions of personal identity. That being said, for the sake of making an argument about personal identity, I shall assume that the afterlife is as I understand it in Christian theology: that it is a personal afterlife, in which the same individual that lived and died nevertheless persists and continues to have new experiences. The primary topic of this essay will be the logical possibility of life after death, not theological conceptions of the afterlife or resurrection.

The Possibility of Persistence
The possibility of persistence through death is impossible to consider without taking into consideration the nature of a human person. A common way of explaining this would be to advocate a mind-body dualism, which is actually a persistence-friendly metaphysical view, whereas materialism seems to be more detrimental to persistence after death. This mind-body dualism is often viewed as some sort of soul that is embodied by a human organism and when the organism dies, the soul persists, disembodied. This dualistic view asserts that the soul is immortal and that nothing can happen to it that would cause it to stop existing, provided that God doesn’t annihilate it, of course. Furthermore, this view purports that one’s personhood is in the soul. The human organism is the embodiment of the person whom the soul consists of. This person is conscious, has rationality, and it has self-awareness. The human organism does not, thus it cannot be qualified as a person.

While the dualistic view is persistence-friendly, it raises questions that seriously affect its possibility of being true. One is that this dualism creates what is called the “too many thinkers” problem. This problem raises the question “What am I?” If dualism is true, then you are soul that can live disembodied, yet for whatever reason is embodied by a human organism. Therein lies the problem: this view rules out that we are organisms. Modern science can tell us that that organism has a brain. That brain allows the organism consciousness and rationality. This means, that if dualism is true, there are two conscious beings reading these words right now. How do you know which one is you? For all you know, you might the one making the mistake about which thing you are, namely the immaterial being.

Consider this: scientists have devised a machine that can make a perfect copy of...
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