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 anything that goes into it. You are randomly selected by the government to be the guinea pig that tests the machine first. You undergo this process, which turns out to be relatively harmless, with the exception of losing consciousness for a few minutes. When you wake up there is a person laying next to you who is identical to you physically and psychologically. You both have the same memories, the same mannerisms, etc. Because of this, each one will think he or she is you and each one will have the same evidence for supporting their claim, yet only one will be right. Now supposing every witness to this duplication event was sworn to secrecy and immune to bribery, there would be no way of telling which thing you are. The same goes for a soul embodied in a human animal that thinks and is conscious and rational. There is no way of answering the question of which thing you are.
Another problem with dualism is that there is no criterion of identity for disembodied persons, i.e. souls. When making judgments about the identity of persons, we do not speculate about the identity of souls because doing such is impossible since souls are absent from our realm of perception. Because of this, the identity of a person cannot and should not consist of the identity of an immaterial thing that voids perception. The only thing that we are able to identify is a person’s body. Yet once that person has died, their body rots away and can no longer be the basis of our identification of the person who supposedly survived disembodied. As I have mentioned, if dualism is true the possibility of persistence is rather unproblematic, yet the possibility of dualism being a metaphysical truth is a little bit harder to argue. Therefore, we should look to some variety of materialism. The materialist view is easier to argue as a metaphysical truth about the nature of humans. However, there remains one key problem for materialist versions of the resurrection: personal identity. In the dualist view, personal identity is maintained through the persistence of the soul. Yet in the materialist view, there is nothing to bridge the temporal gap between the body that dies and the body that is resurrected. How is it possible for the resurrected person to be numerically identical to the person that died? One of the more popular theories is the re-creation theory. This simply argues that if God created you once, he could do it again. In other words he re-creates a person who has identical characteristics to you at some point after your death. Since God is all powerful, God can do this. The problem with this is that it does nothing to secure a relation to identity. Plus identity that is merely dependant isn’t really identity. Since God is all powerful, couldn’t he make three or four of the same person to exist in the afterlife? To say that God, being good and loving, would not do this is to dismiss the question as it hardly presents an adequate answer. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure what to think when someone proposes this argument. To me, this basically says that what makes the resurrected Jared White identical to the Jared White that died is some sort of black magic or witchcraft, not personal identity. Peter van Inwagen offers, in my opinion the most logical argument for a materialist resurrection. He argues that perhaps at the moment of each person’s death, God removes their body and replaces it with something that is identical to it but is, in fact, not your body. This is what your loved ones burn or bury. At some point in time, God revives and restores the health of your body, thus resurrecting you. Through this, physical continuity is maintained, which is one of the biggest hurdles in arguing the materialist resurrection. However, all this does, is show how the materialist resurrection is possible. That doesn’t mean it is true. As a proposal for how God actually enables humans to live again, this account is rather unlikely since God plays the role of mortician, thereby making actual morticians non-responsible scam artists. Furthermore, the aspect of the argument on which everything else rests is that God somehow steals the body, which makes it less believable.
What Matters in Personal Identity
Derek Parfit argues that in regards to personal identity, identity is not what matters; rather, survival is what matters. This argument is sort of a denial of the self that affirms a stream of consciousness. That is, Parfit believes that what matters in identity is not identity, but psychological continuity. I feel, however, that it is rather difficult to speak meaningfully about the afterlife unless the afterlife entails the continued existence of an entity. Otherwise, the afterlife would be the existence of an entity that is not you and, in fact, only came into being at the resurrection. If we are not going to exist in the afterlife, then we would have no reason to regard it as important. But as I have already said, I understand the afterlife as being a personal thing in which one entity continues existing after its death. If I believe, as Epicurus does, that death is nothing to us, then this discussion would be pointless and meaningless.
So if our identity does matter, then what does it consist of? Again, we must delve into the metaphysics of human nature. What sort of thing are we? As I have already said, the likelihood of us being immaterial things is poor at best. Yet, if we are merely material things, the possibility of the resurrection seems implausible. I suggest the following, which will be explained later: (1) The best way for someone to persist through time is through psychological and physical continuity. (2) Our identity consists of an immaterial mind and a material body. (3) If physical continuity is not possible, then the next best thing for someone to persist is to have psychological continuity plus the continuous memory of the community (or God). In this way, some of what makes up your identity is lost, but not all of it.
My first claim is probably easier to defend than the other two that I make. It seems to make sense, especially on the surface of things. One cannot deny that I am the same person now that I was an hour ago especially if I have maintained both physical and psychological continuity. This claim also helps support the fact that I am the same person now as I was ten years ago. I am the same person because I am both physically and psychologically continuous with who I was then. This does not mean that I haven’t changed in any way since then. It instead means that I have qualitative differences, yet I am numerically identical with who I was. One objection to this is to say that I do not maintain consciousness while I sleep, therefore, I cannot be psychologically continuous with who I was ten years ago. But this is not true because when we sleep, we do not go unconscious; rather we merely slip into a state of sub-conscious. Consciousness doesn’t stop altogether during periods of sleep. Even if it is maintained minimally, it is still maintained.
What are we to make of the second claim? It seems rather odd to suggest that we are both immaterial and material. Consider this: 1. I am able to touch material things.
2. I am not able to touch my mind
Therefore, my mind is immaterial.
For this argument, it is important to distinguish between the brain and the mind. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the function of active things is to propagate themselves. It follows that a brain, which is a material thing, will propagate material actions. For instance, my brain senses an itch on my butt so it propagates a response that can be measured or witnessed, just as other material things can. It also follows that a mind, something which is immaterial, will propagate immaterial things such as thoughts about what I plan to eat for lunch tomorrow. It seems we end up with what I have referred to as the too many thinkers problem. As stated previously, this means that there is more than one conscious, thinking beings reading these words. While I do not wish squelch this idea completely, I do think it is important to re-evaluate the boundaries of personhood and first-person reference. Most people would agree that necessities for personhood are rationality, consciousness, and self-awareness. I agree with this, but I want to add to it psychological continuity. Here is why: if we add psychological continuity as a criterion for personhood, it would follow that not just any thing with similar mental properties to you and I, like self-consciousness and rationality, can be considered a person. This means that your human animal cannot be counted as a person since it cannot fulfill continuity the way that your immaterial mind can. In other words, your human animal will die and, thus, cease to exist since it cannot continue living after death without being contingent on divine intervention. Furthermore, we can agree that personal pronouns such as “I” can only be in reference to persons. It follows that when your human animal says “I”, it is not referring to itself, as that is impossible; rather, it refers to you, who is the person that says and thinks it at the same time. When the animal makes the claim about being a person, it is not expressing the belief that it actually is a person, but instead it expresses the true belief that you, as an immaterial mind, are. We can conclude, then, that the mind is something that interacts with the body and can refer to itself because only persons can refer to themselves truly. At this point, it is important to realize that there is a distinction between personhood and identity. There are different criteria for identity than for personhood. The question of personal identity doesn’t ask how your personhood can persist through time; it asks how your identity can persist through time. That being said, we must remember what we have laid out as being necessary for personal identity: physical and psychological continuity. Only after we have laid out criteria for personal identity can we develop criteria for personhood. How, then, are we to make sense of the third claim? Let’s review the argument so far: (1) Physical and psychological continuity combined is the best chance of persistence through time. (2) Human nature is comprised of an immaterial mind which interacts with a material body, thereby acknowledging the existence of two rational beings in one human animal, in which only the mind is a person because it has the stronger and less problematic chance of maintaining psychological continuity after death. However, this does not mean that the body can simply be discarded. It is still of significant value to the problem of personal identity as the best way to persist is through psychological and physical continuity. Therefore, our identity consists of both an immaterial mind and an material body. To help understand this better, consider the Heemstra complex: Heemstra, the building, represents the material body of the entity that is Heemstra. The community of men that live within the building represents the immaterial mind of the entity Heemstra. Heemstra the building has been condemned to death and shall be torn down. Obviously, the best way for Heemstra the entity to continue existing as it is now, is to maintain physical continuity but also to keep the men that live in it within the metaphorical body of Heemstra, thus maintaining psychological continuity as well. Further, we would not give personhood to the building of Heemstra; rather we would entitle the metaphorical mind of Heemstra with personhood. The building, therefore, cannot refer to its self. However, the community of Heemstra can refer to itself. Yet, to take the community out of the building would seriously alter the entity of Heemstra. This means that the building would be reduced to only an image of something that used to be. The same goes for the community within the building. This is where the third claim comes in. It helps explain the possibility of surviving death and continuing on with new experiences. A body can perish, but its immaterial mind persists, thus giving the entity psychological continuity. While this means that an entity’s identity takes a hit, it does not mean that we would not be able to recognize who that entity is because of its psychological properties. This recognition is made possible by the continuous memory of the community around the entity. It might be scary to place your identity in the trust of entities that aren’t you, but given what we understand about God being good and all-powerful, there is little concern for being forgotten about. Consider this in light of Heemstra, again. The men of Heemstra are being transferred into another building. As I have mentioned, this alters the identity of the Heemstra entity, but it does not eliminate it. This is because the metaphorical mind of Heemstra survives the death of the metaphorical body and it is remembered by the greater Northwestern community as being the Heemstra community. In the same way, human persons are able to persist after death because of psychological continuity of our minds and the continuous memory of a loving God who re-embodies our minds yet remembers us as the person we were before death. This gives both an account of personal identity, answering the questions I posed at the beginning of the essay, and the possibility of the resurrection as conceived in Christian theology. Whether it is true is yet to be determined by other thinkers who journey down the road of inquiry.