Saturday, May 16, 2009

Personhood, Identity, and The Survival of Bodily Death

If one is to be said to have survived bodily death that one must have maintained the identity of his person after his physical body has expired and begun to decay. The real existence of identity and personhood cannot be assumed and instead must be proved in order to speak with any measure of certainty about survival of bodily death.

There are two prominent theories regarding personhood. First, the Ego Theory, claims that personhood is to be defined as a single principle which organizes and unites a series of sensations, emotions, and thoughts (Parfit). The second is called the Bundle Theory, which claims that the person is simply a bundle sensations and a series of mental states, tied together as if in a bundle or package (Parfit). In its truest sense, Bundle Theory is an argument against personhood. It instead makes the claim that there is no self (Parfit) For the Bundle Theory the person may exactly equal the physical human body. For the Ego theorist it may be something which is the composite of the body and a non-bodily principle called a mind or soul, or it may entirely consist in the mind or soul, excluding the bodily portion from personhood.

Identity is established when one thing can be said to hold continuity with another, such that the chain of causes and effects has been maintained between the two without interruption. If an object or person were to go out of existence for even the minutest amount of time or if it were undergo some sort of essential change, it could no longer be said to maintain identity. Even if it were as Aristotle claimed, that the body was to have been reconstructed in the same form by the same creator out of the same material, it would only be a duplicate because the original act is not what caused it, but a second act by the same creator (Van Inwagen).

In order for the person to be able to survive bodily death, it cannot be equal to or dependent on the body. If personhood was dependent on the body, then the person would obviously expire with the expiration of the body. If the person is not dependent on the body it cannot include any physical sensations, or any emotions or thoughts which have psycho-physical explanations. If this is the case, however, it becomes extremely difficult to pin down exactly what a person is. Devoid of body, emotion, and thought, the person seems to lack personality. The only viable option which still seems available to the person is that it exists as some kind of animating principle. Yet what happens to an animating principle once it ceases to animate? If it continues to exist, it cannot be said to exist in any way which is individual. Lacking a body it would be boundless and immaterial; incapable of sensory experience. It could not be able to exist anywhere and could not interact with any other thing, yet it would be impossible to distinguish it from any other thing as it has no physical characteristics.

The concept of death seems to preclude the continuance of identity after death unless the essential nature of the object was not ended or affected by death. It is for this reason that in order to survive bodily death the person cannot be dependent on the body. It is physically impossible for a material body to undergo death without a complete change, and this complete change ends any possibility of the continuance of identity. Even so, it is not much easier to imagine an immaterial soul maintaining identity through death, as once separated from the ability to sense and feel the resulting principle would hardly be the essential equivalent of the person as they existed prior to bodily death.

The metaphysical theory that a person continues to survive after bodily death leaves the philosophical thinker with a very few options. It is possible that the person is completely independent of the body. In this case upon bodily death the soul-person leaves the body and is not significantly affected by it. This theory brings up significant problems about the interaction between body and soul. If the soul does not require the body, why is it ever associated with the body to begin with? How does the soul interact with the body, in this regard?

It could also be possible that the body is somehow dependent upon the soul, or exists as a sort of illusion. In this case soul continues upon death, only expressing itself in some other manner or in another world and leaving the old body to decay like a shed snakeskin. This seems like a highly conceivable answer, allowing for the necessity of a both a body and a soul, and yet allowing the soul to survive bodily death. If this is the case, however, it does not answer the above criticism regarding the interrelationship of body and soul.

Thirdly, it is possible that through some kind of divine providence the body does not truly die but is moved to a different world, as is suggested by Peter Van Inwagen (Van Inwagen).The difficulty with this last conclusion, however, is that it does not represent actual experience. Instead it requires a denial of what its observable through the senses. Thus, while all three are possible speculative theories, but can never be accepted as fact.

This leaves only one argument which adheres to both observation and reason. There can in fact be no possible survival of bodily death. If one accepts this conclusion, there is no longer any need to theorize regarding a metaphysical soul. It is unnecessary unless one desires to argue for the survival of bodily death. Likewise the assertion of personal self and identity are unnecessary. There need not be any unifying or organizing principle beyond the physical construct of the brain. Since there is no unified soul, there is nothing within which to search for continuity. Identity is equivalent to physical identity; as long as the body continues to grow organically, everything that can be called the person will continue to grow. Once the body begins to decay, the person decays until finally it passes out of existence or into the existence of some other subject.

In conclusion, one is forced to accept the fact that there can be no evidence for the theory of a unified person which maintains its identity through bodily death. With modern advancement of physical and psychological sciences, material explanations for the beliefs and behaviors of philosophers of the past are becoming outdated. The only solution as to personhood which can be coherently held in light of human experience is a entirely material view which allows for the possibility of existence without self or identity.

Sources Cited: Parfit, Derek. “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons”. Van Inwagen, Peter. “The Possibility of Resurrection”.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Nature of Existence: a Speculation on Identity

What is the nature of our existence? This is the question that not many truly consider in their lifetimes because of the enormity of it. In order to have a better picture of what it is, one must consider the question of identity over time.
First, it is important to bring up what identity is not. It is not purely my DNA, it is not a core soul locked away into a fleshy shell. It is not our intellect and consciousness, though that does play an important role in what it is. Finally it can not just be our body.
All of the things identity is not, may seem to some to be the obvious answers to identity. Especially the idea of one being identical to one’s body, and one being a spirit locked into a shell. The latter, while perhaps never articulated like that, is indeed the common understanding (and incorrect understanding) of the soul in Christian thought, while identity to body alone is found commonly among many materialists. Both of these suffer from major problems.
The idea of a soul being the true person, and the body being a shell can not be the case for many reasons. For one, not everyone seems to experience the soul. The soul, by its very definition is nearly impossible to test empirically or to understand in an empirical sense. Hence while one is welcome to accept such a thing with Faith, but it is not a subject open to reason, which is the only way of understanding universally available to man according to his nature.
Likewise, the idea that identity is the same thing as the body is flawed. The body is constantly changing, destroying old cells, and building new ones. If we were identical to our body, then one has to ask which body? The body one had when they were 1 or the body they will have when they die? If there is an identity, then it must be based on something that has a firm foundation.
When considering identity over time, one must first examine the nature of identity to begin with. When we first become conscious of ourselves at some unknown point in our life (perhaps in the womb or post-birth at some point) is when our first conception of who we are is formed. As this basic foundation of perceived identity is lost to us, and most likely never re-attainable, one can only speculate that it was the simplest understanding of existing, that we were aware of existing, though we didn’t know what to call it, and we were aware that we were thinking.
Our initial observations of our identity are not even the foundations of identity though. They were just merely the observations available to an infant. The foundation of who we are is found among the genetic factors that make up our DNA, the upbringing given to us by our parents, and other outside influences. In turn, these foundations are further founded within the DNA, upbringing, and influences placed upon our ancestors and back. With each generation, the influence becomes less and less due to other current outside influences. It does, though, result in a web of existence in which all things are connected.
So how does one abstract an individual identity out of this web? The individual, while ensnared into the web, is himself a tightly knit collection of strands of experience which constantly build upon the strand below it. What is commonly called, common sense, is a constant build up of life time experiences. We jump into the water, it gets us wet. After it happening to us a few times, it becomes a permanent resident into our person. We touch a stove that is hot; we realize that hot things are going to hurt. We then do not even have to experience jumping into boiling water to understand that it’s going to be wet and painful. Common sense, though, is not infallible and we can not really know all the causes that go into a single event.
The experience of existing, then, is the firm foundation upon which our identity rests. All people experience the world in some way. Even those that are in comas or other states of unthinking have their identities based upon the experiences they have already had within the world. As no body has the same experiences, no body can be identical to anyone else. Even if one were copied by a machine, the copy would not be identical to the original because the copy’s act of existing separate from the original becomes different and no longer identical.
If our identity is identical to our collective experiences, then one may legitimately object that other people will perceive our identities differently then we do. This is absolutely true, but other person can only perceive others by their actions within the world. By the experiences one impresses upon another. They get a glimpse of the building that is the other person’s identity. Or, in other words, they see the effect without having any way of truly accessing the cause.
Another objection that could be raised is that this is too subjective and not examinable by empirical method much like the soul idea above. I would say that this is also not a problem as it’s impossible to fully understand another person’s identity, but one can still see major parts of it through many forms of testing. Such as DNA, behavior tests, and a person can reveal to other people parts of their identity through writings and by speech. So unlike the soul, the subjective nature of personal identity by the experience of existing is empirically testable in some way and open to reason alone.
If the experience of existing defines our identity, then what of death? Does death end our existence? If existence after bodily death happens, then it is not provable by reason alone, but it at least can be speculated on. If one works off the idea of identity developed here, then existence after death is completely feasible. If one considers the person in the coma above, then one can get a picture of what bodiless existence might be like for a human person. For one, we would have no way of acquiring new experience without an external source, just like the person in a coma. Unlike the person in the coma, though, there can be no building up of identity after death. Even the person in the coma, by means of imagination and dreams, can continue to reorganize and rearrange experiences had within the world into new things that build up their identity. The dead person would not have this benefit as there would be no brain to reorganize memories. They would exist, if they do exist at all, in a state of motionless changelessness. The experiences remains bundled but we would have no way of accessing them or adding to them.
Do these experiences really continue to exist though? It would seem they do in some way. Each person’s life lives an imprint on the rest of existence. Our life moves from being a changing, growing building and becomes a lifeless strand in the web connecting our descendents and those we have influenced to those that have come before us. Hence we become part of the foundation for those that are to come. I think its key to point out that this doesn’t mean assimilation, as one can not be identical to anything else as mentioned with the copy example above.
It seems very unpleasant to the living, but without any appeal to faith this is all that could be ascertained of the afterlife by reason alone. It would match up, in many ways, to many pre-Christian understandings of the after life as a shadow of existence and oddly enough, ends up as a sort of grim outlook on Plato’s desire for the eternal and unchanging. And while this may be unpleasant for the living when looking at the unchanging abyss of death, it remains hopeful because by our existence we have built up reality further and we do remain distinct, even if the train of time has left us behind at the station.