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.