Personal Identity And Afterlife Essay, Research Paper
Personal Identity and the Afterlife
Identity defines the fundamental nature of everything, whether that thing is an objective physical entity or a subjective idea that has to be mentally constructed. To understand the nature of these abstract ideas, we must first understand the concept of identity. When speaking of identity, one of the first types most people think of is the identity of the self. This ?self ? could be the attributes that a person attaches to himself. Gender identity is a simple attribute one may place upon the self. These certain attributes are so important that a person may find it impossible to imagine himself without. In the study of philosophy, there are two key notions that divide the definition of the self. First, philosophers may define the personal identity as a physical form. That is, the person is described by the material characteristics, such as age, height, nationality, gender, etc. The second notion is rather abstract and is described by the mental properties of a person that cannot be physically grasped. These properties can be defined in a general term as the ?soul?. People use this word regularly and fail to understand the problem such an abstract idea may cause. This analysis will examine the two different notions of the personal identity problem. An eternal question posed to philosophy is that of life after death. Is there life after death or do we simply cease to exist following our demise? If personal identity is defined by either of these, will that make someone existing now the same person that will be existing in the future? Would it be possible for a person to survive bodily death?
John Perry, author of ?A Dialogue of Personal Identity and Immortality?, illustrates the case of a dying philosophy teacher, Gretchen Weirob. Two friends, Sam Miller and Dave Cohen visit Gretchen on three consecutive nights. She initiates a conversation on the prospect of life after death. Although she is very skeptical about an afterlife, she claims ?hope provides comfort and hope does not always require probability. But we must believe that what we hope for is at least possible (Perry, 2).? Miller contends that if the physical body were the sole determinant of the personal identity, death would be the absolute end. However, he believes that the identity is more than that. ?But surely you are more than that, fundamentally more than that. What is fundamentally you is not your body, but your soul or self or mind (Perry, 6).? The soul or mind is described as the immaterial aspect of the self.
At this point, the dialogue eludes that the soul rather than the physical body define the identity. If the body defined the identity of a person, then it is clear that death would cease your existence. When a person decomposes, his remains are no longer in one form. They are scattered into the surrounding nature. Thus, death causes the loss of the physical identity. If I were to describe myself as a 5?10?, 155 lbs., black haired, brown eyed man, would I still be existing after my death. Of course not! I would not be recognizable because those things that made me unique are now gone. Since they are no longer together on the same body, wouldn?t that mean I cease to exist? Furthermore, if the physical body defined personal identity, then someone existing now cannot be the same person that will exist later. What would happen if I lost my legs or gained 100 pounds? I definitely wouldn?t be the same person I described earlier. Even I don?t use the height or weight issue, aren?t the molecular components of my body changing hour after hour, minute by minute, second by second? How can I ever be the same person? I conclude that if the material body defined a person, than someone existing now can never be the same in the future. Perry uses the example of the Blue River to convey the same idea. ?So you expect, each time you see the Blue, to see the water, which makes it up, in similar states- not always exactly the same, for sometimes it?s a little dirtier, but by and large similar (Perry, 14).? Many aspects of the river like the path, origin, and the depth may remain the same, but little changes like dirtiness can give the river a totally different identity. People may have identified the river as being 100 ft. across, 20 ft. deep, and crystal clear. However, if it is now filthy, and people identify it as the dirty river, haven?t the physical aspects of the river changed over time?
Miller is forced to re-think his argument and he concludes ?that sameness of body is a reliable sign of sameness of soul (Perry, 15).? The soul is attached to a particular body for the duration of physical life. Upon death, the ?link between the particular soul and the particular body it has been joined with is broken (Perry, 15).? Gretchen counters very quickly and states that since the soul is immaterial and cannot be seen or touched, how can it be linked to identity. How is one supposed to take into account everything that describes the soul? Since one cannot possibly do that, how can an identity be applied to a soul? ?And so they cannot be used to bridge the gulf between my existence now and my existence in the hereafter (Perry, 17).? I agree that it is virtually impossible to describe the soul, because it is intangible. There is no scientific way of determining if the mind is material, so how can humans with limited senses perceive anything about it? Since the soul cannot be described, it cannot be the root of personal identity.
Memory is the next topic of discussion. Gretchen distinguishes two different scenarios. The first is where one actually remembers past experiences. The second is where the person just seems to remember those past events. She uses an example of Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. ?Many men who think that they are Napoleon claim to remember losing the battle of Waterloo (Perry, 27).? She also used the case of the hypnotist who suggested a fake conversation to a patient and that patient seemed to believe that it really happened. A hypnotized patient or a crazy soldier may both think that they were the actual participants. If memory were the determinant of personal identity, then what is the process by which we can distinguish the true versus the false ones? In the unfortunate event of death and the possible transport to ?Heaven?, if God as the Supreme Being has the ability to convert your memories into a new body, wouldn?t He also have the ability to make more than one similar being with the same memories? How can that possibly be a sign a distinct personal identity? Gretchen reveals to them that ?memory alone is not enough for personal identity. Now, it is memory plus lack of competition, the absence of other rememberers, that is needed for personal identity (Perry, 33).? I also agree that if this were the case, a distinct personal identity would not be possible. If it was guaranteed that only one distinct person with your memories would be created in Heaven, then it might be possible of afterlife survival. BUT, as stated before, how is it your own distinct personal identity if God must duplicate the memories you had in another body? That still means that your own personal ?soul? isn?t the thing that is present in the new form. It is only something God duplicated.
If one were to neglect the notion of death and the afterlife, then is it possible for memory to be a theory of personal identity? The text refers to the case of Julia North, who becomes physically mangled after an accident. Her undamaged brain is transplanted into the body of braindead Mary Frances Beaudine whose body is undamaged. Most people contend that the surviving person is Julia North. Gretchen argues that it is really Mary Frances Beaudine. She states that ?she[Julia] seemed to remember being Julia (Perry, 40).? I disagree with the argument and would like to state an opinion of my own. The woman is neither Julia nor Mary Frances. As I agreed to before, a physical body cannot describe a person because the body is ever-changing. The surgery alone will leave either woman with some kind of physical change.
At this point, there is still no definite direction to the meaning of a personal identity. At the end of Perry?s dialogue, there is no absolute theory on personal identity. Gretchen passes away as they agree that the afterlife is a concept that cannot be discussed without fallacy. To make this paper complete, I offer my own theory on personal identity, which is valid, even after death. Upon one?s own death, my theory holds that this person does not have to make this realization for himself. The afterlife may consist of nothing but re-cycling of your organic parts back onto this earth. However, the personal identity that one has is not apparent until the person is dead. When I am dead, my personal identity will be formed. It will be the culmination of all the things I did in my physical form. When I am dead, I will no longer be able to do anything else. People will create their own unique personal identities of me. My legacy will be my personal identity. My professor may have known me as a good student. My mom will probably think I was a good son. My friends will think I was a great friend. My girlfriend will remember my good looks. All these things, plus countless other qualities (good or bad) will create this identity. I will never know what my personal identity is. But, it will be formed in time. A personal identity can be heard when you go to a funeral and hear a departed one?s eulogy. This idea may make sense while discussing the life on earth. When discussing the afterlife, it is more difficult to place a theory on something none of us has ever seen or experienced. Such an abstract idea may never be completely understood, but our job as philosophers is to theorize and then disprove those same theories until the truth is uncovered.
Perry, John. A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. pp. 1-49. Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis, Indiana. 1978.