Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Comment on Personal Identity and the Soul.






"In every [person] there is a spark of the Divine Soul. The power of evil in man darkens this flame and almost puts it out. Brotherly love among them rekindles the soul and brings it closer to its source."

Arthur Hertzbeg, ed., Judaism (New York: George Braziller, 1962), p. 111. Compare: George Bratl, ed., Catholicism (New York: George Baziller, 1962), pp. 11-12; and John Alden Williams, ed., Islam (New York: George Baziller, 1962), p. 159 ("transcendence in Sufism").

Earl Conee & Theodore Sider, Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), $18.95.



This entertaining book is a great introduction to the basic issues in metaphysics. It is accessible, but still pretty thorough in examining the complexities of the issues. I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about metaphysical philosophy.

I wish to focus on the discussion of "personal identity" in this work, since personal identity is a much debated concept in contemporary philosophy. Personal identity is discussed in different ways and for different purposes by philosophers and psychologists, biologists, neurologists and physicists. It is also discussed by a group of intellectuals who are usually ignored in attempts to decipher this mystery. We forget that theologians of all the great religions in the world have also been concerned to examine the related question: "What is a person?"

Discussions of personal identity among philosophers focus on what makes a person one and the same person over a lifetime, if anything does. If you look at one of your baby pictures, you may ask yourself: "Was that really me?" If you answer "yes, that was me," then on what basis are you coming to that conclusion?

As I sit in my Star Trek pajamas, having enjoyed a nutritious breakfast of Captain Crunch cereal with peanut butter and bananas, I see myself as highly mature. Not everyone is as mature and responsible as I am, of course, but most of us see ourselves as making some progress in journeys toward self-awareness or enlightenment, and yet still as one "being" throughout our lifetimes.

Most people say, well, it is my same physical body -- although greatly changed -- so that's why it is me, both in the baby picture from long ago and today in my full adult splendor. In fact, most of the cells in the human body, or one's material substance, will be recycled every seven years or so, through normal processes of ingestion and excretion. So it is not really your same body over any ten year period. In my case, this is fortunate.

Also, your material body may be altered through the transplantation of an organ or by the loss of a limb. Yet we do not say that I have lost some of my identity when I had my appendix removed. If a person receives my kidney, then does it automatically follow that the recipient will suddenly develop an interest in philosophy and Opera, like me? See Steven King's The Dark Half or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Advances in technology will soon make it possible for bodily organs to be replaced by synthetic products. Once your heart, liver, kidneys and other organs (an alarming thought just crossed my mind concerning one of my organs in particular!) are plastic or manufactured in Asia, as computer chips enhance your cerebral functions, will you still be the "same person"? If so, why?

Not according to a bodily criterion of identity. Change your body and you have changed your identity. The official term for this physicalist or materialist theory of personal identity is the "bodily continuity" theory. It appeals to those who like to think of themselves as scientifically-minded, except that they hardly think of themselves as only material objects in the world, bodies, without minds or souls, even though they claim that neither minds nor souls exist in this advanced scientific age. On the other hand, this seems to adherents of scientism like a good way to think about other people. Other people are mere material bodies. "We" are something more, psychobabblers say.

Oscar Wilde reminds us that "other people are quite dreadful." Whereas, "to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance." He neglected to discuss the possibility that one's self-love may not be reciprocated. I am always infuriated by the way I play "hard to get" when I try to love myself. More than once I have had to send myself candy and flowers, so as not to be denied sex, by myself.

Against this view is the "memory or psychological criterion" of identity which regards persons as "identical" with their memories or personalities. This view is typically associated with John Locke's philosophy (see Bishop Butler's criticisms of it, by the way, or the writings of Thomas Reid). This "memory criterion" leads to insurmountable problems.

If a person suffers from amnesia, then is he or she the same person today as the one yesterday, whose actions are not recalled today? Not according to the memory criterion. In the story Shattered, a man is involved in a terrible accident that causes "brain damage" resulting in impairments of "mental" functioning and memory. He is slowly given the memories of another person, raising the question: Does the victim with the altered memories become this other person? If so, at what point is the transformation complete? Hint: You will need Spinoza and Hegel, Kafka, Erikson, Jung, maybe also Maugham's Of Human Bondage, even to begin to figure this one out.

You can see that after Cartesian dualism, the subject or self is split into physical and mental entities, so that two concepts of identity linked to each of these aspects of the self emerged. My guess is that neither of these incomplete notions of the self, body or mind, will ever be adequate -- on its own -- as an account of what persons are.

The idea of "splitting" in schizoid patterns (see Laing's Divided Self, and forget Juliet Mitchell's criticisms) or in terms of poetic discourses, which sever writer from reader -- or writers from their roles as readers -- is fascinating in connection with debates over personal identity, but worthy of separate treatment.

There are a number of assumptions made by these authors leading to difficulties or mistakes, I think, that might be avoided. Traditionally, issues of personal identity were resolved by means of the concept of the "soul." Today, of course, philosophers mostly wish to avoid talk of the soul or spirit as a relic of a prescientific age, while neurologists and psychologists dispense with the notion of the soul entirely since, despite their best efforts, they fail to detect its presence in laboratory animals:

Souls might seem to provide quick answers to many philosophical perplexities about identity over time, but there is no good reason to believe that they exist. [Read that last sentence again and notice that the first part of it refutes the second.] Philosophers used to argue that souls must be posited in order to explain the existence of thoughts and feelings, since thoughts and feelings don't seem to be part of the physical body. But this argument is undermined by contemporary science. [Is it?]

Furthermore,

... it is sensible to conclude that mentality itself RESIDES in the brain, [but in what neighborhood?] and that the soul does not exist. It's not that brain science DISPROVES the soul; souls could exist [What a relief!] even though brains and psychological states are perfectly correlated. [Are they?] But if the physical brain explains mentality on its own, there is no need to postulate souls in addition.

All efforts to have the physical brain explain "mentality" have failed, spectacularly and repeatedly. No brain image detects mind or soul. Therefore, some scientists say, these things do not exist. However, brain images also do not detect thoughts, wishes or fears, hopes or spiritual experiences (though brain science detects the effects of such inner experiences and knows them to be real). I think that we can say the same about minds. We may assume or infer their existence based on their effects, including the recently documented capacity of thoughts to control appliances at a distance, thanks to a brain implant, not to mention the ways in which meditation alters brain chemistry.

Brain science cannot picture or identify the link between observable brain processes, such as neurons firing and abstract concepts such as consciousness or mind. It is simply assumed or taken for granted that such a link exists. There is no brain image of consciousness. This is because consciousness or mind is a concept made possible by language.

Your brain can be removed from your skull and placed in a jar; but your mind cannot be placed in a jar for the excellent reason that it is a philosophical concept, existing "in relation" with or connected to your brain, but also socially, linguistically, culturally in a network of relations with others, and for religious persons, also in relation with God. Mind has no weight or physical location, but it does have a history in philosophy.

Part of the problem in this discussion is that the concept of the "soul" is not defined by these philosophers or most scientists, even as they use or reject it. Like many others, they merely assume that the soul is an archaic concept associated with mystical or magical religious notions, so that it may be dispensed with and discarded. The word "person" is also not defined, although it is used in this discussion. Other concepts that should be used in this discussion -- and when they are used, tend not to be defined -- include: "psyche," "spirit," "being," or "mind" and "culture."

It is no coincidence that "psyche," as well as "soul" and "spirit" have a common etymological root in the ancient Egyptian word, ka or "breath." This word "soul" is what scientists describe as a "mystery." Interestingly, that's also what theologians say. Ain't that a kick in the pants? I'd say so. O.K., boys and girls, lets go back to the beginning of this discussion.

What are you? Are you an object, like a shoe? Are you a complex machine, like your t.v. set, or a car? My guess is that whatever scientists say, that is just not how any of us see ourselves. It is not how they see themselves. "This failure to accept your animal nature is only an illusion or just wishful thinking," says the busy MIT graduate.

Professor Sider assumes that science and the concept of the soul, which he does not define, are incompatible. Why? Who says so? How can he know if he does not define what he means by the soul? Suppose that the problem is not accepting our animal natures, but coming to terms with the part of us that is more than animal or material, that aspect of our selves that exists "in" language, socially, spiritually (if you like), with others, as an inherently social entity? The mystery is revealed by our capacity for love. When you love another person, "where" are you?

I think that the concept of a soul and contemporary scientific accounts of human nature are highly compatible, each enriches and contributes to the other. Philosopher David Braine writes in The Human Person, that traditional accounts of the soul or "personal being" turn "not on consciousness but on intellect, which is something whose most evident human expressions are not in perception, emotion and the experience of pain, but in speech and writing -- in brief in the works of language." Similarly, the concept of God is fully compatible with scientific learning and reality, as indicated by scientist Carl Sagan, who says in Broca's Brain:

An atheist is someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists.

I usually define myself as an atheist or agnostic in rejecting anthropomorphic concepts of God. Carl Sagan would say that I am not an atheist and neither is he. You decide.

No one can tell you that belief in God is prohibited by scientific learning. But if there is a God, then all of what science reveals would be contained in or as God. This belief in a deity is a matter of choice, like your identity. I am not alone in this conclusion that the concept of a soul, defined as the unity of material and social -- or other aspects of humans -- is a useful one. In other words, the soul is the unity of that protean and variable essence that you are, which is always plural or multiple, made up of many elements. Your mind and your self are "leaping things." Anthony O'Hear writes:

... my identity is a particular and specific amalgam of my biological nature and my social circumstances. And it is on the basis of what I INHERIT [see my earlier discussion of Jung and collective memory, including religious traditions,] in these ways that I work out my conception of the good life, and what should count as reasons in evaluating which rights to recognize, which pleasures to seek, which pains to discount.

I am not a pure self. I am not self-sufficient, physically, psychologically, intellectually, emotionally or in any other way. ... I am a rational animal. [No one is denying this, who is a serious participant in this discussion.] I am also, in Alasdair MacIntyre's helpful phrase, a dependent rational animal.

Underline this next phrase and compare it to Charles Taylor's critique of atomism:

Multiple dependencies permeate my existence. ... As a moral being, deciding what to do and what to value, I am in fact as situated in my world [materially, biologically] as I am in my existence as a knowing agent [mind, soul].

This is not Cartesian dualism, but the denial of dualism. Important philosophers supporting this view are Spinoza, Hegel and Josiah Royce.

I suggest that a person is one entity. I am a unity of material or animal being, existing empirically in the natural world for a specific temporal period or duration, with a history, but also existing as a human being only by becoming a moral subject within communities and in a life-world of meaningful relationships, using a language, feeling for other people, as a member of multiple communities (a dynamic multiplicity). I am a being whose essence requires that he be larger than himself. My purpose is self-transcendence. My purpose, then, is "to be." And the only way to be, is to love. Love is "doing," it is true action in the world (John MacMurray), though it does not require accumulation of wealth or military conflict.

All of us are spiritual beings living in a material world, an infinite essence within a material base. A human life takes place within (or as) paradox. In my case, I exist as an American, New Yorker, of Cuban ancestry, member of a species originating in Africa -- and (in that sense, like you) I am African too -- male, (depressingly) forty-eight years-old (!), free to choose himself through affective capacities, with others, especially by means of his loves. To love, again, is the only way to be fully human, to be a person, since it both makes us moral and takes us beyond morality.

Loving and being loved -- something that is only possible for free beings -- is more crucial to human being-in-the world than the "residence" of one's appendix or any other part of one's anatomy. To recognize this, is to see that being human or a person is entering the moral realm, for it means that I must grant the same moral and ontological status to others, like me, and that I am constrained in what I may do to them and in the attention that I am compelled to give to them, also in the respect to which they are due from me. (Simone Weil) A person is, unavoidably, a moral being. This becoming fully human or a moral being is the acquistion of a soul. (See my story "The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

To point to my moral failures or anyone else's is no criticism of what I am saying, since a person can only be accused of behaving badly if there is such a thing as behaving well, in a moral sense. To suggest that there is such a thing as morality, which is essential to what we are as persons, is not to claim that one is better than other people. In fact, the effect is to counsel humility and a reminder of all of the ways in which most of us -- myself especially -- may fail to live up to our own standards. The worst mistake to make is to reject the standards because we don't always meet them. A better idea is to try harder next time.

The deepest wisdom found in our religious traditions is confirmed by our scientific learning and not disproved by it. As physicist Paul Davies suggests in his discussion of God and the New Physics: "We may therefore choose to reject the belief that the mind is nothing but brain cell activity, for that is to fall into the reductivist trap."

The internationally recognized paleontologist and Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, echoes this point in discussions of science and human spirit (pp. 245-251), but also of "love as energy" (pp. 264-268), see his discussion of the "noosphere," defining persons as "organized complexity," leading ultimately to an identity with that evolving universe in which we find ourselves and also (for him) with God.

Discussions by rigorous thinkers, making use of the concept of the soul, in a scientifically respectable manner, are plentiful. For example, June Singer speaks of the soul in Boundaries of the Soul: the Practice of Jung's Psychology, so does philosopher of science, Ian Hacking in Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Professor Hacking will get the last word in defining this concept of "soul," that we need now more than ever:

Talk of the soul sounds old fashioned, but I take it seriously. The soul that was scientized was something transcendental, perhaps immortal. Philosophers of my stripe speak of the soul not to suggest something eternal, but to invoke character, reflective choice, self-understanding, values that include honesty to others and oneself, and several types of freedom and responsibility. Love, passion, envy, tedium, regret, and quiet contentment are the stuff of the soul. This may be a very old idea of the soul, pre-Socratic. I do not think of the soul as unitary [-- notice that Professor Hacking is suggesting, as I read him, that persons are unitary, bringing together in souls, minds and other aspects of the unique multiplicity that each of us is --] as an essence, as one single thing, or even as a thing at all. It does not denote an unchanging core of personal identity. [This is because what is unchanging in us, as Roberto Unger argues, is the capacity to change.] One person, one soul may have many facets and speak with many tongues. To think of the soul is not to imply that there is one essence, one spiritual point, from which all voices issue. In my way of thinking, the soul is a more modest concept than that. It stands for the strange mix of aspects of a person that may be, at some time, imagined as inner -- a thought not contradicted by Wittgenstein's dictum that the body is the best picture of the soul.

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