As an excercise in my philosophy class we were asked to construct a philosophical dialogue between two people on the issue of personal identity and the after life, based on certain prescribed reading material. I wanted to share my condensed version of an extended form of dialogue, here, in order to elicit some philosophically sound Orthodox criticisms and positions on the points my two fictional characters argue. Pat is on her deathbed; she believes that personal identity is intrinsically related to bodily identity, whilst Robert is attempting to comfort her with the idea that her personal identity (the definition of which he changes in the course of the argument) may possibly survive her bodily death:
Rob: Well, looks like you’re going to die anytime soon now.
Pat: Don’t you have anything a little more comforting to say?
Rob: How can I hope to comfort you with the prospect of life after death when I know you’ll regard it as having no probability whatsoever?
Pat: Hope provides comfort, and hope does not always require probability. But we must at least believe that what we hope for is at least possible. Here, I mean possible only in the weakest sense — of being conceivable, given the unavoidable facts that this body will die and rot away soon enough. Try and prove to me the mere possibility that I will survive my death, which, if accomplished, shall provide me with the comfort of anticipation. To do this, however, you will have to prove the conceivable possibility, that sometime in the future after my death, there will be a person who will experience, and at the very least think and remember, and that this person will be me i.e. I will be related to this person in such a way that it’s correct for me to anticipate her experiences as my own future experiences. The only relationship thus, between me now, and this future person, must be one of identity. We must be identical, however not in the way that identical twins are identical (for here the term identical denotes ‘exact similarity’), but rather identical in a sense that that identity constitutes the condition of memory and correct anticipation.
Rob: Well, consider the proposition that what is fundamentally you, is not your body, but rather your soul/self/mind. Recall Descartes’ distinction between the immaterial soul and the body in which the soul is lodged. Though the two are intimately related, they are not identical; they are distinct. What concerns your survival is the continued existence of your immaterial soul subsequent to the death of your body, and all throughout its process of rotting.
Pat: If my fundamental personal identity is related to my immaterial soul, which you can neither see, hear, touch etc. then how do you know that the person you are speaking to now, is the same person you played tennis with last week?
Rob: Well, I see the same body before me, and I know full well that the same soul is connected with the body that was connected with it before me; same body, same self. However, I must make the qualification that I do not extend this principle, which I find reliable here on earth (by virtue of the fact it’s a well-confirmed reality rather than it being something I deduce a priori), to the Afterlife. The principle simply works in the circumstances here on earth; it doesn’t make it inconceivable that it won’t apply in vastly altered circumstances as that which would exist in the hereafter.
Pat: Until you provide a valid and reasonable foundation for this “same body, same self” principle, you are nonetheless begging the question. How is it that you can judge the soul that was in my body last week during tennis, to be the same as that which is in my body now as we speak, if it is immaterial; you simply have no way of testing your hypothesis that sameness of body, in these earthly circumstances, means sameness of personal identity.
Rob: Well, we can establish an intermediary link between the observable physical body and the non-observable soul, through observable psychological characteristics e.g. person’s beliefs, attitudes, memories, prejudices etc.
Pat: You’ve simply evaded the circular “same body, same self” argument, for a nonetheless circular “same psychology, same self” argument. How do you know for example, that my soul (which you identify with my self), is not consistently being replaced with another soul which simply possesses a similar psychology?
Rob: Well, I can observe the correlation in my own personal case, and then generalise with respect to the every other person. Since there is nothing particularly special about my case, then I assume the arrangement that observe introspectively is universally applied, until given reason to believe otherwise.
Pat: I will grant you the argument, that introspectively you can discern the fact that you have a single personal identity that has consistently been associated with your body since you were born; the personal identity who begins a particular thought in you, is the same person that completes that thought, and the person who acts upon that thought is the same person who initiated and completed that thought. The question is, upon what basis do you identify that single personal identity with a single immaterial soul? How do you know for example, that there is not a constant flux of souls within my body all possessing similar psychological states? If the soul is immaterial, then judgments made concerning it are mysterious, and if our immaterial and mysterious soul be identified with our personal identity, than our personal identity must be mysterious too. However, our personal identity is evidently not mysterious; rather, it is the most secure knowledge we have, the foundation of all reason and action.
Rob: Well, your position that our person is to be identified with our live bodies does not fare any better, I must say. One obvious example that evidences this, is the fact that when a person starts to wake up from their sleep, such that their conscious, albeit their eyes are still closed and they are yet able to recognise their own bodies, they are at least able to recognise their own personal identity. One is clearly able to make personal judgments, based on their beliefs, experiences etc. without having to make any judgments whatsoever regarding their body.
Pat: Well, fair enough, but where exactly does this leave your ‘sameness of the immaterial soul’ theory?
Rob: I admit that I will have to redefine my conception of the soul in order to coherently defend its direct and identical correlation to the person. Instead of the soul being some sort of an underlying immaterial substance, I would like you to think of it in terms of “person-stages” i.e. a stretch of conscious.
I thus posit the following conceivable possibility regarding the survival of your personal identity. Consider X to be the person you are now and Y to be a being in heaven. As long as Y is in a state of consciousness that is appropriately related to X, then X and Y are the same personal identity. The relationship is thus one of memory.
Pat: I don’t think memory suffices in establishing an appropriate relationship in terms of personal identity, for it is possible for example that Y only apparently remembers the experiences of X, as opposed to actually remembering the experiences of X. This distinction can be expressed via the following example: assume A and B to be person here on earth. B is hypnotised to think that he is A, and that he has experienced and thought all that A has experienced. B thus apparently remembers the experiences of A, whereas A who actually experienced those experiences, thus actually remembers such experiences.
Rob: I admit that this distinction must be made. I don’t see what problem it poses though; you would simply be the one who actually remembers.
Pat: So the real rememberer (i.e. me) is the one who really remembers? Don’t you think that’s begging the question?
Rob: If we base the distinction between the real rememberer (i.e. you) and the apparent rememberer (i.e. the imposter) according to the fact that the memories of the former were caused the correct way i.e. by actual earlier experiences that are the subject of the memories in question, whereas the memories of the latter were imposed, then we have not appealed to personal identity to draw a conclusion on personal identity, and thus we have not begged the question.
Pat: There is still a problem here. In ordinary memory, the causal chain from remembered event to memory of it never leads us outside the confines of a single body. Indeed, the normal process of which you speak surely involves storage of information somehow in the brain. How can the states of my brain when I die, influence in the appropriate way the apparent memories of the heavenly person you take me to be?
Rob: Well, in the case of the heavenly being who is in fact you, God would have created her with the very exact brain states that you had at the moment of your death.
Pat: Well if that was so, then God could also create another person with those exact same brain states i.e. designed exactly after me. However, if both of these persons are me, then they must hence be eachother, which is a blatant contradiction. Thus, either God is limited to creating only one of me, or your definition of personal identity is flawed since in creating one with the exact same brain-states as I, God is merely creating an exact replica of me i.e. another person who is exactly similar to me. Since I doubt you would want to put limitations on God, then we can assume the latter, and hence your analysis of memory is incorrect or it is simply not sufficient for personal identity.
Rob: Wait a second, do you remember your initial request? You wanted me to prove the mere possibility of survival; isn’t acknowledging the possibility that God will only create one of you, sufficient in fulfilling this request?
Pat: So you implicitly admit that memory isn’t sufficient for personal identity, and that there is in fact another vitally relevant factor involved, namely, the lack of competition. The identity of this heavenly being is now something that is dependent on something wholly extrinsic to it, for it is not only on the state of that persons mind in relation to the state of mind of that persons “earthly counterpart”, but also the existence or non-existence of other people. This seems rather ad hoc.
Rob: True it is that there is something ad hoc about it, but maybe that’s simply how the concept operates; the concept nonetheless remains coherent until you can elicit an inherent contradiction.
Pat: An infinite pile of absurdities, which can easily be generated from your account, has the same effect as a contradiction. As one example, if God can create such a heavenly duplicate of me, then surely He can create one in Melbourne City, here on earth. There is nothing in your theory to favour the person physically presented before you now, as the real me; in fact, your theory implies that if God were to create such a person, that the person before you now would in effect cease to be me; I would have no right to my name, my car keys, my bank account etc. This is evidently nonsense; I would certainly not cease to be me. Therefore in this, and an infinite number of other possible circumstances, your theory gives the wrong answer, and thus it is wrong.
Forgive any typos.