Personal Identity and the Possibility of the Afterlife

What happens after we die? A popular notion in our culture states we have an immaterial soul within our bodies that preserves our consciousness, memories, attitudes, and personal identity. This immaterial soul departs from our bodies and enters a far-off world much different from our own, Heaven. This earthly world means very little compared to our experiences of the next world, and thus we should be strive to be the sort of person, the sort of soul who gains admission into Heaven. The body is temporary, something that will be disposed of as we approach this distant, ethereal heaven. As Hamlet said, “What dreams may come/When we have shuffled off his mortal coil.” Thus, the soul is really all that matters in the big scheme of things.

The trouble is, what exactly is a soul? In our popular sense, the soul is imagined to have a spacio-temporal location within our bodies, and yet where might we find it? Could a soul be divided and cast from the body? What is it that the soul does that is not a function of the body? One of the appeals for the Soul-View is to address the problem of Personal Identity through time. If our bodies are contently changing, then in what way is the person I was at time X the same person as I was at time Y? The Soul-Theorist could answer by saying, the person with soul A at time X, and the person with soul A at time Y is the same person. On a very deep level, I think most people, religious or not, have an intuition that there is an essential, unyielding component to a person that makes them that person.

Let’s grant the Soul-View for a moment. If souls do not die when the body dies, then what happens? Does a soul continue to have the cognitive functions of a nervous system? Accounts of Near-Death Experiences often talk about a soul floating above the operating table, hearing and seeing the dying body. If this is the case that a soul has a faculty of vision, memory, and so forth, then why can’t blind people see? Why does CTE damage one’s memory and cognitive functioning if your soul is capable of collecting and sorting information? Couldn’t the soul kick in to back up somebody’s physical eyeballs and brain, should they fail? I could imagine an ad hoc explanation, such as, “The soul embeds itself in a body, and thus is causally inert while the body is still alive,” but I think this ignores the widespread folk intuition that the soul is the causal agency in our bodies, and is the source of our emotions, cognition, thinking, personality, attitudes, and intentions; and, when we die, our soul carries on with our sense of self into the hereafter.

What’s ironic about the soul view is how it isn’t explicitly Biblical. In the Book of Daniel, which was written around 150 years before the birth of Christ, a different sort of view is given about life after death (Daniel 12:3-5):
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

The dead are sleeping in the dust of the earth? This sounds a little different than the folk-concept of the soul jutting off to heaven right away. The New Testament of the Bible is similar (1 Corinthians 15:35-40):

“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.”

Consider this viewpoint the “Bodily Resurrection View” of the afterlife, which is the traditional view of the Christian Church. In the above-quoted passage, St. Paul discusses how our earthly bodies will be superseded by heavenly bodies when Christ returns again. This resurrected, heavenly body is generally understood to have properties similar to an earthly body. For example, the resurrected body of Jesus Christ still had scars from the nails in his hands, and is able to make breakfast (John 21:12) with the disciples, which implies He wasn’t just a phantasm. In short, the Bodily Resurrection View holds that our bodies die, and God resurrects our bodies at a later date, and that is how we are able to have an afterlife.

Let’s bring back the problem of personal identity over time. The Soul View attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that the soul is an essential, immaterial substance, and as long as the soul existed, so did the continuity of the self. The Bodily Resurrection View does not necessarily believe there is an immaterial soul within a body. In fact, our resurrected bodies are understood to be somewhat different from our earthly bodies. If this is the case, then in what sense is my earthly body the same person as my heavenly body? Suppose God were to create my Heavenly Body from cells that belonged to older incarnations of my earthly body while my currently Earthly Body was still alive. “This is the heavenly body that will live forever,” I am told, and “Your earthly body will be extinguished upon death.” At this point, I would feel a bit disappointed: as I stare at my Heavenly Body, I have a strong sense that THEY ARE NOT ME, this body is a different entity, one that might bare my likeness, but that’s about it. Thus, it really feels like when I die, so dies my person.

For my personal identity to persist over time, there seems to be a psychological continuation. A person at time X and a person at time Y are the same person if there is a psychological through-line from time X to time Y. British Philosopher Derrik Parfit offers a famous thought experiment where he considers a teleportation device, much like one from Star Trek. A person’s immediate body is destroyed when entering the device, but a new body with an identical physical and psychological structure, with the same memories, tics, aspirations, and so forth, is created at a distinct location. Parfit encourages us to think that we, as a person, survive this teleportation, even if a body literately dies in the process.

Parfit’s thought experiment treads on the notion that the new body is identical. However, I can imagine that our Heavenly Bodies would be different from our Earthly Bodies in some very significant ways. For example, suppose you suffered from a psychological or physical ailment during your life. It is almost impossible to think that did not influence your personality or sense of self. What happens when your Heavenly Body no longer has that ailment? Or suppose you had a condition that was long considered a disease or ailment, but there has been a movement to end the the stigma around it? For example, many deaf people resent the notion that they are “Broken,” and the DSM used to categorize queer people as being mentally ill, does your Heavenly Body maintain your deafness or your sexual orientation? Without our Earthly political, social, legal, historic, and linguistic identities, how much continuity does our Earthly Bodies have with our Heavenly Bodies?

I’m willing to bite the bullet and accept that trying to find a stable, objective personal identity over time is a fool’s errant. Instead of trying to find an essential piece that connects Person at Time X to Person at Time Y, I strongly believe that “The Self” is a linguistic and social construction, a narrative reality, but not an objective fact. There is a very real sense in which the person I was at age 10 and the person I am now are not the same person, but because of our psychology and social systems, I consider both to be stages of my whole personal experience. Parfit really tried to push on this, and argued that the distinction between myself at time X and another person at time X is far less than the difference between my person at time X and my person at previous time Y.

When I was living in Syracuse, I once met up with a friend who was very committed to Zen Buddhism. I asked him what he thought about the notion of Reincarnation, as that seemed a little odd to me: if you can’t remember your past lives, then what was the point? He told me that in his tradition and experience, rebirth wasn’t so much something that happened upon death, it was something that occurred all the time. If there is no consistent, objective self, then perhaps we are reborn every time we reconsider our actions and intentions, every time we resolve to be different, to consider others’ viewpoints, to learn from our mistakes, to contemplate and experience the Holy, then we pass that on in our rebirth, just as how a dying candle passes the flame to a fresh one. Perhaps then, this is the case of the Resurrected Body; the Earthly Body, a composite of a life, passes a flame to the Resurrected Body. That is the continuation that makes our personhood carry on into the World-to-Come.

2 thoughts on “Personal Identity and the Possibility of the Afterlife

  1. And, the flame that is passed is the soul. Perhaps, you cannot see the forest for the trees.

    The immaterial soul, or atman, is indivisible and can exist in the material plane of existence or in the spiritual plane of existence. This is from the Vedic philosophy of India. In other words, the body is not the source of consciousness, but rather a vehicle of consciousness.

    But, keep speculating, you may stumble on to some useful and helpful truths.

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    1. I’m not confident that Eastern religions necessarily escape the same problems I outlined in my essay. What does it mean to be immaterial? Why isn’t the body the source of consciousness? These are assertions without justification, and any religion or spiritual system can make them.

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