Soul theory and personal identity: A critical analysis
Of body, memory and soul, personal identity is largely dependent on the individual himself. But as change is a process that is constant with time, there is always the philosophical question that what actually remains constant in a human or any living being throughout. The knowledge of this constant should be enough for a person to identify with over any amount of time. In this essay, the soul theory is considered as the basis for personal identity and the problems that exist with it are discussed.
The concept of personal identity is illusory even to self and it is but, natural for every human to consider different versions of it from time to time. The question that is addressed here is the conditions that make a person identical to the person at another period in time. Among the three main theories of personal identity that different schools of philosophy endorse, namely body, memory and the soul theory, each have its own merits and demerits. The problem, of course, comes from the fact that one’s personal identity is rooted within that person and cannot be accurately described by an observer even if the observer were to be one’s own self.
At the first glance, it would seem like the keenest approach to the problem is the materialistic one, where one’s body becomes the core of personal identity. The idea behind this approach is that one would look at the material body in the same way that the rest of the world shall look at it. At a physical level, perception of the self is less error prone and hence identity is easily established even over a period of time. But let us consider, for example, a person who had been in a terrible accident and had to undergo plastic surgery that changed almost everything about his body. Waking up, he would still be able to identify his own self without having to look at his body.
It is inherent to the nature of personal identity to consider the workings of the mind or rather the functionality of the brain for the moment. Since the problem itself is such that we consider the time factor in comparing two entities in order to derive personal identity, memory theory gives us a contemplative view as memories are accumulated by time and form the basis for both physical and psychological changes in oneself. Then again, considering the previous example, waking up in a rather different body and in a new environment altogether, the accident victim would still not need his memories to confirm it is indeed him. In all probability, his first conscious thought would begin with “I…” A recap of the accident or the time before that is not required for him to be ensured of his identity despite the strangeness of his circumstances. Bernard Williams takes a more serious approach on this problem in his thought experiments where he considers different scenarios of memory implantations and transformations after a person is heavily tortured. Williams maintains that even if a person were to be given new memories or his memories were to be transferred into a different body, there would still remain the element of intuition which will make him afraid of torture. Williams experiments show that both psychological continuity and bodily continuity could result in the intuition and thus arrives at a conflict yet again, in defining where exactly does personal identity lie (Williams, 1960).
The dichotomy of the mind/matter problem or the dualistic approach to identity as described by Rene Descartes seems to be the only way that considers both mind and body as separate and essential entities. Descartes describes the mind as a non-materialistic entity altogether that is known through the consciousness of a person but exists separately from the body and may or may not be directly connected to the body. How, then would the mind control the actions of the body if it is not completely connected to it? In Asian philosophies, especially Buddhism, the mind-body connection is explored through meditative techniques wherein it is assumed that although the mind and body are supposed to be intrinsically connected to each other, human beings through their materialistic natures tend to get attached to outside material objects rather than with their own inner selves. The dichotomy itself throws little light on the problem of personal identity, but it opens the philosophical avenues to explore the soul theory further which currently stands on shaky grounds as far as constructs of theory itself are concerned.
According to Aristotle, the soul is the essence of a living being and any living matter for instance. An eye has a soul in the sense that its purpose is seeing. By analogy, Aristotle talks of a knife which is made with a sharp edge and therefore its essence or soul is in its inherent ability to cut. The purpose of a human being is more elusive than that of an eye or a knife, but Aristotle defies the theory that a soul can exist independently without a body because of the simple reason that without a body, the essence of a living being becomes irrelevant and therefore, non-existent. The concept of the soul has its roots in many religious philosophies, wherein the nature of self is often correlated to the existence of a soul independent from all material perceptions. In Hinduism, the soul referred to as the atman is rather different in concept from that seen in western mythology as western philosophies tend to look at the soul as an object of possession belonging to one person. The atman in contrast, while residing inside a living being, does not belong to the being but is an entity identical to the universal consciousness or God. Comparing this view with that of Aristotle, the soul is the essence of a living being in a sense that the purpose is life itself. When life leaves a body, the atman reunites with the supreme essence of the universe or the param atman. Aristotle’s view of the soul does little to define personal identity as the essence of a human is not approachable by reason or experience until the end of the lifetime after which there is no room for identity.
This is where the flow of consciousness enters the picture. Though everything else can change including body and memories, the flow of consciousness remains intact and thus is regarded as intrinsic to the nature of the soul. In Perry’s dialogue, Miller argues that although consciousness or the awareness of consciousness is not constant, there is a certain continuity that one could identify with. As a matter of example he names a street which is viewed from the other end of the adjacent block. Looking at the street from one intersection and looking at it from the next intersection, one may not be convinced that it is indeed the same street they were looking at. But the logic behind the continuity cannot be denied. In the same way, although a person if different from the person he was some time ago, since he retains the flow of consciousness, though interrupted by sleep or memory loss or whatever the circumstance, he will identify with it and thereby, the soul (Perry, 1978).
The soul theory successfully explains the simple nature of personal identity by saying that an individual identifies with the quality intrinsic to his being with or without thorough knowledge of it. However, the biggest problem posed by the soul theory is the nature of the soul itself. If a soul is indescribable for an individual himself, how will he identify with it? Does endorsing a soul mean belief in afterlife or rather the eternal flow of consciousness? Because if personal identity of a human is defined by his soul and the soul is defined by the flow of consciousness and other such immaterial entities, why should there be an end to it after death? But, can the rational part of a human ever completely accept survival after death? A concept so baseless as survival after death cannot be the grounds for personal identity, surely.
In the movie Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s science fiction novel, whole populations of human clones are made, whose life’s purpose is to be organ donors for the real humans. The movie deals with whether or not the clones have ‘souls’ and the way this question is approached is by studying the series of artworks the clones create right from an early age. This view considers the adage that ‘art is an expression of the soul’. There are several variations in the perception of soul, but essential to its nature is the fact that the soul is unapproachable through any known methods and cannot be defined within the realms of the material or psychological world. Dualistic approach to the mind matter phenomenon is endorsed by many philosophers to deal with the definitions of a soul, with the intention that the theoretical problems and inconsistencies that are there and keep arising could eventually be resolved. While behaviourists take to neurobiology to explain most matters related to self, neurobiology itself is still nascent considering the fact studying pure brain matter does not really explain the numerous phenomenon a mind is capable of performing. A dualistic approach has to be taken in exploring the nature of the soul, but narrowing down the concepts is required rather than blowing them out of proportions to really understand the role of soul in life.
At the end of the day, the soul is a perception as is the material world. Consciousness on the other hand consists of many imaginative things while knowing their nature, ideas, choices, the paths that unfold even in the roads that are not taken are a part of consciousness. Maybe the soul of a human lies in the middle ground somewhere between consciousness and decision, in the choices that we do make and the actions that we do follow. The middle way, as it is called in Buddhism, but it seems to me that if philosophers want to get to the bottom of personal identity, a balance need me reached between the range of a mind and the possibilities of the body and this is the only way, the true nature of a soul can be deciphered.
Williams, B. 1960. Bodily Continuity and Personal Identity. Analysis.
Perry, J. 1978. A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.