Essay / Philosophy

Human Persons and the Self

Throughout its history, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been interpreted as giving an affirmative answer to questions about the reality of the three great topics of Western philosophy, viz., God, the soul, and life everlasting. For two thousand years, the vast majority of Christian thinkers have believed in the souls of men and beasts as it used to be put. Animals and humans are composed of an immaterial entity—a soul, a life principle, a ground of sentience—and a body. More specifically, a human being is a functional unity of two distinct entities—body and soul. The human soul or self, while not by nature immortal, is nevertheless capable of entering an intermediate disembodied state upon death, however incomplete and unnatural this state may be, and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body. On this view, the self is a simple, indivisible, unified I that remains the same through change, for example, as the body changes or as memories, personality, conscious experiences come and go and become different. In this article, I shall present three arguments for this view of the self, and explain why there cannot be such selves if naturalism is true.

The Reality of a Simple, Unified Mental Self

The first argument revolves around our basic awareness or our own selves. When we enter most deeply into ourselves, we become aware of a very basic fact: we are aware of our own self (ego, I, center of consciousness) as being distinct from our bodies and from any particular mental experience we have, and as being an uncomposed, spatially unextended center of consciousness. I simply have a basic, direct awareness of the fact that I am not identical to my body or my mental events; rather, I am the immaterial self that has a body and a conscious mental life.

An experiment may help convince you of this. Right now I am looking at a chair in my office. As I walk toward the chair, I experience a series of chair representations. That is, I have several different chair experiences that replace one another in rapid succession. As I approach the chair, my chair sensations vary. If I pay attention, I am also aware of two more things. First, I do not simply experience a series of sense-images of a chair. Rather, through self-awareness, I also experience the fact that it is I myself who have each chair experience. Each chair sensation produced at each angle of perspective has a perceiver who is I. An “I” accompanies each sense experience to produce a series of awarenesses—“I am experiencing a chair sense image now”.

I am also aware of the basic fact that the same self that is currently having a fairly large chair experience (as my eyes come to within twelve inches of the chair) is the very same self as the one who had all of the other chair experiences preceding this current one. Through self-awareness, I am aware of the fact that I am an enduring I who was and am (and will be) present as the owner of all the experiences in the series.

These two facts—I am the owner of my experiences, and I am an enduring self—show that I am not identical to my experiences. I am the conscious thing that has them. I am also aware of myself as a simple, uncomposed and spatially unextended center of consciousness (I am “fully present” throughout my body; if my arm is cut off, I do not become 4/5’s of a self). In short, I am a mental substance.

A related argument has been offered by William Hasker. The argument is an attempt to show that the unity of consciousness cannot be explained if one is a brain because a brain is just an aggregate of different physical parts. It is only if the self is a single, simple subject that the unity of consciousness is adequately accounted for.

To grasp the argument, consider one’s awareness of a complex fact, say one’s own visual field consisting of awareness of several objects at once, including a number of different surface areas of each object. One’s entire visual field is composed of several different experiences, for example, an awareness of a desk towards one’s left side and an awareness of a podium in the center of one’s visual experience of an entire classroom. Corresponding to such an experience, thousands of different light waves are bouncing off of different objects (and off of different locations on the surface of the same object, say different areas of the desk’s top side), they all interact with the subject’s retinas, and they all spark signals that terminate in myriads of different parts of the brain. Accordingly, a physicalist may claim that such a unified awareness of the entire room by means of one’s visual field consists in the fact that there are a number of different physical parts of the brain each of which terminates a different wavelength and each of which is aware only of part of and not the whole of the complex fact (the entire room). However, this will not work, because it cannot account for the fact that there is a single, unitary awareness of the entire visual field. It is the very same self that is aware of the desk to the left, the podium at the center, and, indeed, each and every distinguishable aspect of the room. But there is no single part of the brain that is correspondingly activated as a terminus for the entire visual fields. Only a single, uncomposed mental substance can account for the unity of one’s visual field or, indeed, the unity of consciousness in general.

Finally, a number of facts about us require that we be literally the same self even though our mental lives, personality, and memories change, and even though our body changes by gaining new parts and losing old parts. The first fact involves our ability to grasp a proposition’s truth or think through a process of reasoning. Consider A. C. Ewing’s statement of the argument:

To realize the truth of any proposition or even entertain it as something meaningful the same being must be aware of its different constituents. To be aware of the validity of an argument the same being must entertain premises and conclusion; to compare two things the same being must, at least in memory, be aware of them simultaneously; and since all these processes take some time the continuous existence of literally the same entity is required. In these cases an event which consisted in the contemplating of A followed by another event which consisted in the contemplating of B is not sufficient. They must be events of contemplating that occur in the same being. If one being thought of wolves, another of eating, and another of lambs, it certainly would not mean that anybody contemplated the proposition `wolves eat lambs’…There must surely be a single being persisting through the process to grasp a proposition or inference as a whole.

Briefly, the second and third facts are my fear of the future and my responsibility for past actions. I legitimately fear going to the dentist next month or being responsible for not paying my taxes on time last April because I will be and was literally the same self as the one now writing. If I was not literally the same self through change, then it would not be I going to the dentist nor was it I who paid taxes late. These three facts show that I am not my body, personality, or conscious life (these change regularly), but rather, the same self that is related to my body and who has memories and personality.

Naturalism and the Self

If naturalism is true, there is no such thing as a unified, simple self, capable of being the same through change. Rather, the human person is a collection or aggregate of parts that is literally a different aggregate from one moment to the next as old parts are lost and new ones gained. If one starts with atomic parts, and simply re-arranges them according to natural laws into new relational structures constituted which amount to larger wholes composed of these atoms and molecules, then all such wholes from a water molecule to a human brain to an entire human body are merely collections or aggregates of parts held together by forces. The human self is either the entire body or the brain or some sub-region of the brain. But in all these cases, the human self is like a collection of Legos (atoms, molecules) held together by clamps (bonds, forces). If Legos are removed and replaced by new Legos, there is a new aggregate. Such collections cannot remain the same through part replacement. Nor are such collections really unified, indivisible wholes. Rather, they are mere groups of myriads of parts held together by external forces.

I have offered good reasons for thinking that we are genuine, unified selves. And I have tried to show briefly why naturalism cannot account for such selves. Thus, the reality of the unified self is evidence for the image of God according to which we were made and against naturalism as a worldview.

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