We have found no answer to the question of personal identity except the natural answer, which says I cease to exist at death, when my brain ceases to function. Indeed, we've gone beyond the natural answer to the further conclusion that I have no genuine, singular identity even from moment to moment, that I possess only said identity. (For simplicity, from now on "natural answer" refers to both conclusions.)
The natural answer says I did not come into the universe but out of it. That the universe creates me out of itself, just as it creates the stars, planets, and other animals. That when I die, I return whence I came, back into the earth and, when the sun becomes a red giant, back to the stars. It denies the "pinnacle of creation" view of humanity, and says at death we suffer the same fate as the other animals.
Our answer does not accord with the intuition of some theists (and nontheists), who would find our answer troubling and inadequate. Troubling, because they find death and annihilation a horrible, frightening prospect. Inadequate, because annihilation destroys the possibility of justice: the good die unrewarded, the evil die unpunished. Indeed, they might see our answer as a reductio ad absurdum
, a proof of the invalidity of our assumptions and reasoning, because our answer denies what Descartes took as the undeniable, bedrock foundation of his philosophy: the existence of the "I".
Generally, two paths exist for resolving a problem: solving and dissolving. The first path accepts the problem as stated ("Where can I find the Fountain of Youth?") and tries to solve it. We've tried that path. The second path examines underlying assumptions ("Somewhere a Fountain of Youth exists.").
Proving an assumption false may dissolve the problem, in effect, solving it. Let's examine how belief in an "I" may have originated even if no enduring "I" exists.
Origin of the "I"
How might we understand the compelling, visceral feeling that an "I" exists? We point out two factors which reinforce the idea of an enduring "I": society and evolution.
As to society, at birth my parents give me a name and as a young child I learn to identify with the name; I learn that my name names me
. My name stays with me throughout my life (usually) so I naturally assume it refers to something that exists throughout my life, too.
As we've seen, a said identity involves judgment. So, we might equally well judge that certain points in life mark the death of an old "I" and the birth of a new one. Indeed, some societies have initiation rituals that mark when a boy becomes a man, or a girl, a woman. Such rituals emphasize a break in continuity, a transformation, a death of the old self. Monks and nuns often take a new name when joining a religious order, also emphasizing a death of the old self. Both processes emphasize the death of one "I" and the birth of another.
Therefore, unless a person—let's call him Dave—undergoes an initiation ritual or becomes a monk, he probably thinks of the word "Dave" as indicating a self that has existed since birth. And other people use "Dave" in the same sense. So Dave might naturally come to believe such a self really exists. (For similar reasons, people often accept their society's predominate deity as actually existing.)
That society names us and acts as if we possess an enduring self may explain our idea of an enduring "I". But what of the strong, visceral feeling that an "I" exists? That probably results from evolution.
As an organism becomes more complex, it becomes more aware. For instance, bacteria or plants have some rudimentary awareness of environment, as demonstrated, for example, by a sunflower turning towards the Sun. More complex organisms such as the squirrel or cat demonstrate (probably a subconscious) idea of self when they flee predators. And some animals more complex than squirrels and cats demonstrate they possess a conscious idea of self by passing the mirror self-recognition test (MSR test, for short).
In a simplified version of the MRS test, researchers place a mark (for example, a red dot) on the forehead of a sleeping or sedated animal. The animal awakes, looks in the mirror and sees the dot. The animal who touches their forehead demonstrates they recognize the animal in the mirror as themselves, and passes the test. Chimpanzees, gorillas, Asian elephants and, of course, humans (of about age two or older) pass the test.
Of animals possessing a sense of self, we'd expect those possessing a strong, visceral feeling of "I" to fight more forcefully for their survival, or to more desperately flee from threats, than animals that possesses but a faint feeling of "I". Thus, a visceral sense of "I" would contribute to our survival and give us an evolutionary advantage. Perhaps, seeing death as horrible and frightening helped us survive so evolution hardwired that view of death into us.
We now discuss how the idea of an enduring "I" leads to other ideas, some of them religious, some of them also tending to reconfirm our idea of an "I".
Once we possess the idea of "I", we see ourselves as something different and separate from the world. So long as the world seems safe, we may find no reason to fear. But when we encounter the world's threatening side, we may fear for the safety of our self, our "I".
Primitive humanity found much in the world to fear. Wild animals and other tribes threatened, sometimes attacking, carrying off livestock, killing or abducting tribe members. At times, poor hunting or failed crops caused people to go hungry. Anyone who lived long enough witnessed suffering, disease and death. Sometimes, even the heavens themselves shook with fury, lightning and thunder.
A tendency to fear grants an obvious survival advantage. Although a fearful animal may needlessly run from a harmless, rustling sound, it gets to live (and fear) another day. But the unfearful animal that doesn't run eventually gets eaten by the predator whose footsteps it mistakes for a harmless sound.
The animal with no ability to reflect probably forgets its fear when danger passes. But humans, with their memory and higher thinking facilities, can remember and fear threats even in absence. During a bright, sunny day, primitive humanity could recall when lightning and thunder filled the sky. Even with a full belly, it could recall when crops failed and people went hungry. Even when healthy, it could fear disease. (And today, how often does fear motivate our behavior and our country's political decisions?)
Even when no immediate dangers exist, we may fear for the long-term safety of our "I". But fear takes a toll, and fearful people crave psychological security. We want to feel safe and secure, not for the present but for the future, too. How may we obtain a state of psychological security?
Question: if our "I" causes us to feel separate from a sometimes fearful and threatening world, how or where can we obtain protection? Answer: from the "I" that controls the world, that is, from God or gods.
An anthropomorphic idea of God easily follows from what primitive humanity observed. Our ancestors made stone tools like the arrow head, the hand axe, and the scraper; shelters like tents and huts. So "I made this stone ax and that hut, but who made the mountains and the sky?" must have seemed a natural question. "Someone like me made the mountains and the sky; someone like me but much more powerful." seems a natural answer. Thus arose a trinity of "I", world and God.
: Might the moment when the thought of "I" first arises in the infant plant the seed of an anthropomorphic picture of God? At that moment, when the infant first comes to feel him or herself as separate from the world, the idea of the "other" arises: the other, superior being who provides food, comfort, and emotional security. Eventually, the infant recognizes their parent as the "other". But, perhaps, the experience leaves them with a tendency to later imagine God similarly, as a kind of "super-parent".
360 degree security
Given the following four elements, what might we expect?
- a sometimes threatening world
- a separate, vulnerable, fearful "I"
- the idea of a God or gods who control the world
- a need for psychological security, for something to ease our fears
We might expect a group of people to arise who claim to know God, God's name and personality, how God wants us to live, what deeds God approves and recommends, what deeds God detests and forbids. The group would function as religious leaders, as intermediaries between us and God.
But how do religions' leaders obtained their "knowledge" of God? What method, what "way of knowing" do they use? Usually, they trustingly accept the words or writings of some charismatic seer or prophet—a method that has led, as we might expect, to the birth of an untold number of religions, with different, even contradictory, views of God, of what God wants and of what God does not want. Even the few surviving religions today teach different and sometimes contradictory views about God.
If we take an evolutionary, "survival of the fittest" view of the competition among religions, we can ask, "Why would one religion survive; why would one religion win over another?"
When two religions compete, we expect the one to win which better satisfies the need for psychological security. For instance, a religion that teaches an angry and vengeful God might lose to a religion that preaches a good, loving, parental God. (After all, what do we gain by replacing fear of the world with fear of an angry and vengeful God?) And if two religions teach a loving, parental God, the religion that teaches God loves us so much as to become human and die for us might win over the religion that teaches a more distant God.
The thought of a loving, parental God who rules the world addresses our fear of this world. But we see people die, even if after a long, satisfying life. The prospect of our eventual death engenders the "great fear"—that we shall someday cease to exist, that our "I" will undergo destruction and cease to be.
So, we might expect the religion that promises us life after our body's death—preferably, a wonderful, eternal life in the company of a loving, all-good God—to win over a religion that makes lesser promises. And, indeed, to address the great fear (many) religions assure us that indeed we do live forever, that an eternal life of bliss awaits us, if only we do the right thing. Christianity shores up our ego by telling us the God who created the universe loves us and, in fact, died for us. And at least one religion offers its followers the opportunity of eventually becoming gods and ruling their own worlds.
To complete our feeling of psychological security we might want to know where we came from and have the assurance of a special place in creation. Thus, religions might devise creation myths to tell us how and when God created the universe. And they might (and do) say that humanity occupies a special place in creation, in fact, constitutes the pinnacle of all creation.
After religious leaders paint a picture of a world created for us, by an all-good, loving, parental God, who shall soon welcome us to an eternal life of bliss, they must answer an obvious question: whence suffering?
Believers sometimes suffer misfortune, pain, and disease. So naturally the believer looks to their religious leader—who knows God so well—for an explanation: why does an all-loving Parent let me suffer?
Religious leaders often provide two time-honored answers; they describe misfortunes, pain and suffering as: 1) part of God plan, meant for our ultimate benefit and good; and/or 2) God's punishment for our (or our ancestors') misdeeds and sins.
The first answer—suffering meant for our good—suggests a sentiment that some religions explicitly teach: that God never gives us more than we can handle. In an obvious way, the sentiment reinforces psychological security in the face of threats and suffering. And by challenging us to overcome suffering, it gives us an opportunity to strengthen our "I" and make it more resilient.
Although somewhat unfashionable today, the second answer—suffering as punishment for sin—possesses a long history. Two examples:
Religious leaders explained the pain of childbirth as God's punishment for the sin of Eve. So, in 1847, when Dr. James Simpson discovered that chloroform could ease the pain of childbirth, the Scottish Calvinist Church declared: "What a Satanic invention! What a shame upon Edinburgh! To all seeming, Satan wishes to help suffering women but the upshot will be the collapse of society, for the fear of the Lord which depends upon the petitions of the afflicted will be destroyed."
Religious leaders explained disease as God's punishment for sin. Thus, in 1795, when Dr. Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, religious leaders denounce his discovery as "defiance to Heaven itself, even to the will of God." And in 1885, a smallpox epidemic arose in Montreal, Canada. Said one priest: "If we are afflicted with smallpox, it is because we had a carnival last year, feasting with the flesh, which has offended the Lord; . . . it is to punish our pride that God has sent us smallpox." Catholic Bishops opposed vaccination, advised increased prayers, especially the rosary, and organized a special procession in honor of Mary.
Once we possess an "I", a sense of self, an ego, we naturally feel a concern for its protection and preservation: we know we exist now and wish to exist forever, in some form or another. The natural answer frustrates that wish. It says we consist of an ever-changing body/emotion/mind complex that possess only said identity; that we possess historical continuity with our complex of a moment ago, or a year ago; that no singular identity exists, that no unchanging kernel persists.
Other answers better satisfy the ego's wish for permanence and eternal existence. For instance, some religions teach a soul which exists for all eternity, ultimately in one of two places: heaven or hell. Other religions teach reincarnation (though some of them teach a distant, eventual reabsorption in the absolute which negates individuality). And the Buddhist idea of rebirth, as we've seen, grants historical continuity over different lives, where the candle of this life lights the candle of the next, so that the flame of ego possesses continuity. Each of these answers satisfies the ego's wish for permanence, to some degree or another.
Monism denies us an eternal self distinct from the One. And science's ontology does not accept reincarnation or rebirth. So must the ego's wish for permanence remain unsatisfied in our theology? Yes, unless we accept a line of flawed reasoning which we call "the Two Self argument".
The Two Self Argument
Let's call our ego together with our ever-changing body/emotion/mind complex our "self" (lowercase). And we call "Self" (uppercase) the self of the universe, i.e., the One. As such, both "self" and "Self" concepts make sense: we accept both as valid. However, we might (invalidly) reason as follows:
My "self" has its ultimate ground of existence in the One, the "Self". Thus, I possess two selves: an ever-changing phenomenal self and an eternal, unchanging Self identical with the One. Although my self changes and may one day cease to exist, my Self shall exist forever. Thus, to use the Hindu phrase, "Tat Tvam Asi" which translates "That thou art" or "You are that", meaning "You are the One.". So, in the deepest sense, I am the One, or, more simply, I am God.
The conclusion of the Two Self argument—I am God—leads us to suspect flawed reasoning but where lies the flaw? It lies in the phrase "my
Imagine a wave reasons as follows. "I move. I change. But my
foundation consists of the ocean, the vast, might ocean. Therefore, in the ultimate sense I
am the vast and might ocean." "No", we respond. "Although a flow of the ocean creates you, you are not the vast and might ocean. When the ocean ceases to act, it remains but you do not: you vanish like a fist when a hand opens."
In other words, the problem with Two Self Argument lies in the phrase "my
Self", i.e., the problem lies in claiming the One for our own. We do not possess the One. If anything, the One possesses us because it creates us, because its image makes us.
Thus, we do not deny our ultimate foundation rest upon the One; we deny only that the One can comprise any part of our unique personal identity.
We may express the same point in another way, by comparing it to what some theistic religions teach. In some theistic religions, each soul differs from the next and comprises a person's own unique identity. In such religions my unique soul can constitute my unique identity. Therefore, if God somehow switched the souls of John and Pete, then John would become Pete, and Pete would become John. For monists, on the other hand, such an experiment would have no effect at all because the One does not comprise any part of my unique personal identity, because "my" ultimate ground of existence differs not a whit from yours. So, calling it "my" ultimate ground of existence doesn't make sense: the One creates me so, if anything, I belong to the One rather than vice versa. The wave belongs to the water, but the water does not belong to the wave.
So we shouldn't say "I am the One, the ultimate ground of existence", which theists might misinterpret as the blasphemous claim "I am God". (We'll see some tragic results of such misinterpretation when we discuss mystics.) It makes more sense to say "God, the One, the ultimate ground of existence, creates me" or "I am an image of God".
We've speculated that the successful religion satisfies our need for psychological security, and that the religion which better satisfies our needs will generally win over the religion that does not. But doesn't the view of suffering as punishment for sin contradict that view? Doesn't it decrease our psychological security? Wouldn't we find it more comforting if religious leaders said God immediately forgives and forgets all our faults and sins?
We probably would. But religion must satisfy its own needs too, specifically its need for self-preservation: the need to retain its followers and win other religions' followers.
Let's imagine two religions which teach a creation myth and a loving fatherly or motherly God who protects us, who will grant us eternal life in paradise. But imagine Religion Y says everyone, despite what they do, will enter paradise. And imagine Religion Z says only people who behave as God wishes shall enter paradise, and everyone else shall suffer an eternity of torture. Further, Religion Z teaches that God wishes everyone to believe and practice Religion Z.
So religion Y teaches in effect that God forgives and forgets and everyone goes to heaven, where religion Z teaches God does not forgive at least one "sin", the sin of not believing in religion Z.
Which religion will win? Let's imagine John follows Religion Y. On occasion, John worries he may suffer torture for all eternity, as Religion Z teaches. If John switches to Religion Z, he gets a payoff: the assurance that no torture awaits. And John doesn't lose paradise because Religion Y says everyone gets eternal life regardless of what they do or believe.
But suppose John follows Religion Z. John gets no payoff for switching to Religion Y, because each religion offers the same benefits. But John suffers the penalty of losing some peace of mind, because switching opens the possibility of eternal torture.
Which religion should we expect to more effectively retain its followers and win followers from other religions? Which religion should we expect to survive and grow?