I would hope that all of you are familiar with Perry and his dialogue on personal identity and immortality. If not, this dialogue occurs between 2 fictional characters, the dying Gretchen Weirob and her friend Miller. Gretchen Weirob is afraid of dying. More specifically, Gretchen Weirob is afraid that when her body gives out her soul will lose its only vessel and she will cease to exist. Her friend Miller tries to assuage her fears and convince her that her soul will carry on long past the death of her body but Weirob won’t have it. Ultimately, Weirob abandons the notion that she can know her soul, and resolves that she will never know whether or not her soul carries on after she shuffles off the mortal coil. However, the assumptions made by Miller and Weirob as well as Weirob’s argument beg for closer examination. The correlation between the soul and psychology, the consistency of personal identity through time, and the ability to sense a soul could all bring Weirob’s views into new light and give her reason to believe in a continued existence, though maybe not to the extent she hopes for.
A key assumption Weirob and Miller make is that soul’s are roughly equivalent to a person’s psychology. They decide that there is no way of discerning psychological processes and personality traits and proceed through the dialogue without making a clear enough distinction between the two. Unfortunately, examining psychology as proof of a soul’s existence rather than as a soul itself could have dramatically changed Weirob’s feelings about the reality of a soul. Instead of looking at psychology as a synonym for the soul I think they must be examined as two separate entities with a cause and effect relationship. We cannot know that the two are different but it is entirely possible that a person’s psychology is a result of the contents of their soul, or that what we perceive as a soul is simply just all the information, behaviors, memories, and processes of our minds. Since we cannot know whether or not either one is true we cannot yet dissert the first point of Weirob’s argument: that we have no way of knowing whether or not a soul exists. However, we have evidence to support the notion that psychology is a facet and/or a product of the soul. Imagine a person who suffers from clinical depression. Modern medicine will tell us that there is a chemical imbalance in this person’s brain, and we can prove that to be true. But what caused this imbalance? What abstract aspect of this person’s personality caused his brain to produce less serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine? We can prescribe lithium pills and this person will function normally, but deep down, at his or her core, this person will always suffer from depression. Something predates the functions of his or her brain. This is evidence of a soul that maintains personality on a more profound non-physical level and our ability to quantify and observe the consequences of this soul give us reason to believe that we can “know” at least some aspects of a soul’s nature.
John Locke would disagree with this assumption, and say that our personality and psyche are solely a compilation of experiences, that we are Tabula Rasa. But what if a person is unable to experience the world? Does this person no longer have a thoughts or a soul? A person in a vegetative state or someone who is paralyzed can still think. Someone with no bodily functions can still identify themselves. For a more extreme example imagine someone born paralyzed, blind, and deaf. This person has no way of experiencing the world on a physical level, but they can still think. What they experience on a sensory level would be just a void to you and me, but how do we know they do not have a personality? How do we know they do not have thoughts and feelings? If in fact they did, it must mean they possess a soul, a soul that inhabits something we can only barely consider a body and that exists despite the absence of a conduit to physically manifest it. As easy as it is to believe John Locke and the notion that we are blank slates and forged through experience we cannot discredit people who can not have bodily experiences as devoid of thoughts and personality.
However, just because we have a soul does not mean it persists through time and past our bodily limits. Weirob and Miller assume that personal identity and, by extension, soul identity persists through time. This does not have to be the case though. It is entirely possible that a soul is a fluid fluctuating entity; which would explain why we would not have any knowledge of our own souls being a continuation of ourselves in a past life. We can have lunch with someone and see that person hours later at dinner and assume this person is the same soul. However, people change, and people change deeply. In that period of a few hours they could have a life altering experience and their personality, and quite possibly their soul, could be changed forever. Their soul is not constant, and is subject to change; we just perceive them as similar. For example: my own mother has undergone dramatic lifestyle changes since I was a child, but I still recognize her and identify her as the same person. Psychology has a name for this response: perceptual constancy. Perceptual constancy is a survival instinct we have that allows us to recognize something after a dramatic change. Our ability, and tendency, to use perceptual constancy means we can use a set of learned behaviors and responses to more easily interact with whatever object, or person, or soul we perceive. I do not recognize my mother as the same exact person because her soul has remained exactly the same but because it is easier for me to interact with her under that assumption.
And now I break a core tenant of Relativist morality and force my beliefs onto the poor unfortunate soul cursed with reading them. The soul is constant and changing all at the same time. It is our baseline, our underlying selves, but it can shift and sway. Is our soul unlike the Tao? “It is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it.” These words come from the 4th passage in Dao De Jing and explain the Dao, the force and flow that governs the universe. Do these not apply to our souls though? Our souls exist without us knowing them, we cannot say where they came from but they will never leave. They guide us, they give us structure, they give us order. Our souls are like the Tao and it is entirely possible the two are linked. Our souls reflect the universe because they are our portals into it. If this is true we can extend certain truths about the Dao to our souls. “It is always present within you…. It was never born, thus it can never die… Approach it and there is no beginning, follow it and there is no end. You can’t know it but you can be it… Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source… It [the Tao] flows through all things…You will endure forever.. it is merged with all things and hidden in their hearts” (Tao Te Ching passages 6,7,14, 16, 25, 33, 34) Indeed “The master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao” (Tao Te Ching passage 21). If our souls are like the Tao and part of the Tao and the Tao never dies, is always constant and always changing then can we not assume our souls will live on? Maybe all Weirob needed was a little faith and a few hours with Laozi to give her hope.
The fact that souls are constantly changing and evolving explains why we cannot know whether we contain the same soul after our bodies die. I could have the same soul as an 18th century poet, but it has undergone so many changes since then that it may be completely different from what it was back then. Furthermore, experience and memory must also be separate from the soul. A large portion of who we are is based on memory, experience and behaviors we have learned. Psychologists tell us that these traits are connected to specific parts of the brain like the temporal and frontal lobes. These parts of the brain only grow and develop through experience. So while we may have a soul that gives us some kind of baseline personality, like in the case of our depressed person, most of who we are is connected to our brain. Our brain, which is a part of our bodies and which will die along with it. A soul can live on and can be affected by the experiences of a person, but the knowledge of those specific experiences dies with the brain and explains why we would not be able to recall who we were in a past body. Now, go back to the possibility of a cause and effect relationship the brain and soul may have. The soul may affect the brain and be the cause of unexplainable personality traits like depression, but on the flipside the brain and the experiences it holds could change the soul on a deeper level. This is unfortunate for Weirob and her hope of continued existence, but does make it more probable that her soul and some aspects of her personality will carry on. She may not have the same memories in a different body, but her memories can change her soul and that can live on.
Now that the assumptions Miller and Weirob have made about the soul have been changed, Weirob’s argument carries far different implications and some of her points can be rendered differently. Weirob’s first point in her argument is that the soul cannot be sensed in any way. The previous depression example has already given evidence that the soul can be a distinct driving force in personality and brain function. Since certain mental states and personality traits must be predisposed by the soul then our ability to perceive those changes and characteristics makes it possible for us to have some perception of the soul. Furthermore, how is it possible for us to come up with the idea of a soul unless without some notion that it exists? We can imagine things, but not things that exist and operate completely outside our plain of perception. Scientists have proposed several dimensions outside of our sensory perception. Things may exist we cannot even imagine because they cannot be perceived through sight, smell or touch. But we can imagine a soul. How can we have this concept without perception? In order to conceive of the notion of a soul we must perceive it somehow, and maybe, at the very least, something like it exists and Weirob has a reason to hope.
Since Weirob believes we cannot sense the soul; she also asserts that we cannot say whether or not a soul remains constant from one hour, one day, or one lifetime to the next. However, Miller retorts that our ability to introspect over time and identify constant personality traits allows us to believe otherwise. Weirob believes that we cannot sense ALL souls, but we can certainly sense our own and if we can know certain things about us stay constant throughout time then we can assume that other souls can do the same. Though souls may be subject to alterations over time, we can sense those in ourselves and assume that, by extension, other souls act in the same fashion.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me immortal. It leaves me believing that I will survive in a way Weirob thought impossible. It means after I die my soul will return to the Tao and everything I went through in my life will have changed this soul and maybe someday, when my soul is reincarnated and returns to a body I will have made some impact.