One of the most basic questions of human existence is essentially "What am I?" Although humans have known in varying degrees throughout recorded history that they are biological beings, there has always been the question of internal identity. What is it that separates me from my brother? Am I different? Do I exist in any way apart from my body? If so, do I only exist temporarily as a kind of "projection" of my physical brain and its live activity, or am I something more than the sum of electrical and cellular functions? Although there are many theories concerning this topic, they all, somehow surprisingly, have one component in common, and that is faith.
To be sure, the concept and question of "life after death" does much to frame the "identity" question. That is, when one considers the nature of the self, at the most basic and pressing level, one wants to know if that nature is infinite or temporal. Of course, removing the body and the physical and social trappings of life places this question in stark relief, on display and for careful and intense musing. Although many have taken this issue and concluded that there is a kind of existence independent of the body, perhaps most famously, Descartes and his "I think therefore I am" theory of "mind," the mere existence of thought does little to confirm anything logically. In fact, a simple and non-theological "mind-based" identity theory like the one Descartes espoused is necessarily flawed. This is due to the fact that the presence of faith as a component in any discussion of the concept of self is largely ignored by all (including Descartes) except in theories based on religion.
The simple fact is that in all possible conclusions about self, its nature, as well as its role and ultimate destiny, are grounded in faith. Given this fact, it not only makes sense to turn to religious tradition as a source of information about the nature of identity, which is based on faith no less than non-religious theories, but it points to the folly of choosing any other theory given the comparably inferior temporal definitions they may offer.
Science, Atheism, and the Faith Involved in Both
John Perry's book, "A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality" is indeed an interesting read. Although through reading his work the one begins to understand the many different viewpoints on human existence and identity, much of one's ultimate conclusions must be based upon some form of faith. When I say "faith" I do not necessarily mean a specific religion. On the contrary, I submit that even an atheist who relies on the theory that he or she only exists due to the existence and survival of the physical body is demonstrating a kind of faith in that premise. Sure, they may believe that science can account for the existence of the mind and thought -- however, a reasonably thoughtful person who embraces this notion will necessarily recall that scientific belief about the nature of the body and how it works was quite different just a few hundred years ago. For example, doctors once thought an imbalance in the "humors" caused mental imbalances. They also believed that these imbalances could be corrected through "draining" various kinds of humors. Clearly, according to modern medicine, the "cause" of the mental imbalances, or mental states (and the mind is what we experience as internal reality), is due to tiny neurons in the brain, and not on any elemental humor that can be "drained" or balanced. If, then, science (the temporal "representative spokesman" of the body-based identity theory could be wrong in this case, could not science also be lacking in the ability to account for the continued existence of mind, even after the end of physical life as we recognize it?
Take, for instance, the fact that neuro-science today considers "electrical impulses" to be a key factor in brain function. Of course, modern body-identity adherents believe that it is the brain that projects the illusion of the mind (an illusion (according to them) because it is merely the sum of nerve, cellular, electrical activity, etc.). If, then, it is just becoming understood how electrical impulses affect the mind, could there not be some kind of continued electrical activity after death that somehow continues to support that mind? What of the newest discoveries in the field of matter? What of quarks? Is it not true that science is just beginning the study of a vast new world of particles and energy that defies previous thought? If science can change so radically concerning the very nature of matter and how it behaves, is it not possible that the nature of life and mind activity can also change?
Thus, to believe that it will not change, that science has uncovered all there is to know about the nature of life and existence, as well as the boundaries for that existence (namely, death), involves the same kind of faith in the unknown (after all, no one knows where science will lead) that an intense faith in the infinite soul entails. Interestingly, however, scientific atheists (or others who do not believe in life after death), purport to use reason and reason alone in their theories of body-based temporal existence. Yet this is a problem, just as much as it is a problem in mind-based theories, specifically in the kind exemplified by Descartes' "I Think, Therefore I am" premise.
I Think, Therefore I Am -- I Think
Many people, like the great Descartes believed that the mere presence or existence of thought is enough to prove the existence of a mind-based identity. According to him, every bit of information available from outside sources comes from one of the senses. As such, all information gleaned through these sources cannot be trusted, simply because the senses can be fooled (as in the famous Wax Argument). Although all outside input is suspect, there is one constant, and that is the presence of thought. Although the product of thought (namely, conclusions), cannot be trusted or used to base ideas of identity or truth, the fact that one is thinking (however flawed that thinking may be), indicates one's existence. But does it really?
To be sure, humans think. This we know from our own experience which we transfer in theory to every other human. Even this first initial step requires faith and a departure from reason, simply due to the fact that it is possible for humans to hallucinate. It is also possible for the thinking mind to believe that such false thoughts as dreams are reality. If this is the case, then would it not be conceivable that the individual could be hallucinating with regard to others? Perhaps there is a fundamental difference between oneself and the other apparent like beings in ones relationships. If this is possible, could it not mean that one's internal thought processes may be entirely different from others, and if so, what would the odds be that one individual's experience of thought represents the true nature of identity, reality, and mind?
Even if one disregards this flaw in the "mind-alone" theory of identity, what of the nature of deduction and reasoning itself. Could not reasoning and deduction be the product of an illness, delusion, injury, or altered state (such as in a dream)? Doesn't Descartes forget to mention the role of faith in believing that this is not the case, that mental deduction and reasoning, even in their mere perceived existence (without regard to accuracy or truth) is real and not a projection of some kind of emotional or physical state or pathology?
To be sure, many mind-based theorists do believe in God, as did Descartes. Yet even this "belief" he assumed to have "proven" through the deductive faculties of thought. Yet, in spite of his "belief" in the existence of God (the genesis of which is not quite clear), his conclusion that God is benevolent, and has therefore given him reliable senses, certainly points to faith on many levels, not deduction or reasoning, and certainly not generated by the logical definition of thought in and of itself. Further, believing in the nature of the self through the mind (specifically, again, through thought), involves a kind of faith that the kind of thinking that humans possess (as granted by the benevolent God), is somehow different from that granted to animals (yet clearly exists), as it must be (due the access granted humans to divine "revealed" truth (as according to Descartes).
The problem with mere mind-based identities such as these is simply the absence of faith -- not as in its existence, for I submit it is the one common component in all theories of the nature of self, but in its acknowledgment. For in all of the circular meanderings of theories of self, as well as the infinite or temporal nature of self, too much emphasis is placed on assumptions and false reasoning…