RPM, Volume 13, Number 18, May 1 to May 7, 2011

The Soul of Identity 1

By Scott Schuleit

By way of preparation for the next time you're at a party, I graciously offer the following question as a magnificent conversation starter, as a superb means towards raising the party atmosphere to a new level of mirth and hearty back-slapping: Is the retention of personal, human identity over the course of time dependent on our physicality, or is it rooted in the soul? This question, if failing to immediately invoke merriment—a veritable riot of good cheer—will hopefully provoke philosophical interest and vigorous debate; having said that, I'm quite aware that it is far more likely to incite looks of annoyed perplexity or a kind of dumbfounded, bovine blankness.

Before attempting to submerge into the complexity of this difficult topic, perhaps a couple of definitions are required. With regards to the question at hand, the concept of time is of some importance. In the modern era, among the various perspectives regarding the topic of time, there has been at least one horribly subjective viewpoint regarding it (if not others) that attempts to dictate against an objective view of personal identity. At a very basic level, we could define time as: An increasing succession of separate moments proceeding in a linear fashion throughout infinity. This view of time is consistent with the fact that there is such a thing as the past, present and future.

Now what is meant by personal identity? I've written about this topic in a previous essay entitled Identity, of which, this one could be regarded as its sequel. There are many aspects comprising a portrait of our personal identity, including the soul/body duality—yet mysterious unity—of our person, the reality that we were made in the image of God, our intrinsic gifts and talents, personality, thoughts and memories, and the various events of our personal history. Certain aspects of our identity have been inscribed at a deeper level within us and are more important than others—such as the unique soul/body matrix of our personhood, and the fact that we were made in the image of God—but every aspect constitutes part of the overall and ongoing portrait, or poem, of our identity. Our identity is never static; it progresses in time. There are ways it can, in a sense, degenerate, depending on ones actions, but that's another topic.

Hopefully these definitions have been somewhat helpful towards understanding the question as well as framing the discussion. From here, let us proceed towards the main question at hand. To reiterate it: Throughout the march of time, is personal, human identity rooted within the material or immaterial aspect of our person? As finite, mutable beings we are constantly changing, how can we retain any sense of identity whatsoever? In some ways, I'm different from what I once was. My molecules, to some degree, are changing at this very moment. I'm currently thirty-six years old and throughout that time I've moved from being a baby to that of a young boy and then a teenager and on to manhood, and soon enough, will be moving on to old age, and then, death. Before my departure from this world, and after my departure from this world, what aspect of my person, soul or body, retains my personal identity?

The persistence of identity is obvious, therefore, how can the materialist account for this objective phenomenon within their soulless, materialistic framework? Most materialists would suggest something like this: that our sense of personal identity over time (since they believe that our entire person is comprised of matter) is contained within the body and maintained through the recognition of certain similarities between our different selves—that our awareness of a continuous self is sustained through comparisons amongst our past, separate physical selves within the stream of time.

Before dealing with this viewpoint, I would suggest that their proposal of any kind of a viewpoint on this issue (or any other issue) should be regarded as inconsistent within their framework of reality. The following is a fatal flaw of the materialist: If they believe that we are an arbitrary construction of colliding atoms, as merely one integrated aspect within an incessantly roiling, completely contained ocean of molecular activity, then they actually find themselves within a quandary whenever they assert anything that presupposes objectivity, for the acknowledgment of anything beyond the strict borders of that ocean, (for they believe that only the material is that which exists) of any one aspect detached from its ongoing flow, would invalidate their thesis of a contained, ongoing whole. Every expression—whether they say or write something that is true or false—confounds and contradicts the very materialistic worldview they cling to. To engage in the act of thinking, one must, to some degree, stand apart from that which one is considering, and be able to, in a sense, see it to regard it, and therefore, the act of thinking exists outside of the strict parameters of their worldview, and consequently, offers sufficient evidence to destroy it. By its very nature, their viewpoint is contradictory, and refutes itself.

Furthermore, expressing anything, presupposes, at some level, an objective understanding of reality: that the combination of words spoken or written have meaning, that you believe what you are saying is true, and that there is a generally shared understanding regarding the validity of sense experience between those involved within the dialogue. On what basis of understanding can the materialist presuppose any measure of objectivity regarding the topic of personal identity or anything else? Materialism is disqualified because it is inherently subjective, therefore, their belief in objectivity—if they truly believe in materialism—is simply inconsistent, sentimental, and thoughtlessly expressed. Most, if not all of those who hold to a materialistic viewpoint vacillate (whether consciously or unconsciously) between objectivity and subjectivity depending on their desires.

Also, in dealing more directly with their perspective regarding the persistence of identity, the materialist's notion of past selves and apprehension of them is problematic. It is known that our physicality undergoes a complete change several times within the span of an average lifetime, and thus, it would seem reasonable to conclude that these selves (in keeping with their materialistic perspective on this issue) would be radically, if not completely different in their personhood. A new self would give way to a new one and so on, therefore, how could there be any comprehension or memory of a persistent and growing identity if our past selves were either significantly or completely different? To continue this line of thought, since we are always changing, wouldn't there be some kind of a universal phenomenon whereby every single individual regularly experienced, in varying degrees, a continuous erosion along with (and conflicting with) a progression regarding our persistent sense of who we are? It would certainly be quite unlike the slowly developing, strong progressive sense of ones singular (in contrast to the notion of several past selves) identity we find in our general experience. Also, there is a problem of moral culpability for ones actions if one is not the same person over time. The ethical implications are obvious.

A further problem for materialists—for those who see the basis of our ongoing personal identity within the body—involves the reality that through practical experience we are personally conscious of the differences between physical actions and those derived in the mind. If we were only physical, would we be conscious of these things? When I reflect or wander back (sometimes far back) in my memory, it is quite obvious that both of these experiences involving my consciousness differ in kind from what is felt when I sneeze or blink my eyes. The fact that we have some measure of detachment, that we can differentiate—that we can compare and contrast between mental and physical phenomena, that we are aware that we have minds, bodies, memories, dreams, hands and feet, (not to mention our awareness of the past and present) suggests a duality in our personhood rather than materialism. Also, to reiterate what was expressed in a previous portion of this essay, if the materialistic worldview were true, we wouldn't even be able to distinguish one physical event from another, for we would lack the capacity to analyze ourselves. It would be impossible to initiate the necessary objective detachment required to consider oneself—to think outside of the arbitrary, loosely flowing stream of atoms comprising ones existence. We wouldn't even be conscious of our own existence, we would simply be yet another element within the flux of the material whole.

The Christian perspective is, of course, that our personhood is retained within the incorporeal element, within the soul—also known as the spirit—of our person. This is the basis for the continuance of our self-consciousness and all the other various aspects pertaining to our sense of identity. It resides in the soul. The philosophical term used to describe this essential aspect of human nature is substance dualism. In light of the fact (along with other facts) that the body undergoes such drastic changes throughout time, this is the only view that makes any sense. Besides using philosophical reasoning to uphold the Christian view and refute arguments against the perspective of the human person propagated by materialists and property dualists, it should be noted that the special revelation of Scripture—which is far more specific and important than that knowledge which can be acquired solely through a consideration of what has been given to us through general revelation—serves as the primary source for establishing the Christian perspective regarding the persistence of identity throughout time, or, to state it differently, the retention and progression (or tragic decay) of who we are throughout infinity.


1. Nash, Ronald H., Life's Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, (Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 369-85. In chapter eighteen (Human Nature: The Mind-Body Problem and Survival After Death) of Nash's superb introduction to philosophy, he skillfully explains and refutes various erroneous positions regarding the composition of human nature while setting forth a philosophical defense of the biblical perspective. This essay was strongly influenced by this chapter in his book.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.