How do you know who you are? You remember, but this describes solely how you persist in knowing who you are, not in how that knowing comes to pass. If you pause to question how you know who you are, answers will not be forthcoming because every aspect of the notion of a ‘who’ that would be your identity is something you have inherited from an earlier you. There is, as Thomas Nagel suggests, a series of beings that lead to the you that you are now – many series-persons that comprise the person that you are. But who are you? Why are you a person at all?
Descartes created a wholly original way of thinking about the self with his famous dictum “I think therefore I am”, a view of the soul as the source of personality, and of the soul as separate from the body, as something that could be not only be disassociated with the flesh but as something that could be compartmentalised. Kant’s ‘noumenal selves’ built upon this foundation, shoring up this perspective of the individual self as a source of agency and as uniquely individual and separate. Descending from this line of thought we get the modern conception of a ‘person’, which is still tied to Descartes split between mind and body, or soul and flesh. The soul has never left our understanding of who we are, for all that it now hides behind the legal mask of ‘person’. To be able to speak of beings that are persons, and other beings that are not, is to participate in the tradition that affords souls to humans and denies them to other beings – the radical break with animism that can be tied to theism and its concept of history.
For anyone who thinks we have discarded the concept of a ‘soul’, I suggest you examine the writings, games and musings of the post-humans with their fantasies of transplanting the human mind into different ‘sleeves’, Richard Morgan’s term from Altered Carbon, which is also used in the tabletop role-playing game Eclipse Phase. The way of thinking about human consciousness that is locked up in this science fiction concept of putting one mind in another body – already present even in classic Star Trek episodes such as Turnabout Intruder – is a contemporary form of afterlife mythology, for all that the pragmatics of techno-immortality becomes unconvincing upon closer inspection. It is not accidental that there is also a parallel supply of ‘body swap comedies’ that use magic to exchange conscious minds between bodies: imagined future technology and magic are equivalent, and not just for Arthur C. Clarke’s reason that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Whether we are positivists or not, we still use a concept of a soul (whether the immortal soul of the Christians or the digital souls of the post-humans) in our understanding of who we are, of what we are, and what we could be. The clearest sign of this today is in the use of the concept of a person – which although apparently grounded in legal discourse is still essentially an assertion that some beings have souls (or perhaps have more advanced souls). Talk of persons and talk of souls are the same at heart, for all that the conversations these terms appear within may differ. We believe in our special qualities as humans, and that this sets us apart in some way. Despite the continuity between humanity and other animals, we are habituated to understanding ourselves differently. There are good reasons for this, although they are not so strong as to justify setting humanity apart from other life entirely.
One key difference that helps account for the persistence of the concept of a person or a soul is our overdeveloped imagination, and the stories that this capacity generates for us constantly. Daniel Dennett talks of a ‘narrative centre of gravity’ as the basis for our sense of self, inadvertently following a line of reasoning far closer to Buddhist or Hindu philosophy than the Western tradition descending from Descartes. Descartes and Kant removed the soul from the flesh, to be sure, but they also isolated the soul as an individual. It is the quintessential achievement – and cost – of the Enlightenment to celebrate this individuality, and the concept of a person (or equivalently of a soul) lies behind it. Elsewhere in the world, the idea that we can compartmentalise who we are in this way is a strange and alien concept since, having incorporated animism into their view of the world instead of banishing it, the idea of an individual who exists in such isolation is hard to believe. How, someone outside of the person-soul construct might ask, am I supposed to separate myself from my community, my environment, my experience?
It is not a coincidence that the ancient Greek philosophers also spoke of souls – their series-culture is a part of our contemporary culture – but the Greeks had not yet given up animism, and for them everything had its own soul, it’s own good. This we have unfortunately lost sight of, as evidenced in the volume of science fiction fantasies that invest their imagination towards envisioning individual human survival after death while ignoring the ever-pressing need to imagine the survival of both the human species and the vast majority of other forms of life we share the planet with. There is no individual survival without human species survival, no human species survival without the other beings and things that make our lives possible. If you wish to imagine you can cheat death, you must begin by imagining that humanity can discover a way to survive it’s own insatiable curiosity and greed.
It is quite remarkable in this context that Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune and its sequels not only manages to tell a story of the far future of humanity in which other beings are of critical importance, but it also imagines a need to place limits on technology. Was Herbert merely simplifying the task of the futurist for the purpose of his story? Or was he sensing the newly dawning ecological moment, in itself a harkening back to far older mythologies? It is particularly striking in later Dune novels that Herbert’s ghola, the clones of the dead, are not treated as being the same person but as another person based upon those who died. There is no illusion here that you can cheat death with biotechnology. But others can cheat your death and replace you with a simulacrum – should you wish that this happens? Derek Parfit argues we have just as much reason to care for our copies as for our future selves. Perhaps. But I side with Tamar Gendler in thinking that until such monstrous technology is unleashed our personal identity is grounded in the narratives we tell of who we are now.
How do you know who you are? You learned the story of what it means to be a person from your family, who learned it from theirs, who learned what it means to have a soul from their family, and so on. You inherit the story of you from your previous series-persons, but you inherit the story of ‘who’ from the previous series-cultures that connect persons to souls. Over the intervening centuries between Descartes and now the story of ‘who’ has lost the wider sense of the community and environment that each person finds themselves within. These are not locked up in your mind, they are out there in the world – and you are only you when you are among them. Other cultures less influenced by theism have not yet lost this perspective, thankfully, and ironically some of the theistic traditions have a clearer view of this than some of their secular cultural descendents. You do not exist in isolation – how could you! – you were always a part of something else.
You are not your soul, not an isolated individual consciousness, for all that individualism proclaims otherwise. Your soul is just one drop of dew in the spider web of existence, what the Dharmic traditions call Indra’s net – an early metaphor for the sense of interconnection now being discovered (re-discovered?) by the contemporary sciences and philosophies. Where and when you are is also who you are – and it involves far more than just you. But it is you, and only you, who can make sense of this, and decide the answer the most challenging question, the question that will make all the difference in the world: not ‘who are you?’ but ‘who will you be?’