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What Explains My Enduring Self?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I exist. I cannot deny that I exist without first existing. In addition, I seem to be a single, enduring self who has existed throughout my entire life.  My past memories belong to my same identical self.  I fully expect my same identical self to exist tomorrow and next week, assuming I don’t die. Not only do I think these things about myself, but I wager that everyone on the planet, excepting maybe those with severe mental illness, feels the same way.

Any worldview worth believing in should have an explanation for the existence of an enduring self. Let’s look at how atheistic naturalism and Christian theism explain the enduring self.

So how does atheistic naturalism explain the existence of my single, enduring self?  Honestly, it can’t.  Recall that naturalism explains everything in terms of matter – what physics, chemistry, and biology can describe.  According to these disciplines, each moment I lose hundreds of thousands of cells and other microscopic parts.

Every 7 to 10 years, most of my cells are entirely replaced.  Put another way, the average age of all the cells in the adult human body is 7 to 10 years. So, according to naturalism, I am virtually a new individual every 7-10 years.  Any sense I have of an enduring self that is the same through my entire life is an illusion, a trick of the human brain.

I may resemble the self I was last week, but I am not the very same self, for my body and my brain have lost parts and gained new parts.  Likewise, I will not be the same person next week or next month or next year.  In fact, in roughly 10 years, I will have very few physical parts in common with my current self.  On atheistic naturalism, there is no enduring self.

What about Christian theism?  This worldview posits each individual self as an enduring, immaterial, soul.  This soul persists from the moment of conception through death.  The reason we believe our memories of the past belong to us, and not some other self, is because our memories are unified by our single, enduring soul.

My exact same soul will endure next week and next month and next year.  I will exist in the future, not somebody else.  My physical body can be constantly changing, but my soul can persist unchanged.  The immaterial, unchanging soul of each human being explains why we believe we all think that our past, present and future selves, are one and the same, and not a series of distinct individuals.

What explains the existence of an enduring self? Certainly not atheistic naturalism. Only something like the immaterial soul offered by Christian theism can explain it.


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Comments

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt: “ Roughly every seven years all of my cells are entirely replaced.” [emphasis in original]

    A quick google search indicates this is not correct. Indeed, neurons in the brain are never replaced. Do you have a citation for this claim?

  • staircaseghost

    ” In addition, I seem to be a single, enduring self who has existed throughout my entire life. My past memories belong to my same identical self.”

    My sincere and considered introspection reveals precisely the opposite to be true in my case.

    So you seem to be in a bit of an epistemic predicament. You have the option of either 1) denying that I have a mind or 2) claiming that I am in error as to the content of my own mind.

    Assuming you go with 2, what kind of evidence can you supply to the effect that my own incorrigible reports are in fact corrigible, which does not leave you in-principle open to the same objections?

    Why don’t observed phenomena such as blindness denial and alien hand syndrome definitively disprove the “unitary enduring consciousness” model?

  • Bill Pratt

    You are correct. I need to drop the word “all” from my statements about human cells being replaced. It appears that the vast majority, or most cells are replaced several times throughout a person’s life, but there are neurons in the cerebral cortex which only die off during a person’s life and don’t get replaced. This doesn’t really affect the argument, but it is factually incorrect, so I will fix it.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    You are correct. I need to drop the word “all” from my statements about human cells being replaced. It appears that the vast majority, or most cells are replaced several times throughout a person’s life, but there are neurons in the cerebral cortex which only die off during a person’s life and don’t get replaced. This doesn’t really affect the argument, but it is factually incorrect, so I will fix it.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    You are in error about your mind. My evidence is that the almost universal introspection of mankind is that we are enduring selves. The fact that there are rare physical abnormalities, as you mention, doesn’t put much of a dent in the universal introspection that we are enduring selves.

  • staircaseghost

    I think you should broaden your sample to include a bit more of “mankind”. There are how many hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists and people who have read David Hume who disagree?

    So it would seem that your evidence is both 1) false and 2) non-decisive. I don’t expect the mere fact that I truthfully claim to experience consciousness as a constant cacophonous congeries of competing sensations to convince you, so ipso fact you cannot expect the mere (non-universal) claim to the contrary to be dispositive on the issue.

    Are the observed sufferers of things like blindness denial and alien hand syndrome mistaken about the content of their own experience as well?

  • Andrew R

    How does it not affect the argument? No-one thinks of their self residing in, say, their arm, but someone could well see their neurons as being an essential part of their self.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists understand the enduring self the same way I do and everyone else does. Only a rare breed of philosophy student, after being brainwashed by Hume’s absurd conclusions, would entertain these ideas.

    If you want to build your worldview on the idea that you are literally not the same self as you were yesterday, and that you will be a completely different self in a few years down the road, be my guest. I don’t expect very many people will follow you.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Several reasons. First, the neurons in the cerebral cortex are added to throughout childhood, so in that sense even the cerebral cortex is not identical from one day to the next until growth has stopped.

    Second, after adulthood is reached, neurons in the cerebral cortex are damaged, changed, modified, and die. So even for adults, there is no case that can be made from the cerebral cortex that it is remains identical throughout adulthood. It does not.

    Third, there are other parts of the brain that do add and replace neurons during adulthood, so here is a third strike against an identical enduring self.

    Fourth, my conclusions that atheistic naturalism cannot explain an enduring self are not mine, they are that of atheistic naturalists. Here is one prominent example of a naturalist who agrees, Alex Rosenberg. He says the following, “There is no self in, around, or as part of anyone’s body. There can’t be. So there really isn’t any enduring self that ever could wake up morning after morning worrying about why it should bother getting out of bed. The self is just another illusion, like the illusion that thought is about stuff or that we carry around plans and purposes that give meaning to what our body does. Every morning’s introspectively fantasized self is a new one, remarkably similar to the one that consciousness ceased fantasizing when we fell sleep sometime the night before.”

    Rosenberg, Alex (2011-10-03). The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (p. 224). Norton. Kindle Edition.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    By the way, here is atheistic naturalistic Alex Rosenberg on the idea of an enduring self. He agrees with me that this is a universal human idea:

    “Mainly because it’s so hard to shake introspection, people have accepted the existence of the self distinct from the body practically forever and in every culture.”

    Rosenberg, Alex (2011-10-03). The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (p. 222). Norton. Kindle Edition.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Second, after adulthood is reached, neurons in the cerebral cortex are damaged, changed, modified, and die.”

    Sure, and when the brain is badly damaged we often see cases like Phineas Gage, when the damage causes dramatic personality changes. One can say that Gage did become a different person. This kind of backs up the materialist view that the brain is the source of the self (in as much as it exists), rather than an eternal immaterial soul.

    Similarly, I’m hardly the same person now that I was at the age of three when neurons were still being added.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    If we didn’t all believe that there was an enduring self that existed throughout life, then morality would make no sense, the justice system would be dismantled (you can’t punish me for what my previous self did a month ago), personal responsibility would disappear, and so on.

    Citing cases of brain damage which change a person’s personality only goes to show that the body is integral to the mind’s expressing itself. The mind needs the body to communicate its feelings, desires, and knowledge.

    Christians believe that the mind and body are a form/matter unity, like a rider (mind) on a horse (body). The mind affects the body and the body affects the mind.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “The justice system would be dismantled”

    The justice system has a strong deterrent effect on crime; it remains in our collective interest to keep it.

    “you can’t punish me for what my previous self did a month ago”

    There’s a difference between saying a) most of our cells are changed every seven years, and that children’s brains don’t have their full quota of neurons, and b) We’re a completely different person to who we were 30 days ago.

    In actual fact our justice system does indeed allow for children not being fully responsible, and it’s quite admissible as a defence that your mental processes were impaired.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    If we give someone a life sentence, but they are not an enduring self, then who exactly are we punishing over the lifetime of that person? If you want to say we are punishing the same person over his lifetime, fine, but now you have to explain how that works on naturalism.

    According to Dr. Rosenberg, it cannot be explained on naturalism, and it is therefore false. We are literally punishing many different people over a lifetime sentence. How does that make any sense at all?

    If you don’t think Rosenberg is right, then why is he wrong? He is, after all, one of the top atheistic naturalist philosophers in the world.

  • Andrew R

    How are you supposed to make the division line between when one person stops and another starts? Impractical. How would you avoid moral hazard? You let people off crimes, everyone else will commit them too. We have strong practical reasons for the system we have, regardless of the ‘different person’ argument. One could equally say ‘why punish in this life if God’s taking care of it in the next?’.

  • staircaseghost

    Utterly bizarre. Did you not read your own quote?

    Rosenberg is not even talking about a persistent self, he is talking about a nonmaterial self.

    Even stranger, instead of replying with evidence about what Buddhists believe, you reply with a quote from a non-buddist on a completely different topic?

    Triply strange: you do know that you are citing an eliminative materialist, right?

  • staircaseghost

    “Hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists understand the enduring self the same way I do and everyone else does.”

    Incorrect, as even basic familiarity with the Annata doctrine will tell you.

    This is a classic example for why comparative religious instruction should be compulsory in schools.

  • staircaseghost

    So, it’s been three days. Have you prepared any sort of answer for why the phenomena which would be in-principle impossible on your view are unreal?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Citing a Buddhist doctrine that denies the existence of the self in no way proves that hundreds of millions of Hindus or Buddhists really believe that it is true.

    Every Buddhist and Hindu acts as if they are are a permanent self, but they may be taught not to believe that by their religious teachers as they get older. My guess would be that the vast majority of them never truly believe this self-contradictory doctrine. In fact, the Hindus and Buddhists I have known all seem to think that they do exist as an enduring self.

    I would lump the Buddhists who actually think they believe this doctrine in with the Humean philosophy students.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Rosenberg is referring to both an immaterial self and a persistent self. They are the same thing to him. Read his book.

    The reason I quote Rosenberg is that he is an example of a non-theist who affirms that the idea of a persistent self is a universal idea in the human consciousness. You denied this fact, so you are in disagreement with both me and Rosenberg.

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