“Clearly, there was a time when I didn’t exist, but now I do.  There is a saying that it is the clothes that make the man, but when I change my clothes during the day, I am not then a different individual.  I am still the same person.  If I wake up pale in the morning, spend the day at the beach and come home at night tanned, or more likely red, I am not thereby a different individual.  I am still the same person.  Even if I have organ transplants from another person, I am not a different individual.  I am still the same person.  My thoughts and emotions are essentially the same.  Even if I change my mind and my attitude and my emotions, I am still me.  How can I change so much and still continue to exist as the same person?  What is that key element that makes me “me”?” Paraphrase of an argument posed by John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – 8 November 1308) Link here.

Body & Soul

The soul has been described as the “animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life. When someone dies, that animating principle is suddenly absent. We can’t say exactly what it is, but we note its loss. Since the body remains, we see these two things as separate: a body which is animated by . . . an essence. And because they can be separate (or at least the essence can be absent from the body), the question arises where did that essence originate and where did it go? Did it come into being at birth (or before) and does it end at death (or later)?

The soul is “that which confers individuality and humanity”. The soul is the “seat of human personality, intellect, will, and emotions”. What an excellent description of what makes me, “me”! (see above link)

From another perspective (link here), we are all comprised of two parts: animal and spiritual. “What part of my consciousness is the physical and what part is the spiritual?” The post continues:

“You are who you are because that is who you have developed into and you have a special purpose in life. Your life experience is unique to you. Your personality, character, your body and your soul are all unique to you.”

Those developed qualities are a reaction to our need for survival (physical) in the unique environment into which we are born, an environment which is in some ways not optimal for our survival. Our response to that imperfect environment creates the neural pathways that become our unique personality. Or so this theory goes. If I were born into a much more hostile environment (hostile to my survival) would I still be me or would the me created by those circumstances be so substantially different, that my character and personality would not be me? It’s hard to say, but it’s the stuff of fanfic. At heart, that’s a nature vs. nurture argument.

The Perpetual Body

Science and medicine teach us that over about a seven year period an individual’s cell structure is completely renewed, that is, by age seven or so, there is not a single cell left in the body that was there at birth.  The cells at birth have all died and been replaced, but I am still the same person.  From birth to youth to young adulthood to middle age to retirement age to old age my entire body structure is replaced repeatedly, but I am the same person.  What is it in me that makes that true?

A classic Star Trek (original series) episode is one called “By Any Other Name.” In this episode, a band of hostile aliens in humanoid form takes over the Enterprise. Captain Kirk tricks them by using their newly-acquired human nature to overcome their alien traits and mission of conquest. By taking on human form, they have changed their very nature! Rather than the spirit (their alien interior self) being in charge of and directing the body, the body influences and changes the spirit.

It’s an interesting philosophical question (and not just because it gives Kirk an excuse to make out with yet another nubile alien female). Does form follow function or does function follow form? Are our natures influenced and altered by our physical self or is only the reverse true? The title of the episode is ironic because unlike Juliet’s assertion (the line is from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet), the episode shows that they are fundamentally altered by their physical bodies. They aren’t the same “by any other name.” Their physical change includes personality-altering features like emotions and hormones, and as a result, they are not the same beings.

Fake It Till You Make It

There is an adage in English with a grain of truth to it: “Fake it till you make it.” In other words, taking on the physical characteristics that accompany the psychological traits you want to portray will result in your actually having those traits. The body tricks (or conversely, teaches) the mind to be a certain way. Feel nervous? Stand up straight, look people in the eye and smile. You’ll feel less nervous. Do it long enough, and you will be a more confident person.

Even pretending you know the answer to a tough question results in actually knowing more answers to questions. You can make mistakes, but a study from Scientific American shows that you can actually release abilities you didn’t have with other thoughts: stronger muscles, better vision, and even access to information you didn’t realize you had. (Link here)

“There seems to be a simple way to instantly increase a person’s level of general knowledge. Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan recently asked two groups of people to answer questions. People in one group were told that before each question, the answer would be briefly flashed on their screens — too quickly to consciously perceive, but slow enough for their unconscious to take it in. The other group was told that the flashes simply signaled the next question. In fact, for both groups, a random string of letters, not the answers, was flashed. But, remarkably, the people who thought the answers were flashed did better on the test. Expecting to know the answers made people more likely to get the answers right.” (see above link)

This idea that what we believe about our abilities can limit or unleash our abilities is called “priming,” and it’s behind studies that show that marginalized groups often do worse on certain types of tests when they are “primed” (either immediately beforehand or throughout their lives) to believe they will not perform well on that type of test. Statements like “people from your school tend to do well on this test” improved test scores measurably. Likewise, statements like “men usually outperform women in this subject, but do your best” produce a dampening effect on women’s scores.     

Even for those with brain damage, neuroplasticity advances have retaught the brain to perform functions of a damaged primary system using a repurposed secondary system. People have learned to overcome a lost sense of balance, lost memory, language skills, or motor skills through the efforts of neuroplastic training. In addition to functionally retraining itself or even restructuring an undamaged area to compensate for injury in another area, the brain can even do something called neurogenesis, creating new neurons to overcome losses associated with the effects of stress, aging, or injury.

Mortal Probation

By contrast, perhaps, the Mormon theology notion that our mortal life is a test of our character would indicate that we believe that the physical world, our circumstances of birth, and our bodies (including their emotions, hormones, intellectual capacity, and limitations) are mere parameters of a test, not an intrinsic part of who we are; if the test conditions alter the test subject, it’s not a very good test. Or if they do alter who we are, surely our mortal probation must be handicapped to account for difficulty level.

About a year ago, one of my daughter’s church teachers was talking about mortal probation and made the comment that they were chosen for the life they had because they could handle tough things. She went on to explain her perspective that these upper middle class girls living in Scottsdale were living the most challenging life out there (on what basis their lives could be deemed difficult, I was equally agog with my daughter and her friends). They didn’t have the “life of ease” that others without the gospel had been given. This was a pretty nutty version of Mormon Persecution Complex in my book.

The reverse is something I’ve thought about a lot, though. Why was I given a mortal probation in which I had parental support, clean drinking water, enough food to eat, clothes to wear, consistent shelter, while others were not? We worked with a Cambodian charity when we lived in Asia, and we met and worked with women my exact age, born the same year I was, who had lived under the evils of the Khmer Rouge regime, seeing their whole families slaughtered, forced to participate in atrocities themselves or be killed. Why was I given the easy test? Why did they get the horrific one?

We know we die. We know our bodies decay after death. But does the soul decay? Is it eternal? We have a theological statement that the body is temporal and temporary. It’s part of a physical world that is a probationary period for our spirit. The spirit is eternal; the body is not. But does the body change the spirit? Does our physical state alter our mental state?

Prolonged illness affects mental state, sometimes causing depression and anxiety, even shortening our mortality. Physical impacts change emotional responses. A brain tumor can radically alter personality by interfering with reasoning or with appropriate emotional suppression. While the idea of the “criminally insane” is the purview of comic books, criminal cases have used brain injury as a justification defense. [hint: it’s not an easy case to make, although research shows correlation].

Discussion

  • Would you still be you if you were born in completely different circumstances? A different country, economic strata, race, sex, religion, era of human history?
  • Would you still be you if your brain were injured, suddenly allowing your worst impulses to flourish (or conversely, making you suddenly a better person)?
  • Would you still be you if your physical traits were dramatically altered through the course of life events?
  • Does negative “priming” alter the chances people have to do well in their mortal probation? Does positive “priming” give others an unfair advantage on the mortal probation test? Will mortality scores be adjusted for this at the judgment bar?
  • How much change can you undergo before you are no longer you?

Discuss.