Friday, February 1, 2008

Book Review: A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality

A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality is written by John Perry. John Perry is the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. He received a B.A. in philosophy from Doane College and a Ph.D in philosophy from Cornell University.

A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality (DPII hereafter) is deigned to provide readers an introduction to some of the main philosophical issues raised in the discussions regarding the belief in an afterlife and the constitution of personal identity. The book is separated into three parts. Each part is a separate night in the dialogue. There are three main characters: Gretchen Weirob, a philosopher at a local college; Sam Miller as chaplain and friend of Weirob; Dave Cohen a former student of Gretchen Weirob. The DPII is set in a hospital room. Weirob has been in a car accident and she is expected to die. Weirob asks Miller to try to persuade her that there is an afterlife. Miller takes up the challenge but fails to fully convince Weirob.

The book over all is very interesting. For those who have an interest in philosophy, but have a difficult time staying tuned in to the rigorous finely-tuned arguments that make up most of the analytic philosophical tradition, this might be a way of becoming familiar with some of the main concepts in the area of personal identity and immortality.

There are though, quite a few problems. First, Miller who represents the Christian minister is presented as someone who is not at all familiar with the philosophical issues related to the soul and the body. Perhaps this is true of many Christian ministers, but I think it would have been helpful to have Miller bring out some of the better philosophical arguments.

Weirob is cast as the ideal philosopher. She represents everything that modernist philosophers either want to be or pretend that they are. For instance, even though it would have been emotionally pleasing to have accepted a weak argument in the face of death, instead she is true to her philosopher self and she is able to analyze the arguments under such duress. The point of the book is to get at the philosophical arguments, but I think that there is something to be said about what she represents to modernist philosophers. Weirob wins all the arguments and is never persuaded to believe in an afterlife before she dies.

I know that I am biased, but I thought that some of the arguments were not all that good given by Weirob (Perry). For example, on the first night she makes a point to Miller about the existence of a soul. Her point is that we never see each others soul but we do see each others body. For instance, when I meet my friends on Monday, I do not see their soul I see their body. Since we only see each others bodies and no soul, how do we know that on Wednesday your friends soul is the same as the soul on Monday. Could not our souls be continually switched out and a new soul put in such that we never know our friends are the same people we spoke to at an earlier time?

Now I find this argument unconvincing and here is why: Is is all that different to presuppose that the soul is the same on Wednesday as it is on Monday than it is to presuppose that your friend has a subjective mental state on Monday and on Wednesday? Now let us pretend that there is no soul. Let us pretend for the sake of argument that personal identity consist in purely physicalistic categories. We still have the problem of experiencing one another's subjective mental states. We never actually experience the subjective mental state of another human being. We know for instance that we our own selves have subjective mental states because we experience our own feelings and perspective. But we never actually experience another person's feelings. How do we know that on Wednesday our friend has a subjective mental state? It is at least possible, there is nothing logically contradictory, about a body interacting within an environment without a subjective mental state. There is nothing contradictory about having no mental experience. How do we know on any day that our friends have subjective mental states? The answer is that we presuppose it because it is not something we can empirically verify. So I think the skeptical argument cuts both ways. If Weirob wants to say that we cannot have souls because it will force us into skepticism regarding our loved ones personal identities since there is a lack of empirical testability. So also we can not have physicalistic minds because it will force us into skepticism of other peoples subjective mental states, since other's subjective mental states cannot be empirically verified. Anyhow this is simply one of the problems I had with the arguments in this book.

Overall, it is very entertaining to read. It can be read in a sitting or two. It is only 49 pages. This book is good for Christians who want to better understand the metaphysical materialist worldview. It will help Christians understand how the materialist thinks about the constitution of personal identity and immortality. Materialism, as a philosophy, is now the dominant philosophy of academia and it could be argued the western world. Materialism is inherently atheistic. So for those Christians that want to learn how to handle the present and future intellectual challenges to our faith, it would be good to read this, but with critical thinking skills and with Christ as Lord of your heart and mind (see Colo. 2:6-8 and 1 Peter 3:15).

Written by Stephen Stanford


Anonymous said...

"Since we only see each others bodies and no soul, how do we know that on Wednesday your friends soul is the same as the soul on Monday."

I guess I would like to know what she means by "soul" Is she talking about the spirit of the person or the mind of the person? Why does she think the soul would be different on another day? Is the person schizophrenic? How does she recognize her friends? Are they that different from one day to the next? Can she not tell by their behavior, dress, speech that it's the same person? If she doesn't believe in a soul, her question is irrelevant.dnpxp

Anonymous said...

For most christians spirit and soul are the same thing. The soul is the mind. There are some trichotomist out there but they are few. Trichotomy lacks a real cogent biblical defense. So in the book wierob (perry) is assuming the main Christian view.
Her problem is not will it be different but the problem is can we know it is the same soul. If we never experience the soul how do we know it is the same.
I will post about the philosophy of mind soon.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but the only good Trichotomist is a dead one. Agree? Just feed them their own words. Thet are bound to gag!