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The Key To Personal Identity: Mind, Body Or Soul?

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The idea of ones personal identity and how people came to be, what ones purpose is, what happens to an individual after death and so forth is a topic brought up globally from the beginning of humankind. As human beings, our physical selves are composed of the head, neck, torso, arms and legs. Our form is understood as our physical body, our spirit as non physical and our mind as both physical and non physical. When proposing the question, “What of the three: mind, body, or soul is our individuality confined to” many with minimal philosophical knowledge may jump to one answer, then another, then think a little harder and ultimately select what they believe to be true. With numerous counter examples that disprove such validated claims, it is challenging to pinpoint on a single answer. It is believed by many philosophers that the idea of personal identity is not as practically important as many may think. Although it is challenging to pinpoint which of these three is the answer to personal identity, it can be hierarchically ranked. This essay will focus on ranking each category, the mind, body and soul hierarchically with the mind being the primary element to ones identity due to its relationship to consciousness. Following this places the soul as secondary due to its strong connection to the mind theory though hindered due to its lack of scientific evidence. This then leaves the body to be tirtuary being that the body is made of matter, lacking consciousness in and of itself.

When ranking the three theories hierarchically, it is best understood that the mind, in relation to the brain, is dominant in identifying personal identity due to its connection with ones thoughts, feelings, memories, attention and what’s experienced. Many will argue that it is the soul that is the seat of consciousness while others, depending on personal beliefs will argue that it is the mind. While the soul is a spiritual, nonphysical aspect of us, the mind, in connection to our brain is both physical and nonphysical. Without our minds it is troubling to be considered meaningfully alive. Traditionally, many scientists have connected the mind solely with brain activity being that the brain is a physical object and the mind is a conscious aspect of firing neurons. According to a scientific article dated in 2016, titled “Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain, or even your body” by Olivia Goldhill, the argument that it is not solely brain activity that defines the mind is expressed through not only our perception of life but life in a more objective manner. In the article, Goldhill mentions a theory put forward by Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine who states that;

“a key component of the mind is: ‘the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational, that regulates energy and information flow within and among us.’… The most immediately shocking element of this definition is that our mind extends beyond our physical selves. In other words, our mind is not simply our perception of experiences, but those experiences themselves. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.”(Goldhill)

Siegel makes a valid statement being that the mind and brain work together, but that the mind is not solely a result of brain activity and that the mind goes beyond the physical workings of the brain. Siegal’s claim that the mind is not only our perception of experiences but the experiences themselves puts into perspective that our mind is not confined to what is in our skull. A good example of this is comparing the mind to a complex system in mathematics. A complex system is defined as, “nonlinear behavior, meaning they may respond in different ways to the same input depending on their state or context. In mathematics and physics, nonlinearity describes systems in which a change in the size of the input does not produce a proportional change in the size of the output.” An example of this is expressed through the behavior of ants. The aggregation of interacting elements, that is- complex systems, results in high level structures. Ant colonies are created through interactions among each other which results in building bridges for travel or task allocation such as forging for food or guarding nests. There is no dictator in an ant colony that assigns such tasks but rather the result of complex systems through interactions and as Siegel described it, the experiences themselves. Although complex systems in human behavior is challenging to understand, it supports the claim that our minds are not solely linked to our brains. Philosopher John Locke stated that it is our memories that hold the key to our identity. Although that sounds like a valid claim, it does carry flaws in regards to stages in our life where many memories of our past have been forgotten about. This brings up the conflict of whether or not we still carry our identity even though past memories have dwindled through time. Whether that is the case or not, it is still our minds that hold such memories, experiences, encounters, reactions and so forth. With the brain and mind working together, one can not be the same person with a different mind for behavior -a result of mind and brain activity- will vary from being to being.

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Of the three, the second most valid and oldest theory to identifying ones personal identity is rooted in the soul. In the book Philosophy, Asking Questions Seeking Answers, it states that the soul is what is conscious in us, similarly to that of the mind, “The soul is also, according to many soul theorists, the part of us that engages in thought—so it is the part of us that is conscious and thinks…when characterized in this way, the soul seems to be a lot like the mind”(Stitch 217). A conflicting matter in the soul theory is that it is strongly based on believers of souls and life after death. This being a very subjective belief means many will have differing answers to whether our souls exist. From a personal view, the theory of souls being the key to ones identity is ranked second due to its similarity to the mind, however, the notion that it lacks scientific evidence of its existence imposes it inferior to the mind-brain theory. The theory that the soul is what determines personal identity is strongly linked to the body theory while maintaining its connection that the soul is the spiritual breath of the body:

According to soul theorists, under ordinary circumstances each normal living human body is linked to a soul, and it is the soul that determines personal identity. If a body at one point in time and a body later in time are linked to the same soul, then the complex consisting of the body and the soul at the earlier time is numerically identical with the complex consisting of the body and the soul at the later time; they are the same person, no matter how physically similar or dissimilar the bodies may be. But if a body at an earlier time and a body at a later time are linked to different souls, then there are two persons, not one. (Stitch 217)

The statement above presents a valid explanation as to why the soul is a dominant aspect to ones identity as opposed to the body, which in many cases is understood as a vessel. Since it is our actions, memories, experiences and so forth that dictate who we identify as, it is believed that these nonphysical properties in contrast to the physical (our body) is more strongly understood as personal.

With the mind being the primary component to ones identity and the soul being secondary, this evidently places the body theory as tertiary. What leaves the body to be ranked lower than that of the mind and soul is its mere physicality and disconnect to consciousness. The common saying of mind over matter plays an essential role in understanding the dominance that the mind holds. Mental states as opposed to the body are composed of extraordinary properties that can’t be expressed in the material sense, “We don’t think that rocks, or slabs of metal, or planets are conscious, they are not able to think about anything, and they don’t engage in rational thought” (Stitch 182). The human body, although exceptionally complex in form and function is not much different than other inanimate objects for they are all collections of atoms and molecules. It is impossible for such substances to carry the consciousness that the mind and brain propose. Seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes stated that, “Being conscious, being about something and being rational are not the kinds of properties that physical things—things made of matter—can have. Thus, Descartes concluded, there must be another, fundamentally different category of things in the universe—minds” (Stitch 183). This statement by Descartes provides reasoning as to why the mind is of more value than the body. Being that the mind is what enables conscious experiences such as thought and rationality places it in a metaphysical category. This is not to say that the mind and brain do not work together but more so that you can have a mind without a functioning body and still be conscious but not vice versa. This ultimately leaves the mind to be the key to personal identity.

In brief, the theory of our individuality being confined to either the mind, body or soul is a conflicting and personal topic. Many may say that it is all three, one and not the other, or maybe even neither. Although personal and subjective, this essay focuses on the logistics of what theory is primarily key to holding ones identity. With the mind listed as first, soul as second and body as third, an elaborated hierarchy is formed. Being that the body is confined to only matter, that is, excluding the brain, leaves the mind to be the primary component. Considering that the mind is a conscious, physical and nonphysical part of a being, results in it being an essential part of differentiating one individual from another.

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