I was discussing the philosophy and problem of unconsciousness (perhaps unwisely) at a dinner a few weeks ago. The people I was talking to were Christians, and as such, were naturally reluctant to concede the premise of my argument that we should experience unconsciousness differently than we do. The conversation was rather challenging as my conversational partners initially refused to concede ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore, I am) as a basic principle. Saying that you could still exist without consciousness due to “God”. In essence, the argument was that even if you lost consciousness on death, you would still exist even if you did not know you existed.
None of my earnest conversationalists, it should be pointed out, were theologians or particularly initiated into philosophy, but were rather associated with the medical/scientific fields. Both of them engaged in the conversation in good faith and humour, while I made it clear for my part that my position was one only of questioning and not of attempting to disprove or to undermine their faith. As the conversation progressed, they admitted that the memory and, thus, experience appeared to be reliant on the physical body as it could be affected by drugs, injury, or disease. It was at this point that one of them suggested that perhaps the soul is synonymous with the personality.
The example used was that each child has a distinct base personality, which, as any parent will tell you, is apparent from birth. Manifesting itself in their calmness or anxiety, curiosity, or lack thereof, and in a myriad of other ways. This personality, it was put to me, was integral to the being and thus existed a priori or before consciousness. They further posited that this personality or soul was the part that survived death, either progressing to the next world or being reincarnated by some form of eternal recurrence in this physical world.
Thinking of this idea later, it occurred to me how often we put forward positions without considering the logical outcomes that the acceptance of the position must entail. For instance, taking an individual’s personality as an immutable part of who they are and making it the essence of their eternal existence creates a whole host of problems.
If our personalities are formed a priori, then there would exist a requirement for there to be a mechanism to give them to us prior to or at conception. Depending on if you are a transcendentalist or a physicalist, this could be achieved either by genetics or by the addition of a pre-formed soul. In either case, this would have a limiting influence on the freedom of the individual.
This predetermined personality would strongly argue for a world ordered by the predestination of either the genetic or spiritual kind. Imagine, for a moment, the fictional case of a heroin addict by the name of Jimmy Sax. If Jimmy has an addictive and pleasure-seeking personality and he was born in an area where drugs and other addictive substances are common, it could be argued that he was destined to become an addict. His choices would have, at best, limited agency as he could not change his personality.
This problem would exist in every facet of life. If our titular, Jimmy Sax, was instead born with a personality more conducive to righteousness and the life of a saint, then it would seem that provided he was born in a conducive location and time, he could achieve sainthood with as little trouble as he could fall into drug addiction in our first example. It would not be a great logical stretch to infer that if personality (read temperament) exists ‘a priori’, then there would be a natural and unchangeable distinction between people.
Those who were seen to have personalities that are conducive to positive traits such as courage, leadership or affability would simply be better than those with more negative or unhelpful traits. Neither side could change the personality they were born with, so there would be a strong likelihood of a reversion to a form of a class system where the blessed rule and the unfortunate toil.
We don’t even need to try to imagine a world structured on this or similar premises. pre-enlightenment Europe’s basic premise was that the upper classes were better people than the lower. The Hindu Caste system explicitly ordered people from high to low based on their inherited purity. Indeed, even today, wherever race-based distinctions exist, this same premise stands extant, claiming that a person is worse or better depending on some phenotypic trait.
In each case, the individual would be assumed to be powerless to change their personality or temperament. Education, study, or moral training would be useless as what would be the use if change were impossible. In essence, you would be born bad or born good. This is what people mean when they say that “people don’t change”.
The Evolution of the Personality
Another problem which an assumption of the immutability of the personality faces is that of the evolution of the personality. Recent studies have shown that personalities can change (American Psychological Association, 2003; Damian, 2018), with a study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley (Srivastava, John, Gosling, & Potter, 2003) looking at 132,515 adults, ages 21-60 showing significant (and somewhat consistent) changes occurring as people age. This change in personality, while not disproving the personality as soul hypothesis, does seem to challenge the assumptions that underpin it.
If personalities can change, then there is no need for a transcendental or genetic explanation. The being could easily develop their basic personality through the interactions with the world in the womb and continue to develop their personality from there on in. There exists significant evidence that babies can learn and respond to stimuli both within and outside of the womb (Developmental Science, 2018; WebMD, 2021). Thus, it would not be a great stretch to postulate that the personality could be an a posteriori construct and not have appeared a priori.
Of course, if it could be shown that personality proceeded from consciousness and did not precede it, this would categorically disprove the soul as a personality hypothesis. But I doubt that we need to go that far to render beyond reasonable doubt the theory of the personality equalling the soul as being not credible. It is likely enough to simply show that personalities can change and that they change due to remembered experience, physical ailments or psychoactive compounds. If any of these could be shown to occur, then it would be highly likely that the personality is physical in nature, similar to memory or consciousness.
Fortunately, this evidence is available in abundance, with evidence showing that “dementia” (University of Southern California, 2021), ‘mental disorders, drugs (including drug intoxication, withdrawal, and side effects), disorders that affect mainly the brain and body-wide (systemic) disorders that also affect the brain’ (MSD, 2021), can all cause personality changes.
This more than anything argues against the soul/personality theory put forward by my friend. Because, as I argued in my post on the problem of unconsciousness, what is eternal should not be able to be affected by the physical world, except through pure consciousness. Physical ailments, psychotropic compounds or altered memories should not affect the soul if it exists. As these things are physical in nature, they should only affect the physical, not the spiritual. Unfortunately for my friend, rather than being convinced of the truth of his faith and being won back to the flock of Christ, I find myself even further separated from that venerable and laudable tradition.
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American Psychological Association. (2003, 7). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug03/personality#:~:text=While%20many%20may%20suspect%20that,personalities%20evolve%20throughout%20their%20lives.
Damian, R. I. (2018, 7 16). Sixteen Going on Sixty-Six: A Longitudinal Study of Personality Stability and Change across 50 Years. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000210. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000210
Developmental Science. (2018, 10 9). Retrieved from https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2018/10/1/can-a-pregnant-womans-experience-influence-her-babys-temperament
MSD. (2021, 04 04). Retrieved from https://www.msdmanuals.com/en-au/home/mental-health-disorders/overview-of-mental-health-care/personality-and-behavior-changes
Srivastava, S., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2003). Development of personality in early and middle adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 84, No. 5)., 1041-1053.
The University of Southern California. (2021, 04 04). Retrieved from https://memory.ucsf.edu/caregiving-support/behavior-personality-changes
WebMD. (2021, 04 04). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/in-the-womb#1