Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Soul and Self

The Rise and Fall of the Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal IdentityThe Rise and Fall of the Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity
By Raymond Martin and John Barresi
Columbia, 2006
383 pages (Paperback)

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There is perhaps no discussion more infused with controversy than that of personal identity—that theory concerned with what makes a person the same or different over time.

Personal identity is a topic nearly as old as time, and as Raymond Martin and John Barresi remind us in The Rise and Fall of the Soul and Self, it is probably that idea which first plagued the Neanderthals, whose grave plots reflect the postmortem concern for the afterlife.

Get the atheist in the room with the theist and inevitably the story turns to the discussion of whether this life is all there is or whether life continues on after death. “If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus,” writes the apostle Paul, “what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32).

This is the stuff of personal identity. Are we humans merely sophisticated animals or are we something else? Do we consist of matter only, or are we also immaterial and soulish or even an illusion? Will there be a resurrection of the body, or will we return to the earth as dust?

The Rise and Fall of the Soul and Self is a clearly written guide to the conversation as it spans millennia. The writers tell us up front that their goal is “to tell everything that happened that is relevant and helpful to understanding why theory [of personal identity] followed the course that it did” and what this can “tell us about the enterprise of human self-understanding.”

Carefully weaving in and out of different schools of thought and tracing the intellectual history of a discussion, Martin and Barresi provide an excellent overview of the complexities of the idea of personal identity without being bogged down by the minutia of detail or caught by tantalizing rabbit trails. And while this provides for a fluid text, it can, however, leave the reader asking for more.

From ancient dualism (humans are body and soul) to contemporary discussions of neuroscience—even raising the discussion of the split-brain and personal identity—the authors give the reader a lucid overview that will be of interest to the student of philosophy. When examining the question of what has happened in the history of personal identity, the historical reigns with little personal judgment, but the authors are not afraid of providing their own final take on what it all means at the end.

“From our vantage point, it is hard not to read the history of theories of the self and personal identity as a story of how religious dogma can retard scientific understanding,” they write. “Christianity is primarily responsible, with its dogma of resurrection and its decision to cast its theology in a Platonic mold.”

Without Christianity, the authors believe that dualism would have lost its “vicelike grip on the imagination of European thinkers.” The authors rest their conclusions on the mystery of a unified, but material self.

“At the end of the day, it is clear, just as it always was, that each of us humans is indeed fairly unified, just as we always thought that we were. But we are not unified by the soul or the self. We are unified by our bodies. Some day we may understand how.”

This conclusion will not satisfy all, though there are Christian materialists who would agree up to a point. Still, before one runs off to counter that we are unified by soul, it should be remembered that this seemingly simple solution has proved difficult for theologians to reconcile. How does the soul connect or interact with the body? Is the connection a direct divine action or are their third party natures mediating between body and soul?

For humanity, the authors conclude, the story of personal identity is “centrally,” that “story of humankind’s attempt to elevate itself above the rest of the natural world, and it is the story of how that attempt has failed.”

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For more discussion on the nature of personal identity and the self, see my review of Kevin J. Corcoran’s book, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul and Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion. For a helpful discussion on personal identity, see the Philosophy Bites conversation with Christopher Shields.

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