From (superficial) reading about this subject I am a Physicalist (our consciousness doesn’t exist without our brain)

I am trying to keep an open mind about Mind–body dualism but I find it difficult because of the following:

  • Continuity of our subjective consciousness (self) after death cannot be confirmed and/or proven in any way (scientifically, logically, etc.)
  • Non-continuity of our consciousness before birth can be confirmed - we are not aware of any previous existence - 0 previous knowledge
  • Even if our consciousness will continue to exist after death, in another realm, or part of a Single Universal Consciousness, if somehow it becomes “reset” before the next life, there is no awareness of previous experience or the history that affected it in one way or another. We perceive our life as new (bound to make the same mistakes as before)

The other similar states like sleep, coma, cryonics (cryopreservation), anesthesia, etc, are all temporary interruptions of consciousness, but despite the time loss, our consciousness picks up where it left off - we carry our history (identity) for life, relatively continuously

End of life on the other hand is a complete and irreversible process (related to our consciousness)

So, even if there is another non-physical consciousness after death, how is it relevant or beneficial to the self? What am I missing that makes it so hard for me to consider dualism even a remote possibility, and only accept physicalism as the only option?

  • 1) scientifically, true. But that it simply can't even be tested scientifically as it's outside the boundaries of science (i.e. it isn't observable), so that's a false refutation. And logically false? Not necessarily at all. 2-3) look up on Plato's Anamenesis. You should also note that physicalism and dualism are hardly the only options out there. In fact there's a wide spectrum of options, physicalism being on one end of it (while idealism on the other). Mar 20, 2018 at 16:33
  • @YechiamWeiss: I didn't formulate it properly, I meant to say "confirmed and/or proven in a conclusive way", and conclusive would be if I, and anyone else can connect with an after-life consciousness consistently and at any time. Related to the other options I only used dualism as an example that helps me support physicalism
    – paul bica
    Mar 20, 2018 at 17:07
  • Well that isn't what continuity of consciousness presents. Connection to after-life consciousness (spirit) is only one particular part, and not always an accepted one. Mar 20, 2018 at 17:31
  • I do not understand the question. If there is a continuation after death then it makes no difference that the end of life is a complete and irreversible process. It simply transitions one into a new state. Awareness of the previous experience is also irrelevant, you'll enjoy or suffer, presumably, whether you are aware of what it is for or not. So what it comes down to is that you do not find continuation after death very likely. Such is simply your judgment on the available evidence, it does not mean that you are missing anything.
    – Conifold
    Apr 21, 2018 at 4:08
  • Thanks @Conifold ! I was just looking for confirmation (hoping I can be proven wrong (I wanted my previous experiences to be relevant - accumulate knowledge...)
    – paul bica
    Apr 21, 2018 at 10:16

4 Answers 4

  • Continuity of our subjective consciousness (self) after death cannot be confirmed and/or proven in any way (scientifically, logically, etc.)

I'm not sure about that. It depends what you would accept as proof or confirmation. For example, let's imagine that it turns out the typical view of a non-material soul/ghost, and one that can communicate with we the living, is right. And let's say that due to some Celestial Event on June 1st, suddenly it was a great deal easier to communicate with these spirits. They were readily manifesting and communicating to us, divulging secrets that only they would know, etc. Maybe they were moving objects and other ghostly behaviors. And they averred that there was an existence beyond death. Would that confirm an afterlife?

Non-continuity of our consciousness before birth can be confirmed - we are not aware of any previous existence - 0 previous knowledge

Also not sure here. Like most people, I am not aware of anything from prior to about age 3 or so. Does that mean I was not conscious at ages 0-3? So it could be the case that you were conscious prior to birth, but you just don't recall this.

So, even if there is another non-physical consciousness after death, how is it relevant or beneficial to the self? What am I missing that makes it so hard for me to consider dualism even a remote possibility, and only accept physicalism as the only option?

I'm not sure why you're skipping over one of the most common conceptions of a continued self after death, which is a happy eternal afterlife, reuniting with loved ones, etc. Certainly that would be relevant and beneficial to the self, no?

  • Also many people (especially children) do claim to remember their previous lives. Also, it is important to note that if we did have previous lives why would it be clear we we would remember them straight away? We would likely need help in remembering, just as we do for anything in life
    – Charlie
    Mar 20, 2018 at 16:05
  • Your questions are valid but I am a skeptic, relative to my own experience: 1. I was never able to communicate with the spirit world and I suspect it will never happen, so there is no confirmation at all. 2. If we don't recall any previous experiences, they are irrelevant - we can't learn or benefit from them in any way: there is no continuity. 3. "happy eternal afterlife" - happiness is relative to unhappiness, so this implies that we will remember all previous lifes (where we experienced hardship) and all loved ones from all previous experiences but this conflicts with 2
    – paul bica
    Mar 20, 2018 at 16:51
  • 3 only conflicts with 2 if your model is reincarnation, not something like a Christian heaven. Plus, how do you know happiness requires memories of unhappiness--particularly in some new metaphysical context?
    – Chelonian
    Mar 20, 2018 at 17:39

NB Differences between substance dualism, and property dualism.

we are not aware of any previous existence

The Private Language argument draws attention to the fact that while we may not be aware consciously, intuitively, of the impact of previous existences that does not mean they are not there. Similarly, we depend on the biological existence of all the members of our lineage, not as robotic biology, but as subjective beings like us.

We think we know mental things are reducible to material things. But quantum mechanics shows material things reduce to information and it's transfer, the same constituents as mental phenomena.

Do you truly have continuity with yourself as a pre-linguistic baby? With your sleeping self? If you are not your own continuity of experience are you just your memories, and if so what does that mean if they can ever be simulated or copied? Anaesthesia and other interruptions can involve memory loss, and like with altered states also, can involve reconstructing or coming back to oneself. In the end, surely we have just this moment, and the habits of mind we bring to it. That is being awake, everything else, like a dream.

Edited to add: The core of Buddhism is to put down ideas we have about our sense of self, and actually look. It is not just that we can't remember being a baby. We feel and act like a different person at different stages of our lives. There are hordes of things we have done which we have no memory of, which we declare part of ourselves by their presence in materials around us and in other people's memories, not presence in our own consciousness or memories. There are all kinds of false and distorted memories, we use to bolster ideas about us, to tell stories about who we want to be. Is someone with total amnesia a different person after than before? The closer we look, the more our ideas of 'self' fragment and are revealed to be inconsistent or meaningless.

In Buddhism the self is located as arising out of karma https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma_in_Buddhism - chains of cause & effect, shaped by intentions. Those chains are what are reborn, rather than a self with subjective continuity - because there is no such thing. Every time we wake up we are a new person, that renews the sense of self through immersion and renewal in the cgains of cause and effect around and within them.

  • Do you truly have continuity with yourself as a pre-linguistic baby? No, in fact that's when the new consciousness is born (and at death it ceases to exist - my main premise). I do consider my memories to be my identity, along with the ability to recollect them in contexts that trigger emotional responses (sadness, joy, nostalgia), and act on new situations considering previous experiences; if they can be accurately simulated the self does have continuity. I still think that, based on my initial statement: "we have no memories of previous existence" I can conclude that continuity stops
    – paul bica
    Mar 21, 2018 at 7:29
  • 1
    I do appreciate all the new perspectives and suggestions though - thank you!
    – paul bica
    Mar 21, 2018 at 7:30

Are you sure that cryonics works? I wasn't aware of any examples of a cryopreserved person who regained consciousness.

For what it's worth, here is a quote from Christian person J.P. Moreland on this subject:

Christianity is a dualist, interactionist religion in this sense: God, angels/demons, and the souls of men and beasts are immaterial substances that can causally interact with the world. Specifically, human persons are (or have) souls that are spiritual substances that ground personal identity in a disembodied intermediate state between death and final resurrection (See John Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 2000)]. Clearly, this was the Pharisees’ view in Intertestamental Judaism, and Jesus (Matthew 22:23-33; cf. Matthew 10:28) and Paul (Acts 23 6-10; cf. II Corinthians 12:1-4) side with the Pharisees on this issue over against the Sadducees (N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003], pp. 131-34, 190-206, 366-67, 424-26).


My favorite source of philosophical and Christian quotes, William Lane Craig, has this to say about J.P. Moreland:

Are we the only creatures on planet Earth with a soul? I don’t know. My colleague J. P. Moreland, who specializes in philosophy of mind, thinks that animals also have souls, but they are less richly endowed than human souls, lacking the faculties necessary for personhood and self-consciousness.


  • Thanks eliot! You fave a good point about cryonics - I didn't even think about anyone brought back. I also considered other views (like you quoted in both answers) but can you think of anything that breaks this logic: "we don't have any prior knowledge before birth, therefore it's safe to conclude that there will be no continuity after death (regardless if our soul continues to exist or not)"? It doesn't matter if we will continue to exist in one form or another after death because we will not remember anything about this plane of existence (unfortunately...)
    – paul bica
    Apr 20, 2018 at 19:41
  • 1
    Hmmm, there's a half-argument for this which goes, "things start to exist. Their non-existence before doesn't entail non-existence at another time, necessarily." But that's a lazy argument. Apr 20, 2018 at 19:45
  • The examples of sleep and anesthesia provide a better justification: "sleep and anesthesia prove that consciousness doesn't need to be continuous." But they don't help against the physicalist premise, as you said in your question. Apr 20, 2018 at 19:46
  • Some religions allow that our individual consciousness will either be annihilated at death or reworked with no prior memory. How can you decide whether to believe that vs. something like the Christian soul? Apr 20, 2018 at 19:48
  • After sleep you do have continuity - you remember when you went to bed last night (you just don't remember anything during sleep) but when you wake up you continue to add on to all your memories accumulated since birth
    – paul bica
    Apr 20, 2018 at 19:49

Here's a silly set of arguments for souls:

"Almost the whole of Christian theology could perhaps be deduced from the two facts (a) That men make course jokes, and (b) That they feel the dead to be uncanny.

The course joke proclaims that we have here an animal which finds its own animality either objectionable or funny. Unless there had been a quarrel between the spirit and the organism I do not see how this could be: it is the very mark of the two not being ‘at home’ together.

But it is very difficult to imagine such a state of affairs as original—to suppose a creature which from the very first was half shocked and half tickled to death at the mere fact of being the creature it is. I do not perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs: I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels.

Our feeling about the dead is equally odd. It is idle to say that we dislike corpses because we are afraid of ghosts. You might say with equal truth that we fear ghosts because we dislike corpses—for the ghost owes much of its horror to the associated ideas of pallor, decay, coffins, shrouds, and worms.

In reality we hate the division which makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost. Because the thing ought not to be divided, each of the halves into which it falls by division is detestable. The explanations which Naturalism [i.e. Physicalism] gives both of bodily shame and of our feeling about the dead are not satisfactory. It refers us to primitive taboos and superstitions—as if these themselves were not obviously results of the thing to be explained.

But once accept the Christian doctrine that man was originally a unity and that the present division [i.e. death] is unnatural, and all the phenomena fall into place."

C.S. Lewis, "Miracles" (excerpt, highlighting, bracket insertions, and paragraphing by elliot svensson)

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