Phenomenological or Ontological Sameness over Time? A Critical Response to Natasha Germana’s “Experiencing Mortality”

In her essay “Experiencing Mortality: The Possibility of Retaining Personal Identity in Resurrection” (2015), Natasha Germana (hereafter Natasha) argues that taking axiomatic a phenomenological criterion of personal identity, human persons who exist in the actual spatiotemporal world cannot continue to exist as the same person if that person were to exist in the afterlife.[1] There would be, in effect, two people—one before death and one after. She begins with what she calls the “phenomenological approach” to defining personal identity, an approach suggesting that personal identity is “informed through consciousness as human being with a soul and body in a (real or perceived) spatiotemporal reality” implying that “after death [a person] would be altered in a way that would not allow a person to remain the same person in the time before their death.” (25, 27).[2] While this thesis brings to light many interesting issues regarding personal identity, I suggest that under plausible assumptions her axiomatic presupposition, namely, a phenomenological approach to personal identity, plausibly makes her view improbable. So, first, I will begin by introducing the problem of personal identity through providing an exegesis of her argument. Then, I will criticize her argument in a two-fold manner. First, I will argue that it is plausible that perception of subjectively experiencing consciousness is not a plausible model of personal identity because it fails to distinguish consciousness and the self, the latter being more plausibly the source of personal identity (I argue this through a thought experiment). Secondly, I run a parallel phenomenological argument which suggests that the data of consciousness suggests that persons are a self which is the possessor of conscious experiences and which is continuous independent of experiences or perceptions of any sort. I conclude that Natasha’s model of personal identity and its counterpart implication of a person not being able to exist as the same person in the afterlife, inasmuch as it begins with her particular phenomenological criterion, is plausibly false.

What does it mean to be the same person at some time t1 and another time t2? In other words, if there is some subject of experience i.e., a person, what makes that person the same throughout time (granting the ontology of time also)? This is the heart of the problem of personal identity, namely, accounting for what constitutes a person’s continuity or sameness through time. Natasha rejects ‘anticipation of a future self’ and ‘memory’ as “wholly sufficient measurement[s]” of personal identity and argues that they are minimally “constitutive parts to the particular phenomenological view of personal identity” (25, 26). They are at best necessary but not sufficient conditions for personal identity. Personal identity, then, becomes “rooted in a person’s subjective experiences of consciousness that emerges awareness of past memories and awareness of potential futures, specifically as they relate to a real or perceived mortal reality” (26). Thus, by way of implication, the soul or body does not form personal identity; rather, it is through “a person’s conscious experiences of the intersections and interrelations between soul, body, and a spatiotemporal reality.” (26). So, it is through a unified mortal and spatiotemporal existence by which a person’s personal identity is constituted and therefore the continuity of this perception is sufficient for sameness over time.

While her argument begins with a phenomenological criterion of personal identity, it is worth drawing skepticism to her argument by analyzing what it means to be identical. Specifically, what does it mean for x and y to be the same (presumably if a person P is to be the same person at t1 and t2 then it follows that there must be a reason for their being the same at both moments of time).[3] Leibniz’ law of the indiscernibility of identicals might be helpful in analytically disentangling the concept of continuity or sameness:

(x)(y)[(x=y)->(P)(Px ↔ Py)][4]

This law states that all properties that x has y must have in order for x and y to genuinely be the same thing. So, if there is a property x has that y does not have (and conversely), then it follows that x and y are not the same thing. What follows is that “if we can find one thing true of x that is not true of y or vice versa, then x is not identical to y.”[5] So, in Natasha’s view the “shift in reality” (27) i.e., death and the following afterlife, is sufficient for a person losing their personal identity and becoming someone else. From this, it seems that the following state of affairs obtains: P is P iff P does not endure a “shift in reality” such that P becomes P*. In other words, a “shift in reality” is fundamentally detrimental to P’s personal identity and, thus, an afterlife, if it is to be considered a “shift in reality”, compromises such an identity.

I am skeptical to this premise that a “shift in reality” is sufficient to make P a different person, say, P*. Natasha’s argument relies on perception of oneself and the world as constitutive of, and sufficient for, the persistence of oneself over time.[6] I shall give two reasons why I regard this as probably false.[7] First, it is not at all clear why perception of oneself (body and soul) and the world is sufficient for personal identity. For example, consider an important paragraph around the end of Natasha’s essay:

if a person resurrected in an afterlife is the same person as they were in their mortal life in that their personal identity is still formed through a conscious awareness of the relationship between soul, body (now “glorified”) and a real or perceived (now “immaterial”) reality, then they would no longer be the same person – their perception of their self (altered in the afterlife) in relation to a celestial afterlife (a reality unlike and perhaps unimaginable from the spatiotemporal reality of the mortal world) would no longer be identical to their mortal self. (27, italics mine).[8]


In other words, the “shift in reality” is ultimately a shift into a different mode of being where non-spatiotemporality is what the glorified body exists in; this different mode implies a different perception and therefore constitutes a different person. Her argument could be modelled as follows:

Spatiotemporal Reality -> Perception 1 i.e., body, self and spatiotemporal world -> P

Non-spatiotemporal Reality -> Perception 2 i.e., body self and non-spatiotemporal world -> P*
The main contention is that perception is conducive to constituting personal identity. This, in my view, conflates the self with consciousness. An examination of consciousness, I suggest, reveals this conflation. Conscious experiences are irreducibly subjective experiences of a person. As such, persons have conscious experiences i.e., consciousness without a subject is plausibly modelled as incoherent.[9] Now, so far as Natasha’s argument goes, experiences of subjective consciousness (of self, body and world) are part of the formation of personal identity; however, that conscious perception could constitute personal identity seems metaphysically suspicious. It seems that it is not that the perception of conscious experiences themselves that constitute personal identity but, rather, the person (or self) him or herself who constitutes the personal identity (i.e., sameness over time). A basic thought experiment makes this plausible:

Suppose you are approaching a brown table and in three different moments of introspection you attend to your own awarenesses.  At time t1 you are five feet from the table and you experience a slight pain in your foot (P1), a certain light brown table sensation from a specific place in the room (S1) and a specific thought that the table seems odd (T1). A moment later at t2 when you are three feet from the table you experience a feeling of warmth (F1) from a heater, a different table sensation (S2) with a different shape and slightly different shade of brown than that of S1, and a new thought that the table reminds you of your childhood desk (T2). Finally, a few seconds later, t3, you feel a desire to have the table (D1), a new table sensation from one foot away (S3) and a new thought that you could buy it for less than twenty-five dollars (T3).

This thought experiment can be modelled as follows:

“original position                                                     Table

{P1, S1, T1}      {F1, S2, T2}      {D1, S3, T3}

I1                       I2                       I3

I1=I2=I3 myself”[10]


The analysis shows with plausibility that although experiences are unified by consciousness, it does not follow that personal identity exists in virtue of the perception of subjective experiences of consciousness. Insofar as throughout some distinguished moments in time t1-t3 experiences, say e1-e3, are experienced, it is not in virtue of the perception of those conscious experiences that personal identity is constituted. But, the inevitable question arises, what, then, constitutes personal identity if not perceptions of subjective experiences of consciousness? In my view, it is the substantial soul which is sufficient for constituting personal identity inasmuch as the human person is a temporary body and soul conjunction (temporary with respect to the soul leaving the body after death). However, a defense of this thesis lies beyond the scope of the paper. I shall now move to another argument against Natasha’s thesis.

Natasha essentially thinks that the continuity of perception of subjective experiences of consciousness i.e., of body, self and world, are necessarily conducive to forming personal identity. However, following the first objection to Natasha’s argument, a counter phenomenological argument can be given in response. It seems that introspection does not confer the knowledge that one’s perception of subjectively experiencing consciousness constitutes personal identity; rather, “[in introspection] you are simply aware that you are not your body or a group of experiences” and that “you are the self that owns and unifies your experiences at each moment of time and that you are the same self that endures through time.”[11] So, it is conceivable that in a different sequence or succession of experiences i.e., a “shift in reality”, or in an entirely different form of reality, my personhood would be continuous (that is, I would remain the same) while my experiences (and possibly my subjective conscious perception of those experiences) change. If the person, and not the perception, is the source of personal identity, the person who dies and enters into the afterlife, no matter how obscure and/or different it is from the spatiotemporal order of things will be the same person.

In this paper I have argued that Natasha’s thesis that the phenomenological criterion of personal identity, namely, the criterion that perception of self, body and spatiotemporal world constitute personal identity, does not adequately capture the relationship between perception and ontology and the phenomenology of sameness over time and is therefore plausibly false. While I have not formally offered a view of personal identity in this paper—insofar as it lies beyond the scope of this paper—in my own personal view, the substantial soul is what possesses and constitutes personal identity. However, while personal identity is an important philosophical issue, it is, more importantly, a theological issue. If the soul exists and constitutes personal identity, it is a meaningful question to ask whether or not it will eventually continue to exist in the afterlife i.e., the Christian conception of the afterlife. If the soul does continue to exist, then the question of personal identity is crucial both phenomenologically and metaphysically—perhaps even existentially. [12]



Works Cited

Germana, Natasha. “Experiencing Mortality: The Possibility of Retaining Personal Identity in Resurrection.” The Semi-Colon: Essay Journal IX.II (2015): 25-27.

Moreland, J.P, and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2003. Print.

[1] Two preliminary comments. First, the ‘afterlife’ is most closely associated with the Christian conception of the afterlife. Secondly, I will use the term ‘spatiotemporal world’ and not her term ‘spatiotemporal reality’ (25-27) because ‘reality’ often is assumed to be ‘that which exists’ (and on a theistic worldview the spatiotemporal world is not all that exists—the supernatural exists on a theistic framework).

[2] Throughout the essay I will write the page number(s) beside any quotation instead of footnoting each quotation.

[3] Throughout the essay I will use the abbreviation ‘P’ to refer to a person (any person i.e., Emily), and another person P* (some other person).

[4] J.P Moreland and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 194.

[5] Moreland and Craig, 194.

[6] I will here omit ‘memory’ and ‘anticipation of a future self’ as they are at best irrelevant to my argument (and given that she rejects that they in and of themselves constitute personal identity).

[7] There are more reasons why I find this thesis implausible.  I would lodge an argument against this structurally similar to the same argument that could be given against the existentialist phraseology “existence precedes essence”; if perception of subjective experiences of consciousness is necessary for continuity of identity, then it follows that not perceiving those experiences is equivalent to not remaining that person. What about when one is sleeping? Surely one is not perceiving subjective experiences of consciousness (at least fully consciously) and thus it is absurd to think that the sleeping person is somehow not the same person as they are when awake. Though it might be responded that all things being equal a person with a body and soul in a spatiotemporal reality remains constant insofar as that person remains in that reality, I find this inadequate. Perceptions (which has not been defined by Natasha), if they are taken to be interpreted lightly as one’s ‘conception’ or ‘interpretation’ of something, change; if they change, then it follows that the continuity problem of personal identity remains.

[8] I have two comments to make here. First, if Natasha’s argument is that perception of the body and spatiotemporal world are necessary/sufficient conditions for identity, I take it to be the case that even one of these changing i.e., the body or the spatiotemporal world, constitutes a different person. From this presupposition, I will argue that the argument against the “shift in reality” as constitutive of personal identity also applies to perception of the body and soul. (In all cases, so my argument goes, perception isn’t enough to constitute personal identity). Secondly, I shall take the terms “glorified” and “immaterial reality” and “a place unbounded by space and time” (27) as she conceives of them. I shall not dispute this inasmuch as it is a theological debate (which, though I am more than willing to enter, the scope of the paper does not allow). A formal comment here, though, ought to be made. The Christian conception of the afterlife is not a continuity into some ‘place’; rather, eternal life is existing in the presence of God, knowing and enjoying Him forever—in the Christian tradition, this, and only this, is the ultimate fulfillment of human existence. It is interesting that Natasha argues for the ontology of the soul (or self) but never offers an explanation of its ontology. In my view, it seems that the probability of the soul existing is higher on theism than on naturalism; if this holds, then it is not implausible to suggest that God could withhold the person’s soul before and after death (which constitutes personal identity). It also seems implausible to suggest that God would create human persons who He loves and made in His image who would eventually become, ontologically, different people in the afterlife. Although Natasha explicitly states that in her essay she won’t (and did not) consider “questions of God’s existence, powers, or methodologies” (27), this seems to beg the question against theism of any sort. In fact, on theism generally, it is God who sustains everything in being (including the human person’s soul). It seems that if questions of God’s powers (formally His ‘omnipotence’) were considered, a wholly different conclusion follows; the soul, and not perception of self, body and reality, is what constitutes personal identity. To dismiss God’s—even possible—role here is to dismiss an important insight and implication into personal identity.

[9] This is a view in the philosophy of mind known as panpsychism.

[10] Moreland and Craig, 293.

[11] Moreland and Craig, 293.

[12] This paper “Phenomenological or Ontological Sameness over Time? A Critical Response to Natasha Germana’s “Experiencing Mortality”” will be read at an Undergraduate Philosophy Conference held by King’s College Philosophy Club, University of Western Ontario, April, 2016. So a big thank you to Josh Livingstone (the president of the King’s Philosophy Club) for the invitation to share my work.


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