What is Proof of Personality and its Persistence in this Life?

- M. Kelly -

          WHILE THE Indian sophists of old contended with one another as to whether the soul survived the death of the body or not, Buddha is said to have got out of the difficulty by asserting that there was no such thing as personality, maintaining that all was continuous motion.

Although many psychic researchers of to-day assert that no satisfactory proof has been adduced of the survival of personality after death, nobody, so far as I am aware, has denied its existence and persistence in this life, or defined what would be a satisfactory proof of survival. As the grounds of our belief in the one case must hold good in the other, it is obviously necessary to decide how far rational and empirical psychology can justify us in arriving at a conclusion in regard to this life.

Before discussing this point it is, first of all, essential to determine the nature and source of our knowledge of the phenomenal world. In other words: What system of philosophy holds the field at the present day? The essence of the system which has been in vogue in Germany from Fichte to Haeckel, Schopenhauer excepted, consists in making baseless assumptions, and endeavouring to support them by using jaw-breaking words and sentences totally devoid of meaning.

Goethe ridiculed this weakness in his countrymen in a well-known passage in Faust.

This has brought philosophy into such contempt that many have forgotten that there was such a man as Kant, and that he revolutionised philosophy 126 years ago by conclusively proving in his Transcendental Aesthetik that our empirical knowledge depends on the forms of time and space, a priori existing in our intellect, time being the form of the inner sense and space that of the outer. At one blow he upset the dogmatic idealism of Berkeley and the sceptical of Des Cartes by showing that inner experience, which the latter looked upon as the only certainty, could not be possible without the existence of external objects.

Some English writers on metaphysics, completely ignoring Kant's arguments, still look upon objects in space as realities in themselves, and endeavour to show how we derive the ideas of time, space, and causality from them, never thinking to ask themselves how on earth they could get any knowledge of an external object, to begin with, if these forms did not already exist preformed in their brains.

According to this idea of Kant's, which is at the same time transcendental idealism and empirical realism, objects in space are objects of the outer sense, and as seen by us have no existence apart from our thinking subject. They have, however, an underlying reality of which we can know nothing. Similarly the thinking ego is the object of the inner sense, thoughts are its manifestations, and the underlying reality is totally unknown to us.

Schopenhauer has supported Kant's theory with such clearness that, in my opinion, no other can now be taken into consideration. Applying these principles to the cogito, ergo sum, on which the arguments of rational psychology are based, he shows that thoughts being simply the presentation - Vorstellung - of the thinking subject, and consciousness the form by which this presentation is effected, we can draw no inference whatever regarding the underlying reality of the ego. It may be like or unlike that of any object in space, which may have its own thoughts and consciousness, although these make no impression on our senses. The impossibility of inferring the persistence of personality from the consciousness of our numerical identity at different times third paralogism - he illustrates by taking the case of a row of similar electric balls in a straight line. The first impinging on the second communicates its motion and complete condition to it, and so on through the row. Assuming a series of "substances" instead of such bodies, each would take on the ideas and consciousness of its predecessor, and the last would have all the states of the previous ones, together with their consciousness, and yet not be the same person. The idea seems to be the same as Buddha's.

If we wish to observe our own ego through its various "presentations" we have no standard of comparison but the same ego, and so must necessarily assume what is to be proved. The phenomena of multiple personality make the matter still more difficult. It is obvious, therefore, that rational psychology cannot solve the riddle.

Can empirical psychology give us any help in the matter? Professor Morselli, in his introductory article on spiritualism, says that we must put aside empiricism and have recourse to research. Research, however, is an appeal to experience, the knowledge so gained is empirical, and, from what has been said, can bring us no nearer the transcendental object of our investigation, even if we add the word "physical" to "psycho" to make the latter look more respectable. Professor Morselli also says in the same article that all metaphysical problems must be put aside as worthless. I presume he means that the question of personality should be dropped altogether. On the other hand, in stating that no proof of survival has been produced he makes himself responsible for the metaphysics.

The spiritualist can, in my opinion, often maintain that he has as good proof of survival as of persistence in this life, and those that do not agree with him must either admit that no proof is possible in either case or add a new chapter to rational psychology. Until this is done we must be content to amuse ourselves after the fashion of the Indian sophists, using such words as "telepathy" to conceal the fact that we have to deal solely with a metaphysical problem.


The Annals of Psychical Science, October 1908, Vol VII, Number 46.

Related articles

Psychical Research and Human Personality by H H Price
Human Personality and Survival by Stephen Braude
Personality and Survival of Bodily Death by William Brown

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