Most people think they exist. Even Descartes, who set out to doubt everything, found he could not rightly doubt his own existence. But some stories, like Materialism, make believing in one’s self problematic.
This may seem ridiculous at first, but notice: Materialism tells us a story of how things are, yet if Materialism is true “where” are “you”? Are “you” your physical body? If you cut off an arm are “you” still “you”? It seems you are. Are “you” your brain and nervous system? This is difficult to establish because if we look closely, the brain reduces to chemicals, those chemicals reduce to atoms, and those atoms reduce to subatomic particles all dancing to the laws of physics. Where are “you” in all that mush?
The cells of your body routinely die and are replaced; your consciousness is interrupted by sleep; we have inaccurate memories: yet “you” still exist over time. These observations pose a problem for a Materialist understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live.
In fact, these observations can be the foundation for an argument for God-belief that might look like this:
1. “You” exist.
2. “You” cannot be identified with anything in your physical body.3. Given 1 and 2, “you” must be immaterial.
4. The best explanation of immaterial realities like “you” is an immaterial source that desires to make immaterial things like “you”.
And we call this immaterial source that desires to make things like you “God”.
If we think we really have personal identity, that conviction gives us a good reason to reject Materialism. Personal identity is an anomaly and evidence that the theory/story/metaphysic of Materialism itself is false.
If we hold to premise 3, the step to premise 4 is worthy: contingent immaterial beings like you and me require an immaterial instigator with the will and power to create “you” and “me”—and this instigator we call God.
By now it shouldn’t surprise most of you that I think you can bite the Materialist bullet on all my arguments for God’s existence, and this argument will be no different. (I argue in Everything New that commitments to our metaphysical view arise first from our passions, not our reason, and It seems to me that this argument from personal identity is one of the better reasons to presuppose a view other than Materialism.) If you are emotionally inclined, the option is there for you to deny Premise 1 and hold that “you” don’t exist. But this is a big step. Denying your personal identity not only seems intuitively false, it means your choices, your story, your reality—and the choices, stories, and reality of those you love—are each illusions.
Make that move and life—if we can call it that—is absurd.
Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of the Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan, 2008). He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado.