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Can You Go to Heaven?

Bad news for anyone looking forward to eternal bliss

by Theodore Schick, Jr.

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 4.

The promise of immortality is one of the great enticements of religion. The Bible tells us, for example, that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life (John 3:16). As a result, many Christians believe that, when they die, their souls will go to heaven. Many humanists, on the other hand, find this belief incredible. Not only is there no reliable evidence for the existence of souls, but the very notion of a soul seems vacuous.

Souls have traditionally been considered to be immaterial things. But an immaterial thing can only be defined negatively: it has no physical properties and no location in space. So how can we tell whether we have a soul? How can we distinguish one soul from another? How can we identify the same soul at different times? Difficult questions. But let's give the theists their souls. Let's suppose that there are souls and that they do go to heaven. My question is this: if your soul goes to heaven, will you go to heaven? In other words, are you your soul?


Souls have traditionally been considered to be thinking substances. They are not thoughts; they are things that think. So the relation between a soul and its thoughts can be likened to that between a pincushion and its pins. Just as a pincushion is distinct from the pins stuck in it, so a soul is distinct from the thoughts it has.

The advantage of distinguishing between a soul and its thoughts is that it provides a solution to the problem of personal identity. All of us are constantly changing. Not only do our bodies change as we grow older, but so do our beliefs, attitudes, and desires. Nevertheless, these changes seem to happen to one and the same person. But how is that possible? If something changes, it's different; and if it's different, it's no longer the same. In other words, how can a person change and yet still remain the same person? The soul theory has a ready answer: although our thoughts are constantly changing, the thing that has the thoughts-the soul-remains the same. Just as one and the same pincushion can have different pins stuck in it at different times, so one and the same soul can have different thoughts in it at different times.

According to the soul theory, your identity resides in your soul. It is what makes you you. It is your essence, your nature, your true self. The soul theory, then, is committed to the view that, as long as your soul exists, you exist. If this is not the case-if it's possible for your soul to exist without you existing-then the soul theory must be false. A number of philosophers have explored this possibility by means of various thought experiments. Here's the thought experiment that Leibniz used to test the soul theory:

. . . the immortality which is demanded in morals and in religion does not consist in this perpetual subsistence [of soul] alone, for without the memory of what one had been it would not be in any way desirable. Let us suppose that some individual were to become King of China at one stroke, but on condition of forgetting what he had been, as if he had been born anew, is it not as much in practice or as regards the effects which one can perceive, as if he were to be annihilated and a King of China to be created at his place at the same instant? Which this individual has no reason to desire.1 . . .

Leibniz envisions a case of total amnesia-a situation in which a soul is stripped of all its memories. Would the same person persist through such a change? The answer would seem to be "No." Although the same soul is present before and after the memories are erased, the same person is not. Who we are seems intimately connected to our memories. If we were to permanently lose all memory of our lives, there's reason to believe that we would cease to exist, regardless of what happened to our souls.

To see this, suppose that when your soul goes to heaven it loses all of its memories. The person with your soul would therefore have no idea who you are or what you've done. In such a case, would going to heaven be something to look forward to? Or suppose that cryogenically freezing a brain erases all of its memories. So when your body is resuscitated, the person in it has no recollection of your life. In such a case, would it be worth $100,000 to have your body cryogenically suspended? In both cases, the answer seems to be "No." What this suggests is that you cannot be your soul. There must be more to being the same person than simply having the same soul.

Although having the same soul is not sufficient for being the same person, maybe it is necessary. Maybe you cannot be the same person unless you have the same soul. But even this is doubtful.

There seems to be no contradiction involved in assuming that our consciousness could reside in different bodies. Believing in reincarnation, for example, is not like believing in a round square. In fact, some computer scientists claim that, not only are body switches possible, but they may soon be actual. Marvin Minsky, for example, the former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology artificial intelligence laboratory, has said, "In the next 100 years or so, there will be no reason to die any more. You can just take your personality and download it into another being."2 But just as consciousness can be transferred from one body to another, so it can be transferred from one soul to another.

Souls are supposed to be distinct from the thoughts they have. Consequently, it's no more difficult to conceive of a soul-switch than it is a body-switch. Just as pins can be transferred from one pincushion to another, so thoughts can be transferred from one soul to another. Nothing we know about souls precludes such an operation. In fact, for all we know, we get a new soul every night. Since we supposedly don't get a new identity every night, being the same person can't require having the same soul.

Locke agrees. "If the same consciousness can be transferred from one thinking substance to another," he says, "it will be possible that two thinking substances may make but one person. For the same consciousness being preserved, whether in same or different substance, the personal identity is preserved."3 Since it's logically possible for the same consciousness to inhere in different souls, Locke claims that we can't identify ourselves with our souls.

Contrary to what the soul theory would have us believe, our souls are not what make us who we are. Souls, considered in and of themselves, have no distinguishing characteristics. Take all of the thoughts out of two souls and what do you have left? No one can say, because souls can only be defined negatively. Such a nondescript thing cannot possibly be the source and ground of our personal identity.


Locke, like Leibniz, believes that our identity resides in our memories or, more generally, our consciousness. There is much to recommend this view. Certainly if we lost all our memories, there would be good reason to say that we no longer exist. But is it necessarily true that wherever our consciousness goes, we go? Let's put this theory to the test.

Suppose that it's sometime late in the twenty-first century, and you have come down with one of the last incurable diseases. Your doctor informs you that traditional medicine can do nothing to save you. There is, however, a new procedure that may allow you to escape what otherwise would be certain death. Scientists have recently perfected a device that records the entire contents of your mind by performing a very detailed scan of your brain. (Such a device was depicted in the movie Brainstorm.) This information can then be transferred into a newly minted clone of yourself. This clone can be any age you desire. (Adult clones can be produced in a few weeks by artificially speeding up the cell division process.)

Alternatively, your consciousness can be transferred into somebody else's clone (male or female) or into a Disney animatronics robot of your choosing. Those who have undergone the procedure report that, from a first person point of view, it's no different than going to sleep and waking up in the morning. Of course, those who chose to be transferred into a different body may have had a bit of a shock when they looked in the mirror, but their consciousness was unaffected by the transfer. All of their memories, as well as all of their thoughts, feelings, and desires, remained intact. One caveat: the brain is destroyed by the scan. So if something goes wrong during the scan, it's impossible to start over from the beginning.

Would you undergo such a procedure? Suppose you did. Would the resulting person be you? Many believe so. Especially Extroprians, like Minsky, who believe that such mind transfers, at least into advanced robots, are just around the corner. But I'm skeptical. The resulting person, I believe, would at best be a copy of you, not the real you.

To see this, we need only alter one aspect of our scenario. Suppose that the brain scan is nondestructive. So you make a clone of yourself, transfer your consciousness into that clone, and continue to exist. Would that clone be you? Of course not. It would be a copy of you. The clone would think that it was you, and it might even look like you. But that wouldn't make it you. It wouldn't have the right to sleep with your wife or collect your paycheck, for example. (Although it might well be able to get away with both of those things, as in the movie Multiplicity.)

What's more, if the clone would be a copy of you in the case where you continue to exist, it would be a copy of you in the case when you cease to exist. Even if photocopiers destroyed the original documents they scanned, the resulting documents would not be the originals. Similarly, even if a consciousness-copier destroyed the original brain it scanned, the resulting person would not be the original. So it is not necessarily true that where your consciousness goes, you go.

Persons are not like songs whose identity is unaffected by the instrument on which they're played. They're more like performances which are unique, unrepeatable events. In philosophical terms, they are more like particulars than universals. You can record a performance, but when you play it back it is not the same event as the original performance. It may be similar, but it is not one and the same.

Many Christians, following St. Paul, believe that, when they die, their consciousness will be transferred from a physical body to a spiritual body. No one knows what spiritual bodies are like. But as we have seen, even if spiritual bodies are exact copies of physical bodies, the people who inhabit them will, at best, be copies of those who inhabited the physical bodies. They will not be the original people themselves. So the answer to our question, "Can you go to heaven?" is "No." At best, a copy of you can go to heaven. That may be better than nothing of you going to heaven, but it is not the same as going there yourself. fi


1. Gottfried Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics, trans. P. Lucas and L. Grint (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953).

2. Marvin Minsky, quoted in "Where Evolution Left Off," Andover Bulletin, Spring 1995: 9.

3. John Locke, Essays Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, Chapter 27, Section 13.

Theodore Schick, Jr., is Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College and the co-author (with Lewis Vaughn) of the text Doing Philosophy (Mayfield, 1999).

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