What is a person? More generally, what is it to be?
The materialist would tell you that to be is to be a body and that mind or mental functions are mere epiphenomena – side-effects, as it were, of processes which are wholly physical. According to the materialist hypothesis, there is nothing except what is physical. You are your body and you begin when your body begins and you end when your body dies.
There is another view which we can call dualism and this is frequently – erroneously – equated with Christian doctrine: that we are souls and bodies. So, according to dualism, there are in effect two substances: a physical substance and a spiritual substance. Sometimes the soul is regarded as the same thing as the mind. We are asked to believe that the soul or mind (the spiritual thing) is inside the body. But this cannot be, because the only thing which can be inside a physical thing is another physical thing.
Rather we should perhaps regard mind and body as two aspects of the same thing seen from different perspectives. St Paul seems to have believed something like this to be the case as he refers to a spiritual body – in the Greek a soma-pneumatikon.
From the usual perspective of individual consciousness, we tend to think that this individual consciousness – the mind in action, as it were – is the central agent controlling whatever the individual does.
But there is another, more helpful, view which is to be found in Christian mysticism, Sufism, Jewish spirituality, in the Upanishads and in Artur Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. (The World as Will and Representation) According to this, the person or being uses his mind in much the same way as he uses his body and is thus not to identified with either his mind or his body. This individual being may be termed the person’s soul. Except it is not individual and distinct from other manifestations of being.
All being is one, eternal and indestructible
Moreover, these various mysticisms can be experienced practically, through prayer and meditation. When, for example, I meditate by observing my breathing and discarding all other thoughts as these arise, it is not my mind which is performing this meditation but my being – or soul, if you like. And this being is not distinct from being in general. It is nevertheless what I truly am. Thus whatever happens to my body and my mind – including death – cannot alter the fact that I am part of that universal being which is eternal and indestructible.
This ancient and (to me) very reassuring view can be investigated further by studying the mystical writings of most of the world’s great religions, in the book by Schopenhauer mentioned above and in a clear and most approachable style in Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher
Furthermore, from the Christian perspective the origin of all being is the being of God the Holy Trinity. To understand the Holy Trinity we do not, as St Augustine said, need to go outside ourselves. For we are made in the image of the being of God. That is, we may regard the mind as an image of the Father, the Body as an image of the Incarnate Son and the indestructible soul as an image of the Holy Ghost, the means of the Divine Unity: as the Nicene Creed says, the Holy Ghost proceeding from the Father and the Son
These things are true and you can trust them.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; world without end. Amen