17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2005
The idea for this book is a good one. Most people, without thinking about it, have accepted as their notion of personal identity a form of the Platonist/Cartesian dualism approach. That is to say that most people think of themselves as a little homonculus sitting inside a head cavity, linking their personal identity to a "soul" or "mind" and concluding that their survival (including survival after death) is linked to the fate of that incorporeal "stuff".
When you call into doubt this common belief, three excellent questions are presented. First, what is personal identity (i.e. what makes me "me"?) Next, how does personal identity continue over time (i.e. how am "I-now" the same as "I-then"?) Finally, can this personal identity continue past death?
These are very interesting subjects, but unfortunately Dr. Flew does a poor job of writing about them. I've read some very dense contemporary philosophy in recent years, and some lighter reading geared towards the lay person. There are good ways to write either style. This book fails by either standard.
The organization of topics is downright awful. Dr. Flew loosely structures the book as an examination of various schools of thought about the mind-body problem throughout history. Within these sections, however, he switches readily on and off topic.
His paragraph structure reads like Ralphie's essay assignment in the holiday film "A Christmas Story", a series of non sequiturs with nothing to bind them together. A philosophy book needs to make arguments, and it requires an author who is adept at organizing arguments into written paragraphs. Even a high-schooler knows that an effective persuasive paper requires that you make a proposition at the beginning of the paragraph, fill the middle with discussion of facts directly bearing on that proposition, and conclude by restating the proposition. Whatever style of writing one chooses, the key is that the reader must be able to follow from point to point without being lost in endless diversions. Dr. Flew's writing style is muddled, confusing, difficult to follow, and causes the reader to lose sight of whatever point he is ostensibly trying to make.
An old entertainer's rule goes: "Tell the audience what you're going to do, do it, and then say it has been done." All good philosophy writing obeys this rule as well.
I'm sure Flew is a very bright guy, and he's chosen a great set of topics, but he simply doesn't know how to write a book.
If you're interested in the topic, I can make another recommendation. Surprisingly, the best treatment of these topics I've read is in Dr Richard Hanley's "The Metaphysics of Star Trek," not quite as trite a book as you may expect from the title. No no, stop laughing for a second. Dr Hanley is a philosophy professor at University of Melbourne and uses pop culture like Star Trek to teach. His treatment of the personal identity/continuity issue spans several chapters, and it is well-structured, organized, easy to follow, and entertaining in addition to being thought-provoking. Hanley gives a good overview of the various issues that philosophers have addressed on this topic. An excellent book written for the lay reader is far more valuable then a terribly-written book that confuses blandness and unreadable paragraphs for scholarship.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2008
Being either an agnostic or an atheist depending on how you define the line between them and what my mood is that day, I'm inclined to share Dr. Flew's scepticism on the subject of an afterlife, but I find his arguments rather circular and totally unconvincing; his insistence that he has thoroughly debunked the argument in favor of the mind as the indentifier of personal identity rather than the body is rather irritating, considering that he has done no such thing; he discounts the argument that if a person's consciousness suddenly found itself in a different body as mere science fiction and therefore irrelevant, ignoring the fact that while (so far as we know) this has never happened and can never happen, IF IT DID, the consciousness would be the source of identity, not the body. Granted, there are aruments that make this problematic; if one accepts that consciousness is the source of identity, then one has to define what constitutes consciousness, and if one goes with "memory", that leaves us with the question of whether an aged person suffering dementia who has lost much of his/her memory is no longer the same person, as well as the question of why, if mind/personality is the source of identity, physical/chemical effects (hormones, drugs, even lack of sleep) can make such a radical difference in a person's mental abilities and personality. Flew attempts to address these arguments, but does a particularly vague and unenthusiastic job of it, largely because he seems to feel that they are unnecessary arguments because he feels that his other arguments against mind/consciouness as the seat of identity are better when in fact they're completely unconvincing. (And if they don't convince me, a fellow sceptic, I'm not sure who they ARE going to convince.) And while his writing style occasionally attempts to achieve colloquiality, it is generally as ponderous as one expects of philosophy, so if you aren't comfortable with heavy-duty philosophy, it will be rather hard going, but if you ARE comfortable with serious philosophy, you may find his occasional forays into failed attempts at being chatty somewhat annoying.
I give this book two stars rather than one because the idea is a good one, and the scholarship is good, but I can't rate it any higher because it really doesn't do a very good job of what it sets out to do. I'm closer to giving it one star than three.