Monday, February 14, 2005

Personal Identity

What makes me now the same person as I was five minutes, or five years, ago? Can we even be sure that I am the same person? Sure, I've got memories, but they could be false memories (e.g. if the world was created mere seconds ago), or they could be 'quasi-memories' of experiences that were actually had by someone else, whose body and brain I have merely 'inherited'.

The common-sense view seems to involve a separately existing 'self', or 'Cartesian ego', to which our bodies and minds belong. This ego is the subject of conscious experiences. We can imagine magically finding ourselves in someone else's body. We may even be able to imagine having total amnesia and a sudden change in personality. So neither physical nor psychological continuity seems necessary for the folk conception of personal identity. All that matters is that it's me that has the conscious experiences.

I think this is one case where common-sense is utterly senseless. This picture posits a pure ego entirely independent of any physical or psychological facts. So how could we ever know about it? Our egos might be swapping bodies all the time. Perhaps five minutes ago I was you and you were me. My ego had your experiences, but then swapped bodies (entering 'Richard Chappell'), adopting my memories and forgetting all about yours. I seem to remember writing the previous paragraph five minutes ago, but perhaps it wasn't really me back then at all. Maybe you actually had that experience, and I just gained the memory when my ego jumped into this body more recently? How could we ever know?

Such talk of swapping bodies casts doubt on the very intelligibility of independently existing and undetectable egos. What does it even mean to say that you had the experiences in my memories? What sort of a 'you' is that, if you haven't been in any way influenced by the experienced event? (By that I mean that there is no causal connection between the event and your current self; it's as if it never happened. You don't have any memories of being Richard Chappell, your beliefs and behaviour are in no way affected, etc.) I don't think the claim has any sense at all! It's just so much gibberish masquerading as meaningful English.

But what's left if we dismiss the Cartesian pure ego? What am I, if not that fleeting spirit? Don't misunderstand me; I'm happy enough with the concept of 'me now'. I'm currently having conscious experiences (mostly consisting of various shades of puzzlement), and indeed am quite enjoying it. That much seems unproblematic. No, what I'm concerned about is not 'me now', but 'me then', and 'me later'. Will the Richard Chappell of ten minutes from now be the same person as I? He'll no doubt think he is [update - indeed I do!]; he'll have memories of being me, and so forth. But what if he's not? Perhaps 'I' am changing every single moment. Maybe each human life is made up of billions of consecutive persons, each owning the body and mind for a brief moment, before passing it on. It's a grim thought, really. I want to experience the future. I don't want to die and have some other 'self' usurp my mind and body, even if he mistakenly believes himself to be none other than I.

But I'm still thinking in Cartesian terms. I must stop that. Suppose instead there is no independent 'I', no subject or 'pure ego' independent of the experiences themselves. (This is awfully counterintuitive; I'm having trouble wrapping my - er, this - head around the idea.) Then such problems disappear. But it raises new ones: what is the connection between my temporal parts? What makes them together one whole? We can note a particular body's physical continuity through spacetime. We can also note the psychological continuity of its mind, in terms of overlapping memories and other such psychological connections between the temporal parts. Common sense suggests that personal identity is some further fact on top of these, but the problems mentioned above count against such a view. Perhaps talk of 'personal identity' really adds nothing new to the discussion. This is what Derek Parfit argues in Reasons and Persons (which I'm just halfway through - perhaps this explains my confusion!). He asks us to imagine a case of 'teletransportation', where his body is destroyed but an atom-for-atom replica is reconstructed elsewhere:

We could say that my Replica here will be me, or we could instead say that he will merely be someone else who is exactly like me. But we should not regard these as competing hypotheses about what will happen. For these to be competing hypotheses, my continued existence must involve a further fact. If my continued existence merely involves physical and psychological continuity, we know just what happens in this case. There will be some future person who will be physically exactly like me, and who will be fully psychologically continuous with me. This psychological continuity will have a reliable cause, the transmission of my blueprint. But this continuity will not have its normal cause, since this future person will not be physically continuous with me. This is a full description of the facts. There is no further fact about which we are ignorant. If personal identity does not involve a further fact, we should not believe that there are here two different possibilities: that my Replica will be me, or that he will be someone else who is merely like me. What could make these different possibilities? In what could the difference consist? (p.242, original emphasis)

'Me now' isn't going to have any other experiences, because 'me now' is stuck here in the present. (And look at that, he's gone already.) Very soon, someone physically and psychologically continuous with 'me now' is going to have some new experiences (and hopefully some sleep! Why oh why do I blog so late at night!?). That's it. End of story. Is that person really me? That simply depends on what we choose to make 'me' mean. We might as well stipulate the answer as 'yes', or our everyday language is going to run into a lot of problems. But there's nothing metaphysically significant going on here. There's no shared 'ego' who has both experiences. There's just two slices of spacetime that are connected by various physical and psychological relations. That's all I am, and you too.

Maybe it'll make more sense in the morning.


  1. Things like this are the reason I gave up studying philosophy.

  2. Have your read any Ricouer? He's written a lot on this. Admittedly he's coming from the hermeneutic position. But while he is definitely a continental philosopher, he views himself primarily as a Kantian and speaks in a fashion that analytic philosophers probably will find acceptable. His discussion is in the context of narrative and narrative unity. i.e. how do we unify separate events into a narrative whole? He argues that (in part) we do this to define a self.

  3. I thought of this all by myself at quite a young age - many a night this has made me a little concerned about going to sleep.

    I guess you can say that it is the pattern and not the matter that matters. i.e a exact duplicate of you IS you. but a re-arangement of yur own matter is not you.

    In this way you are deninitly NOT the person who your mother gave birth to and yet you are maybe 95% of the person who was here last year. 5% is either distributed elsewhere in the world or difused enough to not really exist.

    of course you could also argue there is no "you" and thus the whole debate is irelevant but since that argument makes itself irrelevant I tend towards the first one.

  4. Lately I've been thinking about the self as a secondary quality that arises from set of direct attributions that dynamically occur within a system over time. On this account, the self requires neither memory nor consistent material form to endure. Of course, you have to sell a lot of things we typically associate with person-hood in order to buy this view--not many people want to think that 'I' is a secondary quality.

    Things that got me thinking about this have been:

    Perry in "The Problem of the Essential Indexical," David Lewis in "Attitudes De Dicto and De Se," and Arthur Falk's "Time Plus the Whoosh and Whiz."

    After this semester I plan on studying this topic in more depth and, God willing, will also be blogging on it quite a bit.

  5. I think that “You” are Theseus' Ship Richard. But then, so am I.

    It is a matter of focal length. That is, if I distance myself enough away from the object (in this case my own life) then I see a near perfect continuity of identity from start to finish, the closer I look the more disparate it becomes until all I can see is an arrangement of molecules changing and jumping around with hardly and original plank of wood to be seen.

    Philosophers get themselves into metaphysical fits of frenzy over “What is this thing?”, “Is this the same thing?” “And what is its essence?” But I think it is all a matter of linguistic manipulation (and too often confusion) and it is about whatever definitions one (or many) happen to agree on.

    Given this, how should one answer the question, “what is the self?” or indeed “who are you?” Well I think you can answer it any way it pleases you, you can do away with the concept all together, but then you would likely have to forfeit all items of ownership. Or you can point to the name on your driver’s licence and say “that’s me”. That’s what it get’s down to, is whomever you are recognised to be and believe yourself to be is your ‘self’.

    For the purposes of simplicity you can claim all those previous and future models of you as your own, but the only one that really matters is you in the present moment. After all that is the only thing that has any kind of ontological relevance, the rest is just linguistic manipulation and often confusion.

  6. Chris, I'm sure you'll probably not read Ricouer, but you might wish to check out Peirce who's notion of the self as a symbol is quite similar to what I think many in the Continental tradition get at. Further he ends up with a robust sense of the unconscious in which the unconscious ends up external to normal notions of self.

    I'm not sure the best book on this, but I'd probably start with Smyth's, Reading Peirce Reading, if you are interested.

  7. I think I agree with illusive mind. Although he puts it more coherently than I would.

  8. One significant difference between a person and a ship is that the former is conscious - a 'subject of experiences', we might say. So although one might dismiss questions about Theseus' ship as just so much wordplay, it's difficult to do the same with personal identity. It seems meaningful to ask who will be subject to RC's conscious experiences tomorrow. If it's not *really* me, then why should I care about my future?

  9. Richard, if you value somthing you should consider a person who values those things as good. ie you should probably like yourself since if you didnt you have the opportunity to change it. I guess some peopel do indeed hate themselves but in general the person you will be in 1 day is a person who should be amongst hte most agreeable to yourself in the world whether it is you or not. Eiher that or you would be likely to be seriously considering suicide regardless of this philosophy.

  10. Who will be the subject of RC’s conscious experiences tomorrow (and yesterday) is a mental projection of your current self, an idea you have of ‘who’ you are be it coherent or not. One need not to protect this idea of self from scrutiny to avoid being lost in some kind of existential apathy.

    I acknowledge that the degree of focus limits my ability to objectively identify any future or past temporal self with my current self. But this doesn’t impede my cares about where I will be tomorrow, for regardless of what transmogrifications may have occurred between now and then I “imagine” I will still feel joy and pain and have desires. That our identities may change from moment to moment does not mean there is not enough of a constant (consciousness) to be invested into.

    However say that all my memories and any memories or records of my current existence will be wiped from the world tomorrow, though my physical embodiment will remain exactly the same. Then I may have little care about what I do today! But supposing that “I” will still be in a position to feel pain and happiness my cares will not be completely gone.

  11. I though Parfit was nuts when I first read his take on this thing he calls the Cartesian ego, and I haven't changed my mind on it. Perry makes the same mistake in his dialogue on personal identity that's so widely read and is actually good in a number of places.

    Descartes quite clearly saw mental experiences as properties of the mind. There's no way he would accept the claim that you could do anything to make someone lose all psychological properties and still be the same person. How would this happen? You could substitute a different Cartesian mind, but then it would be a different person. You could muck with the brain, but might that not kill the person and create a new one?

    As for switching bodies, if my mind entered your body, then there wouldn't be this continuous process of no one noticing. If my mind entered your body, Descartes would say that I would now be there, with all my thoughts, not yours. This so-called possibility of egos flitting around from body to body without anyone noticing is supposed to be a reductio of Descartes, but the reason it sounds so silly is because Descartes' own theory doesn't lead to this.

    Since I think the commonsense view is close enough to Descartes' view, I just don't see how any of this is a problem for the commonsense view, which generally does not assume that you'll be the same person in both the cases of complete memory loss and personality change and in the cases of body-switching. It's views that say both those things that seem to have trouble. The commonsense view simply doesn't accept both.

  12. I am grappling with this topic for a first-year Philosophy essay at UC. Having briefly gone over the same subject (Identity) last semester in Philosophy of Religion, I decided that I might take a different route to the obvious one, and explore a theory that was mostly brushed over in class. Unfortunately, I can't find much literature surrounding this topic, or on the net.

    Regarding the problem of fission, I like the idea that your body is host to an infinite number of qualitatively identical, but numerically different, identities. You (YOU!) are but one of these identities within your body. You all inhabit the same spatio-temporal area, and are exactly the same in every way.
    If your body is to be split (or fissioned), however, the identities would divide cleanly between the two new bodies. I imagine you would have a 50 percent chance of your identity or consciousness ending up in one of the post-split bodies.

    For example, person AB splits into person A and person B:

    Your identity and consciousness (we'll call you identity 1) were resident within person AB, and once the split occurs your identity and consciousness ends up in person A. Identity 2 was also resident within AB, and he ended up in B. Identities 1 and 2 were qualitatively identical right up until the moment of fission, but afterwards are distinguishable.
    There are an infinite number of (potential) identities, obviously, because there are an infinite number of possible fissions.

    I don't see how being unable to distinguish between two qualitatively identical identities doesn't mean they can't be numerically separate.

    Anyone spot any flaws in this theory? (Apparently Prof. David Lewis was a supporter of this theory, but I cannot find any data to back this up, nor any critiques of this theory).


  13. Well, it does seem a bit arbitrary to say you would end up as one but not the other, when there is no difference between them. But I guess that's why you say it's random.

    Anyway, you might want to check out my follow-up posts, vague identities and (especially) a self divided.

  14. I think, stringman, there is a problem with that idea. you haven't said whether you think 'you' is based on your physiology or not. but if you think the problem of fission is a problem then you probably think that the brain is somehow responsible for identity. how would you divide your infinite identities into a finite brain?

  15. I've been concerned about this for weeks! And I'm suprised that the first place I find something related is in a blog.

    Richard said: "Maybe each human life is made up of billions of consecutive persons, each owning the body and mind for a brief moment, before passing it on. It's a grim thought, really."

    I think occam's razor would have it that way, unfortunately. Perhaps that's why this is such an unexplored topic in philosophy; people don't enjoy argueing in favour of an early death; in this case they'd be dead before they started...

  16. who are we? what makes you who the way you are? Where did you come from? what is a family? Do you wish you belonged to a different family where there is understanding, openness, trust and security> yes, I'm sure some of us has once in a while. Sometimes do you even know who you are or what it is like to belong to someone or a family? What is this life worth living for? Or what could I put into this world to make a difference? Where are these answers and what will I do when I find them? Can a psycologist answer these questions?

  17. If we accept that as we change we die. Who should we feel loyalty to in the future?

    I'll put it this way;
    A siren is chasing you, and when it catches you, it will convince you of quite a few untrue things. So that you will be only 5% you.
    You have time to bequeth all your possesions on your brother, who shares 20% similarity with you.
    Should you give everything to your brother, or let the post-harpy you have it?

  18. You would still have a sort of continuity with your old self though, in the form of overlapping chains of memories, personality traits, etc. We should consider more than just how many beliefs you share in common at this particular moment.

    If the Siren really made a strict psychologically disconnection, so that you had nothing at all in common with any part of your earlier self (no memories, totally different personality, values, etc.) then yes, I think you have clearly become a different person. The real you is dead, and the Siren has effectively created a new person in your body.

  19. I agree. But if you can still remember your brother and the fact that you have possessions, then you probably want to keep those possessions, as the new you. But if you are in fact a new person altogether and have no memories of being another person, would a lawyer say that you have to give those possessions to a person previously known as your brother, or that because there has been physical continuity the possessions are still yours. It would seem a bit strange I guess to say legalities might define personal identity. But I think there is something to be said for physical continuity. I mean things about you might change, but they are still about YOU, not someone else.

  20. I am curious what people think is wrong with the view that we are a particular type of biological organism (i.e., we are human animals)? Isn't this view both common-sensical and science-sensical?

  21. The organism may live on after the person is plainly dead. (See: Terri Schiavo.)

    More generally, it seems that it's really our minds that matter.

  22. If the organism may live on after the person is dead (as I agree it can) and I am the organism, then I too may live on after the 'person' is dead. Might this not simply mean that we were wrong to think that I was (identical to) the person in the first place?

    I agree that our minds certainly do matter (along with other things, perhaps, including identity), but why should we think that what matters to me must also be constitutive of my identity over time?

  23. It wouldn't be worth talking about otherwise.

  24. Do you mean that the question of what my identity over time consists in wouldn't be worth talking about unless what matters to me in my identity over time was also constitutive of my identity over time? Can you explain why?

    Suppose it is true that the question is not worth talking about otherwise (although I don't think it is); what reason does that give me for thinking that what matters to me in my identity over time therefore is in fact constitutive of my identity over time? Your observation might give me a reason for hoping that it is, but not for believing that is is.

  25. Let's grant that the persistence conditions of persons and of organisms are not in dispute. What more is there to know? Your comments presuppose that it is a substantive question whether we use 'I' to denote the person or the organism. I think this is merely terminological; but we might as well refer to the most interesting/important kind in the vicinity, namely persons.

    Put another way: I'll grant for sake of argument that the indexical 'I', for whatever reasons, actually picks out organisms rather than persons. What follows from this? Nothing of interest that I can see. (So there's no need to 'hope' that the contrary is true.) All the interesting philosophical questions concern what we care about in survival, namely, our personal identity.

  26. (It just means that from now on, the old term 'I' should be replaced with the new 'I*', which we stipulatively introduce to reflexively pick out the speaker's person rather than their organism.)

  27. My view is that the only kind in the vicinity that has persistence conditions is the biological kind, or human organism. I do not think that "person" is a substance concept (in Wiggins' sense of the term), and I therefore think it is something of a wild goose chase to go searching for the persistence conditions of persons.

    There is nothing wrong with asking the question of what matters in our survival, but one of the jumping off points for this wild goose chase is the conflation of the question of what matters with the question of what constitutes persistence. I think it is early on in "Survival and Identity" where Lewis runs roughshod over this distinction, so I don't buy the premise of the rest of his argument in that paper, for example.

    Also, we ask philosophical questions about the persistence conditions for many different sorts of things, so I don't think the philosophical interest is lost when we ask the same question about ourselves qua human organisms, although I do appreciate the sense in which one might be disappointed to find out that the old question is not the treasure trove we were looking for.

  28. "So how could we ever know about it?" We could not - but I do not think this is an argument against the Cartesian view, i.e. that we are pure, empty egos.
    There is this experience now - Edralis writing this sentence. And now there is this experience now - writing this sentence. The experiences are both equally mine - which means, they are equally live, equally immediately given. I can conceive *any* experience (i.e. any content) being mine in this sense - i.e. existing for me, being immediately given, live, present. I could imagine being reincarnated "tabula rasa", i.e. without the memory of ever being somebody else. I could imagine being born as another person entirely. Edralis, the person that I am, could exist without me - and I could exist as somebody else. This seems intuitively absolutely certain. The only sense I can make of this is this: that I, indeed, am the pure "Cartesian ego" - or, more precisely, I am the subject of experience, utterly empty, "formless", i.e. I can admit any experiential content. I am the way experience exists - the very immediacy, givenness, liveness of experience (that which is identical in all "my experiences").
    My experiences they can be more or less intense, have different content, but what all of them have in common is their immediate givenness - i.e. the way they exist. That is what does not change from experience to experience - what is identical in all my experiences.
    When I imagine being a different person, what I imagine is their experiences - i.e. a certain content of experience - existing as immediately given, like this experience now is given.
    This means that "I" am not a human being, "I" am not a person - I am that for which the world appears from the point of view of some person.
    I cannot accept Parfit's conclusion that whether I survive or not is sometimes not determinate - whether an experience is mine, i.e. immediately given, *must* be determinate. An experience is either mine or it is not. I either exist, or I do not. I *do* accept his conclusion that whether a *person* survives (or whether some person A at time T1 and some person B at T2 are the same person) is sometimes not determinate. (And whether an experience is the experience of the same person as some other experience is also not determinate.)


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