Post No.: 0585
Let’s get deep! What makes you ‘you’ from one moment to the next?
Personal identity is a key question in philosophy. (Some other big questions in philosophy concern God, knowledge and justified belief, the mind and consciousness, and free will.) This question of identity isn’t about being, say, a ‘father’ or ‘princess’, or about a mere intrinsic qualitative issue such as one piece of paper being the same as another piece of paper from the same ream – but about whether we remain the same person/thing as we were over the passage of time and after constant change?
We’re talking about a strict identity – only the exact same electron, piece of paper, person or whatever is or can be strictly identical to itself. It isn’t about whether an electron is exactly identical to another electron – it’s about asking whether a particular electron stays being the same electron as before.
So is a piece of paper the same as it was before if it subsequently receives a tear? Are we talking to the same person as before if they subsequently receive a blow to the head? Is a person who murders someone whilst unconscious and sleepwalking the same person as when they’re conscious? Are you the same person if you’re behaving under the control and influence of a drug? If even just one atom from us changes (e.g. through breathing in/out), are we subsequently the same person/thing as before?
If we recycle wood into cardboard, would we say that they’re different things? So at what point does something stay the same thing or change into some other identity? After all, aren’t we all just recycled parts that are constantly in flux? The Ship of Theseus thought experiment explores this very question of identity – except reality is even more complicated because our parts aren’t being replaced exactly like-for-like, hence how we grow and show signs of ageing.
Personal identity matters regarding issues such as property ownership, promises made between parties, responsibility and just desert (e.g. if someone genuinely forgets committing a crime, will they be innocent of that crime, or at least will punishing them be unjust?)
Because I shed fur constantly and my brain is continually being reconfigured with new memories all of the time (for which each ‘engram’ is ultimately just a set of physical neuronal connections) – am I never strictly perfectly identical to ‘myself’ from one moment to the next?!
So if it’s down to our physical form then we’re constantly changing and thus our identity is arguably constantly changing too. But this is disconcerting and not very useful for everyday living for, say, if we befriend someone one moment, should we suddenly say the next moment that we don’t know this other person because they’re not strictly identical to the person we befriended in the previous moment? Yet if we don’t use dispassionately strict definitions then it can become a problem of where should we draw the line?
But maybe we’re thinking too broadly here about what matters when we’re trying to answer what it is about us that needs to be identical or continuous from one moment to the next, and we should be focusing on this aspect of ourselves only? It’s the mind – our psychology – that we care about persisting; not really the body or organism as a whole.
We’d probably agree that person A at time 1 is identical to person B at time 2 if and only if there is a ‘mental connectedness’ or ‘psychological continuity’ between the psychological state of person A at time 1 and person B at time 2.
What this exactly means at a fundamental definition level remains unclear though, and how do we generalise this to inanimate objects that don’t have minds or therefore any mental connectedness (e.g. to answer the conundrum of the Ship of Theseus, or the Olympic flame)?
We’d accept someone as being the same identity even if they one day lost an arm. However, would it be right to instantly ditch someone as a boy/girlfriend if they one day suffered from brain damage, or to gradually ditch someone as a relative if they gradually suffered from dementia?! Will it be too hard to accept that, if one’s spouse lost their memory of marrying you, then they’re suddenly, for that reason, not the person you married anymore?
Most won’t believe that a corpse is the same as the being who was previously living because the psychological/mental connection will be lost – it’ll be just a body (without a soul). It’ll likely retain symbolic meaning but no longer really be ‘Jim’ or ‘Judy’ identity-wise. But whilst a person is alive, they have a psychological continuity if they can remember one moment to the next. Still, where should we draw the line? Mentally, one could take a bump to the head, and maybe two or three – but after several severe, traumatic bumps, the brain could still be technically alive but will one be the same person as before if one loses memories and maybe other cognitive functions? How sufficient is sufficient – that’s the question regarding all line-drawing problems!
I wonder what metamorphosis (which occurs more commonly than with just caterpillars and tadpoles) does to mental continuity?
Line-drawing problems are also present when determining when health crosses into disorder or disease, and in abortion, for instance. Some argue that when a heart is formed and beating, it becomes too late to abort a life, but why arbitrarily pick a beating heart as the starting point of life because weren’t the cells before that stage alive too? And if one grew a beating heart on a scaffolding using stem cells then would it be murder to stop that heart because ‘life starts with a beating heart’? Alternatively, if when a foetus starts to feel pain becomes the line drawn between whether an abortion is considered murder or morally permissible, then this also has implications in other contexts, like when using embryos for stem cell research (where the line between ‘embryo’ and ‘foetus’ is blurry), thus these external implications must be considered too. We cannot even objectively define when an egg and a sperm first makes ‘someone’ hence perpetual debates about abortion.
As sophisticated furlosofurs, we’re not going to lazily settle on just any old ‘whatever, that’ll do’ answers – we want reasoned, rigorously tested and consistent answers. We shouldn’t live according to ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitudes or arbitrariness. But here it’s incredibly murky because science cannot give a definitive answer and so it’s down to arbitrary culture, politics and/or personal feelings to decide. It’s a potentially life-occupying hobby, but it’s not a pointless endeavour because we don’t know what the future may hold in terms of technology, understanding or ethics (e.g. ancient philosophers queried what everything was made of, and what reality is, but only now we’re beginning to uncover some answers, or so we think). Philosophers can therefore be way ahead of their time.
Mathematical/numerical identity or Leibniz’s identity of indiscernibles present very precise definitions of identity, but using these types of definitions is unsatisfactory because our total number of neurons is constantly changing, and therefore our properties or functional capabilities are constantly changing too (even though in incredibly miniscule ways from one moment to another). We’re not going to accept that we’re constantly new identities for every second or minute of our lives, are we?
So we’re again ultimately talking about psychological identity and psychological persistence – more specifically a forward continuity of mental connectedness, thus earlier mental states must have direct causal impact on later mental states in order to say that they’re connected.
But then what’s psychological/mental is ultimately derived from physical matter. Scientifically, there are no incorporeal souls for a lack of evidence for them, hence identities cannot be persisted through such hypothetical non-physical things.
If we take a purely physical perspective of identity, we could perhaps point out that every part of us has always existed in some form or another, and always will, for as long as this universe has existed, and will exist – because we are ultimately made from constantly recycled energy/matter. So when did ‘you’ begin to exist? The day you were born? How about ~9 months before that? Or when your mother was born (because she had all her eggs since birth) or when your father had your particular sperm cell? How about when all of the matter that presently makes up ‘you’ first came to existence? Hence how about from, or very shortly after, the beginning of time/the Big Bang? Also, what truly separates ‘you’ from all the other matter around you if the physical boundaries between you and others are fuzzy and constantly in flux? Read Post No.: 0372 for more about this line of thought.
Strict identity should also be logically transitive and symmetric, but even forward psychological continuity is troubling because it seems to be intransitive and asymmetric. For example, if we exactly clone someone, will the two instances be the same identity? Well no, because we’ll start calling one of them by one name and the other by a different name to indicate that they’re different identities – even though they’ll have the exact same psychology. I suppose that they’d immediately become two different identities as soon as they’re cloned for they’ll immediately have separate mental experiences and fork off onto two separate life paths.
There are plenty of teleporting and cloning thought problems. Some thought experiments will likely only exist in one’s imagination, but there’s nothing known in the laws of nature to say that cloning is impossible – we’re just essentially collections of data, that can be copied and pasted, after all. And cutting and pasting (or copying, pasting then deleting the original) is arguably a form of teleportation. If something doesn’t have a zero possibility in the future then it could happen in reality (this enters the topic of knowledge and justified belief – we cannot speak for sure about what we don’t know we don’t know).
The videogame Soma explored a transfer of mental self into an artificial body – here, it was about ‘copy and paste’ and so after every copy, another ‘you’ would be created and it was a coin flip whether your personal consciousness would be present in the new body or stuck in your current one. Who you are will always be whichever fluffy body you emanate your consciousness from hence you’ll always know who you are and in turn who the copy of you is. The videogame also explored whether it’d be suicide or murder if you killed your original body straight after copying your mind into another body? Videogames are great for exploring philosophical ideas interactively!
Perhaps a ‘multiple-occupancy’ answer is correct? We can all be multiple overlapping beings at once, so if we’re later cloned, we’ll just split up from our formerly combined parts – which all were and are ‘us’. (Like overlapping roads at a junction – is that overlapping section one road, the other, or both? It can be both during that section of time and space.) Maybe ‘perdurantism’ is an acceptable answer – in that we have distinct temporal parts throughout our existence? Or we might concede that identity is never a persistent quality and take the dispassionate mathematical perspective here and, as with free will, accept that it doesn’t strictly exist according to science and logic?
Personal identity from one moment to the next for anything that changes in any way (e.g. complex living organisms) might not strictly exist – but for pragmatic reasons, we might still need to use the concept of forward psychological continuity in order to deal with matters like property ownership, promises, responsibility and desert.
Woof. Like with other philosophical issues, I’m not saying the issue is fully resolved. My mind is still open, but I will settle for this for now so that I can take a break(!) You can share what you think via the Twitter comment button below.