15 May 2010

Personal Identity, Part One

Thirty years ago there was a law student at Western New England College, School of Law, that bore my name. He was a very different person from me, in just about every respect. Every cell of his body was different -- the body as a whole was younger and more energetic -- and subjective characteristics such as his tastes and opinions were very different from my own as well. Yet in some sense I want to be able to say, coherently, that he was me -- that I am simply (or not-so-simply) an older version of that person.

What does this claim of the continuous identity of a person over time mean? This is a venerable philosophical question, to which there are three traditional answers: the core of identity is an unchanging imperishable soul; it is the continuity of memory; it is the continuity of a physical organism.

Professor Anderson Brown, of the University of Puerto Rico, has recently spoken to this issue on his blog. In his mind, the only live alternatives it seems are the second and third. And on that I have to agree. Though I am in my own manner religious, as regular readers will know, I think trying to tie personal identity to an immutable soul is a racket.

So we turn, with Brown, to the choice between the other options. Is identity over time more of a subjective, psychological fact? or more of an organic, physical fact? Brown is exercised by the sort of thought experiments that are often employed to argue in favor of the psychological/subjective answer to that question. "What if a mad scientist transferred your thoughts to somebody else's body...?" He asserts that the questions presume what is to be established. I won't argue with him over those thought experiments.

Rather, I will say that in my view the case for the psychological/subjective answer can be made and has been made in ways independent of the counter-factual arguments that Brown finds deficient. The strongest argument of which I am aware is that put forth by William James in Chapter X of Principles of Psychology. I say so in my comment to Brown's post (the fourth comment there) -- and I will retrace that argument with more particularity here tomorrow.

No comments:

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.