16 May 2010

Personal Identity, Part Two

On January 17, 1887, a preacher living in Greene, Rhode Island -- Ansel Bourne -- stepped into a Pawtucket horse-car apparently headed for Boston. Nobody in his usual rounds heard anything more from the Reverend Bourne for two months. The local paper ran a notice of his disappearance. Acquaintances suspected foul play.

One month later, a fellow named A.J. Brown showed up in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Though a stranger, he didn't seem at all strange to the people thereof, he seemed taciturn and orderly, and he soon set up a candy store where he carried on his unremarkable business in peace.

Yet again a month passed. On March 14, "Bourne" suddenly awoke in "Brown's" body and bed, and started calling out in a fright, demanding to be told where he was. Bourne knew nothing of Norristown, nothing of the store, and was certain he must have just left Rhode Island the day before.

Such cases are not philosophical counter-factuals. The Bourne/Brown case was immortalized by William James' discussion in Principles, but there is an extensive literature on such cases -- under the oddly musical label "fugues."

In any particular case we might be tempted to think that the whole thing was a sham or a lark. But no authority worth citing contends that every such case is a sham, and on the reasonable assumption that there are some genuine fugues, this raises the crucial issue about personal identity. Bourne and Brown occupied the same body. But they had no subjective continuity. So, do we say that they are the same person, or not?

I believe our predominant intuition is that they are not. Furthermore, this intuition is independent of any theories about the cause of the fugue. Yes, presumably something happened in the Bourne/Brown brain that enabled the disassociation of the two personalities. But surely Bourne's awareness of the strangeness (to him) of the surroundings in which Brown had just been living and functioning comfortably just the day and the many days before is a datum in itself.

Later, Bourne submitted to hypnosis, and the Brown personality returned in that condition. Brown told the hypnotist, "I'm all hedged in. I can't get out at either end. I don't know what set me down in that Pawtucket horse-car, and I don't know how I ever left that store, or what became of it." Surely Brown is as real in his own way as is Bourne, and their mutual disassociation tells us something not about "insanity," (nothing was insane or even peculiar about the life of either Brown or Bourne except for the inconvenience of suddenly turning into the other) but about identity.

1 comment:

SIferryguy said...

The NPR science program Radiolab (radiolab.org) deals with this subject on the show titled "Memory and Forgetting". The program is an entertaining intersection between science and philosophy.

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.