Personal identity intuitions

Most philosophers start with the big theories: psychological continuity, embodied persistence, “no further fact” anticriterialism. Yet in a vaguely Parfitian way, I’ve been wondering whether our identity intuitions can or should be forced to line up under a particular theory. So let’s look at some of the intuition pumps and see if they ought, in fact, to line up.

The classic intuition pump is Locke’s discussion of sobriety and blackouts:

Suppose I wholly lose the memory of some parts of my life, beyond a possibility of retrieving them, so that perhaps I shall never be conscious of them again; yet am I not the same person that did those actions, had those thoughts that I once was conscious of, though I have now forgot them? To which I answer, that we must here take notice what the word I is applied to; which, in this case, is the man only. And the same man being presumed to be the same person, I is easily here supposed to stand also for the same person. But if it be possible for the same man to have distinct incommunicable consciousness at different times, it is past doubt the same man would at different times make different persons; which, we see, is the sense of mankind in the solemnest declaration of their opinions, human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did,- thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English when we say such an one is “not himself,” or is “beside himself”; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed; the selfsame person was no longer in that man.

Of course, we do now blame the sober man for the mad man’s actions, but only I think because we feel we must blame someone. That’s one reason that Locke’s description is actually a “forensic” identity: he was already punting on the metaphysical question in favor of determining who to send to jail. It’s attribution that we seek, not agency, and there’s no attempt at a metaphysical judgment about the mechanics of personal identity. Other intuition pumps include the classic discussion of the ship of Theseus whose parts are replaced one by one, or an axe which is so old that both the head and the handle have been replace: is it the same ship or the same axe? Generally we are tempted to say that it is a same ship, since it has a kind of continuity of features that we describe as “qualitative identity.” But this leads to all sorts of cloning and Star Trek-style transporter examples that purport to show that two things that do not share “numerical identity” might still share enough qualitative features to be called the same thing. After all, what would happen if Theseus’s ship’s old parts were salvaged to create another ship identical to the old one? Yet if we say that it is a different ship, this leads to all sorts of soroties paradoxes about what features must change enough for ship or the axe to become strictly a new thing: how many slivers of wood make it new? My favorite intuition pump is Parfit’s “Combined Spectrum:”

We can suppose that, when [Greta] Garbo was 30, a group of scientists recorded the states of all the cells in her brain and body. In the first in this spectrum, at the near end, nothing would be done. In the second case, a few of the cells in my brain and body would be replaced. The new cells would not be exact duplicates. As a result, there would be somewhat less psychological connectedness between me and the person who wakes up. This person would not have all of my memories, and his character would be in one way unlike mine. He would have some apparent memories of Greta Garbo’s life, and have one of Garbo’s characteristics. Unlike me, he would enjoy acting. His body would also be in one way less like mine, and more like Garbo’s. His eyes would be more like Garbo’s eyes. Further along the spectrum, a larger percentage of my cells would be replaced with dissimilar cells. The person who wakes up would have only a few of the cells in my original brain and body, and between her and me there would be only a few psychological connections. She would have a few apparent memories that fit my past, and a few of my habits and desires. But in every other way she would be, both physically and psychologically, just like Greta Garbo.

Parfit takes this speculation as evidence for what he calls the “Reductionist view,” the claim that there is no “further fact” about ourselves, like a soul, that allows identity to persist as the qualitative features of ourselves are changed. But by resisting any criteria for identity or its loss, Parfit thwarts some of the very intuitions that led to belief in a soul in the first place. Spooky thinking about metaphysical identity clearly tracks a category by which we understand the world, which is why it is that we still treasure Theseus’s ship or George Washington’s axe. In contrast, I have recently encountered a number of adherents of “narrative identity,” which is the claim that “being able to give an account” of one’s continuity with a prior self is what is required for saying that we are the same person. In this sense, the narrative becomes the “further fact” that unites the present ship with the one that began the voyage. Narrative identity is anticriterialist insofar as it resists any specific framing for the story: it allows the present story-teller wide latitude for formulating the specific mechanism through which she is identical to the past person. In that sense, the criteria is “plausibility,” or a kind of naive folk intuition. I’m not sure I’m happy with that.

Here are some more tests for intution:

  • Bernard Williams proposes an embodied theory of identity using the example of Star Trek’s teletransportation: a digitial copy of you is made, and the information is used to create an exact likeness on the distant planet. Meanwhile, “you” are dematerialized and thus destroyed. Shouldn’t we fear death in that instance? What if the machine forgot to dematerialize the person in the machine, and there were two of you?
  • The television show Dollhouse featured characters who had their memories and personalities “wiped” and then were periodically programed with other personalities. The show tried to assert a brand of embodied identity tied to one character’s blood. (Midi-chlorians, anybody?) I’m tempted to say that Whedon got identity wrong, the same way that many movies about time travel erupt into paradox in the name of writing entertaining fictions.
  • What if your memories and personality could be uploaded into a computer, with the goal of supplying immortality? Would that be “you”? Would you have achieved immortality? If so, can I achieve immortality by leaving a lot of voice mails?
  • What about cloning? It seems to me that embodied theories of identity in our “folk metaphysics” largely influence the anti-cloning hysteria we’ve seen, in the same way it does with the fear of doppelgangers and the uncanniness of twins.

Of course, these are all science-fictional examples, and thus they may harm more than they help, especially if they’re metaphysical intuition pumps that are rooted in botched physics or biology.

  • What should we say about alcoholics who black out? Locke’s claims about the law’s judgments have been reversed in the twentieth century, but that needn’t guide our metaphysics.
  • What should we say about those who undergo major conversion experiences, such that they change almost all of their character traits?
  • What should we say about those who experience major traumatic events, like survivors of genocide or those who are victims of sex trafficking? Are they “the same person” that they were before? Does it matter that they often deny personal identity with their prior selves? Must we respect their metaphysical presumptions?

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about C. S. Peirce’s theory, which is rooted in his semiotic theory. Here’s Peirce:

What distinguishes a man from a word? There is a distinction doubtless. The material qualities, the forces which constitute the pure denotative application, and the meaning of the human sign, are all exceedingly complicated in comparison with those of the word. But these differences are only relative. What other is there? It may be said that man is conscious, while a word is not. But consciousness is a very vague term. It may mean that emotion which accompanies the reflection that we have animal life. This is a consciousness which is dimmed when animal life is at its ebb in old age, or sleep, but which is not dimmed when the spiritual life is at its ebb; which is the more lively the better animal a man is, but which is not so, the better man he is. We do not attribute this sensation to words, because we have reason to believe that it is dependent upon the possession of an animal body. But this consciousness, being a mere sensation, is only a part of the material quality of the man-sign. Again, consciousness is sometimes used to signify the I think, or unity in thought; but the unity is nothing but consistency, or the recognition of it. Consistency belongs to every sign, so far as it is a sign; and therefore every sign, since it signifies primarily that it is a sign, signifies its own consistency. The man-sign acquires information, and comes to mean more than he did before. But so do words. Does not electricity mean more now than it did in the days of Franklin? Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man has not made it mean, and that only to some man. But since man can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn round and say: “You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thought.” In fact, therefore, men and words reciprocally educate each other; each increase of a man’s information involves and is involved by, a corresponding increase of a word’s information.

Is this semiotic identity a psychological theory or an anticriterialist theory?

6 thoughts on “Personal identity intuitions”

  1. Of the two, more likely an anticriterialist approach because of the diminuation of consciousness' role in identity – it is necessary but not sufficient, like having a material substrate. In addition, the claim that a person is a symbol implies that there is no particular problem of personal identity, but rather only general logical problems like determinate vs. indeterminate identities.

  2. On the "Perice-onhood" view, we'd still run into conflicting intutions/judgments when we talk about how the conditions of the "continuous process of sign-interpretation" are met or failed. For instance, is there a "continuous process of sign-interpretation" when I am teletransported from here to Mars? Is there a "continuous process of sign-interpretation" when I am uploaded into a digital substrate? Is there "continuous process of sign-interpretation" when I experience a psychotic break, a religious conversion, a physical or emotional trauma?

  3. Given the breadth of semiosis, the answer should be yes to all, which perhaps makes it useless. Regarding that 'Peirce-onhood' piece, I think it is a fundamental misstep to deny the personhood of organizations because it is untrue to Peirce. In other words, despite the semiotic language it strikes me as a somatic criterion theory more than anything else. Here's a quote from Peirce: "The psychologists undertake to locate various mental powers in the brain; and above all consider it as quite certain that the faculty of language resides in a certain lobe; but I believe it comes decidedly nearer the truth (though not really true) that language resides in the tongue. In my opinion, it is much more true that the thoughts of a living writer are in any printed copy of his book than that they are in his brain" (CP 7.364 [1902]).

    Here is another short piece that bears on this issue: "Immortality in the Light of Synechism"

  4. I think it's interesting to target group identity as a test case. That's how Parfit reaches his non-reductionist view, after all. However, Parfit and Peirce seem to disagree on what to do about discontinuity, as when a group is dissolved and then reformed. That leads me to question whether, in fact, it would make sense on Peirce's view to maintain my identity with a digital upload of "me," since there is the potential for a lengthy discontinuity during which my "self" is in storage.

  5. This is a debate in Peirce scholarship. I tend to fall on the greater continuity side, as it seems discontinuities (e.g., political revolution) are only possible within the context of 'larger' continuities (e.g., the Earth maintaining its axis). Otherwise, we return to skepticism. Two lines of inquiry come to mind: first, perhaps it would be more effective to focus on fallibilism, as "synechism [the doctrine of continuity] is fallibilism objectified;" and second, Peirce's comments on the <a href="; rel="nofollow">three kinds of evolution. So, how much of what kind of evolution would make someone more likely to be wrong about your digitial upload being you?

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