Arepo wrote:By the way, since you're preparing a paper on it, would you care to elaborate on what you mean by 'personal identity doesn't exist', so I can see if we agree as much as I suspect we do?
You have done me a favour by asking that question, since it obliges me to start putting to words what I have in mind, and that is an excellent thing for me.
The difficulty is in explaining what that thing that I say doesn't exist — personal identity — is, that is what it is in the minds of those who believe in it. And actually, almost everyone believes in it, or at least acts, and emotionally reacts, as if ey believed in it.
I obviously do not deny that there is a strong connection between the mind that occurs in the body that is typing this text right now, and the mind that will occur in the body commonly identified as “mine” tomorrow morning. There is a strong causal
connection, for instance in the production tomorrow morning of memories in that mind of what “I” am doing right now. What I believe, to borrow Parfit's expression, is that there is no further fact
in that relation.
Sentience — the fact that there are sensations, emotions and so on — is I believe something that we cannot currently explain. Others believe it is within the scope of current science. But either way, sentience is just that: feelings — sentiency events
— that occur in certain physical bodies at specific times. There is nothing in a sentiency event that implies a further object, an I
, to which it should be ascribed. Such an I
is an imaginary further fact, one we have no reason to believe in.
A few examples of this belief in personal identity that I am criticizing.
The first is from a short science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon that I have read recently, called It Opens the Sky
. The passage below is about a planet, Grebd, that offers its services to people who have commited some crime and wish to escape from the autorities:
Sturgeon wrote:Grebd was the name of a sun, a planet and a city in the Coalsack matrix, where certain of the inhabitants had developed a method of pseudosurgery unthinkably far in advance of anything in the known cosmos. They could take virtually any living thing and change it as drastically as it wanted to be changed, even from carbon-base to boron-chain, or as subtly as it might want, like an alteration of all detectible brainwave characteristics or retinal patterns, or even a new nose. They could graft (or grow?) most of a whole man from a tattered lump, providing it lived. Most important, they could make these alterations, however drastic, and (if requested) leave the conscious mind intact.
What is meant here by “leaving the conscious mind intact”? A fugitive wants to escape future identification by changing physically as completely as possible; but still wants the future entity to be him
. He doesn't just want there to be some future being with sentiency events occuring in it; he wants those sentiency events to be his
. The fact that the physical change may even involve replacing each and every molecule in his body (“from carbon-base to boron-chain” (whatever that
)), while leaving intact that object that is “him”, illustrates the non-physicality of that notion of personal identity. And the fact that this passage is so readily understood by the reader shows that we do
generally believe that such an idea of personal identity makes sense.
The fugitive who goes to Grebd wouldn't be satisfied just to know that the future “boron-chain” entity will be made to remember the experiences that he is having. He wants the mind of the future entity to be his
mind. If it wasn't his mind, but another mind, he wouldn't even believe that those memories are real memories, however undistinguishable they might be, from the point of view of that entity, from real memories. This shows that the notion of personal identity does not coincide with the existence of psychological continuities such as memory. It is seen as a further fact, something that does or does not hold, independently of such continuities.
That can also be seen through the idea of reincarnation. Some people who believe in reincarnation think that we keep, perhaps deeply embedded in our subconscious, memories of our past lives. But those memories are tenuous at best; and no doubt some believe in totally amnesic reincarnation, that is without any memory at all of our past. They believe that it is a fact that some future person is, or is not, the same as some past person, even in the absence of any physical or psychological continuities.
Instead of reincarnating, a lot of people believe that their souls will go to heaven or hell. In some forms of Catholic belief, particularly it seems in that of John Paul 2, the soul is seen as quite distinct from any stream of consciousness, that is of sentinecy events. It is seen as existing before sentiency appears at all; that is the justification of the opposition to abortion. The “human person” exists from conception, even if it is not, and has never been in its past, sentient.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a fine expression
of the idea of personal identity:
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2159 wrote:The name one receives is a name for eternity. In the kingdom, the mysterious and unique character of each person marked with God's name will shine forth in splendor. "To him who conquers . . . I will give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it."
That's it: something mysterious and unique, that, like a stone, cannot be divided or fused with other entities of the same kind. I believe that Christian doctrine has in great part imprisoned us mentally in what Parfit calls a “tunnel”: the belief that there is something supremely particular in our relation to our future sentiency events, a relationship uncomparable to that between sentiency events in different persons.
Now it's getting very late in my timezone, so I'll stop here, and not go into the consequences I think the rejection of the concept of personal identity has for ethics — I mean, relatively to the fact that we seem to think it obvious that we should care for what happens to “us” tomorrow, but not at all obvious that we should care about what happens to “others”. I hope what I have written above is not too unclear, enough for you to recognize if it is indeed what you yourself believe on the matter.