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Personal Identity & Time

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A Question of Identity

Bob Harrison questions his identity.

Hello, you, this is me – and that’s him. But what are you? And what am I? And what is he? Three questions, and in each case the answer is philosophically interesting. The interest turns on the further question: “What is a person?”

John Locke offers a suggestion:

“what person stands for... a thinking, intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places.” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

This is Locke’s famous theory that psychological continuity is the key to personal identity: the idea that if you can remember doing something, it was you who did it, and if you can’t remember doing it, it wasn’t you, but a different person. It wouldn’t be difficult to find a fair number of philosophers who would take Locke’s sixteenth century definition of ‘person’ either as the right answer, or at least a very useful starting point on a journey to such an answer. But what is the point of asking the question in the first place? What is the use of making, as Locke does, a distinction between a ‘man’ – the living, thinking body – and a ‘person’ – the living, but purely mental being?

Locke would answer this question by explaining that he was concerned with two questions. Firstly, just what would stand before God at the Great Judgment, and be recognised by the Almighty as me (or you, or anyone)? Would it be our bodies, our souls, or both? Secondly, on a more down-to-earth level, Locke wanted to answer an intriguing question about criminal responsibility. Suppose a man has committed a crime whilst drunk or undergoing temporary amnesia. Suppose also, that because of his mental state at the time of the offence, he genuinely cannot remotely remember a thing about it. Clearly on the evidence of witnesses – and perhaps he was caught in the act – it was his own body, the same man who now stands in the dock, who did it. But was it the same person? Should the present person be found guilty of the crime if the drunkenness or amnesia had so changed his psyche that, at the time, he ‘wasn’t his true self’? Can he rightly claim that at the time of the incident the occupant of his body was a different person altogether; or perhaps some fractured component of his own psyche that couldn’t rightly be described as ‘himself’?

Psychological continuity was, Locke claimed, the answer to the question. The accused, considered as a man, the physical being, is certainly guilty. His own hand struck the blow, his own voice had risen in anger. But if the person, the psychological being, cannot remember one atom of it, then he is not guilty.

But though Locke’s theory answered the question, it’s not certain that it solved the problem; for it raises a paradox that will try the wits of the jurists: the man in the dock may be guilty, but not the person in the man! And if the man is punished, he will experience the pain, but the wrong person will suffer it.

Interestingly though, although Locke claims that the drunk/amnesiac is not the guilty person, he agrees with the court in finding the accused guilty, but only because in the absence of any power to read the man’s mind they have no proof that he was as drunk, or is as forgetful, as he claims. He could, after all, be conning them.

But there is a further problem for this psychological continuity theory of personal identity. What are we to make of things we can’t remember, but, at least indirectly, we can be assured of them – that we could in principle remember them (because we did them)? Thomas Reid, taking issue with Locke a generation after him, insisted on making a distinction between the remembering of something and being the person who did it:

“It is not my remembering any action of mine that makes me to be the man who did it. This remembrance makes me to know assuredly that I did it; but I might have done it, though I did not remember it.”
Essays Concerning the Intellectual Powers

So Reid thinks that you can be the same person who did such-and-such twenty years ago, even though it has slipped your mind entirely. In fact he claims that Locke has involved himself in a contradiction. He gives an example – which has become something of a classic – in which he tries to point out the alleged contradiction in Locke’s theory (some think he succeeds, some don’t!).

Suppose a brave officer, flogged when a boy at school for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life. Suppose also – which must be admitted to be possible – that when he took the standard he was conscious of his having been flogged at school; and that when he was made a general he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness of his flogging.

Reid points out that “if there be any truth in logic” the general and the boy who was flogged are the same person. He expects Locke should see this as simple common sense. But, he points out, on Locke’s theory, the general is not the same person, because there is not the necessary psychological continuity. This, Reid claims, means that Locke must believe that the general both is and is not the same person as the boy.

Apart from this, Reid claims there is a manifest absurdity in the psychological account of personhood, for it claims that the person reduces to simply a succession of thoughts. For this ‘reductionism’ Reid has no time at all: “I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling: I am something that thinks, acts and [feels].” Fair enough. So “My thoughts, and actions and feelings, change every moment – they have no continued, but a successive existence; but that self or I, to which they belong, is permanent.”

Not that the story ends there, for if Reid has trounced Locke, David Hume too has dismissed Locke, together with Bishop George Berkeley. Hume said that if he looked into his own consciousness, he found not a soul nor a psychologically defined person, but only a bundle of sentiments, impressions, ideas – what we would today call mental states and events.

Reid, by the way, was no more awed by Hume than by Locke, and dismissed them both, along with Berkeley, because one thing Locke, Berkeley and Hume shared was what Reid called ‘the ideal system’. This was not to say that their system was ‘ideal’ in the sense of being perfect; but that it claimed our knowledge reached us through the intermediary of ‘ideas’, a sort of mental go-between, giving us information about the world outside ourselves. Reid thought that idea was an entirely superfluous concept which only complicated things, and claimed that they all needed a more ‘common sense’ approach.

Nor is this the end of the story, for a new development occurs in the twentieth century (new, that is to Western thought: it had been current for centuries in Eastern philosophy). In a clever book entitled Reasons and Persons, the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit takes a radically different view from Locke, Hume or Reid. Parfit’s ultimate concern is neither analytic nor metaphysical, but if I understand him aright, spiritual. Although his view follows Locke in defining the self in psychological terms, it diverges from Locke on the question of whether there is such a thing as a determinate self: a self which has something analogous to a beginning and an end in space, or whatever is equivalent to space in the mental world. A determinate self, A, is different from an adjacent (so to speak) determinate self B. That is to say, in some sense there is a point at which A ends and B begins, and vice versa. But for Parfit, (to a backing track of Buddhist temple bells) the idea of millions of wholly distinct psychologically-well-defined beings walking through life as if they are aware of, yet never touch each other, if true, is an admission of some kind of fallen state, although with no Adam or Eve, (but perhaps with some hope of an eventual Heaven/Nirvana).

Parfit’s vision of the present state of mankind is of beings walking in separate glass tunnels, ie seeing themselves as atomistic individuals. But they are not separate: they are part of a great continuous stream of consciousness, living in an illusion of distinctness. The meaning of Parfit’s glass tunnels is each man’s preoccupation with himself and his own interests as distinct from his part in the whole stream of consciousness – and not necessarily only human consciousness, but perhaps that of all sentient things (or even of all living things?). His solution to the metaphysical lone-ness and spiritual loneliness of this situation (what theologians sometimes call ‘alienation’) is to repudiate the glass tunnel by developing empathy with one’s fellows to such effect that the glass disappears and we perceive ourselves together as some kind of a continuous self, ie recognising ourselves, though formerly functioning as if we were atomistic individuals, to be in fact indeterminate: continuous with each other in a shared identity and interests. It seems Parfit has himself tried this, and finds it deeply satisfying.

All of this (Locke, Parfit, et al I mean) makes good reading, but are they, and we their readers, barking up the wrong tree? Is there after all any such thing as a person, a true self?

Suppose that there is no such thing as a self – that what we call ‘me’ or ‘you’ is just a label for a number of micro-electrical events in ‘our’ brains. It just might be that by imagining there is such a thing as a self we are multiplying entities without necessity; encumbering philosophy with excess baggage. What if the whole idea of a ‘self’ were only as meaningful as the notion of a ‘right’ speed limit? I was stopped one day in Cheshire for driving at thirty five miles an hour on a stretch of road where there was a thirty miles per hour speed limit. I got away with a lecturing, but the lecture was very thought-provoking. “Do you realise,” asked the policeman, “that if a child ran out of one of those garden gates into your path, they’d have no chance? You’d have their life on your hands.” I admitted that he was right (hypocritically, for I didn’t find his argument convincing). But when a week later I found that the council had since changed the limit to forty miles an hour, I was tempted to write jubilantly to the police and ask them what had happened to the vulnerability of children such that they were now able to run out safely in front of a thirty-five-miles-an-hour car, which I could now drive with impunity. One week the ‘right’ maximum speed was one thing; the next week another.

What is the ‘right’ closing hour for licensed premises; the ‘right’ minimum age for consensual sex? In each case, we have not discovered it. Instead we have adopted a convention. These conventions are agreed upon for good and useful reasons. But do they really identify some entity; some free-standing thing that would be there whether we recognised it or not? No.

Similarly, is Locke chasing after moonbeams? Parfit might think so: he himself is not chasing the moonbeam (if such it be) of a determinate individual self, but offering instead a quasi-Buddhist pointer toward a super-self, or Self. Locke’s reply could be that, if nothing else, the concept of ‘self’ is useful to us in framing and administering legislation (the drunken offender), while Parfit could justify his concept – the indeterminate Self – by appealing to the realm of spirituality (and breaking down the glass tunnel).

Just to finally complicate the problem, let me remind you of Katherine Power’s article about Professors Andy Clark and David Chalmers in Philosophy Now Issue 55, May/June, 2006. She tells us their story of Otto, a (fictional) man with a mild version of Alzheimer’s disease. Because he knows he is forgetful, Otto keeps a thick notebook, and in it he notes down things he thinks it important to remember. When he faces a particular situation in which his mind draws a blank he consults the notebook to make the right connections. Arguing for the concept of an extended mind, Clark suggests that the notebook is actually part of the man’s cognitive process, and thus part of the man. Terry Dartnall counters that if he digs his garden with a spade, that doesn’t mean that the spade is part of him, although it played an essential role in the digging. Clark, undeterred, mentions experiments in which it seems clear that Macaques (a genus of monkeys) use sticks as an extension of their arms, and do so in a way that seems to point to the sticks being part of the cognitive process.

This topic looks as though it will generate much lively discussion over the coming years, but don’t ask me who’ll win the debate. The question that interests me is: If it proves to be the case that we can use objects as extensions of our mind, where does that leave us with regard to the question of personal identity?

Answers on a postcard please.

© Bob Harrison 2007

Bob Harrison is a former minister, and is currently working on a book concerning the nature of God. He (Bob, not God) holds an M.A. and an M.Litt. from Edinburgh University, where he has taught for the past ten years.


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