Personal Identity

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I would consider it quite a trivial matter if I were asked: who are you? I could of course answer the question without hesitation in elaborate ways, drawing elegant facts and examples from my experiences, hobbies, alignments, et cetera. I can do this, because I am the sole expert who has constant and instantaneous access to the library that is my endeavors in this world. But this response does not fundamentally answer who I am, merely give examples of what I could be (e.g. I am a member of the Homo sapiens species; I am Canadian). What is my true identity, which separates me from all others who also inhabit this world? A more precise question is how my self – whatever it is – is maintained across time: that I have some identity “A” at one instant in time does not automatically entail my being “A” at another. Therefore, it seems that to define my identity, I must first ascertain that I have a temporally continuous individuality. The appearance of simplicity clearly does not do justice to the reality of the question.

This matter of personal identity is of profound relevance to human interests. Knowing who one is and who other people are, distinctively and without doubt, is the fundamental basis upon which many further philosophical questions are built. Many such issues – for example, our relationships with God, free will, objective morality; our attitudes towards danger, life, death – are argued for with the unanimous assumption that the agents in question are each single, individual identities that do not change into another across space or time. For how can we hold a person accountable for an immoral action, when it cannot be made sure that he who performed the action is the same as the one being prosecuted? This is simply a matter of good argumentation that we perform thought experiments as a scientist conducts his investigations: that there be some independent variables (e.g. conditions a person is subject to) which dictate some dependent variables (e.g. decisions/actions of that person), while all else is held as controls (e.g. identity of that person across space and time) to eliminate incorrect interpretations of experimental results. It is therefore of utmost importance to define personal identity. To begin, it is evident that there exists some unique labeling component for each person, the existence of which separates different persons in space and the temporal continuity of which maintains his identity over time. Note that here, temporal continuity is defined as some X at an arbitrary time t = 0 being the same thing as some Y at t = z (z > 0), if and only if (abbreviated “iff”) Y = X + the sum of changes that occurred to X during the time interval [0, z]. Therefore, persons X and Y need not be numerically identical (i.e. one and the same) to have the same identity; they merely need to be related by a series of changes across time. This should be quite obvious. In analogy, consider the case in which one thinks he owns a new computer every time he applies new software to the system: this is absurd! While the computers are not exactly identical, they are the same by relation of continuous changes. Per contra, if one indeed purchases a new computer, then even if it is an exact copy of the old one, he cannot say they are the same: the old model plus its changes across time have no relation to the existence of the new one.

Philosophers tackling the problem of identity typically agree on the existence and temporal continuity of this identification element. Its definition, however, sparks the body, soul, and psychological views, in which theorists of each faction contend for the prevalence of a physical manifestation, an immaterial spirit, or a psychology as the unit of identity, the existence and temporal continuity of which defines personhood. Each theory has its own pros and cons, and it has been traditionally argued that a person must be defined by only one of the three components; but is it really impossible...
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