Sunday, April 18, 2010

Does the "Personal Identity" Literature Beg the Question?

A standard line in "personal identity" goes like this: Suppose your mind were put into another person's body, and vice-versa? Which person would now be "you"? It's pretty reliable to assume that if one puts the issue that way to a philosophy class, most people will have the intuition that they follow their mind: that "they" will now be "in" the other person's body, and thus the person embodied by that body will now be "them." Thus theories of psychological continuity have been more popular than theories of physical continuity since the time of John Locke.

I suspect that this is all wrong or, like the man said, "not even wrong." That is, in order for supporters of a psychological continuity of personal identity to be wrong it would have to be possible (conceivable) for them to be right. But it's not. The whole discussion is question-begging. An argument is question-begging when there is a premise in the argument that could be questioned, but isn't. In this case, that premise is, "There is something that is 'mind' that can be distinguished from 'body.'"

If there was something that was "my mind" that could be distinguished from my body, then it would be possible to imagine my mind existing independently of my body. That is what I'm doing when I imagine my mind in another body (or in heaven, or just out of my body, or whatever). Now, it seems as if we can imagine such a circumstance: we have a rich tradition of fiction, for example, that imagines minds switched between bodies, or the souls of dead people haunting the present world, etc. So the tricky part of my claim is the argument that, while you may think that you can (obviously, unequivocally) imagine your mind existing without your body, that is an illusion: in fact you cannot do that. For that is my position.

Today I'm thinking that maybe some arguments about skepticism can be deployed here. Someone says that there is a real issue as to the existence of the external world, say. It might exist, or it might not. I don't think that this is a coherent question. My view is that I neither "know" nor do "not know" that the external world exists: it is a spurious application of the verb "to know" in either case. The "external world" is not something separable from my experience.

The argument that persuades me here is one common to Zen Buddhism and to Wittgenstein, although I think that it is also the view that emerges from a correct interpretation of David Hume. The key is to see that "the world" does not collapse into "the self" any more or less than the self collapses into the world (the common German, Kantian interpretation of this material - Buddhism, Wittgenstein - tends to miss this crucial point). My world is the world as it is constituted by my body. In the absence of my body, this world also is absent. To say that my mind might be in another body is equivalent to saying that my world might be experienced by another.

Well that's vaguer than I'd like, but on the right track. Notice that there's another route to go here: one might make arguments to the effect that there is no such thing as "mind" at all. I think that that is also a valid way to go, and brings the question-begging nature of the traditional personal identity literature into clear focus. If there is no such thing as mind then there is no question of an alternative between psychological and physical continuity. Physical continuity, in that case, is the only coherent option.


  1. Hi Anderson,

    My natural line of argument for this issue seems to follow with the last one you brought up. That is, deny that there is
    such a thing as the mind at all. Now I'm a bit of an extreme physicalist/sceptic/relativist. What I mean by that is I take what
    a seemingly naive undergrad physics student might take against western philosophy as a whole- we're just an amalgamation of atoms
    that vibrate in funny patterns. Just because these patterns (human being/mind/self) are a little bit more funny than say the funniness that holds together
    a star does not mean that the mind/self/etc should have any special moral or ontological standing.

    Of course this line of argument may result in a denial of the coherent existence of several branches of philosophy including ethics (and, consequentially, possibly all philosophy).

    I think particularly good philosophers (such as Dennett) have the above feeling in some form. However, none of them are quite prepared to follow it through the
    way I did because it might mean that we should at most be doing philosophy of science and leave all other philosophy to rot in incoherence and irrelevance.

    Your thoughts?


  2. I had typed a response but then I checked and noticed that you do not always respond.

  3. Hi Anderson,
    Apparently I am obsessed with an intuitive sense that Individuality actually exists... : ) But, not being an academic, I was always open to all kinds of ideas including astrology--what is it really and does it really have anything to do with Individuality? Well, after 35 years of head scratching, it seems to be a symbol set with Wittgenstein-ian "grammar" after all. Probably, as Kepler himself said, 98% of what is said on the subject is sheer foolishness. But he is also famous for the expression, " not throw the baby out with the bath water!"

    Frankly astrologers hate what I do to their fortune-telling pseudoscience in the way of reductionism, but the "language" of that art does seem to exist, and I have found that a proper perception of an individual's use of metaphor can render a transliteration from English to astrolog-ese (granted it has alot to do with what Pinker calls "mentalese" and Wittgenstein calls "
    forms of life." Thus, an hypothesis of where birth planets are located ( and relatively arranged) can be formed and these hypothetical positions tested against reality.

    To date, no one has shown any serious interest in this phenomenon, but to give you a feeling of how moving the experience has been for me, I like to point to the time that I 'translated' the unknown Unibomber's (Ted Kaczynski's) manifesto to hypothesize a likely birth date (May 22, 1942) and later found that my premise was indeed correct. So, though I am a poor reader, and not given to academics, I have this phenomenon, this Horoscopic Expressionism, to talk about if you should so desire. I am reading Wittgenstein at present, because of his appearance in the work of Steven Pinker, whom I read this Winter. This view of the role and proper place of language has been so encouraging for me. Though it sounds quite insane, I love the way I can see the art-based parallels between Wittgenstein's 'fly-bottle' and his natal chart (literally). This strange, seemingly improbable, symbolism that was intended to describe (at least in 'linguistic' terms), the way we may know one person from another, does seem quite unparalleled as an indicator of organization outside empirical detection. Art, the foundational quailty behind all representation, is present in the forms astrology uses...the "grammar" which yields semantic meaning is probably only incidentally involved in astrology, but It is there... :)


  4. Hello,

    I'd simply like to observe that there are arguments linking personal identity to psychological continuity that do NOT depend upon the sort of argument to which you object here.

    William James set out an important one in the tenth chapter of Principles of Psychology.

    1. We know our pulses of consciousness prior to materialistic theories about them.

    2. This is something that we discover about them phenomenologically (an anachronistic word, I admit), that as James wrote "each pulse of cognitive consciousness, each Thought, dies away and is replaced by another."

    3. This is another crucial fact -- a chain of title passes from one of these pulses to the next. Or, as James says, they end up having the same brand, like a herd of cattle. "It is this trick which the nascent thought has of immediately taking up the expiring thought and 'adopting' it, which is the foundation of the appropriation of most of the remoter constituents of the self."

    4. Once we accept this account, of self-branding thoughts of whom the most recent recognizes its predecessors, we find we have everything we need for personal identity.

    5. Also, seeing identity this way allows us to accomodate real-life pathological records of amnesia and the creation of a new life. These are not hypothetical but well documented, and we are not intuitively inclined to say that the later person is "the same as" the earlier, though there is bodily continuity.

  5. Steven Pinker gets my vote; "...the mind is what the brain *does*." And, along with Wittgenstein's, "...form is the potential for content.", my view of personal identity also rests on my intuitive notion that Individuality actually exists. Thus there are no generic thoughts to be "branded" ala Wm. James, the 'brand' (and the branding function) is ineffable and "it" pre-selects what will become representational thoughts of personal identity based on a binary possibility for the judgement--'like me, or unlike me'. Being (at least for humans) is by its very nature individual, the expression of this identity is apparently accomplished by the natal bias for what will become either "adopted" (/adapted), or artistically created, as needed in the ongoing moment to moment process of being a sustainable "I". Hitting this system with any kind of destruction of course probably alters existing potential capacities in unknowable ways, but surviving any partial destruction hardly seems likely to be a new beginning for the particular "it" that we each already are. The *similarities* between old and 'new' identity will probably just go unnoticed for the same reason they go unnoticed altogether in the first place, as far as I'm concerned. It is our poetic signature that is our soul print, and this is not a psychological, philosophical, or physical phenomenon....I think only Art is fundamental enough to work with the 'forms' which afford us a glimpse of the representational possibilities of Individuality. (And, no, I have no clue how to show the details of such an intuition.) ... :)


  6. This entry has inspired my to write two entries on my own blog on the same theme. I hope some of your readers will check them out.

  7. Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here.

    Odd thing about the self: if there is a self or watcher or some such (including a mind or body that watches) and this self is separate and exclusive from what it watches, the content, then there is no way to know the self or even to know if there is such a thing or not, and there is infinite regression and paradox.
    For if what appears, if what arises-- is content and not the self then whenever there is seen a self watching, this must be content and not the self. Therefore the self can never be known because whatever arises as self cannot be self but rather must be content. In other words, the self cannot appear--because if it did it would be content and not the self and therefore self can never be confirmed to exist, nor can it be known.
    In assuming there is a self that sees content and is separate from content and assuming the two are mutually exclusive, there comes the principle that there can be no knowledge of the self nor even knowledge whether there is such a thing. Paradox.
    Further, if there is a self that watches or sees what appears, then if it is seen that there is a self and there is content and they are separate and mutually exclusive, such thing that is seen must be content rather than the self and therefore we need another self to be seeing that there is self and content and subsequently another self to see that there is a self seeing that there is a self and content and so on ad infinitum.
    So, if there is concurrence that this is paradox and regression, and concurrence that any notion --self in this case-- is false, that can be seen as giving rise to paradox and to regression then perhaps there is no self at all---and so perhaps give up the notion of a self or at least not take it so seriously and centrally or materially or literally or something. Instead, we should just say that stuff shows up, appears, rather than saying stuff that shows up is watched by something or appears to something. Makes more sense and, to this writer, is more accurate and less messy. I think Ockham would support me in this.
    But as per Hume, our current habits of referring to a self and so on, will continue no doubt.
    But this perspective provides an antidote to making too central and serious some kind of self.
    But if no self, What then? Perhaps then only being, existence. Then that could be what we are---existance and all of it--the whole enchilada. The whole world--all that shows up-- is worn like a garment. At once, we are completely absent, gone, and yet completely here. For if you are no one particular thing what are you?
    You are that which is prior to particularity, prior to content as it were.
    All these notions!
    In any case, whatever the notion or representation or tale or scenario or fact or intuition or however it be described, however put---what seems the fundament of all to this writer, what is the case, what is inescapable actuality-- is that such things do arise: sense, thought, feeling and so on-- moment by moment, day by day. Stuff keeps arising, arising.
    What else is there; what else shows up? What else have we got?These are the world.
    And what seems the most important about this is not the content of what arises---but the arising itself.
    That's the two cents that arises in this moment!

  8. Would the Dennett/Pinker 'self' be the modular computational circuitry whose output is only sensed in the mind as a presence secondhand. Is the first notion we have of our own presence more in the form of "mentalese" i. e., the ineffable intuitive mind experiences (the outputs of the machine code, (whatever)? We translate these intuitions into images, thoughts, and eventually language? Would this biochemical self be subject to an infinite regress? It seems like a one way street, the brains machine code thus never being a presence in the mind--it creates the 'presence' to be sensed. Aren't reflections upon a self just the linguistic mind searching the patterns of the mentalese medium, not ever aware of the source code operations of the computational modules? I may not know of what I speak here, but that's what I have been imagining the situation of the 'self' to be. I also think that the individualism of the self lies in the particular variations (the noise in the generic structure perhaps) of the computational form of existence.
    Thus acquired social definitions for individuals only reflect the potentials of the original (computational output) 'self' *as adapted* to its thought/language environ. Thus no linguistically referenced self exists as a known or knowable specificity. My version of the self here would remain a constant whatever the case me be for what we call personality and so forth. The dialog between linguistic 'thought' and mentalese thought seems the literary arena where 'self' and world seem to be working out a relationship, and the mentalese is of course all that which is spoken of as the unconscious mind. Does not individual identity pre-exist all of the possibilities of self-expression, as in the case of one's fingerprints?


  9. I am grateful for the generous response to the post. I will stick to my original thought: to the extent that one (you, me) is an individual, this is a function of our individual bodies.
    Another point is that contra Pinker ("the mind is what the brain does"), I think that the "mind" is what the body does (not the brain). Stomachs don't have lunch, and brains don't think. Persons have lunch and think. Furthermore, so long as we think that brains think, we are obstructed from seeing what brains really do.

  10. The brain is a physical part of the body, but it's capable of constructing unreal worlds. People often confuse the unreal constructs of the mind as real, when they are imposed. Identity is a mutable, artificial construction of that mind. It may be grounded in a physical reality; I may be paraplegic or female or I may have dark skin, but those characteristics do not limit my mind from constructing a different reality.

    Of course, all of this is value-neutral. We praise a person who transcends their physical limits, but we laugh at people who live in a paranoid universe of sinister global conspiracies.

  11. Hi Anderson,

    You've raised some very interesting points here. Indeed, too many of the argumenets relating to the relationship between the mind and body tend to take a circular form. Monism/physical is the easy resolution to this, which is the core of your stance (correct me if I'm wrong). To me however, this denies the ermergent nature of the mind, and treats it as a mere automata. Consciousness, almost be definition, is an emergent entity - it cannot be understood from anything but a holistic viewpoint, which is very much what modern neurology and psychology seem to suggest.

    Of course, the dualistic view has own problems to, which you highlighted at the start of your article. I however prefer to resolve the issue in another way. To me, the mind is inextricably tied to the "hardware" of the brain, yet this does not mean the mind is nothing more than the brain. If we consider the simple thought-experiment of transposing the mind (or to be clear, the physical brain even) to another body, to me, the identity clearly follows the mind. More problems however arise when you consider the concept of a cloned body. (Ignoring the science, I think this is perfectly acceptable philosophically.) Hypothetically two identical bodies and brains may then exist at some point, from which they would consequently evolve and diverge. What then if the "original" mind has already ceased to exist by the time the cloned one comes into existance? Does that transfer the identity of the original person to the clone? While this can be resolve (superficially) by the physicalist's view, I am most inclined to accept that both identity and the mind cannot in general be distinctly laballed, but rather they exist in some level of hierarchy, which can branch and fork. In this sense, the mind is not indepndent from the body, yet nonetheless exists as some higher level.

    Sorry if this reply doesn't seem too cohesive, as I've written it in a bit of a rush, but hopefully it at least conveys the jist of my (alternative) viewpoint. I'd be curious as to your thoughts on it in relation to your own philosophy.

  12. Noldorin writes an admirably clear comment along the lines of some of the previous. I will paste some of it to start the next post.