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The American University in Cairo
Relative Identity
An answer to the Question
"In what, if anything, does personal identity consist?"

Presented to:
Dr. Lambert Vincent Stepanich

Presented by:
Moataz Mohammad Attallah

To know others is wisdom, to know oneself is enlightenment.
Tao Te Ching

The issue of Personal Identity, or what is unique about a certain person, has been one of the major topics in the history of philosophy. Discussions about the existence of personal identity and it components started a long time ago, around the time of the ancient philosophers until today. The issue has been tackled by many eminent philosophers, such as: Aristotle, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Locke, Hume, Butler, Kant, and, Parfit. However, no consensus has yet been reached among the different schools of philosophy concerning the definition, or even the existence of personal identity, and its components.

This is the beauty of philosophy; there are no limits for human creativity as long as logic is the sole judge for ideas.

"Wisdom begins in wonder."

For a start, a methodical orthodox discussion has to be analyzed at two levels of argumentation; first: whether or not personal identity exists, second: if it exists, what its components are. The two questions are totally inter-related. One can expect a definitive or perhaps answer for the first part. Some philosophers argue that personal identity does not exist, and they attribute this to certain reasons; specifically the discontinuity of memory and perception of the self. Others believe in its existence, and they explain on what level and how it exists. A third party is uncertain.

For the second part of the discussion, one should not expect the author to just say that personal identity is composed of X, Y, and Z. One should rather anticipate the author to confirm or deny the following components: first: the physiological or the bodily component, second: the consciousness component with all its relevant sub-units (memory and experience). Solving the logical conflict between these two components is a never-ending argument- especially because each component has its reasons for existence. In addition, the discussion about the components utilizes the so-called "Thought Experiments", which–in some cases—may be acceptable to logic, and in other cases, one finds them too far to be thought about; hence weakening the argument. In other words, the components' discussion has to be handled with great care to avoid the 'tricky' use of thought experiments.

Still, there is a possibility to reach logic conciliation. Modern schools of philosophy believe in the existence of personal identity. Long time ago, some philosophers did not accept this because they investigated the existence of certain aspects; hence reaching to their conclusion that personal identity does not exist. However, with the spread of Kant's philosophy, philosophers started to consider new aspects that lead to the growing belief in personal identity.

The next step was to question the components of personal identity. In spite of the strong belief in consciousness, a group of philosophers believe that the bodily component can also be considered as another component of personal identity. However, they candidly state that the consciousness is the dominant component. This sequence of thinking represents the halfway party that tries to convince both sides. It is gaining ground because it believes in a relative existence. What is attractive in this idea is that it goes with the existing scientific common sense; no absolute ideas—all relative, thanks to Albert Einstein.
The important thing is not to stop questioning."
Albert Einstein

The unquestionable philosophical beginning is to find precise terminology. In spite of the fact that preliminary definitions can easily lead to pre-suppositions, defining personal identity is critical to this debate, because it represents that major start point in this essay. Accordingly, to avoid semantic mistakes, a simple definition will be the origin.

Personal identity is alluded to using some common words in philosophy, such as: self, soul, ego, person, consciousness, personality, mind, body, identity, etc.. It is true that these words build up philosophical definitions. However, these trials would be similar to what the Arabian sarcastic saying calls: "Defining water as water!" This is because each one of the above terms requires a definition of its own.

Simply, personal identity is the characteristic of uniqueness of an individual, or what is so special or particular about him/her. The definition includes all the qualities that distinguish a certain person(ality) from another one. In other words, it apparently looks solidly connected with the component of "sameness" over time or "exactness" of the identity. In addition, it highlights the fact that the person is conscious of his/her being or identity, with certain qualities. Above all, the question whether time should be mentioned or not in the definition is another debatable issue.

Even the existence of personal identity, that may seem logic to any common person, was a controversial issue (and may be still is for some schools of philosophy), until Kant's ideas, with their appeal to the different schools appeared. Empiricist philosophers deeply questioned the existence of personal identity. The direction among empiricists is to believe that all knowledge is based on experience or impression, giving almost no room for a priori ideas.

In his article, David Hume, the Scottish empiricist philosopher, denied the existence of personal identity because there is no clear impression (experience) that seems to derive this idea (Solomon: 365). In fact, his opinion was an attack against personal identity. Hume argues that since the self is an idea, there must be an impression behind it. However, he debates that all the impressions, that people claim to be the source for our belief in personal identity, are spontaneous, variable and, interrupted, for example: during sleep, there are no perceptions of the surroundings. Hume also introduces an interesting point, which is the spatio-temporal continuity or resemblance over time.

He formulates the "equation" of his debate by saying: "I never can catch myself at any time without a perception." Finally, he concludes that the idea of the self is ". Simply a fiction." (Solomon: 365)
That latter argument about catching "myself" is contradictory, as Solomon believes. Solomon thinks that Hume could not deny that there is a self, though he pointed to a "self". He suggests that Hume did not look in the right place. Not only that, but as one questions perception, one discovers that perception is not absolute. Rather, it is relative, subjective, and limited. It is relative because it depends on a frame of reference that should be considered. In the case of personal identity, Hume tries to search for something on himself. It looks like one calculating his speed, with his body as the frame of reference. Accordingly, it yields zero; which was what Hume concluded. On the other side, when one tries to identify other's identity, one reaches to a certain profile. One can describe other as serious, hard-worker, funny, etc. In other words, one finds difficulty in describing oneself; perception seems to be outward directed—or relative with oneself being the frame of reference.

Another philosopher, Joseph Butler, believes that in spite of all the changes we go through, we still are the "same" in some respect. He confirms that we have an irresistible awareness of our own identity. Butler believes that personal identity is a quality, and not an abstract concept.

When discussing the issue of sameness over time, it is believed--scientifically speaking--that remaining without change is a universal impossibility. According to the second law of thermodynamics , any process that happens (I assume perception or experience can be considered as a process) increases the disorder of the universe. It is impossible to decrease the disorder of the universe. So, the possibility of "sameness is impossible." The famous law says that these continuous changes happen due to the so-called irreversibility of any process. For example, fuel burns, giving heat energy. However, you can not give heat energy to prepare back the fuel with the same steps. In our context, memory gains experience, but the experience can not be taken out from the memory. Yes, we can forget them; but forgetfulness does not mean that the experience was rejected to the surroundings. It means that the experience was lost somewhere inside--possibly because of a physiological problem.
Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.
Aldous Huxley

However, Hume is on the right track when he opposes other philosophers by saying that personal identity or the enduring self does not exist in self-consciousness (Solomon 369). This is because the enduring self is not an object of experience. In a clever scientific analogy, as if the self consciousness is like a narrow frame that you look inside for the object and you do not find it, though you feel its effect by a way or another. However, the object is in another larger frame, or what we can term a transcendental frame, maintaining its relativistic effect.

On the other side, the British philosopher Derek Parfit questions the continuity or the survival of the self. Parfit wonders about the actual source of the self, and whether it is the physical body or the psychological traits of the character. He concludes that there are no facts concerning the survival of the self. In his argument, Parfit uses a thought experiment about the so-called 'Tele-transportation' 1. He supposes, using this experiment, that if one rejects the concept of the preservation of an identity, one would find travelling by that way an ordinary thing. Thus, there is nothing to preserve- the point of being connected to a certain body or brain is irrational.

Parfit tackled the concept in the light of his thought experiment, though some might not find these experiments appealing. This is true since assuming these fictional events under the name of "conceptual possibility" is irrational. At the end of the 20th century, it is not easy to use a logic and scientific impossibility in our discussion. As the reader may have noticed, the author of this essay follows a scientific approach in answering the question. According to my knowledge, the current research in tele-transportation has reached to the possibility of transferring objects-things-by the way. However, when it was examined on living things, they reached to the other side dead. Reaching dead means that Parfit’s discussion will be of less importance to us, in comparison to Hume's argument concerning the same issue. In other words, all his analogy is not acceptable by any scientific means.

After discussing all these viewpoints it is time to know which party is on the right track.

As for Hume, one should say that giving a chance for perceived and non-perceived events to coexist is inevitable in our life. For example: it is true scientists can not perceive the electron by sight, but they perceived it by "reasoning" its existence by its mass, speed, charge and momentum. Even though they cannot exactly determine its position at any time, there is strong ground to believe in its existence because it is the widely acceptable explanation for many phenomena. In our adjunct, identity is the explanation why we distinguish people with certain characteristics. Same as the famous Freudian theory says, the effect of the consciousness with its components (Id, Ego, and Super Ego) can not be denied.
Based on this latter concept, Immanuel Kant formulates his strong belief in the existence of personal identity as the explanation for consciousness. It is the distinguished Kant who wrapped up all the ideas and reached to the conclusion that personal identity does exist.

As Solomon mentioned, the difference between Kant and Hume is that Hume searches for the self among our experiences. Not finding it, he claims that there is no self. On the other side, Kant agrees with Hume that the self is not to be found in self-consciousness. He says that Hume looked in the wrong place because the self is what ties together all our experiences. In other words, it is not the experiences, it is what Kant calls the "transcendental" thread that ties all our experiences. (Solomon: 370)

By transcendental, Kant means that the self is basic and vital. Basic means that it is a condition of the possibility of experience. Thus, the self is not the empirical self; it is rather transcendental. Besides, Kant believes that the self organizes its experiences inside the bundle. One of the characteristics of the soul is its ability to analyze the experiences together, followed by the subsequent formation of a unity of these experiences. In Kant's own words, he says that when one says: "I think." This means that thinking about the self is an indication for its existence- same as any other impression.

Kant argues that thinking about the self is actually an awareness of its existence and an undeniable evidence of the existence of the personal identity. This is because any impression requires thinking about the object being sensed. Therefore, the unity of the "I think" and the impression is that transcendental self. The self of "I" is then the necessary logical subject of any thought.

Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.
Mary Baker Eddy

Personal identity, thus, exists. Personal identity does exist according to Kant's explanation, not as an experience, but as the thread the holds the bundle of experiences. But, the debate about its components was even hotter.

Philosophers are biased to two components: bodily and consciousness components of personal identity. Few believe in the dualism of these two components. Others believe in the existence of other components. Not only that, some philosophers questioned the criterion of "sameness" of the personal identity.

John Locke argues that self-consciousness is the key to self-identity. In spite of the changes we pass by, either physically or mentally, memory and consciousness are the factors that characterize personal identity. The Lockean idea is sometimes referred to as the Lockean circle; because it pushes us towards a definition of personal identity that says: "A is the same persona as B if and only if A (can) remember(s) what B did." Locke admits that memory is interrupted by forgetfulness, and that one's memory does not contain all the actions. In addition, there are moments we come across, which we do not remember (Solomon: 361). However, he weakly defends his argument by saying that: ".... It concerns not personal identity." (Solomon: 361)

On the other sides, when Locke comes to question the bodily component of the personal identity, he –all of a sudden—concludes that personal identity survives despite the change in the substance. He believes that the personal identity is preserved as long as the consciousness is preserved. However, he concludes that the continuity of the body is not a component of personal identity.

The Lockean circle does not reach an end. The point that we forget much of our experiences was not strongly defended by Locke. In addition, even our memories are not accurate. We will claim that the memory is relative! This is because our memories are just interpretations for what we perceive. For example, one might consider himself guilty in a situation, though others might not. In brief, we do not have genuine memories; it is apparent memories. (Solomon: 365)

Another philosopher, Meredith Michaels, uses a group of thought experiments to give an indication of the importance of the body as a component in establishing personal identity. Michaels uses brain transplants and other ideas to first push the reader towards hesitation about the components of personal identity, then she uses another experiment to show that the body represents a component of personal identity.

Both parties try to give an account for what it believes concerning the components. But, where is the truth?

In all things it is a good idea to hang a question mark now and then  on the things we have taken for granted
Bertrand Russell

As it was mentioned earlier, in modern philosophy, philosophers believe in some notion of memory and self-consciousness that was indicated by Locke. Some believe in some psychological continuity. However, another idea that sounds logical and needs to be questioned. This is the belief in the relative existence of both the consciousness and bodily components as a unique characteristic of the self.
Perhaps why the consciousness is a component of personal identity is-now-acceptable based on Kant's argument. Discussing the body component and if it distinguishes the identity starts at genetics. There is an agreement that the human body has its own genetic code that does not change. But, this genetic code is built-inside the body, to an extent that our perception do not perceive it. Thus, relative to the consciousness, it exists but on a lower extent.
People are DNA's way of Perpetuating itself.
Unknown Geneticist

The second argument is built in what I term applied philosophy, which is psychology. The question is in what sense are the consciousness and the body related. The answer comes from the existing facts about the consciousness being the reason for some of the physiological disturbances. This is the psychological-bodily unity, or the psychosomatic unity.

The idea of the psychosomatic unity means that both the body and psyche are inter-connected and they mutually affect each other. This is a direct outcome of new methods of psychoanalysis, notably hypnotherapy. Hypnosis finds that the origin of our physical disturbances, such as: tendency to suicide, pessimism, depression, and schizophrenia, started at the memory--and again memory is linked to the consciousness.

Science proved that the personality (equivalent to personal identity in our context) is made up of both of these two components. In fact, the distinction between them as two unique components is even unacceptable. It is rather one unit. Not only that, the concept of the psychosomatic unity tackles the issue of forgetfulness that was taken as a shortcoming of Locke's argument of personal identity. This is because this unity includes some parts that we can not perceive, yet the strongly affect our behavior.
One more thing remains, which is to know which one of these components is the big master. There is a tendency of reason to believe that the consciousness component is the stronger because it can induce whatever effect it wants on the somatic component, without being easily identified as the cause for it. In spite of the fact that people easily perceive the outer cover of the personal identity easily, its internal core is the skeleton that holds it.

But, we did not question the importance of knowing where our identity is. The issue of personal identity is a critical for us when we want to judge others. In addition, it represents a quest for our origin--as human beings.

Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.
Jean-Paul Sartre

And I believe in this.


Butler, Joseph. The Self as a Primitive Concept.

Hume, David. There is no Self.

Locke, John. On Personal Identity.

Kant, Immanuel. On the Original Synthetic Unity of Appreciation.

Michaels, Meredith. Personal Identity.

Parfit, Derek. Liberation from the Self.

Solomon, Robert C. Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings. 6th Ed.

Very special thanks to Alia'a Hamed for editing this paper.