Dr. Lambert Vincent Stepanich
Moataz Mohammad Attallah
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.