Monday 24 October 2016

Shapeshifters, Socks, and Personal Identity

Posted by Martin Cohen
Perhaps the proudest achievement of philosophy in the past thousand years is the discovery that each of us really does know that we exist. Descartes sort-of proved that with his famous saying:

"I think therefore I am."
Just unfortunate then, that there is a big question mark hanging over the word ‘I’ here – over the notion of what philosophers call ‘personal identity’. The practical reality is that neither you nor I are in fact one person but rather a stream of ever so slightly different people. Think back ten years – what did you have in common with that creature who borrowed your name back then? Not the same physical cells, certainly. They last only a few months at most. The same ideas and beliefs? But how many of us are stuck with the same ideas and beliefs over the long run? Thank goodness these too can change and shift.

In reality, we look, feel and most importantly think very differently at various points in our lives.

Such preoccupations go back a long, long way. In folk tales, for example, like those told by the Brothers Grimm, frogs become princes – or princesses! a noble daughter becomes an elegant, white deer, and a warrior hero becomes a kind of snake. In all such cases, the character of the original person is simply placed in the body of the animal, as though it were all as simple as a quick change of clothes.

Many philosophers, such as John Locke, who lived way back in the seventeenth century, have been fascinated by the idea of such ‘shapeshifting’, which they see as raising profound and subtle questions about personal identity. Locke himself tried to imagine what would happen if a prince woke up one morning to find himself in the body of a pauper – the kind of poor person he wouldn’t even notice if he rode past them in the street in his royal carriage!

As I explained in a book called Philosophy for Dummies – confusing many readers – Locke discusses the nature of identity. He uses some thought experiments too as part of this, but not, by the way (per multiple queries!) the sock example. He didn't literally wonder about how many repairs he could make to one of his socks before it somehow ceased to be the original sock. He talks, though about a prince and a cobbler and asks which ‘bit’ of a person defines them as that person?

In a chapter called ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ in the second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he distinguishes between collections of atoms that are unique, and something made up of the same atoms in different arrangements.

Living things, like people, for example, are given their particular identity not by their atoms (because each person's atoms change regularly, as we know) but rather are defined by the particular way that they are organised. The point argued for in his famous Prince and the Cobbler example is that if the spirit of the Prince can be imagined to be transferred to the body of the Cobbler, then the resulting person is ‘really’ the Prince.

Locke’s famous definition of what it means to be a ‘Person’ is:
‘A thinking intelligent being, that has reason, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking’
More recently, a university philosopher, Derek Parfit, has pondered a more modern–sounding story, all about doctors physically putting his brain into someone else's body, in such a way that all his memories, beliefs and personal habits were transferred intact. Indeed today, rather grisly proposals are being made for ‘transplants’ like this. But our interest is philosophy, and Derek’s fiendish touch is to ask what would happen if it turned out that only half a brain was enough to do this kind of ‘personality transfer’?

Why is that a fiendish question to ask? But if that were possible, potentially we could make two new Dereks out of the first one! Then how would anyone know who was the ‘real’ one?!

Okay, that's all very unlikely anyway. And yet there are real questions and plenty of grays surrounding personal identity. Today, people are undergoing operations to change their gender – transgender John becomes Jane – or do they? Chronically overweight people are struggling to ‘rediscover’ themselves as thin people – or are they a fat person whose digestion is artificially constrained? Obesity and gender dysporia alike raise profound philosophical, not merely medical questions.

On the larger scale, too, nations struggle to decide their identity - some insisting that it involves restricting certain ethnic groups, others that it rests on enforcing certain cultural practices. Yet the reality, as in the individual human body, is slow and continuous change. The perception of a fixed identity is misleading.

“You think you are, what you are not.” 

* The book is intended for introducing children to some of the big philosophical ideas. Copies can be obtained online here: 


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

There is a big philosophical assumption here, I think, and that is that identity is something self-contained or individuated. I would think rather that our identity is distributed, call it. We notice this when something happens to that distribution, for instance where a critical relationship is cut off through death or alienation.

Psychologically, there is something which puzzles me a great deal in my day job. As an example, I went to see a man whose dying words were, 'Please, ask them to forgive me!' His wife said, 'Who?' But it was too late. He identified therefore with what he was, yet was not now. This is common. What is going on here?

Unknown said...

A very interesting read, Martin. To me, there is a lot of truth in your finishing remarks:

"Yet the reality, as in the individual human body, is slow and continuous change. The perception of a fixed identity is misleading.“

Sartre criticized the "I" that Descartes posited and asserted that for the phenomenological field, it were not necessary – so, in his example, it would not be "*I* have consciousness of this chair" but "there *is* consciousness of this chair". The Cartesian certainty can be harnessed in a much more productive way if one focusses on the sphere of consciousness that appears – the phenomenal world is evident – and leaves the question about what "I" am to another discussion.

Personality is dynamic. From an existential(ist) point of view, again according to Sartre, clinging to a fixed set of traits and roles implies denying the openness to change, and eventually responsibility and freedom. Even if you claim to stick to your views and roles, that requires affirming them time and again, even if only implicitly so.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Yes, it was a very interesting read -- something I omitted to say myself.

You suggest I think, Christian, that it is not only we who change but our world (as it seems to us) that changes, and that would have major implications.

I felt some unease about Martin's optimism: 'Thank goodness these too can change and shift.' Yet on a scale of value, who is to say that we shift in this direction or that?

Keith said...

Locke’s definition of a person, which you quote, may or may not be sufficient. But let’s assume, momentarily, it’s spot-on. Would it be possible, eventually (perhaps aided by the processing heft of quantum computers or better), to create a hyper-capable ‘machine’, with no biology like a hot, squishy brain, that reaches a critical tipping point in consciousness? And thereby with bragging rights to full ‘personhood’—including, among much else, self-awareness and identity? Aware of its existence in place and time? Able to think, sense, experience, remember, learn, adapt, create, imagine, innovate, emote, express—and more? With a sense of destiny? With a sense of morality? That is, with ‘whole-brain’ capabilities? Without the need to upload human consciousness? With their own internal ‘metabolism’? Subject to the ‘continuous change’ you refer to? Capable of self-managed evolution (for self-optimization) and self-replication? Orders of magnitude beyond what Turing envisioned and wanted to test? Albeit not the sinister super-AI bogeyman that Stephen Hawking and others have dubbed an ‘existential risk’? Yet entirely meeting—and conceivably exceeding—Locke’s definition of a person? As well as fitting into Descartes’s iconic ‘I think, therefore I am’ proposition? Thank you, Martin, for a fascinating essay.

Unknown said...

I think, Thomas, that almost everyone wishes to have some continuity in his or her sets of attitudes, values etc.

However, I do believe that, with the ever-changing world around us, we have to reaffirm these values and attitudes if we still consider them appropriate.

Obviously, taken to the extreme, one might approach relativism, which (for example) Bernard Williams has shown to be untenable. As so often, it might be a question of degree.

Chengde Chen said...

“I think, therefore I am.”
What about “I don’t think, therefore…”?
…therefore I still am?
…therefore I am not?
…therefore I am not sure if I am?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

But now, Martin, mulling over your piece during the week, if there's not one bit of us left, can an exchange of all that we are, in principle be linked to our identity? The link seems to me to be accidental more than anything. Do you follow?

And Chengde, that's the best critique I ever read of Descartes. Did he ever define 'am'?

docmartincohen said...

Thank you everyone for these comments - it's really quite a senior seminar's worth of insights! I agree with the scepticism (I think I detect) in Christian and Chengde's and indeed Thomas' contributions. Consciousness, despite its grand role in philosophy, is by its very fundamentality also something shared by animals, plants... and rocks - and changes all the time.

Perhaps someone would like to continue the investigation with a related blog post sometime?! That would, I'm sure, be very welcome.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Maybe identity is self contained if one presumes that our body/volume is the only ‘container’ we have to perceive. With distribution Thomas, do you intend thoughts that creates the ‘container’ we could intend as a distribution of chains of thoughts, in which identity is one thought 'inside a container?’

What I understand from Martin’s writing is to raise a question about identity that has turned into such an important sign indeed to overrule a collection of thoughts. I.e. to give identity the same weight as the whole 'container’ obfuscates 'the container' as if that volume is just that given identity. In fact, we then might say: we are, what we are not. Neither the Prince nor the Cobbler is who he thinks even when they exchange bodies, they identify with one outcome in a chain of thoughts. Thus identity might equal the avoidance of other outcomes.

p.s. I am a bit behind, wrote this comment beforehand

Perig Gouanvic said...

Great idea –

Milo said...

i think this is great

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