Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Personal" Identity: They're Made of Meat?!

We have been focused on the following questions: (roughly) How many material things are there? How do they survive change (if in fact they do)?

This naturally raises other questions, closer to home; questions that are often grouped under the issue of personal identity: What am I? Am I material or not? Do I survive change? If so, how do I manage it?

Some have even been tempted by this question: What is it in virtue of which baby-me is identical to grown-up-me?

Fwiw, I'm rather impersonal about identity; I think it's just that binary relation, governed by Leibniz's Law, that everything bears to itself and never to anything else. But that's just me. And I'm a philosopher. And philosophers, on the whole, don't have an excellent track record in being right about things. So maybe I'm not right about that. But given that I think what I do about identity, I think at least the last question above is a bad question. Briefly, here's why. (This argument is due to Nathan Salmon, a keynote speaker at the most recent meeting for the Society for Exact Philosophy.) The last question asks what it is in virtue of which x at t = y at t*. So since identity is not temporally relative (on the simple view I stated), this question amounts to asking what it is in virtue of which x = y. Now if x is distinct from y, then there is nothing in virtue of which x = y. But if x = y, then the fact that x = y is the very same fact as the fact that x = x. So the question amounts to asking: What is it in virtue of which x = x? Less symbolically, what makes it the case that you are you (and not something else)? What has to be the case in order for you not to be Stephen Harper? What do you have to do to not be him? The only sensible answer I can discern is: Not Much. So I think the last question is not a good question.

The earlier ones are, however. But we are not specifically concerned with persons in this course. We deal with them if they are material, but we deal instead with their material bodies if they are not. Still, there are good questions of personal identity. And I'm willing to bet these questions have occurred to you and you are interested in their answers. See here for an accessible dialogue on what sorts of things we are. (It touches on a lot of issues we touch on, so it's good to check out regardless.) See here for a clever expression of amazement at the suggestion that we are material. (And for that matter, the sort of material we are, given that we are material!)

I'm happy to have an 'Are we souls or what?' free-for-all here, since we're not focusing on that in class. So: Are we souls, or what?

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