PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, September 05, 2014

from Lawrence, SATURDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Is personal identity a myth? + News

Dear Friends,

I hope you had a good holiday-August and recovered from your holidays.

Our subject for this SATURDAY meeting is: Is personal identity a myth?

This is quite an apt topic for us since our sojourn in August should
have refreshed us and charged our batteries for the next push in life.
And we have no doubt that the person who left for holidays is still the
person who came back. But why should that be? This is the topic for
Saturday (6:30pm). In the meantime Ruel has sent us a link to his essay
and I have written a few ideas on the topic as well.

Hello Lawrence,
Here is the link to the essay I wrote on the topic for Saturday's
Thank you and see you on Saturday.
All the best,

Last Sunday we also agreed that I should post the topic on the blog as
soon as possible after the meeting. So theoretically I will try to post
the topic on the blog <> on my way
home from the meeting! Incidentally I will also post any news on the
blog as soon as I receive it.

Finally David has sent us detail of the English-speaking community's
Summer Fete next week

From David---
Summer Fete - 11 de septiembre 2014 a partir de las 19,00 horas
English-speaking community in Madrid and "Friends of the British Cemetery"

Lawrence - Is personal identity a myth?

The traditional question of personal identity is usually discussed as a
disparate collection of issues that by their very nature seem to compete
for prominence rather than to offer reasonable understanding of personal
identity and the relevant philosophical questions. Maybe the most
important of these questions is: how does our identity persist over
time? How can our identity remain the same when we obviously change?

A detailed discussion on the topic can be found at the Standford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy here: Olson, Eric T., "Personal Identity",
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N.
Zalta (ed.), URL =
It is not my intention to discuss this article, but maybe to clarify
some issues as I write.

Olsen does try to clarify the persistent question which we can sum up as
a question of "numerical" identity rather than qualitative identity.
Roughly this persistence question is that our attributes (body, desires,
likes, thinking beliefs) when we were young are different from those of
today, but something is consistent throughout this time that means that
there has been only one of us all along. Just because we are different
now from the time when we were very young, it does not mean that there
are two of us; the issue is one of numerical identity. Olsen gives as an
example twins, although we cannot distinguish one twin from the other
qualitatively we might say they are the same, but they are not
numerically identical. Twin A is not identical to Twin B and therefore
we can safely conclude that both have different and independent personal

Some might bring up the matter of cloning, while this might sound
promising to show that personal identity is a myth I am inclined to
argue that cloning does not violate the numerical identity test on the
grounds that it is the DNA (blue print) that similar (qualitative) in a
clone but the cells are neither the same (numerical) nor the organs are
numerically the same in the clone as in the parent.

Of course, in real life we do not have any problems attributing identity
to the same person consistently over time. Sometimes, when we do not see
a particular person over a period of time we might even find it
difficult to identify that person, but when we do identify them we have
no real problem to link their past with what we see now. Sure we will be
interested in finding out what happened to them, how they changed and
why they changed, but that does not mean that they now have a different
personal identity. Maybe we can say thay have a different personality
but that is not the same as personal identity.

Another way to address the personal identity question is to appeal to
memory and our psychological state. But of course, in and of itself,
memory is not usually regarded as the person; if you like memory is a
"back office" function of the person. Furthermore, we do not always
remember every single event in our life and in many cases we wonder what
kind of memory we have say for the first 10 months of our life. So we
are reduced to asking ourselves: how much memory do we need to form a
personal identity and what type of memory do we need to really make up
someone's personal identity? How many lunches and dinners do I have to
remember before I can claim to have a personal identity? And then there
is the minor question of what is happening when we come across a memory
loss: has the memory itself disappeared or has the mechanism to access
that memory that is not functioning? Hence, it is be very difficult to
pin personal identity on memory, partly because memory does not play a
direct role in personal identity.

Some observers are also reluctant to simply appeal to the existence of
our body. Of course, bodies change over time, and biological processes
are constantly changing cells in our bodies, but we also do not want to
introduce the Ship of Theseus paradox here. No doubt our body does play
a role in personal identity but like the other characteristics, it is
not the sole condition.

One of the flaws of the personal identity problem is that we seem to be
looking for a single linear causal explanation for this quality we call
identity that is part of a person. But the implication of this, as I
said at the beginning, is that theories are competing with each other
rather than providing evidence for the concept of personal identity.
This is not to say that the separate debates are not useful nor
necessary, they are, but that they are different problem not necessarily
personal identity. For example, memory is important when we try to
understand witnesses of past events, and maybe psychological change
might help understand guild and forgiveness.

Why would such a seemingly important issue, as personal identity, in the
history of thinking be so confused and confounded? After all, these past
few thousand years, anybody who was anyone in philosophy had something
to say about personal identity.

My inclination is to argue that both person (personal) and identity are
linguistic concepts and do not refer to any independent physical
phenomenon. Thus we have created this linguistic concept so that we can
conveniently and consistently refer to a person even though they change
and have changed over time.

A second feature of personal identity is that it is not that this is
something useful for us as individuals; we don't need to know who we are
since we already know that, and if we are in a coma the issue is
irrelevant from our personal perspective. However, is does matter to
have an established personal identity for the benefit and use by other
people. People need to know who we are even if we change appearances and
beliefs. They will, of course, have to make adjustments to their
person-recognition-mechanism we all have in our brain to accommodate
this new information. This is why we do not abandon people who are in a
coma or suffer from severe Alzheimer disease; we have no problem knowing
who they are even if they don't.

On the one hand personal identity is not a myth because it is a
necessary linguistic tool, we use it for public communication amongst
ourselves, and especially as I have argued, for others to identify who
we are over time. Thus personal identity is as much a construct of our
own creation as it is a body of information created by others about us.
But by moving the goal post from a metaphysical discussion to a language
issue it does not mean that the metaphysical discussion is redundant as
I have already argued above.

The persistence problem highlights the need to be more careful with the
development of technologies that might lead to misleading beliefs or
events; as I argued cloning does not create a numerically identical
person (or animal), but basically it creates a kind of pseudo form of a
twin. Hence, personal identity cannot be replicated at the DNA level. No
doubt scientists are not fooled with this language acrobatics, but the
average passenger on the Clapham omnibus might well be fooled and might
well be motivated to pay thousands of Euros/Pounds to clone a dead pet
thinking they are getting the same mutt they loved in the past.

Of course, our DNA must play a role in creating our personal identity,
but it is only a necessary condition, but not the only condition: not
only our DNA is not us, since we are also a function of our environment.
And if we want to complicate the issue even further there is a third
tier beyond the DNA and that is the atomic structure at the quantum
level of the whole body. But, maybe, this is going a bit too far.

By hypothesising that personal identity is a linguistic tool we use in
our public communication we also do not need to invoke some magical
powers such as the soul or the mind body problem to explain what is
going on. Theoretically, with the language tool argument we can create a
causal mathematical model not only of our brain and body functions to
account for personal identity but moreover, we can also create a
mathematical model for the efficiency (causal effect) and function of
the language itself. Thus by clearly keeping personal identity well
grounded in the empirical world and not project any magical properties
to it, we can try to understand it with the trusted tools and methods we
can understand other aspects of the world around us. Whether this can be
achieved before we are swallowed up by the black hole at the centre of
the galaxy is a different matter.

From my perspective, personal identity is not a myth, but it is neither
a magical structure, but simply language at work.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every Thursday from 19:30 to 21h at
Irish Pub, c/ Barcel├│ 1 (metro Tribunal)

from Lawrence, SATURDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Is personal identity a
myth? + News

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