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Theories of Personal Identity: Discursive Essay

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In this paper, I shall attempt to discuss personal identity and the different theories of personal identity. I shall make the particular case of the Cartesian theory, and provide a refutation against the soul theory, and a counter-refutation to the same from Indian philosophical thought.

Personal identity theory is a philosophical investigation into the concept of self. Decoding the problem of personal identity means exploring the concept of the persistence of “entities”. Truthmaker theory establishes a link between the truth and what there is. To decipher personal identity is to identify the truth-makers of statements about personal identity – how do we know the true value of the statement that a person A at time t1and a person B at time t2 are the same? (Cameron, 2008).

The persistence question deals with personal identity across the span of time and attempts to answer important questions about the conditions of survival or mortality. Philosophers explore two aspects of personal identity – the epistemological question of necessary and sufficient conditions for a person P2 at a time, t2 to be the same person as a person P1 at an earlier time t1 (Locke, 1700/1975) and, what evidence of observation and experience can support this surmise (e.g. Shoemaker 1970).

Western philosophy has approached the question “What is the self?” in many ways. The most obvious theory of personal identity is the body theory. A is the same person as B if B’s body is the same body as A’s body. It is in line with Aristotle’s general account of the identity of substances. For Aristotle, the essential properties would include not merely shape and physiological properties, but a manner of behaving and the ability for thought and feel. (Graham, 1987).

Another widely discussed view is the memory theory of personal identity, made popular by John Locke. In this view, a person can think reflectively and think of himself as persisting over time. He is accountable for his actions, as he can think for himself over time and can anticipate future punishment or reward. (Locke, 1700/1975). The ‘memory theory of personal identity” treats the connection between consciousness and memory as central to personal identity.

Major objections arose to the memory theory, arising from the possibility of duplication and that memory claims that “cannot be checked are plausible, provide explanations of unexplained facts, and so on” (Williams, 1973). Contemporary philosophers tend to focus on the brain, as it takes into account the insight of memory-and-character, while still being the part of the body that constitutes the continuity of the identity. The brain theory, however, faces the same obstacle of duplication as the memory theory.

Derek Parfit advocated one way out of this duplication problem through the complex theory in which he outlined the logical possibility, of in-between cases of persons who are to some extent the same as; and to some extent different, from original persons. (Parfit, 1971). An alternative way out of the duplication problem is to say that personal identity is distinct from both memory and brain continuity, but both provide evidence of the identity.

This leads back to what is known as the Simple view propounded by Plato, Descartes and a host of religions, that persons are “immaterial souls or pure egos” (Corcoran, 2001). The soul theory treats the body as contingent, as souls can live after bodies cease to exist. While the soul theory may be passé in Western philosophical thought, it has numerous proponents such as Plato, Descartes, Thomas Reid (1785/1969) and Swinburne (1984, 2013). The Cartesian theory assumes a mental subject is a non-physical entity that is distinct from a human body, and any part thereof. Cartesian dualism is the view that personal identity consists of two parts – a material part, the body; and an immaterial part, the soul. The soul provides the answer to the persistent question of personal identity, and while it is connected to the body, it can be delinked and reconnected to a new body.

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“We may say that there is stuff of another kind, immaterial stuff, and that persons are made of both normal bodily matter and of this immaterial stuff but that it is the continuity of the latter which provides that continuity of stuff which is necessary for the identity of the person over time” (Swinburne 1984, p. 27).

Refutation of the Soul Theory

The dilemma with the soul theory comes from the question of whether souls remain the same. Either souls change over time or they do not. If souls change over time, the problem is analogous to the problem of personal identity (Berger,2017).

Hume presents some arguments against the persistence of the soul in The Treatise. If sensations can exist in isolation, there is no need for the self, as mental states must inhere in the soul. In his view, as impressions are transient, it is impossible to have a persistent self. Since sensations can themselves be independent of anything else, it does not require a soul, in which they reside. A soul is supposed to be something permanent. However, since mental states change constantly, there cannot be a concept of an enduring soul (Bettcher, 2009).

Swinburne argues that souls are essential parts of human beings, however, he argues against souls being individuated by their mental properties. Souls can change their lose mental properties, however, the underlying soul substances are themselves indivisible and unchanging. (Graham, 1987)

If souls have to change mental states and intentions, then a soul S1 at time t1 need not have the same mental properties at a later time t2. If souls can have distinct sets of mental properties over time, then the soul theory faces the same challenges as the body theory of personal identity. Consider Locke’s thought experiment (1690/1975) that involves the prince and the cobbler. If the minds of the cobbler and the prince are interchanged, the cobbler inhabits the prince’s body. If one could alter the mental states of souls suddenly, and if the soul of Gandhi bearing a set of mental states M1 became the soul of Hitler bearing a set of mental states M2 at time t1 would Gandhi continue to exist at t2 as it has the psychological profile of Hitler, or is Gandhi Hitler at t2? (Berger, 2017). By Swinburne’s argument, the soul of Gandhi would remain the soul of Gandhi, despite taking on psychological features of the soul of Hitler, because its unchanging substance persists.

On the other hand, if the souls are not individuated by their psychological properties, then it is unclear how to answer the question of whether or not souls persist, and more importantly, why does the underlying soul substance persist? If souls are individuated by their mental states, then it is similar to the psychological-continuity-based view defended by Locke. This kind of soul theory faces the fission problem (Parfit 1971; Lewis 1976). Or what happens when the souls S1 at t1, splits at t2 into two psychologically equivalent individuals S3 and S4? Whom is S1 identical with in this case? Likewise, if a soul S1 at t1 could “fissure” into two psychologically equivalent souls S3 and S4- which of them is identical with S1? Changing souls do not resolve the issue of diachronic soul identity and hence, cannot solve the personal identity issue (Berger, 2017).

Counter refutation of refutation to soul theory

The question of personal identity makes sense only within a subjective context. (Correia,2009). Western philosophy approaches issues of identity from the outside in; from the metaphysical to the epistemological. Personal identity is a central theme in classical Indian thought. The defining characteristic of classical Indian philosophy consists in the elucidation of a concept designated by “âtman”. References to the word ‘Ātman’ are found in the Rig Veda. It is also a central idea in the Upanishads and is explained as an all-pervading organism in which other elements are united and it has the ability to perceive feelings (Easwaran, 2007).

Buddhist philosophy inquires into the nature of self and outlines that the experience of the Self is given in the existence of a personality(skandhas) comprising five attributes, namely, form (rûpa), sensations (vedanâ), perceptions (saññâ), emotions (sankhâra) and consciousness (viññâna). Vasubandhu presumes that the external world can only be comprehended through the five external senses and that a pudgala is part of the external world. (Tuske, 2017). Since only the aggregates are perceived, the self does not have an existence over and above the aggregates, affirming that the skandas are real, while the self is unreal.

In conclusion, all theories of personal identity come with their own challenges. Western philosophical thought has always approached issues from a metaphysical perspective and tried to examine things as substances, whereas Indian philosophical thought has approached things from the perspective of cognition. This creates remarkable differences in the study of the issue of personal identity, and I personally subscribe to the soul theory because of its close interlinkages to my Vedic upbringing and belief in karma and reincarnation.


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