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On Personal Identity

Author: Ontlogicalamity
ASL Info:    33/M/NY
Elite Ratio:    4.67 - 190 /194 /45
Words: 2316
Class/Type: Prose /Misc
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This is a philosophy paper for a class. Critiques are welcome. It isn't _that_ long, even though it looks it. And I like the first half a lot better than the second. Let me know what you think. Or what it makes you think about.

On Personal Identity

“Dagonnit, I done shot mahself in the foot!” It is not uncommon to hear this kind of exclamation from someone who has just, indeed, shot his or her self in the foot. Actually, this phenomenon is fairly universal throughout the human species. Not the bullets going through feet, of course, but the identification of a personal self, separate from the rest of the world. All humans have a sense of self, but no one is quite certain of exactly what that self is. Philosophers have grappled with this problem for hundreds of years, at first only by way of thought experiments, but more recently various fields of science have shed some interesting light on the issue.

The problem of Personal Identity can be broken down into two parts. See if you can guess what they are. Give up? Personal and Identity. “Personal” describes what we are trying to identify: a Person. Therefore it would be beneficial to examine Identity first. Traditionally there have always been two kinds of Identity. The first, and by far the easiest, of the two is Qualitative Identity. This is your “one of these things is not like the other” approach. This letter “S” is qualitatively identical to that letter “S.” They are both about 3 millimeters high and 2 millimeters wide, both sort of bendy, both black, and both make us think of the “S” sound. But it should be obvious that the first “S” and the second “S” are in different places, so they can’t be the same one. There are two “S’s.” Actually, now there are quite a few more. Which leads us to the second and more difficult concept of Quantitative identity.

Each letter “S” printed in this entire paper is qualitatively identical to every other letter “S” in this paper. But quantitatively, each “S” is separate and self-contained, which is why we can count them up. But how exactly do we make that distinction? Visually it appears that each “S” has a defined boundary, sealing it off from the rest of the page. On close inspection, though, we find that this boundary, presumably made of the division between where there is ink, and where there is no ink, is somewhat illusory. There is a gradient on the page where the ink fades into it. There are tiny speckles where the vibrations of the printer caused ink to spray haphazardly onto the page. What if you spilled coffee on the page and the ink from some surrounding letters ran into the “S?” Then where would the boundary lie? Would the “S” be destroyed? These questions illustrate the problem of Quantitative identity, which obviously becomes far more complex when discussing more complex entities, such as a tree or a car.

John Locke had an interesting solution to this problem. He established two fundamental principles of identity through time: 1) That one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, 2) nor two things one beginning. This idea has a few problems. Let us return to the example of the letter “S.” The letter I just typed presumably has a beginning, but a beginning is not such an easy thing to define. When this page is printed, ink will spew forth from the printer head in a pattern we will recognize as the letter “S.” Before that, the letter was a stream of data running through the network cable to the printer, and before that, it was an image on my computer screen. Before I pushed the “S” key, the letter was merely a thought in my head. Before I learned the letter “S” back in kindergarten, it was a thought in the head of my teacher. In point of fact, one can trace the origins of the letter “S” on this page back to the beginning of the Latin alphabet, which in turn could be traced back even further. One could also trace the lineage of the ink on the page itself, or the components inside this computer, as being the rooted origin of the “S” you see before you. In addition, a problem arises when you try and quantify any of these potential beginnings. None of them were instantaneous events. The ink flow onto the page, the data flow from the mind to the hand to the computer to the printer, and all other steps you could possibly conceive of have no distinct moment of commencement in time. Thus it seems impossible to define a single beginning for anything! It is only in our abstracted view of reality that Locke’s principles make sense, at least in the physical world.

It turns out that Identity is extremely difficult to objectively define, but let us assume that it exists for a moment so that we can move on to the notion of Person. It would seem that the existence of self is the only thing we can be fully certain of. Descartes states, quite correctly, that his ability to ask the question “what am I?” is proof that he exists. The Cartesian view is a dualist one, and defines a person as the mental “stuff” that does the thinking. If the body is destroyed, the person lives on. Unfortunately, modern neuroscience flies in the face of this theory, making it more of a feel-good philosophy than anything else. Cartesian dualism is comfortable and in some ways reflects common sense, but how can it account for the destruction of brains leading directly to the destruction of minds? There is plenty of hand waving about how it could be possible, but this major problem gave rise to the materialist camp, at the opposite end of the spectrum. The materialist view is that a person is nothing more than his or her body. Everything that goes on in your mind is actually just the physical process of your brain. Both of these views, however, would agree with Locke’s principles. Locke himself believed in a non-stuff view of a person, in which a person is defined by his or her experiences, not the mental or the physical stuff. In all cases though, the quantitative identity of a person depends on a steady temporal flow from a defined beginning.

It is interesting to go back to the thought experiment level and compare the solutions of these different theories. The classic example is the imaginary case of Julia and Mary Frances, two women who are severely injured during an accident. Julia’s body is beyond repair, but her brain is intact, while Mary Frances’ brain is destroyed but her body is fine. A brilliant neurosurgeon puts the good brain in the good body, and the patient wakes up. The question is, who is the patient? The Lockean and Cartesian theories would probably agree that Julia is the one who sits up, confused by her new vessel, but very much herself. Locke would say that since Julia’s memories and experiences were still intact and still in fact building on each other, then it is Julia who still exists. Meanwhile, Descartes would be at a theoretical loss. How do we really know which soul remains, if indeed any soul remains, or if an entirely new soul has entered the picture? But my guess is that if indeed the patient sat up and claimed to have all the mental properties once ascribed to Julia, he would concede that it was more than likely in fact Julia, and this would be fine for his dualism, since the mental stuff would of course have survived the accident.

It is the materialist position that gets fuzzy. Materialism ascribes identity to stuff that we can easily observe. The patient would be a conglomeration of stuff from Julia, and stuff from Mary Frances, yet this isn’t quite the Frankenstein scenario. The body and brain have not stopped living, and therefore one cannot ascribe an end-point to either Mary Frances of Julia. The materialist may have to first conclude that there are in fact two people on the operating table, making the choice of which person retains legal rights fairly arbitrary. On the one hand, the brain is the part of the body where self-awareness takes place physically, and therefore the preserved self-awareness should define the preserved self. On the other hand, there is physically a much greater percentage of Mary Frances’ body matter than of Julia’s. Realistically, if this situation were to actually arise there would likely be little debate against the continuing existence of Julia in a new body. Most people ascribe identity to personality and memory and mental stuff, whether they want to or not. Plus, the patient herself would likely call herself Julia, because she would have those memories. This solution is not so clear, however, when we examine the case of Tuvix.

Neelix, Tuvok, and an alien plant are broken down into streams of molecules and beamed back to Voyager. Unfortunately, the alien plant’s molecules are designed specifically to merge different organisms to create entirely new species, in a bizarre form of reproduction. When the molecules re-materialize on the transporter pad, they have become one single organism: Tuvix. Or so he starts calling himself later on. Here we have a much more complex case. Two people, both minds and bodies, merge. The result is a person with the memories of both, but a unique body and personality. Locke would be flabbergasted. How can two minds become one? Here you have a case of two beginnings for one person. The memories of both follow very different courses, and even different timelines, they both exist as part of the same mind. Eventually I think Locke would say that Tuvix began only when he materialized, and his experiences of Neelix and Tuvok were expressed not so much as being his own, but being inside him. The real mind-boggler is that Tuvix is then separated back into Neelix and Tuvok! Now they each have two beginnings. They ceased to exist, and then existed again. Are they the same people after the separation? Locke would be forced to give a definite no.

Locke would be sent into convulsions by the case of Tuvix, both from the formation and the separation. Locke, on the other hand, would be better capable of dealing with it. He would be perfectly fine with the idea of the two souls hanging around until their bodies were separated back into their original forms. But he would be less capable of dealing with the seemingly spontaneous generation of a third soul. Perhaps Descartes would reconcile this with the idea that God had an extra soul lying around and needed a place to put it for a while. Descartes is good at yanking out the God excuse when something doesn’t quite fit. Then there’s the materialist, who could take this entire situation in stride. “Yep, there’s two of ‘em. Now there’s one more and the other two are gone. Now the other two are back again. Makes perfect sense to me.” The materialist would simply say that Neelix and Tuvok were killed during the merging. Their processes ceased. Then Tuvix was killed when his process ceased. Then a new Neelix and a new Tuvok were formed. The materialist would say that they are not quantitatively identical, but that doesn’t matter because they are qualitatively identical to who they were before, and that’s all we really care about.

The case of Tuvix does lead to an important ethical question. Was it correct for Janeway to split him back into Neelix and Tuvok? I think that every perspective would be forced to agree that Tuvix was, in fact, his own new person. The circumstances leading to his birth were strange, but in the fantasy realm of Trek, they did happen. In the end, we have to take the word of the individual. How do I know that you are conscious and not a zombie? Technically I don’t, but I take your word for it. Tuvix declared his individuality, and thus we have to take him at his word. If we subscribe to the existence of personal identity, and to its “sovereign” nature, then we are forced to conclude that Tuvix had the right to live. Janeway killed him in cold blood. Whether or not she was actually restoring Tuvok and Neelix doesn’t matter unless you are a radical consequentialist. But there is more to be said on it. Tuvix wanted to have his own life, but he also wanted to take over the lives of Neelix and Tuvok. The love for Kes he held inside him was not his own at that point, but belonged to Neelix, who was dead. Tuvix wanted to have his cake and eat it too. I believe the following choice ought to have been afforded him: either allow yourself to die that Neelix and Tuvok may continue to live their lives, which you hold so dear, or live on as a new person, but do not bring pain and suffering to those who Neelix and Tuvok loved by attempting to fill their roles. This would have been an incredibly difficult choice, but it should definitely have been his to make.

Submitted on 2004-09-27 12:38:02     Terms of Service / Copyright Rules
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