Friday, October 2, 2015

The Problem of Myself

Three of the most basic problems in modern philosophy are different approaches to the same problematic: how can the human individual be part of the physical world around her and separate from that world at the same time.  This is most explicit in the mind/body problem (what is the relationship between consciousness and unconscious matter?).  It is just as fundamental to the problem of free will.  Is my consciousness of choosing and acting the cause of my actions (given the fact that it seems to depend on physical processes) and, if so, how is it the cause?  These two broad topics, difficult as they are, seem easy compared to the third.  What does it mean to say that I am the same person over time when both my physical and mental self are constantly changing? 
There are three general approaches to this question: illusion theory, substance theory, and continuity theory.  The spread is typical of modern philosophy.  You get a null answer (there is no persistent identity or self), a grounding in common sense (self is substantiated in the body or the soul), and an attempt to redefine the question (the self is a continuous series of memories). 
The most prominent defense of the illusion theory comes from two basic principles of Buddhist doctrine.  According to the principle of impermanence, all compounded things will eventually decompose.  This is true of mountains as it is true of human bodies and human minds.  It is true not only “eventually” but persistently.  Everything that exists now has emerged as something else fell the Hell apart.  This is true moment to moment; so my self then is constantly fallout apart into my self now. 
The second principle is interdependence.  There are in fact no individual objects or beings.  When we recognize a tree or some other person as an individual thing, we are abstracting from (which is to say, forgetting) a vast number of other things on which it depends.  The tree is only a tree because it is rooted in a ground that provides moisture and reaches up, through obliging space, to take in the sunlight and air.  Birch trees and Terry Bertrams are like waves on the ocean: temporary ripples riding on an ocean of causation. 
So there is really no persistent me to take responsibility for my actions or to be important enough to worry about.  There is a lot of truth to this view and I think that it is liberating in the way that my Zen teachers have said.  It is not, however, the whole picture.  I am saving for retirement.  At the present rate, I expect to stop working sometime in the next century (assuming that Social Security is intact).  I also expect that it will, in some important sense, be me who retires.  I think that I will be disappointed if I have not saved enough.  Illusion theory offers nothing to comfort me. 
Substance theory is based on Aristotle’s account of change.  For something to change it must become other that it is (or else here has been no change) and remain what it is (or else it has not changed but been replaced).  To account for this you need one substratum and two opposite qualities.  An iron bar becomes hot and red from being cold and black when it is heated.  It remains what it is (iron before and after) but becomes what it is not (hot when it was cold).  So I am the same person because there is something that is me that has not changed (my body or my soul) despite the fact that I changed in many ways. 
The two candidates for individual substance (body and soul) both seem to be lacking.  My body is not the same from moment to moment, let alone through my life.  It seems likely that all my material constituents are replaces once or twice during my lifetime.  Matter and energy flow in and out.  As for the soul, if it’s the same as my consciousness and memories, then it changes along with my body.  If it is something else, what is it?  See this previous post for the difficulties. 
The last approach, continuity of memory theory, is compelling enough that it seems to grab some of my students before I get to it in Introduction to Philosophy.  It was pioneered by John Locke.  I am the same person I was when I was 5 years old because I can remember things that happened to me when I was five.  In the live size photo of me on my mother’s wall I am wearing a sweater.  The photo is black and white but I remember that the sweater was red.  You can't remember what happens to someone else. 
That’s a pretty good answer, but there is a problem.  Suppose that my memories could be downloaded and uploaded by someone else.  Now that guy remembers wearing the red sweater.  Does that mean that he is me?  No.  Tomorrow, when he eats breakfast, he will enjoy it.  I will not. 
Biology offers something useful here.  I began life as a single, fertilized cell, half mommy, half daddy.  All of the specifically human cells in my body (a minority interest among a lot of bacteria, as I understand) trace back their lineage to that Ur cell.  When the cell multiplication formed a blastocyst, there was then established an existentially robust distinction between inside and outside, self and other.  That distinct remains as long as I live. 

Biological continuity is probably the best foundation for a theory of self.  Any philosophically coherent account of soul will have to be grounded in that, as Aristotle argued in his De Anima.  But I am not sure that it answers the most important question.  Tomorrow when I swing my legs out of bed, will that be me that contemplates the event tonight, or a newly regenerated me that only remembers typing this blog.  That is a haunting question.  


  1. But wouldn't the cell theory have the same problem as the memory theory? What if you were cloned and every cell in your clone's body came from the same cells as you? Technically, couldn't those cells also trace their lineage back to that single UR cell as well?

  2. Forgive this characteristically tardy response to your characteristically good question. What you describe in fact happens, if rather rarely. In the case of monozygotic twins, when a single zygote (fertilized cell) splits and becomes two embryos, one human individual (at least, biologically speaking) becomes two human individuals.

    Comparing that to the case of another human individual who somehow acquires my memories, I would argue that two identical twins are closer to being the same individual than two people with independent ontogeny who share the same memories, even if the latter pair are more alike than the former.

    However, I concede that it doesn't solve my breakfast problem. If my identical twin eats pancakes for breakfast tomorrow, I won't taste the maple syrup anymore than I would if the guy who shares my memories eats at the same pancake breakfast.

    I don't know how to explain the continuity of expected futures problem (I just coined the term). If continuous consciousness is real (and it is logically possible to doubt that it is) it seems to me that it has to be grounded in biological continuity. But biological continuity isn't enough. At some point in my ontogeny, a self emerged that had a future. I don't like mysteries. This is a big one.

  3. Thank you very much for your response. This reply, I'm afraid, is also characteristically late. I am struggling with the idea that an identical twin might be closer to being the same individual than two people who shared the same memories. Your suggestion makes me think of Abigail and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins who share a body, but who are, nevertheless, very distinct people. Their personalities quite different, with one girl being more extroverted than the other. I think it would be a mistake to think that the fact that the two share most of their limbs and, of course, DNA, meant that they were not two separate individuals.

    I also think that if a man were to receive multiple transplants and thus was made up of parts that originated from different DNA than his original parts had come from he would still be the same individual as he had been before.

    But I am not sure what measure the amount of individuality in a person can be measured. How would you measure it? I look forward to reading more about the continuity of expected futures problem, should you choose to write about it in the future.