Personal Identity as a Philosophical Problem

Geoffrey Catchpole

BRLSI Member & Convenor to World Affairs meetings

5 October 2004.

Mrs Thatcher’s dismissal of the concept of ‘society’ emphasised our modern concern with the nature (and in particular the rights) of the individual. More recently neuroscience and computing have promoted renewed interest in how the brain functions. This stimulated me to give a talk here in May 1997 entitled ‘The ghost in the machine’.(One page of my notes on that will be available after this talk) Today I want to repeat some of that, together with more observations.

We are familiar with terms such as ‘self’, ‘person’, ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’, ‘self-consciousness’, etc and have at least a rough idea of what they cover, but philosophers have developed their own jargon, as in many technical fields. They variously refer to ‘dualism’, ‘materialism’, ‘phenomenalism’, ‘epiphenomenalism’, ‘interactionism’, ‘functionalism’, ‘animalism’, ‘behaviourism’, ‘supervenience’, ‘qualia’, ‘panpsychism’ etc in this field of discussion. It has been said that philosophers discuss matters that everybody understands in words that nobody understand, although no doubt they would suggest the reverse. Wittgenstein produced a pertinent comment... ‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’ Today I can only set some of those terms in their contexts and mention the issues they represent. It will be up to you to make some sense of it all.

Origins To begin at the beginning, then, note that Julian Jaynes argued in 1976 (‘Origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind’) that prior to around 2000 BC people accepted that their thoughts and actions originated from external and supernatural agencies - i.e. the gods. He claimed that literary evidence from Greece, Mesopotamia, etc shows ‘no words for consciousness or mental acts’.. (‘In the Iliad and in general, therefore, there are no words for consciousness or mental acts.’) Others have pointed out that although they had no terms for ‘person’, ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ the Greeks did think that ‘psyche’ made living beings distinctive. In the September issue of Prospect magazine, Paul Broks (a neuroscientist) claimed that social and cultural change has since made us ‘autonomous and introspective’, although some pre-modern vestiges remain, such as religion, ritual and artistic references to the ‘Muse’. ‘Coherent inner speech helps to create and maintain a sense of personal identity: the sense that we are unified continuous beings’. Others, considering cave-art and art produced by autistic children, have suggested that somewhat earlier than 2000 BC language emerged. While Nietzsche claimed that ‘Evolution embodies information in every part of every organism’, contemporary writers, such as Antonio Damasio and Daniel Dennett, have gone further.

Dennett has given a lengthy account of the evolutionary values of such developments and has sketched a history of the emergence of the primitive then modern brain. ‘Mindless mapping of complex data into user-friendly formats signals intelligence, but only humans map new problems into our old problem-solving machinery - we re-represent reality...but we furnish our brains from the stockpiles of culture... every human mind is a product not just of natural selection but of cultural re-design of enormous proportions.’ (Kinds of Minds, 1996) (He accepts Chomsky’s view that we are genetically pre-designed for handling words/language and recent research by Bristol University scientists tends to confirm that.)

Aristotle regarded Man as a social animal whereas modern analysts conclude that environmental survival required social structures and that the development of personal responsibility for social behaviour required changes in our mental information-processing systems. Higher order activities were needed, beyond those adequate for bare survival. Social complexities required language and symbolic sophistication.

Culture and Freedom Charles Taylor has suggested (Sources of the self: the making of the modern identity, 1989) that today an individual is a person in the grip of ‘an appalling identity crisis’, since our main goal in life is to ‘find meaning’, but since both ourselves and meanings change, our rapidly changing and complex modern world is problematic. We have abandoned the security of ‘Judeo-Christian certainties’ for competing views both of reality and values. However, this paradoxically provides opportunities for people to make decisions for themselves. Each successive culture, he asserts, is ‘one possibility among many’. While the Romantics chose Nature as their base, in our time Rawl has argued on a Kantian basis for modern liberalism, which has stimulated the debate between liberals and communitarians. Taylor sees the basic issue of identity as being founded on allegiance either to cultural determinism or to ‘an inner core source of the freedom of the self’, but he sees no solution in either philosophical idealism or in materialism, since in his terms sometimes ideas dominate and sometimes social change dominates. He wants both religion and philosophy to be seen in the social context. (‘I think that philosophy and religion in most aspects are pretty well useless and hopeless, unless they are done with other disciplines. I think you have to be utterly out of your mind to be either an idealist or a materialist.’)

Souls, animals and persons If we review some of the positions taken in the past we may see how our modern problem of personal identity arose, perhaps. After the Christian emphasis on the ‘soul’, Descartes initiated the familiar mind/body problem and distinguished Man from animal. (He argued that animals ‘cannot arrange words variously’ and that they do not ‘act from knowledge, but only from the disposition of their organs’. He stated that animal ‘souls are wholly different in nature from ours’.)Locke, however, argued that a dead person’s incarnate ‘soul’ transferred to oneself would not make one’s characteristics that of the dead person. He believed that a person’s identity is essentially constructed from memory, although he conceded that sleep (without memory) does not remove the person. He did define the ‘person’, however... ‘A thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it.’ (Essay II xxvii,11). Today it is argued that although we may use the term for most humans, we may not for foetuses, people who are virtual vegetables and (possibly) psychotics. Conversely, the term can be applied to some nonhuman animals, argue some commentators, referring to chimpanzees which exhibit ‘intelligence, character and personality’ and even to advanced robots which pass the Turing Test.

A.C. Grayling has pointed to both multiple personalities and to the various roles we play in life to indicate the slipperiness of the concept. ‘No one is just one person.’ For both Locke and Hume the only practical method of investigation of the ‘person’ or ‘self’ was introspection. Hume saw no ‘self’- only collections of mental experiences, i.e. ‘bundles of perceptions’ – ‘I can never catch myself at any time without a perception and can never observe anything but the perception’ (Treatise on Human Nature). Sceptical of both religion and science, Hume thought that the only way to approach experience is to accept it - ‘We perceive that we can give no reason for our most general and most refined principles, besides our experience of their reality’. Reason does not explain cause and effect, the existence of the external world or personal identity, although both animals and humans can use sense experience, memory and inference.

Thought experiments Another method of approach to these problems, then and now, however, is the use of ‘thought experiments’, i.e. ‘what if...?’ Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons, 1984) posed a proposition of aliens replacing your body as you slept. He suggests that you would see yourself as the same person upon waking. He then asked whether there would be two 'same persons' if the exchange was repeated. He also queried the situation if two hemispheres of one brain were to be put into two different heads. Another questioner has asked whether the possibility of two hemispheres holding differing views would mean that one body may contain two ‘consciousnesses’? In Parfit’s view, the crucial determinant of human individuality is mental continuity, not ‘being a person’. He maintains that we are not entities separate from body, brain and thought, nor does the ‘person’ persist other than as links in mental connections. His critics, however, argue that there is more to it than that, since that view misses the elusive identity of the unified ‘I’ of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Some critics also claim that Parfit misses the particularity of human identity among rational animals. David Wiggins (Sameness and Substance, 1984) argues that, like us ‘animals have reasons and are conscious’, but only we have concepts of ourselves as ‘autonomous, self-moving and animate’. Further, with respect to ‘teletransportation’ (re Star Trek etc) Parfit argues that although the matter transported would differ the ‘person’ would remain the same - he sees brain as ‘hardware’ and self as ‘software’. Conversely, Wiggins insists that ‘a copy is not an original’. He claims that ‘identity is not a mere resultant of other properties and relationships... quasi-memory is not my memory’. He sees ‘persons’ as ‘subjects of fine-grained interpretations by us’. Another ‘thought experiment’ relating to time travel has been put by David Armstrong. If one accepts ‘instantiated universals’ (e.g. ‘identical shades of green’) he argues that individuals could be in multiple locations at the same time. His critics claim that individuals must be considered only as ‘tropes’ i.e. to be in one place at one time, but they do concede that since Einsteinian relativity is now evidential and that there is no sameness of time, although instantiated universals thus cannot exist ‘troped’ humans at almost similar times could possibly interact. (Note Philip Pullman’s trilogy)

Similar thoughts are expressed by David Chalmers (The Conscious Mind, 1996) with respect to ‘zombies’ (the ‘living dead’). Since consciousness involves more than the physical, he thinks them logically possible. Robert Kirk commented that they would lack ‘qualia’ - the ‘subjective feel of experience’, whereas Shoemaker conceded that qualia reflect experience, zombies could not sense differences between qualia as we can. ‘Ghosts’ are subject to similar disagreements. Materialists see each mental state as a state of the nervous system; pure dualists, epiphenomenalists and interactionists see one-way dependence or two-way relationships between brain and mind, while functionalists allow the possibilities discussed in the ‘thought experiments’ if functions of input/output physical systems are exhibited.

Consciousness and Computers The discussions on consciousness often relate to qualia - the quality of our conscious experience which, it is claimed, is irreducible to physical experience. Dennett rejects qualia - he believes that experience is no more than parallel processing of judgements, dispositions and associations. Others argue that similar mental states often result in widely differing behaviour and vice versa. Functionalists relate to Gilbert Ryle’s ‘logical behaviourism’ (in The Concept of Mind, 1949), which emphasised the link between mental activity and observable behaviour of ourselves and others- i.e. their ‘minds’ and our ‘mind’. These links were crucially expressed through his distinction drawn between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’- it is our behavioural skills which tell us what we are rather than what we believe to be the case about the world. That in turn led to discussion eventually of ‘conscious computers’. Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument suggested that we can follow mental programmes without understanding, which would meet the Turing Test but cause invalid conclusions to be drawn. Marvin Minsky and others believe, however, that meaning derives from neural networks. Parallel processing, based on algorithmic systems and input/output procedures are thought by some writers to be a basis for developed awareness, understanding, emotional responses and a form of machine ‘consciousness’ ultimately identical with that of humans. Against that, Penrose and others have argued that human thinking is unalgorithmic. Penrose says that we must ‘see’ the truth of a mathematical argument to be convinced of its validity and that this ‘seeing’ is the ‘very essence of consciousness’.

Others go further- for Ned Block consciousness is a ‘mongrel concept’. He distinguishes various features of ‘consciousness’ namely ‘phenomenal’, ‘access’ and ‘reflective’ and also discusses ‘self-consciousness’. For him, the ‘phenomenal’ aspect is its ‘subjective character’, while the ‘access’ aspect involves ‘global control of reporting, reasoning and action’. He identifies also ‘non-access’ aspects of consciousness repressed unconscious Freudian images, impairments in the frontal lobe, brain sub-systems (such as those concerned with basic visual processing) where brief ‘phenomenal flickers’ may occur. He cites a case of a patient with an extensively damaged visual area where words and pictures were recognised but not ‘seen’ by the patient. He rejects causal and functional explanations of the ‘phenomenal’, however, and gives instances of non-contingent (i.e. actual) aspects of the world we encounter, such as the differences between images of circles and squares (since circles cannot be packed together, whereas squares can). He regards the ‘phenomenal’ as ultimately physical (i.e. neurological?), but accepts the ‘mystery’ of the relationship between consciousness and brain states in his terms ‘why the mode of presentation is the same as what is presented’.

Timothy Sprigge attempts a definition of consciousness, but thinks our language ‘woefully inadequate for conveying the total character of an experience’, even through poetry and music. Self-Consciousness Sprigge discusses an ‘objective world’ dealt with by science and metaphysics and a ‘subjective world’ which contains ‘fragments of an imagined, indefinitely larger and inwardly fuller whole, which for the moment becomes part of our consciousness’, although we are not conscious of the ‘background’ of our experience. Aspects of ‘self-consciousness’ include how one is being thought of by others (not a necessary aspect, however) and introspection, although most conscious animals are without either. Generally there is an awareness distinguishing ‘self’ and ‘others’, however. Thus animals may vary by degrees below ‘self-consciousness’, while humans may transcend it (as in music and meditations). Overall, for Sprigge, ‘consciousness’ is not in the physical world, nor within scientific theory, nor in daily life (which reflects our differing consciousnesses), but is 'felt' or 'lived through'. Timothy Sprigge claims that consciousness is 'the perceptual presentation of the environment (and sensations of one's own body) and one's conscious thought, imagery and feeling'.

Supervenience and Panpsychism While functional theorists claim that a brain state causes behaviour, ‘supervenience’ theorists argue that if mental states cannot be physical, they are ‘superveniently’ dependent upon the physical. Epiphenomenalists are one-way dualists, but ‘quasi-causal’ also. Herbert Feigl has a different perspective. He argues that mental events are inherently ‘inside’, while physical events are ‘outside’ (i.e. in Nature). While natural qualities are ‘outside’ and are unknowable, within brains patterns produce mental events. Panpsychists, however, regard the physical world as ‘mental’ - i.e. ‘streams of consciousness, feeling or experience interact with each other in a law like way and science charts the abstract structure of the system they form and of which the world of everyday life is a pictorial appearance.’ This may be interpreted so that the ‘external physical world is a unified field within the brain’, which implies basically that there is no physical reality. Our ‘higher’ consciousness is considered ‘largely or wholly causally separate from that consciousness which is the inner nature of our physical reality’. Hume denied any causation –‘visible phenomena follow on each other in a purely contingent way’, but a panpsychist argues: ‘It may be the ultimately psychical nature of the physical which alone explicates the necessity of the laws of nature.’ They may be necessitated by ‘the inner psychical nature of physical reality, in which something like pleasure and pain exert their own intrinsic power through experiences of agency’.

Thus, functionalists believe that brain states cause behaviour; superveniests believe that mental states depend upon the physical; epiphenomenalists believe that mental states arise from brain states; panpsychists believe that the physical world is a unified brain field.

Perceptual Consciousness Ted Honderich describes this as ‘conceptual reconstruction’ rather than as ‘conceptual analysis’. He has argued (at the Institution and elsewhere) that dualists who claim that mental events are both mental and neural are really epiphenomenalists who ignore the subjectivity of consciousness. Functionalists, who claim that mental and physical events are causally related, also leave out subjectivity. In 1995 he favoured Anthony Quinton’s ‘naturalism’, which regarded ‘fields of force’ as ‘subjective physical properties’ connected with neural states. Since then he has reconsidered his position. Briefly, he now states that ‘Perceptual consciousness is a certain state of affairs (outside of one’s head) which is dependent upon being perceived’. This, he thinks, makes the ‘subjective’ a spatio-temporal ‘world’, different from the spatio-temporal ‘physical or objective world’ and thus avoids ‘ethereal or gossamer stuff’ summarising his position as ‘consciousness is existence’. He also defines ‘reflective consciousness’ as ‘perceptual consciousness’ of internal and external representations. Also, he mentions ‘affective consciousness’ (which is ‘perceptual consciousness’ of ‘property’ relationships and ‘action’ relationships).

Current commentaries Recent developments in both physical and social sciences have produced many commentaries on what we believe we now know about the origin and nature of the concepts of the ‘self’. There are concerns about social impact - the Archbishop of Canterbury reacting against the ‘portfolio’ society, for example, in which he believes the individual is threatened, by haste, short-term relationships and instant gratification. He writes, ‘How do you build long-term a life that has three dimensions, with interiority and resonance?’

(A Churchman commented that ‘Life is God-given and our identities depend on our relationships with others.) Neil McGregor (of the British Museum) states that ‘identity depends upon shared culture’.

The issue of Nature versus Nurture lurks behind much discussion. What have we inherited, to make us what we are and arguably what we have to be? Locke saw the mind as a tabula rasa - there were no innate thoughts and knowledge could only come through the senses. Today, in evolutionary biology there is a concept of a ‘reaction norm’ - i.e. the set of all possible morphologies and behaviours that a living organism with a particular set of genes can exhibit when exposed to a variety of environmental conditions. Through research on plants and animals that norm can be found only empirically. There are further insights, however, as well as alternative views.... In May a symposium discussed whether ‘human nature’ exists or whether we should relate only to cultural relativism. Steven Pinker and some prominent writers contended that evolution has produced some propensities - Pinker discussed a ‘universal aesthetic, while McEwen said that while science deals with fact, literature ‘begins in the realm of the subjective’, which prompted a commentator to ask:’Is human nature written in our genes or in our books?’ Libby Purves has recently written a piece entitled: ‘In our Godless world we find identity in biology’, reflecting on our familiarity now with DNA, which confirms individuality, and commenting that people are anxious now to find their biological inheritance in increasingly multiracial and multicultural societies.

The Self as a Story Neuroscience has also affected our views. Sue Gerhardt (a psychotherapist) has noted that brain scans now show how ‘positive social interaction’ releases hormones (such as cortisol) in the prefrontal cortex, which ultimately determines emotional and social behaviour, directs attention and enables conscious awareness of feelings. While these features are limited at birth, they develop rapidly over the next two or three years... ‘Babyhood is crucial, because it sets up the basic tool-kit for managing emotions and relating to others. We form expectations of others and these affect the way in which they, in turn, treat us. Brains may be wired differently as a result of early experiences.’ Sandy Wolfson (Northumbria University researcher) comments on ‘social identity: ‘People enjoy feeling part of a large group consciousness. It raises their confidence, self-esteem and sociability. Some scientists believe that the drive to feel part of a group is something that we have evolved as a defensive measure.’

As mentioned earlier, Paul Broks (neuroscientist) provides a persuasive account of how the concept of the self is created. ‘We build ourselves from the raw materials of language and experience - words, thoughts and images reach the spotlight of consciousness through natural selection. For every item reaching awareness there is a multitude of suppressed alternatives reverberating through the neural nets.’ He concedes, however, that while perception, memory, language, thought and emotion have now been ‘explored’, ‘relatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which such processes converge to produce a unified and enduring sense of self’. He recognises, therefore, ‘the puzzle of personhood’ and ‘the problem of consciousness’. Some artists who look at their own brain scans are prompted to question their own identity, but Broks suggests that ‘the shoreline of art is phenomenal consciousness-the raw feel of experience-which is irreducibly private’.

Philosophers have organised a seven year project, now in operation, which involves the Universities of Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge and University College London. Based in Warwick’s Philosophy Department the project examines the nature of consciousness and self consciousness. Kant argued that we must think of ourselves as embodied in an objective spatial world, have a unified perspective on the environment at a time and over time, which represents a single connected space and a single connected temporal order. The project begins by studying representations in mental states when unified perspectives are achieved, as well as the difference between mere consciousness and self-consciousness. The second phase of the project tackles causal links between past, present and future which create a unified perspective and links psychological studies involving attention and self-monitoring processes with philosophical consideration of constraints involving reason and knowledge. The third phase looks at the distinctions drawn between consciousness and self-consciousness with respect to their relationships with our bodies.

So what should we conclude? Are we compelled to think of ourselves as unique organisms embodied in an objective spatial world? Is any other view wholly fanciful? Is ‘self’ merely a composite image constructed by a defensive ‘mind’, itself merely a construct of neural nets, a resultant over evolutionary time, to enable us to survive as a ‘self-conscious’ entity capable of meeting demands placed upon it by both physical and social environments and by subjective needs? What guarantees our individuality in the current world of constructed clones? Have we been bemused by words, not only such as ‘God’ and ‘devil’, but also by terms such as ‘soul’, ‘person’, ‘mind’, ‘self’? Remembering Occam’s Razor, are there any terms we can do without?

Could we make sense of our world if we abandoned the use of terms such as the following: ‘God’, ‘Devil’, ‘Soul’, ‘Person’, ‘Mind’, ‘Self’? Is their ‘cash value’ different from terms such as ‘love’, ‘ambition’, ‘hope’, ‘wanderlust’, etc?

The ensuing discussion indicated that many members of the audience continue to believe that the terms listed in the first group above, while different in implications from those in the second group, continue to have objective content as well as subjective significance, although no extended discussion of that content proved possible at the time.

Geoffrey Catchpole