Among the iconic philosophical questions such as ‘what is the meaning of life?’ or ‘how should I live?’ there exists one question, which remains stubbornly unanswerable: ‘who am I?’ At least at some point in your life, you must have been left questioning what it is that makes you you. Well you wouldn’t be the first one to do so and in philosophy this is known as the problem of personal identity. Mostly, we look at this issue with regards to how someone can be said to be the same whilst changing so much. In fact, it has been discovered that every 7 years, every single cell in the human body will be replaced, so a notion of personal identity based solely on your physiology is tough to make sense of. In this article we will look at the most prevalent theory of personal identity over time.
Traditionally, the problem of personal identity has been dealt with metaphysically. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the fundamental nature of being. One of the most important philosophers to tackle personal identity was the British empiricist, John Locke (1632-1704). His criterion for personal identity was self-consciousness, which is the ability to reflect upon yourself. In Locke’s words: “So that whatever hath the consciousness of present and past actions, is the same person to whom they belong.” His answer is extremely intuitive, possessing memories are what make you sure of who you are. However, if this had been the resolution we would not still be talking about the problem of personal identity today. One notable challenge to Locke’s theory was the ‘Brave Officer’ thought experiment devised by Thomas Reid:
“Suppose a brave officer to have been flogged when a boy at school, for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life: Suppose also, which must be admitted to be possible, that when he took the standard, he was conscious of his having been flogged at school, and that when made a general he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness [memory] of his flogging.”
Reid’s thought experiment seems to make Locke’s theory of personal identity somewhat questionable. Are we really to suggest that simply because he cannot remember that he was flogged as a child that he becomes a different person? What was initially an intuitive answer now has absurd logical consequences. What if we take it further though? Suppose that before becoming a soldier, he murdered civilians. As an old man, he can plea ‘not guilty’ if he has no recollection of the events that transpired because of his (possibly genuine) loss of memory.
Nowadays, personal identity over time is just one of the many issues to be dealt with in the philosophy of mind, which deals with consciousness and even free will. Our exponential growth in scientific knowledge has yielded a new branch of philosophy known as ‘neuro-philosophy’, where science and philosophy have become intimately integrated. In my opinion, Locke’s theory of personal identity need not necessarily be rejected but revised to be able to withstand objections. In fact, contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit has somewhat revised Locke’s theory of personal identity and in the coming weeks, we will try to break down his aptly named ‘Complex View’. If at this point, you feel like the painting on the left side of this article that is perfectly normal, a quote from the French intellectual Voltaire might suffice:
“Doubt is an unpleasant condition; but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire.