Problem of Personal Identity

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There are numerous views on what it means to have an individual’s identity and what exactly “makes you the person you are.” Personal identity has been a major topic in philosophy ever since the beginning, and the most considerable thinkers have had something to say about it. John Perry discusses four different theories of personal identity: body theory, soul theory, memory theory, and brain theory. The psychological theory in my opinion makes the most sense when trying to understand the idea of personal identity rather than body theory. Memories make up the prime system for all of our behavior, attitudes, and feelings when it comes to individual circumstances. One person recognizes another not only by physical characteristics, but also by the combination of collected memories, which provides common things to share and talk about. The memories and thoughts a person holds are more important than if you lose what you lose your body. Someone that has no capability of retaining any memories of any kind, is therefore a person without any identity at all.

In Perry’s paper “A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality,” he writes it as a conversations between a philosophy teacher, Weirob, and two of her friends, Miller and Cohen. They discussed their thoughts on personal identity, survival, and what might happen after death. Weirob and Miller share their own thoughts and try to explain the idea of having a soul and the correlation between bodies and souls. Weirob argues in support of a bodily continuity theory which means that our identity is related to our body or physical being (Perry, p. 322-329). Miller believed that we have an “identity of an immaterial soul” and go where our memories go. He brings up that when a person wakes up in the morning before they open their eyes and look at themselves at we can tell who we are before or independently of considering what body we happen to be in (Perry, p. 329-336). Cohen then attempts to explain that maybe there is a connection between going through experiences and having memories of those experiences from your perspective (Perry, p. 337-339). Miller mentions that Locke “suggests that the relation between two person stages or stretches of consciousness that makes them stages of a single person is just that the later one contains memories of the earlier one” (Perry, 331). Locke argued that psychological continuity, a continuous flow of consciousness, is all that a person needs to continue being that same person over time. Locke considered personal identity as a matter of psychological continuity, founded on consciousness. He looked at it like a time worm. Not every piece of memory has to immediately line up with all the parts of the worm because according to Locke, any part of the worm can be connected to a different part of that worm, but since all the parts are connected in some way or another, it is still all the same worm. I agree with Locke that psychological continuity can be looked at and considered a logical theory for personal identity. It was still not enough to convince everyone though.

Derek Parfit on the other hand had an opinion on everything. He believed in the idea of psychological continuity to some extent. He tried to argue that “ X and Y are the same person if they are psychologically continuous and there is no person who is contemporary with either and psychologically continuous with the other" (Parfit, 358). He means that two people can’t be the same person because they can’t share the exact same memories and experiences as the other one. But if you consider the thought experiment of a brain splitting into two different bodies, they each have the same brain and therefore the same memories from that brain just separated into two different bodies. This idea disproves what Parfit tries to explain that psychological continuity is not the full explanation because it clears the confusion of where your identity goes in thought examples like this. Another thought is like the movie Freaky Friday. In the movie the mom and the daughter both run into each other and then wake up as the other one. The daughter had all of her mother's thoughts and ideas and memories but was in the wrong body. The mother then had all of the daughters experiences now so they both knew who they were and also knew they were in a different body. I bring this up because even though it is just a movie, it gives a perfect example of psychological continuity. The mother seems to still be the mother even when she is in her daughter's body and the same goes for the daughter. This shows that you, your personal identity, goes where your mind goes. Parfit then argued the idea of psychological connectedness which is an intransitive relation of having overlapping memories He explains that “connectedness requires direct [psychological] relations”(Parfit, 361).Whereas with psychological continuity, it is a transitive relation of having a series of overlapping memories. Parfit’s claim was then that continuity may matter somewhat; but, connectedness is perhaps a more important element in survival. His idea of connectedness implies that your future self is you only to some degree and it has some psychological connectedness with your current self, but still only to some degree.

The idea that someone’s personal identity can be based on the memories they make is observed through the four different scenarios. In scenario one, Alice commited a crime the day before she went through a complete fission of herself resulting in both Barbara and Candice. Since both Barbara and Candice did not lose the memories that Alice held, they are both technically still Alice then. Thus, Alice would be existent in both Barbara and Candice, so Barbara should be held accountable for Alice’s crime. Barbara is essentially still Alice but in a different body which means Candice is also still Alice but in a different body than before. Barbara then should not take all the responsibility for the crime because both Candice and Barbara have Alice’s cells. Candice should also be held responsible for Alice’s crime too because she also has all of Alice’s memories and experiences of her past life so therefore also has memory of the crime being committed.

In scenario two, it may seem that after Daphne goes through a complete fission and split into two separate beings, there are two new people as the outcome, Eleanor and Frances. But since they are both still psychologically continuous with Daphne, that means that they both are still technically Daphne just in two different bodies. If Eleanor committed the crime, then that means that Daphne would have done the same crime even before going through the fission. Daphne just commited the crime in a different body. With that being said, Frances should be held responsible for the crime Eleanor committed. Since Daphne is also psychologically continuous with Frances, that would make Eleanor and Frances both responsible for anything either of them do. Since Eleanor died, Frances needs to be held accountable for Eleanors actions because she is no longer there to receive her punishment.

In scenario three Henrietta needs to be apprehended and held responsible for the crimes that Grace committed. If Grace commited the crime then as soon as she signed the forms to change her name she lost memory of the crime she still would recall all of Grace’s other memories. Since when the brick fell on her head Henrietta lost memory of the crime it may seem like she wouldn’t be responsible since she genuinely believes she did not commit that crime, but it is not about one specific memory that was lost. For example, if you were going to have a night out and got blackout drunk and woke up the next morning not remembering anything about the previous night, that doesn't mean you are now a completely different person. You should not therefore think you can’t blame yourself for anything that happened since you don’t remember. It was still you and you still hold all of your previous memories and experiences in your life that you don’t just forget leading up to the night. In Henrietta’s case, she may have forgotten the crime she had committed when her name was Grace, but she still remembers the rest of her life and all the other experiences she had as Grace. This also means that even though she may not have memory of the actual crime happening, she still has memory of perhaps the reasoning behind the crime. Like if she had wanted someone dead and Grace had killed the man, Henrietta could still have recollected that she wanted that man dead in the first place. Thus, why it only makes sense for Henrietta to be held responsible for the crimes Grace committed.

Scenario four has the same story basically as scenario three but there is a slight but very important difference. The fact that as soon as Ivana signed the required forms to legally change her name to Janice, the brick fell and Janice resulted in permanent amnesia, is crucial to figuring out if Janice should be held responsible. She not only lost memory of the crime happening but also every other memory she previously had. Janice wakes up after the brick fell and realizes she has no idea who she is or what happened to her or that she was even Ivana to begin with. Janice should not be held responsible for any of Ivana’s crimes that she committed because according to Janice, she has no idea who Ivana is or if she even existed to begin with. The idea of psychological continuity is that you are what your mind is, everything you experience and have memories of is who you are. If you lose all your memory, it is essentially the same as you beginning a new life as someone new. It only makes sense for Janice to be let free as a new person since Ivana technically no longer exists on paper or in Janice’s mind.

The idea that psychological continuity is the solution to understanding your personal identity makes sense when listening to each of these scenarios I previously explained. But these are all hypothetical, if we try and apply this to the real world let’s look at some examples that can describe psychological continuity in our own lives. If we think about when a person loses their memory from alzheimer’s disease, to some people they might see the same person there but they are really just a completely different person just in the same body as before. Their memory as well as all previous psychological thoughts have vanished from them so they don’t know who they were or who they are supposed to be now. The psychological continuity theory is not just about your memory, it is the continuous chain of experiences that happen to you and effect you directly. They define you and memory is a big part of that but you can forget some memories and you are still the same person you were before because you still can recollect your past and put the pieces of the “time worm” together to know who you are.

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Problem of Personal Identity. (2020, Jun 26). Retrieved June 20, 2024 , from

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