Tag Archives: personal identity

Thomas De Quincey

An adult sympathizes with himself in childhood because he is the same, and because (being the same) yet he is not the same. He acknowledges the deep, mysterious identity between himself, as adult and as infant, for the ground of his sympathy; and yet, with this general agreement, and necessity of agreement, he feels the differences between his two selves as the main quickeners of his sympathy. He pities the infirmities, as they arise to light in his young forerunner, which now perhaps he does not share; he looks indulgently upon errors of the understanding, or limitations of view which now he has long survived; and sometimes, also, he honors in the infant tha trectitude of will which, under some temptations, he may since have felt it so difficult to maintain.

Thomas De Quincey, ‘Suspiria de profundis: Being a Sequel to the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, Blackwood’s Magazine, vol. 57, no. 353 (March, 1845), p. 272

David Chalmers

[T]he Everett interpretation is almost impossible to believe. It postulates that there is vastly more in the world than we are ever aware of. On this interpretation, the world is really in a giant superposition of states that have been evolving in different ways since the beginning of time, and we are experiencing only the smallest substate of the world. It also postulates that my future is not determinate: in a minute’s time, there will be a large number of minds that have an equal claim to count as me. A minute has passed since I wrote the last sentence; who is to know what all those other minds are doing now?

David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search for a Fundamental Theory, Oxford, 1996, p. 356

Alan Watts

There is not something or someone experiencing experience! You do not feel feelings, think thoughts, or sense sensations any more than you hear hearing, see sight, or smell smelling. “I feel fine” means that a fine feeling is present. It does not mean that there is one thing called an “I” and another separate thing called a feeling, so that when you bring them together this “I” feels the fine feeling. There are no feelings but present feelings, and whatever feeling is present is “I.” No one ever found an “I” apart from some present experience, or some experience apart from an “I”—which is only to say that the two are the same thing.

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, New York, 1951, pp. 85-86.

Eric Olson

Perhaps accepting [nihilism] would make us less selfish. At any rate it would mean that self-interest was not a rational motive for action. How could it be, if there is no “self” to have any interests? If there are no such beings are myself or others, there can be no reason to put my interests above those of others. Nihilism might imply that all interests are of equal value. We might find that liberating.

Eric Olson, What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology, Oxford, 2007, p. 203

Leonard Katz

If I am a momentary conscious self, and might have (numerically) the same experience as I do now even if I were not causally connected to anything more remotely past or future than the before and after internal to my momentary experience […], then it seems that my continuant personal identity should not be of all that much special interest to me-now. For if the way that I am a continuant is by being a collection of, say, segments of continuing physical processes coming together into integrated systems of neural events at one moment only to come apart the next, why should I identify with the future of some of these causal processes rather than with others? Why not care equally about other momentary consciousnesses that I can causally affect, rather than just about that which bears my name? Why not about those that carry the effects of my deeds, or of my social interaction, equally? None of these will be the same momentary consciousness as I this moment am. All will be tied to my present consciousness by causal connections.

These considerations seem plausible to me. But, of course, they cannot really be used to foster the moral virtue of benevolence—which, like all of morality, essentially concerns our relations to persons as such. If this scene of thought undermines egoism and the egocentric fears (such as, perhaps especially, the fear of death), it might seem equally to undermine morality, too—by weakening the grip that our biologically- and socially based perception and attitudes toward persons as such have. For it seems to be here that morality finds its natural ground—on which the existence of moral facts and motivation, and the application of the distinctive normative force of morality (irreducible to that of seeking pleasure or any other form of welfare or good) depends. But philosophical hedonism, while perhaps undermining morality and self-interest together in this way by suggesting the momentary view, could also provide some justification for self-interest and morality in those moments in which we wonder how it all matters, at a fundamental level, by showing a deeper ground and point to human living—a ground in the momentary experience of pleasure (no matter whose), a ground beyond self interest and morality that lies deeper in the nature of things than does our perception of persons or of prudential and moral norms.

Leonard Katz, Hedonism as Metaphysics of Mind and Value, Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1986, pp. 177-179

John Broome

[On Parfit’s view], the boundaries within lives are like the boundaries between lives. So we do not regard people as the morally significant units. This only means that if we are concerned with distribution at all, we shall be concerned with distribution between what are the morally significant units—namely, person-segments or whatever these divisions of a person are. So certainly the fact that a person has suffered more in the past will not make us give extra weight to relieving her suffering now. But if she is suffering more now, we may give extra weight to it. We may be concerned to equalize the distribution of good between person-segments. So all this argument does is remind us that we have changed the units of distribution. It does not suggest that we should be less interested in distribution between them.

John Broome, ‘Utilitarian Metaphysics?’, in Jon Elster and John Roemer (eds.), Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being, Cambridge, 1991, p. 94

Derek Parfit

Take a Swede who is proud of his country’s peaceful record. He might have a similar divided attitude. He may not be disturbed by the thought that Sweden once fought aggressive wars; but if she had recently fought such wars he would be greatly disturbed. Someone might say, “This man’s attitude is indefensible. The wars of Gustavus, or of Karl XII, are as much part of Swedish history.” This truth cannot, I think, support this criticism. Modern Sweden is indeed continuous with the aggressive Sweden of the Vasa kings. But the connections are weak enough to justify this man’s attitude.

Derek Parfit, ‘On “The Importance of Self-Identity”‘, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 68, no. 20 (October, 1971), p. 685

David Pears

Most people know their own identities. I know who I am, and I can produce enough facts to establish who I am. Anyone who wonders what these facts would be in his own case has only to imagine himself being questioned by the police.

David Pears, ‘Hume on Personal Identity’, in David Pears (ed.), David Hume: A Symposium, London, 1963, p. 43

Derek Parfit

Certain actual sleeping pills cause retrograde amnesia. It can be true that, if I take such a pill, I shall remain awake for an hour, but after my night’s sleep I shall have no memories of the second half of this hour.

I have in fact taken such pills, and found out what the results are like. Suppose that I took such a pill nearly an hour ago. The person who wakes up in my bed tomorrow will not be psychologically continuous with me as I was half an hour ago. I am now on psychological branch-line, which will end soon when I fall asleep. During this half-hour, I am psychologically continuous with myself in the past. But I am not now psychologically continuous with myself in the future. I shall never later remember what I do or think or feel during this half-hour. This means that, in some respects, my relation to myself tomorrow is like a relation to another person.

Suppose, for instance, that I have been worrying about some practical question. I now see the solution. Since it is clear what I should do, I form a firm intention. In the rest of my life, it would be enough to form this intention. But, when I am not this psychological branch-line, this is not enough. I shall not later remember what I have now decided, and I shall not wake up with the intention that I have now formed. I must therefore communicate with myself tomorrow as if I was communicating with someone else. I must write myself a letter, describing my decision, and my new intention. I must then place this letter where I am bound to notice it tomorrow.

I do not in fact have any memories of making such a decision, and writing such a letter. But I did once find such a letter underneath my razor.

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, pp. 287-288

Derek Parfit

Nagel once claimed that it is psychologically impossible to believe the Reductionist View. Buddha claimed that, though it is very hard, it is possible. I find Buddha’s claim to be true. After reviewing my arguments, I find that, at the reflective or intellectual level, though it is very hard to believe the Reductionist View, this is possible. My remaining doubts or fears seem to me irrational. Since I can believe this view, I assume that others can do so too. We can believe the truth about ourselves.

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, p. 280