On the subject of personal identity, philosophers Locke and Hume have given separate opinions on whether or not our identities remain unchanged and constant throughout the course of time. Locke says yes – “to the extent of our memories”. Hume, on the other hand, has stated that the Self “is a fiction”.
“Am I a person, or a bundle??”
When searching for theories on this matter, the sources I come across typically present with the same three attempts, considering from material, immaterial, and spiritual standpoints. Ideally I would like to work with this enquiry on the assumption that I consist of just one of these parts, or that I am all three as one. And maybe I am due to discover that this is so; or perhaps it is possible that I will conclude that I am none of those, and that maybe my identity is something else entirely, or nothing at all. Whatever my ultimate findings, it is first my antecedence to consider these three attempts, explore what they mean to my identity, and then decide for myself whether or not they are viable attempts at all.
Previously, whenever I have endeavored to find an explanation for Me, I have always relied upon the firm reality of my awareness inside this body as a means to prove my existence. To coin the phrase, “I think, therefore I am” – would be inappropriate, and inadequate, as an accurate expounder of my claim at least. “I am aware, therefore I am,” is no counterclaim, rather is an exponent best seen as a minor modification of Descartes`, that in truth is major, with the preliminary difference that I consider my thoughts to be separate from consciousness, that I think of them as material in a sense, that I consider them to be independent of Self – and that is my claim. This is, and has always been, the way I view, and verify myself.
Maybe it comes across that I am searching my Soul in an effort to explain the bewilderment of Me; when in actual fact, whether or not I believe there is spiritual essence within me is irrelevant to this perception; I merely state the observation that, I know that I am. And such a perception I believe is deserving of firm focus throughout this enquiry.
To consider two more attempts would be to consider the body, and the mind. There is, and may always be, tough debate as to whether the mind and body are one and the same, or whether they exist as separates and as singular to one another. Sufficient fact has been presented which suggests that my mind and my body is, either, working a very intimate tandem, or, that I am indeed a singular, non-divided entity. Here one would find it very difficult to argue definitively that one is a system of two parts. So maybe here is where one should argue just that very point. First, though, it may be helpful to – or at the very least attempt – to comprehend a very clear distinction between these two facets of Self in question, to feel that separation first-hand. Then, and only then, should one confidently claim any distinction, should such distinction exist.
And so I become lucid in a dream. Existing, in, and interacting, with, a fictional world around me. Whilst in full possession of physical capabilities, and complete awareness, my body does not move – and I do not wake.
Is this not that very clear separation and definitive distinction we were looking for?
Allow me now to challenge humanity with the concept of artificial intelligence, because I believe I am further able to enforce the uniqueness of my awareness ever more. I picture a human clone, roaming amongst the living, the definitive silicon brain inside it`s head. On a material level it is exquisitely detailed and indistinguishable from you or I – on a non-material level it is mentally-sound, capable of thought, of decision making, of experience and expression of emotion, of moral assessment and moral judgement; of free will. And with that it`s awareness is assumed, because it can walk, because it can talk, because it can think, breathe, act and react. The presence of those complex mental processes automatically breeds awareness, am I not now stating but a baseless and redundant logic?
And am I not doing the very same thing when I look at you?
If I am all alone and you are but an empty cocoon, yet still you claim awareness, still you claim to be there, yet another awareness cannot be within you, because I am alone and it cannot be… then who is it?
If you are aware, and you say you are there, yet I am alone, so you cannot be… then that must surely be me.
So now one decides that one is but an all-over mass Awareness, cycling rapidly between all that is living and external and material and complex.
I shift from one organism to the next, occupying each for a length of time which could be either barely tangible, or beyond what I now imagine as eternal, and yet these shifts are somehow completely beyond my perception.
Maybe, if the accumulation of memory were not material, then I would know of such shifts. But the accumulation of memory does have a material essence – science has told me so. And this is why I never recall anything from the mind I was occupying previous, because I am no longer there, I no longer have knowledge of that entity’s existence, even the entity itself is now outside such realm of knowledge. I have since procured a new set of memories – I am now in this body, and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been in it for as long as I can remember.
If I now consider what it is exactly that distinguishes my identity from your identity, or His identity, or the identity of my best friend. In my mind, I have many parts, which are my many arguments, and I have the capacity for intense mental debate. In this world around me, I see many such parts, and I perceive them all as physical – I call them persons. And just as I am capable of changing my mind, I too am capable of influencing, and being influenced by, these persons around me. It is so that the idiosyncrasies of your character and the uniqueness of your views at any one time will render you different to me, but perhaps it is not so impossible for me to imagine myself becoming you; whether it be tomorrow, in ten years time, or in an un-notable instance from now.
Considering this briefly, one might adduce that I am taking the theory of `all-over mutability` to ludicrous extremes, when in fact, all I am suggesting, is that maybe our identities are not so contrasting after all – hence, empathy is so often so easy.
Whatever the exact composition of my identity may be, I must decide whether or not it remains constant, and unchanged. Locke would appear to argue that our memory is a clear indicator of our identity existing previous to any given moment in time, and as such, is unchanged. And I surely would be inclined to agree, that the state of my identity remains constant, throughout the course of a life-span, but I follow up by stating that this life-span lasts for no longer, and for no less, than the duration of an instance. Why? Because an instance is all I can ever be sure exists.
I am confident that, in any given instance, an idea exists. I wonder whether such an idea could possibly be responsible for my experience of thoughts, an experience that would appear to have no end. In reality, a thought would not be coherent within the confines of an instance, as the thought would surely have the greater life-span; and so thoughts must be an illusion – as must also be so with the fleet of smaller ideas that come with these thoughts, such as memories, and speculative thoughts; the past, and the future. But what is it that leads me to make such a distinction, and then subsequently present to myself this grand illusion of time?
I believe that I possess an innate belief that I am constantly being moved in a forward direction, and so any thoughts I may perceive could, quite plausibly, form two tails – memories as my past reality; speculation as that which I am constantly moving towards. The present then must simply be me while I am experiencing this whole idea.
If I should try and use these theories to prove, or disprove my identity, I will fail. However, is it not now evident to me that my identity as I know it is, very possibly, a mere exaggeration?
Maybe, if anything, I could now conclude that my identity, in the context that I am certain of, is likely to be less so than I previously imagined it to be. On the other hand, was another context to exist elsewhere, then, in such a capacity, my identity could perhaps be more so?
Despite all that has been pondered on this page, I believe that I am now due to return to, “I am aware, therefore I am.” And it is not stubbornness that states this. Whether or not my answers have been definitive and correct, or even if I am still no wiser as to who or what I am, I know of no way in which I will ever be capable of perceiving myself in a way that would be deemed different to the way I perceive myself today. I shall never cease to deliberate, and I will leave my openness high, but for the purposes of personal contentment, I shall always return to what I believe to know in any given instance.