Personal Identity

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In philosophy, “personal identity” is the term used to refer to that subfield that focuses on the nature of the self. Specifically, philosophers of personal identity attempt to determine appropriate criteria for making judgments of survival and existence. Questions driving the subject include;

  • Is a person essentially a soul, a physical body, or something else?

  • Can a person survive the loss of his/her brain?

  • What sort of changes to a person’s psychology, if any, result in a person ceasing to exist?

Why care about Personal Identity?

Consider Elvis... he was a great entertainer, beloved by millions, who lived long enough to change quite a bit over the course of his lifetime

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ELVIS - Can't Help Falling In Love (Remastered audio)
Later on in life, he became severely overweight, had lost much of his voice, and was addicted to drugs.
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Elvis Presley - Can't help falling in love

    • Elvis had changed in many significant ways from his younger self - you might even say he was a shadow of himself

    • What’s the point? Well, despite the fact that old Elvis was in many, many ways different from young Elvis, he was still Elvis.

    • That is, there was an obvious and important way in which he was still one and the same person despite all his changes.

    • You might ask, what made him the same person if so much had changed?

    • Doesn’t something have to stay the same to make Elvis Elvis?

    • This question, regarding what criteria or conditions must hold in order for a person to continue existing through time and change, is what we will be investigating.

    Why is Personal Identity Important?

    Because judgments of identity come up not just when we muse over Elvis’ tragic decline – they come up in a wide variety of situations all the time.

    1. We presuppose judgments about identity whenever we make judgments about responsibility, and we make those judgments constantly. For example, we take it as fundamental that the innocent ought not to be punished, but in order to sort out who is innocent and who is guilty, we must know the identity of the criminal. For example, if you lend your pal Paul ten dollars, it is Paul, and not Paul’s identical twin or anyone else, who owes you that money. Your belief that this is so hinges on your ability to distinguish Paul from others and recognize him as having a distinct identity.

    2. Our natural self-concern and anticipation for the future both presuppose judgments about identity. Imagine that I tell you I’m going to torture you tomorrow unless you agree to some mild pain in about fifteen minutes. You’d probably accept the deal, naturally preferring that you suffer a bit sooner rather than a lot later. Now, imagine I instead offer a different choice: either I will torture an exact duplicate of your tomorrow, or I’ll subject you to some minor pain in a few minutes. Perhaps you would accept the deal to undergo the pain out of your concern for that unfortunate duplicate, but your motives here are quite distinct from your motives in the first case: in this case it isn’t that you want the minor pain sooner because you anticipate suffering more later. This is because you recognize that it is unreasonable to anticipate having the experiences of someone else. You are only justified in having that sort of special concern for yourself. Thus, knowing when anticipation is appropriate hinges on judgments of personal identity.

    3. Questions concerning the possibility of immortality require criteria for personal identity. You can only come to some judgment regarding the feasibility of immorality if you first have a theory of what is required for the persistence of a person through time and through change. For example, if you think physical continuity of the body is required for a person to continue on, you will only accept the possibility of an afterlife that requires a quite literal physical resurrection of one’s body. If you come to believe that only mental continuity is required, you can have a more flexible vision of heaven (or hell!)

    So, as mentioned earlier, chances are you already care quite a bit about personal identity, though perhaps you didn’t realize that the topic was discussed by philosophers under that label.

    Lindsay Lohan's Changing Face - 25 years in 60 seconds
    Brad Pitt's changing face - A life in 85 seconds

    Task #1

    Go to the D2L site


    Read John Perry's A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Read only the First and Second Night.

    Create a way for you to break down their arguments - this could be either jot notes or a mind map or a table organizer - whatever is comfortable to you

    Cher's Changing Face - 50 years in 50 seconds morph

    Task #2

    Go to page the site http://www.philosophersnet.com/games/identity.php and complete the Staying Alive Activity.

    State your results on the Discussion Board on D2L - did you survive? Outline your results – which theory of continued existence do you fit in with?