How Do Persons Maintain Their Identity?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer To Truth:

I am myself. I am a self. What does it mean to be a self?
Remember yourself as a child, say, attending grade school. Look at an old photo. Then look in the mirror. Those two pictures are the same person, right? How so? They don’t look the same. Their memories are different. Virtually every atom that composed that child’s body has gone from the adult’s.
I do feel unity across time. Is my solidified self an illusion? How do people maintain their identity?
Dissecting personal identity means discerning individual consciousness. So I start with someone who takes consciousness as something real and puzzling, but not something nonphysical or religious: philosopher Colin McGinn.
“I think the self is something real,” McGinn begins. “But the self must be grounded in the brain, so that the self’s unity at a time and over time must be a function of what’s in the brain. We don’t know how the brain does it, but it must be so. And our imaginative adventures with the concept of self [as, say, a soul] reflect our ignorance about what the self actually is and what constitutes it in the brain. So we think all sorts of things are possible, which if we knew the truth about the self, we wouldn’t think were possible.”
He continues: “Our grasp on the concept of the self is very limited because we experience it from our first-person point of view—when we say ‘I’—but we don’t really know what that thing is at all except as the bearer of these mental states.”
Is the self, then, the sum total of, or an integration of, all my conscious states in some way? “That’s a Humean view,” McGinn says. “It’s another very natural view to take. Instead of thinking of the self as the substance or the entity which has these conscious states but separate from them [i.e., a soul], it is constituted by the conscious states. And because of those relations, we say there is a self that exists over time. The problem with this explanation is it seems too thin to ground the idea of personal identity, as you existed at an earlier time and ‘you the-self-same-thing’ existed at a later time. All we’ve got is the idea that you at a later time are causally connected to you at an earlier time. That isn’t the same thing as you persisting through time.”
McGinn reflects that “people imagine themselves to be capable of all sorts of strange things, even supernatural things, where they [or their soul] can exist independently of the brain, for example. I’m saying these ideas arise wholly from our ignorance of how the self is rooted in the brain.” But he admits that “the issue is extremely difficult because we don’t have any clear conception of what this thing, this idea of ‘I’, is. I can tell you what’s going on in a self at any moment, what ideas the self has, but not what the self actually is. (This is one of Hume’s famous points.)”
The point being that after describing what’s going on in the self, there’s nothing left over? “Right,” McGinn says, “there’s nothing left over. You don’t encounter it in introspection, you don’t perceive it in other people (you only perceive their bodies). The self seems a kind of receding transcendent thing that is capable of strange feats.”
I offer my own way of thinking, which seems somehow forced on me. The odd thing about the self, I say, is that the more I think about it, the more I feel pushed to the absolute extremes of explanation. Either there really exists some sort of mystical supernatural dualism, or there is no such thing as a self at all (it’s just an artificial construct of all the different perceptions that we have).
McGinn agrees, putting it more cogently: “We seem to be driven toward the supernaturalist irreducibility view to avoid the eliminalist view where there isn’t any such thing as the self. In fact, one can oscillate from one to the other. But they can’t both be true, of course.”
Another odd thing, I confess to McGinn (as if he were my Priest of Consciousness), is that I’m more comfortable at one extreme or the other than at any place in between.
“That is an odd thing,” he says, “and I’m trying to give an account of that unsatisfactory intellectual predicament by saying, well, the reason you feel that you have to have an irreducible self, a transcendent thing that can survive death, or eliminate it all together, is because you just don’t know what it is. Thus, our imaginations are liberated in a bad sense by our ignorance.”
Nice! To McGinn, the self is real, and although how the self persists over time is a mystery, it must be rooted in the brain. But how in the brain? By what mechanisms? I can’t even imagine what could count as an answer.
But some say there is no mystery because there is no self: The self does not exist! My old friend Susan Blackmore, with her lifelong interest in consciousness, is not bashful.
“There’s no reason to suppose that there is real continuity of ourselves,” Blackmore says, “because if you look at what a body and a brain is, there’s no room for a thing called a ‘self’ that sort of sits in there and has the experiences or decides what to do. So then the question becomes, ‘Well, why does it feel that way?’ And that, to me, is the really interesting question. If continuity of self and consciousness is an illusion, why do we think it is real?”
Blackmore admits that she takes “a really radical view on this. I do a lot of meditation,” she says. “In the normal way of thinking, it’s quite easy to think I’m here now and that was also me a few minutes ago. But if you look back, you can start to see that something was listening to that noise out there and something was talking. I think what happens is that the illusion of continuity is only created when you look for it. When you ask yourself what you did this morning, or when you were a kid, the brain can pull up memories and create this story of a continuous life. So you imagine this continuous stream of consciousness every day when you’re awake. But actually, it’s not like that at all. Actually, there’s just multiple parallel things going on. And every so often, we go, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ and invent the story.”
I lob Blackmore a softball question: So the implication is that this artificial unity has no possibility of living beyond bodily death?
“Absolutely not,” she says, several times, in case I didn’t get it at first. “When you realize the nonexistence of the self, which you thought was so important, then death has lost its sting. Because there never was a ‘you’ to die. Every moment is just a new story. There’s a similarity between chapters, but there’s nobody there to tie it together. This so-called ‘me’, right now, is just another reconstruction. There was another ‘me’ an hour ago, and there’ll be still another ‘me’ an hour from now. But they’re not really the same person; they’re just stuff happening in the universe. So there’s no one to die, and so there’s certainly no one to continue after death.”
“So you’re presenting this like it’s good news?” I ask her with mock misery.
“I’m smiling,” she responds, “because it’s so beautiful when you can let go and just accept that it’s all just the universe doing its stuff. It’s not ‘me against the world’ because there isn’t really me at all.”
To Blackmore, personal continuity is a mirage because personal identity is an illusion.
“That’s ridiculous, Sue!” I want to shout, but I hesitate. Here’s what I know: If my mind is just my brain, the science drives me to agree with her that the self is unreal. I’d be discomforted by the loss of personal status, but not displeased because I’d know truth.
But suppose the mystery of personal identity is not so simply solved. Suppose it’s founded on wholly different principles. Could artificial intelligence provide clues? Futurist Ray Kurzweil asserts that nonbiological intelligences will soon dwarf human intelligence, and that this “singularity” can help reveal what the self is all about.
The binding together of all our sensations into personal identity, Kurzweil says, “is only coherent if you consider yourself to be an information structure, a pattern of information that persists. I like to use the metaphor of the pattern that water makes in the stream as it goes around rocks. That pattern can stay the same, hour after hour, maybe year after year, but the water is completely different every millisecond. But it does have some continuity: The pattern stays the same. That’s really a very good analogy to what we are. The particles [that constitute us] change very quickly. Our cells die and are rebuilt, reconstructed on a regular basis. So I’m not the same stuff I was a matter of days ago. But I am very similar to the pattern that I was. So we are not physical stuff. Our identity is a pattern of information.”
What does this imply about the identities of nonbiological intelligences of the future? Will they have a similar sense of personal identity? A pattern is a pattern!
“Yes,” Kurzweil says, “we’ll eventually be able to capture all of the salient details that constitute ‘me’ and re-create that entirety in another substrate, and that [entirety-in-another-substrate] will have a personality just like mine and will have an identity. Computers will be able to simulate individual minds. And I use the word ‘simulate’ advisedly because they really will be able to re-create all of the informational processes that take place in the human brain. So those will be the equivalent of human brains. And if we say we have an identity, then that will apply to these entities as well.”
At that point, will there be any residue of the human personality—residue of any kind—that is not represented in that nonbiological entity?
“I don’t think so,” Kurzweil responds. “I think we are sets of information. If one were to say ‘yes’ to your question, you’re positing either something nonmaterial or some new type of physics in which consciousness resides, and I don’t think that actually makes sense. I think consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system. If you could copy me and then find out it’s not quite right, well, that’s because you got it wrong. But if you get it right, the copy is going to be precisely like me, and if I’m conscious, then it will be too.”
But I wonder: If the copy of you is precisely like the original you at that instant, it’s there and you’re here, it’s conscious and you’re conscious, there must be something different! They can’t be absolutely identical because they have independent existences and are located at different places. If you have two entities in two separate places, even if both feel that they’re exactly the same thing, there has to be some difference between them.
“This is something we routinely accept with our computers,” Kurzweil says. “Your computer can die, but you can revive it from backups. And you can completely copy the personality of your computer onto another computer—we just take that for granted. … We see that as a mind-blowing idea when we think about human beings and our sense of identity, but we routinely accept that with our machines. That’s because we don’t think machines are at human levels. But they will get there. And we’ll accept this quandary as well.”
Kurzweil has his own conundrum. “The deepest mystery of consciousness that I wonder about,” he says, “is not how I’m conscious or is another entity conscious, but why I wake up every morning and I’m conscious of certain feelings. I’m hungry and I eat breakfast. I’m thinking about the day. I’m aware of a certain person’s experiences. Why am I aware of this particular person’s experiences? Why am I me? Why am I not some person in Ethiopia? It may seem like a silly question, but that’s what I wonder about.”
To Kurzweil, the self is a “pattern of information,” and thus there is no difference in fundamental principle between a human and a machine. His logic is sound. If the mind is only the brain, nonbiological intelligences will have minds that surpass human brains.
Should I despair? Me who would wish for something more, something beyond the inevitable corruption of body and brain?
What of the millions who believe that personal identity is maintained by independent nonphysical stuff, like souls or spirits? I could ask a theist, one who is scientifically literate.
Who could be better than a physicist who became a priest? It is the grand mission of the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne to bridge science and religion. He agrees with fellow scientists that patterns of information carry the self. But as to what follows, he diverges radically.
“One has to ask the question: Can you make credible understanding of a destiny beyond death for human beings?” he says. “And when you begin to think about that, you see it’s going to involve two different requirements. First is continuity. It really must be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who will live again in the kingdom of heaven, not new characters given the old names for old time’s sake. Second is discontinuity. There must be differences since there’s not much point in making Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alive again if they’re going to die again. So you have to have both continuity and discontinuity.”
Polkinghorne continues: “When you think about the continuity side of the thing, what could make those people the same people that lived before? The traditional answer has been the soul—and very often, it has been understood in Platonic terms: There’s some sort of spiritual bit of us liberated at death that continues to exist and carry on. I think that’s a mistake. I think we are psychosomatic unities. We are not apprentice angels. We are embodied human beings. And that, of course, is essentially what the Bible both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament envisions human beings as being. So if we discard the idea of the ‘spiritual soul,’ have we lost our continuity? I don’t think so, but we will have to reconceive it.”
Polkinghorne admits his struggle. “In fact, it’s quite difficult to understand what’s the carrier of continuity for a person in this life,” he says. “Here am I, an aging, balding academic. What makes me the same person as the little boy with the shock of black hair in the school photograph of many years ago? It’s not atomic material continuity: The atoms in my body are totally different than the atoms in that schoolboy’s body. It must be the pattern in some extraordinary, elaborate, and complex sense in which those atoms are organized. And that’s what the human soul is: It is the information-bearing pattern which is the real me.”
What about life after death? Polkinghorne is a believer. “My pattern would, of course, dissolve with the decay of my body at death; but if I believe in the faithful God, as I do, it’s perfectly coherent to hope that God will remember my pattern and will reconstitute that pattern in an act of resurrection. So if I am truly to live again, I have to be re-embodied because that’s what I am as a human being. That’s the continuity side of things. The discontinuity side of things is that I’m not made alive again in order to die again, so I’m going to have to be embodied in some new form of matter. And I think it’s perfectly coherent to believe that God can bring into being such a new form of matter.”
To Polkinghorne, this “pattern of information”—this self—is the mechanism by which God, in whom he believes, can remember the person in order to resurrect the person.
Ah, resurrection. Let me assume for a moment that I believe in God: Would resurrection be the natural extension of personal continuity?
That’s a question for philosopher and believer Peter van Inwagen. I start by asking him whether we distinguish between a human person and a human organism.
“You certainly could,” van Inwagen says. “If you’re Rene Descartes, then you think that the human person is an immaterial thing that causes things to happen in the human organism, which he would call the human body. If you take the position that I take, the human person and the human organism are identical—I am the very same thing as the living organism that is right here.”
Van Inwagen supports his position with a thought experiment he calls the “duplication argument.” In science fiction, he says, the perfect duplicating machine creates as output atom-for-atom perfect with the original. “If we put a cheese sandwich there, I’m sure everybody will agree we’ll get a cheese sandwich that we could eat. What about a simple living thing like a bacterium? Would it wiggle around and be fluidlike? I should think so; a bacterium is nothing but a complicated biochemical machine. Now we can move up the biological hierarchy, the great chain of biological being—a beetle, a mouse, and so on. I would think the mouse would be alive and behave just like the original mouse. If you had taught the original mouse to find its way through a certain maze, the duplicate mouse ought to be just as good at doing that. In fact, nobody could tell the two mice apart.”
He now makes his point: “Then what happens if you put a human being there? I would think that you would get a human being that would believe that he was the original, that nobody—if it’s a man, not his wife, not his confessor, not his psychiatrist, not his best friend, nobody—could tell him from the original. If you consider the story and you do believe that that’s what the outcome is, then shouldn’t you, like me, say that the person was identical with the living organism?”
You’ve created two independent, physical personalities, I say.
“That’s right,” he says. “They are two different people. Certainly, if you stick a pin in one, only one of them feels pain. There are two people there now.”
I get back to the resurrection.
“Paul says that something survives, a bare kernel of the original person,” van Inwagen says. “And it seems to be something material. There’s no dualism in Paul. As I see it, that’s about the only thing that Revelation has to tell us on the subject. So I assume that an omnipotent being [God] somehow achieves some sort of material continuity between the dead person and the resurrected person which is identity preserving.”
This continuity must be more than just reconstituting atoms. But what else can be material if it’s not reconstituting atoms?
“There may be features to the material world that we don’t understand,” van Inwagen speculates. “Who knows what avenues are open to a material being? Maybe space and time are much different from what we think. I don’t see any reason to think that this is impossible.”
Personal identity, and its continuity across time, characterizes our selves. How could this work? Consider four ways.

1) The self is not real; it is an illusion of brain systems.
2) The self is real, but it’s a psychological construct—and still the self is just the brain.
3) There is a spiritual aspect to the self; something nonphysical is needed to make a self.
4) The self is a soul or spirit—the brain is mere mechanism.

Personally, I reject 1 and 4. The self is real, and the brain is crucial.
But is some nonphysical component also needed? I’ve wavered on this, and still I’m bothered.
As for an afterlife of the self, is this possible?

• No—if the self isn’t real.
• Yes—if the self is a soul or spirit (a story I’ve never believed).
• And yes, if God—if there is a God—resurrects the person.

That our personal identity is patterns of information seems clear. But can such patterns exist beyond brain death, whether in the hardware of computers or in the memory of God? For now, only the question—How do people maintain their identity?—is closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Colin McGinn, Susan Blackmore, Ray Kurzweil, the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, and Peter van Inwagen in “How Do Persons Maintain Their Identity?”—the 24th episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (63rd in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.

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8 Responses

  1. castel says:

    As per Brigham Young, “qualities and attributes depend entirely upon their connection with organized matter for their development and visible manifestation.”

    It is evident that there is always the definition of qualities and attributes in whatever form of organized matter. So, it appears that the noumena is inherently connected to the phenomena, and such that the noumena and the phenomena are actually in unison.

    Now, it is evident that organized matter is organized energy. And it is evident that the fundamental essence of energy is ‘motion’.

    So, by extension, energy, with its appropriate organization, is the motion, the emotion, the anima, the alma, the spirit, the soul — which is according to our common understanding, although often insufficiently articulated.

    Clearly, according to this view, the self (the ego) has got to be a psychosomatic reality in order to have the self-conscious identity. For the self to be maintained with its identity, the noumenal mind must necessarily have the phenomenal embodiment in organized matter.

    Moreover, according to the view presented above, an entity that dies in the decay of the tangible body may have self-conscious identity only if after the death of the body the self remains embodied in some form of organized energy — regardless of whether that organized energy, in relation to or relative to the rest of the cosmos, is a massless energy construct with only a ponderable mass or an energy construct with actual mass…

    Furthermore, there is also the idea that non-self-conscious identities of persons may be maintained in the consciousness of other self-conscious entities (e.g., in the consciousness of God and the gods). But this idea is not of the question forwarded above.

  2. castel says:

    Please note that I’ve brought the analyses to the fundamental level, and therefore I consider the ‘brain’ simply as an energy construct — i.e., a construct of motion.

  3. castel says:

    A suggestion from the idea that self-conscious identities are inherently connected to organized (cosmic) energy is the idea that all the definitions of psychosomatic self-conscious identities will be gone if the cosmos will eventually end in the absolute entropic demise purportedly suggested by the second law of thermodynamics.

    If the whole existence comes to an absolute stillness where all energy definitions are cancelled out into the absolute essence of chaotic voidness, then, with all organized (cosmic) energy gone, all self-conscious identities will be gone and all information will be gone.

    If cosmic energy is gone and only voided chaotic energy remains, then all forms of consciousness will be gone.

    It is evident therefore that necessarily, for consciousness and information to be preserved, the second law of thermodynamics must naturally have a limit to its application…

  4. castel says:

    As in the “metaphor of the pattern that water makes in the stream as it goes around rocks,” the embodiment of self-conscious identities is organized energy — the essence of “a complex system”, if you like. The self-concious self retains its persona only because the organized energy, the complex system, persists — and only if the systemized or organized energy persists. And this is regardless of the actual energy contents of and the actual energies passing through the particular organized energies or complex systems.

    Thus, for an example, a farty person may break-wind and pass some energy to another person and the energy diminished and passed on may redefine or add some color to the definition of each of the organized energy complex of each of the persons. But each person will nonetheless retain their unique personas, because they retain their unique relation, as particular organized energies, relative to the rest of the cosmos… :)

  5. RLK, I hope that you read this as they said you do and you understand it.

    The first thing that is very evident is the power of Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” which is generally rejected by most theorists, but still controls the modern world view.

    The second thing is the weakness of “I think therefore I am.” It is basically atomistic,and indevidualistic, I am because I think. Reducing self to thought opens it up to attack on thought which Blackmore is able to do with some effect.

    Self is more than mind. I am more than my thinking. I am my body, mind, and spirit. My body changes, but it is still me, whether I am 1 day old or 100 years old. Credit that to my DNA if you will. My mind changes and grows but it is still contains my thoughts and ideas. My spirit by which I define who I am, my personality if you wish also changes, but it is still me.

    Thinking is too narrow a basis for self, especially if thinking is limited to conscious thinking as we normally assume. Humans are “thinking” unconsciously all the time. Other animals have brains and think, but are not conscious and self-aware.

    The basis of self is relational. When we wake up in the morning we do not have to guess who we are and where we are. We do not have to reestablish our aquaintances with our friends, family, associates every time we communicate with them. Even if it has been a long time between encounters, we know who they are and they know us.

    By trying to reduce reality to the physical western scientific thought has lost sight of the relational or connectional. This has found favor with those who would glory in their individualism and those who would deny responsibility for their actions.

    However this point of view is directly opposed to western culture and democracy. I am most concern for the future if this point of view, which seems popular judging by the following of Dawkins and Dennett, takes root.

    Yes, if the self is real and relational, which it is, then it can resurrected by God Who is the Source of the relational character of reality.

    Interestingly Paul is talking about is the resurrection of the BODY, not the continuation of the soul, which everyone believed was immortal and did not die. Christians believe in the eternal life of the body, mind, and spirit, even though Paul says that the body is a spiritual body, thus affirming the eternal importance of the body in the face of Greek contempt for the physical, which moderns conveniently ignore.

    Of most people like RLK begin with the assumption that God does not exist, and therefore resurrection does not take place, and therefore it is likely that self does not exist. That is, begin with assumptions and base our views of reality on these assumptions, rather than the relational reality of self that we experience every day. Love is stronger than death.

  6. castel says:

    It appears that, in the existence, we fundamentally have the space, wherein we (our bodies) have our corporeality, and the time, wherein we (our minds) have our abstractions. We have space and the corporealities which are sensed by the body/brain and which are characterized by their motions in space, and we have time and the abstractions which are apprehended by the mind and which are characterized by their durations in time.

    We have abstractions of the corporeality and their corporeality. We also have the pure abstractions which are without corporeality — for instance, time is purely an abstraction, time has no corporeality.

    Evidently, we therefore have the corporealities of persons and we have the abstractions of persons.

    When persons die, however, what apparently remains are our abstractions of the dead persons. But there are those who say they experienced the ghostly corporealities of dead persons; so, to them, dead persons are both corporeal and abstract…

    So, it appears either that the personas of dead persons become pure abstractions, in the minds of the living, and in the mind of God, when they die, or their personas remain embodied in ghostly corporealities that occupy space with the relative measure of independence as organized entitities — and such that the big difference is simply that dead persons are not as corporeal as living persons who have their living bodies of flesh and bones…

    Now, the implication is that if dead persons have their corporeality, no matter how ghostly, they should still be detectable if we have the proper equipment, the purer eyes to see. We need ghost busters — anybody?… There’s the other problem of course — if dead persons remain corporeal in space, where in space are they? where’s the prison of the spirits in prison? where’s the paradise of the spirits in paradise?

  7. Dina says:

    With all that being said my self can’t help but conclude that we are all just energy. The very same energy that we tapped into making technology come to life. Today your are a person. Tomorrow you may die and at that very moment of your death, the energy use to power you ( yourself) can be pulled too power something else- like a computer. So the real question is this. Is energy in the universe constant? My question is can specific energy be reserved and redistributed at a later time? Is all energy the same?…

  8. Abhishek says:

    Great post!
    i would like to add my view on this:
    Identity, knowledge,experiences, thinking all these implies time. Here, ‘I’ is the Image of myself which i have formed through my past knowledge, my past experiences etc.. Image can change over time so it isn’t fixed. Is there a quality of Identity which is completely different from my self formed Image of myself? There must be.. how do we know it? I think we will never be able to explain it ‘being in time’. That quality of Identity lies beyond time and space, it cant be changed or reformed, that just exists! One can achieve it if he/she could end the physiological time.

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