2.2 – Personal Identity

We are looking at the idea that ‘you’ remain ‘you’ throughout your life, that you do not become a different person in your old age than you were in your youth.

We have several ideas of what it means to be ourselves, and most can be reduced to a few basic factors that define who we are, as distinct from every other person:

  • Body.
    • We see ourselves as distinct from every other human because we have a unique genetic structure. This has its exceptions, like twins, but holds true for the most part.
  • Mind.
    • We each have a unique and distinct set of memories, which define our personalities. These memories are the baseline from which we draw our conclusions about the world, and thus, make the decisions we make.
  • Spirit.
    • While the previous two are vast, we could define in exquisite detail every aspect put forth. We could create a simulation of a biological structure, and calculate the firing of every neuron in a person’s brain. What we can’t define, and what a lot of cultures and religions use to explain personal identity is the soul. The soul is a non-corporeal aspect of our existence that contains our identity, in the event that our bodies and minds need repair, ‘we’ remain intact.

For the purpose of this argument, let us exclude the body aspect from our definition of the self. I would like to do so because, as is well known in medicine, the cells of your body deteriorate, die, and are eventually replaced. This happens regularly, and at such a rate that you are considered to have been completely replaced by new cells in between 7 and 10 years. If we base our definition of self on the body, then, we are no longer ourselves after 10 years. We do not consider this to be reasonable as a society. So that leaves us with our mind, and a new concept I will put forth which I like to label character, but we will get to that later.

If we only define ourselves by our mind, that is to say, our memories and personality, then we must admit that we are not static over time. We change as time passes, as our learning increases. We are not the same person we were when we were young. In fact, according to all major religions, our spirit grows as we grow, meaning that none of the three aspects of self remain the same as time goes along. If we consider ourselves to be the Ship of Theseus, all three of our ‘parts’ have been replaced. Therefore, if we are all replaced, we must be different people. To make us unique and constant, then, I need to introduce a concept that I believe to be static, and thus the definitive explanation of who we are.

So now, I need to introduce a new aspect of self, one which I think helps to solve the problem a bit.

  • Character.
    • This aspect of self needs a bit of explanation. I propose that we are not fully ourselves, unless we have other people in our lives. Our metaphysical existence is dependent on the ideas other people have about us. We literally are what others think of us. This would mean that we can only be fully defined if we take into account the names we are given, the ideas we are in the minds of other people.

We now have a more solid idea of why we remain the same. There is, floating through time and space, a creature whose name remains Jonah to all who know him, no matter where on the space time continuum you find him. This, I believe, may be a viable definition for why we remain the same person throughout our lives. But even this has its flaws. Suppose you were to meet someone, briefly, and engage immediately in an angry discourse. If their entire perceptions of you are reliant on that event, would you not then, be known, or rather, defined, by anger and frustration? Perhaps this means there must be a threshold of interactions before a person is allowed to define you.

Better yet, let’s use a concept from math to help out here. In numerical analysis, a branch of math dedicated to looking at numerical answers rather than a general analytical solutions to math problems, we come across a concept of iteration. This concept helps to solve problems that cannot be solved any other way. There are various methods for solving these problems, but the idea of iteration is that you choose a number randomly and use that number in an equation. Next, you make the number that you got out of your equation your new starting value, and you try the equation again. Each time you do this, your answer changes, until the change from the previous answer to the next answer is almost nonexistent. At this point, you have found what is known as a numerical approximation of the solution to that math problem. In the same way, let us consider that our first encounter with a person forms in our minds a rough outline of that person. Subsequent interactions with that person will then slightly alter the definition of them in your mind, until one day you no longer change what you believe about them by interacting with them.

I think, however, the previous idea bring up the best definition for who a person is, thus why they remain the same person. I will define it as a new trait of self, but first, I need to create a thought experiment.

Suppose you have a pair of identical twins conceived in a lab and grown in a tank. These twins were placed in separate, identical rooms at birth, strapped to identical chairs, and given identical educational videos at the same time. The two rooms were attended by people who were placed in an elevator and taken to one of the two rooms, without knowing which room they were entering. Both of the twins were known by the same name. Baring all side effects of the horrible mistreatment of these children, what difference is there between them. They are known by their attendants as the same individual, they have the same biological factors, and the same experiences. What is the only difference between them? Their location is the only defining factor between them.

  • Locale.
    • This seems a bit odd at first, but when we consider it, it may be our best solution. If you are to be approximated as a spherical mass moving through time and space, and slowly diffusing matter in and out of your boundaries, the best definition of who you are is the path you took. At any point from the beginning of you to the end of you, there was a space that you occupied. Moving from place to place altered where in space-time you were stored, but the fact that space-time was occupied by you, and in the next moment that occupied space moved means that you moved with it.

This may sound like I agree with you in your assertion of perdurantism, but not so. I am not saying that you are the path you took. I am saying that the space you occupied is you, and that space moved as a function of time.

So tell me this, are you sure ‘you’ remain ‘you’ even though all the other factors of your existence change? We want to know why you do not take on a new identity as you age, but I believe this is a loaded question. Before we try to ascertain whether we “snake” through time or simply endure the passing of time, I believe we should look at whether or not we do remain the same.



– Jonah