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Thread: The Mystery of Personal Identity

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    fka lungs ashlesha's Avatar
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    Default The Mystery of Personal Identity

    The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change
    by Maria Popova

    Dissecting the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.”

    Philosophers and New Age sages have long insisted that the self is a spiritual crutch — from Alan Watts’s teachings on how our ego keeps us separate from the universe to Jack Kerouac’s passionate renunciation of the Self Illusion to Sam Harris’s contemporary case for self-transcendence. Modern psychologists have gone a step further to assert that the self is a socially constructed illusion. Whatever the case, one thing is certain and easily verifiable via personal hindsight — our present selves are unrecognizably different from our past selves and woefully flawed at making our future selves happy.

    In a remarkable passage from Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (public library), her biography of the great 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, philosopher, writer, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers the perplexity of personal identity:

    "Personal identity: What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?

    I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth. It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine; and perhaps bodily identity is all that our personal identity consists in. But bodily persistence over time, too, presents philosophical dilemmas."

    To probe those dilemmas, Goldstein pulls into question the biographical and biological criteria we use to confirm that our childhood selves are indeed our childhood selves — roughly the same criteria we apply in identifying that the world’s oldest organisms are indeed continuously living individuals. Goldstein writes:

    "The series of contiguous physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so. Mine would be as inaccessible to her … as hers is now to me. Her thought processes, prelinguistic, would largely elude me.

    Yet she is me, that tiny determined thing in the frilly white pinafore. She has continued to exist, survived her childhood illnesses, the near-drowning in a rip current on Rockaway Beach at the age of twelve, other dramas. There are presumably adventures that she — that is that I — can’t undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else or would I just no longer be? Were I to lose all sense of myself — were schizophrenia or demonic possession, a coma or progressive dementia to remove me from myself — would it be I who would be undergoing those trials, or would I have quit the premises? Would there then be someone else, or would there be no one?"

    She then turns to the quintessential threat to such bodily continuity, the source of our greatest existential anxiety and most profound longing:

    "Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself? The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead. I wonder every day whether she still exists."

    Echoing Meghan O’Rourke’s poetic assertion that “the people we most love [become] ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Goldstein writes:

    "A person whom one has loved seems altogether too significant a thing to simply vanish altogether from the world. A person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world. How can worlds like these simply cease altogether? But if my sister does exist, then what is she, and what makes that thing that she now is identical with the beautiful girl laughing at her little sister on that forgotten day? Can she remember that summer’s day while I cannot?"

    Alan Watts had an answer, but Goldstein is more interested in the question itself as a gateway to our deepest humanity:

    "Personal identity poses a host of questions that are, in addition to being philosophical and abstract, deeply personal. It is, after all, one’s very own person that is revealed as problematic. How much more personal can it get?"

    Complement with pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper on the “I” of the beholder, Anaïs Nin’s bold defense of the fluid self, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe on the mind-bending psychology of how we know who we are, and psychologist Daniel Gilbert on how your present self’s delusions limit your future self’s happiness.

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    Haikus wacey's Avatar
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    The way I think it happened.......

    Being a Smart Animal

    Once upon a time there was a creature endowed with a fine mind, and also with sense receptors that were sweetly attuned to the surrounding world and to its own delightful body. This intelligent and feeling creature could pick up sense impressions and savor them, without seeking to understand or to name or categorize any of what was smelled or heard or seen or touched or tasted. Life was a bounty.

    Sometimes the excellent mind would become engaged, processing impressions in a way that was handy. The mind was a curious processor, taking a particular kind of non-physical delight in drawing connections and conclusions. This was one of the pleasures of being a smart animal. The mind would notice similarity between one tall growing thing and another, and pronounce them trees. The sensation in the mouth was pleasing, the tongue and lips and saliva cooperating to produce a new thing, a word.

    Thus it became possible for one of the creatures to say to another, “Tree,” in the absence of the growing thing itself, and for the two of them to form in their minds a picture in common. This picture felt almost as real as an actual tree, notwithstanding the absence of the feel under the touching fingers, the distance travelled up with the eyes, the sound of the leaves in the wind, the smell of the fallen leaves decomposing at the feet of the tree.

    It came to pass that the name for a thing, which lived only in the mind and the mouth, took on the appearance of reality itself (which continued to be discernible by the senses only). The word good came into being, and also bad, and they too seemed to name something real (even though what they named existed in the mind, not in the world).

    Increasingly attuned to the mind’s version of reality, the intelligent animals created a self, to go with each of their bodies. No one noticed that each evolving self had no independent existence, outside of a mind thinking it into being. No self was discernible by the senses (unless you counted the person’s body, which everybody knew was a very minor portion of a self).

    This self appeared to need maintenance and protection. It seemed to have a continuity across experiences, which made time seem like a real thing. The past seemed real because of the mind’s ability to revisit something that had happened, and the future seemed real because of the mind’s ability to fantasize and to worry about something that had not happened.

    More and more, the mind’s picture of things was mistaken for reality itself. The mind-made self learned to invent problems to fret over, having usually to do with wishing life were other than it was. The self and the problems were so compelling that the intelligent creatures came to live not in the real world but in their heads.

    The problems spread over the earth, taking up much more room than the trees and the rocks, the continents, and even the buildings and cars. Then the smart animals, sinking under the weight of their mind-made problems, used those same minds to try to fix the problems.

    Alas, they were unable to see the only real problem. Which was this: if the mind has created the problem, it cannot hope to fix it.

    Then somebody said – Why don’t we just stop making the problems? Why don’t we stop living in our heads? And so they did, all on a single day. Profoundly relieved, with bounteous energy freed up, they turned their creativity and love to caring for one another and their dear planet. And they all lived peacefully ever after.


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