Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paiden Gyal - The Problem of Personal Identity

Paiden Gyal is a new contributor to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), a Tibetan (Buddhist?) and a student at Duke University, majoring in philosophy and political science.

The Problem of Personal Identity

Paiden Gyal
Paiden Gyal

Posted: Aug 19, 2012

Is there a “self”? Or not?  A new - Tibetan - IEET contributor examines the notion of “personal identity” via both Western and Eastern philosophies. 

The notion of personal identity invites two major questions: First, what is it to be a person? The most contested notions that the self is simply the mind, the body, and the how they interact. Thus, selfhood can be seen as the mind, the body and how they interact with each other. Second, what is it for a person to be the same person over different times? In other words, what is it that persists the continuity of personal identity over different times?

It is the second question this paper attempts to wrestle with by critically examining and deconstructing different theories of the personal identity while defending the position of no-self theorists like David Hume and Mahayana Buddhists.

The question of what is it for a person to be the ‘same’ person is misleading as nothing remains exactly the same over time. Therefore properties, physical or mental, are qualitatively similar or numerically identical can be considered. Compare a man at adulthood to the early years of his life. Natural growth and the development of a personality mean the grown up man is qualitatively dissimilar and numerically not identical. This leads us back to the question of what exactly it is that constitutes a person? What is it that counts as criteria for judging personal identity? Let’s look at the Lockean view of the self; Locke’s notion of memory is founded on the Cartesian view of the person as distinct from other sentient beings.

Locke argues in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Volume 1, “a person stands for; — which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places” (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding ). He famously puts it being impossible for anyone to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive and therefore it is this consciousness that is inseparable from thinking (Locke). Apparently, Locke’s criterion for judging personal identity is the continuity of consciousness, or memory of a person over different times and places. A person is a rational thinking thing whose identity over time is preserved by the continuity of consciousness as mediated by memory (Locke).

However, there is a serious problem with the notion of consciousness as the defining characteristic of personal identity. Thomas Reid argues how this might lead to some strange consequences. The consciousness of person A can be transferred to person B through brain transplantation. The question, then, is that who is this person who has person B’s memory and vice-versa? This implies that bodily continuity is essential in retain personal identity. A quintessential example of this problem is presented in Franz Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis, in which the main protagonist, the salesman Mr. Gregor, wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a giant bug. Kafka tries to express the relationship between bodily integrity and personhood, by displaying the deficiency of consciousness as the criterion for personal identity.

If neither the body nor the consciousness is a valid condition for judging the persistence of personal identity, what is there for a person to relate to himself as himself over different times and places? Then, is the notion of self just an illusion? This question brings us to the Scottish philosopher, David Hume’s notion of self from the illusion theory. The illusion theorists of personal identity hold that there is no self that persists through time and space. Our personal identity is in a constant flux. To think that we persist through time is an illusion (Rauhut: 109). Hume argues in his A Treatise on Human Nature; “…when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. This provides an objection to Locke’s consciousness theory and also refutes all attempts of philosophers to present a fixed self.

Hume’s argument makes the case that there is nothing that exits as a constant or persists through time but a continuous fluctuation of perceptions that we encounter if we immerse ourselves in deep contemplation about the self. To put is more precisely, Hume argues that the “mind is a theatre, where perceptions successively make their appearances; pass, repass, glide away and mingle in an infinite variety of posture and situations (Hume)” and it is those successive perceptions what constitute the mind. Thus, a person is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which are in a perpetual flux and movement. Hume denies the existence of self by claiming it as a mere illusion.

A possible objection to Hume’s bundle theory is the lack of exposition on the relation of the perceptions and how these are bundled together. This seems to be a major loophole in Hume’s argument for nonexistence of the self. However, Buddhism gets around this problem for it also makes an argument for no-self. Buddha, in the first sermon, dhammacakkappavattana sutta, explains that the individual is nothing beyond a composite of ‘five aggregates’ or ‘five heaps’: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. None of these five heaps can be seen as eternally substantial (Rauhut: 144).

However, it is important to note that Buddha’s notion of no-self (anatman) is rooted in the ontological doctrine of the Middle Path which rejects both views of existence and nonexistence by pursuing a mean between the two extremes. The most celebrated paradox in Buddhist philosophy argues that “emptiness is form, form is emptiness (Bigview)”. It means that there is nothing that exists inherently on its own aside from mere mental projections and the forms that we ourselves project. It is a relational phenomenon.

This is same with the notion of self as it is composed of the ‘five heaps’, which are mere forms and the form is emptiness; whatever is a form, that is emptiness, the same is true with feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness (Bigview). Along this reductionist argument, the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna illustrates the concept of impermanence with the analogy of fire. This raises the question of self and how it is consistent with the concept of change. He asks about a burning log, where does the wood end and the flame begin? He argues that it is in a constant state of change and this applies to all ‘things’ including the ‘self’ which are in this constant state of flux (Rauhut: 2010, 151).

However, the Prasangika Madhyamaka tradition of Buddhism objects to this reductionism of the Buddhist essentialists who posit the aggregates as the mind or the self. It argues that the reduction of a person into aggregates is tantamount to the denial of a person’s conventional existence (Jinpa, 112). The Tibetan philosopher, Tsongkapa argues that the notion of self-identity cannot be conceived of as an autonomous entity nor can it be considered as the aggregates alone. He postulates the self or the I-consciousness as a mere construct, albeit one based on our conception of the physical and mental constituents that together constitute our existence (Jinpa, 116).

Though the reductionist standpoint is attractive, it is counter-intuitive and the argument is based on the fundamental metaphysical view of the emptiness, which is problematic to see it refuting both existence and nonexistence of all phenomena. The Prasangika Madhyamaka tradition posits self-identity as a ‘mere I’ in the name and form based on the supposition of conventional and ultimate reality of Madhyamaka metaphysis (Jinpa, 117). The conclusion seems similar to what the illusion theorists of personal identity might argue, as it holds self-identity as a mere construct, however the arguments leading to this conclusion differ from the illusion theory.

Works Cited

  • Hume, David (2011). A Treatise of Human Nature, Kindle Locations 1-2). Kindle Edition.
  • Jinpa, Thupten
 (2002). Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for The Middle Way, New York RoutledgeCurzon, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Locke, John (2004). An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 (Kindle Locations 1-2). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
  • Kafka, Franz (2008). The Metamorphosis (Kindle Locations 4-8). LeClue 22. Kindle Edition.
  • Rauhut, Nils CH.
2001 Ultimate Questions: Thinking About Philosophy, Library of Congress, Cataloging-in-Publications Date, New Jersey.
  • Rauhut, Nils CH.
 (2010). Readings on the Ultimate Questions, An Introduction to Philosophy, Library of Congress, Cataloging-in-Publications Date, New Jersey.
  • Internet references
The Big View: (accessed: 11/8/2011)
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (accessed 12/28/2011)

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