Advanced Search

Hi there! I wanted to re-open a question that was posted a couple of years ago,

Hi there! I wanted to re-open a question that was posted a couple of years ago, by probing a bit further. This is what "Mario" asked []: "Does the individual consciousness depend on the actual atoms or only on the configuration of the atoms? Suppose we have mastered cryo-freezing and atom-manipulation technology. We can freeze and unfreeze people at will. We freeze Sarah. We replace Sarah's atoms one by one. With all atoms replaced, we wake her up. Is it the "same" Sarah? (the same to herself, not just to us)." I'd like to add that I recently heard that over a few years, every single cell in our bodies is replaced, except for a few memory cells that last much longer. But given during our lives, we WILL eventually be composed of different atoms to those with which we started, and that it is generally agreed that we nevertheless remain the same "people"/"consciousnesses" throughout, where does that leave us? If it means that it must be structure/organization of...

The problem you are raising here is actually very nicely discussed in Derek Parfit's famous book Reasons and Persons (Part III). Parfit asks you to imagine tele-transportation, where your body is carefully scanned (and destroyed in the process), the data e-mailed to some destination, and a human being constructed at this destination who is an exact replica of you, including your memories and whim for hazelnut chocolate. You'd be scared to travel this way, but seeing that others do it safely all the time, you too do it and get used to it.

Now one can ask whether the person getting out of the machine at the destination really is the same person as the one who walked into another machine at the departure point. As Allen Stairs wrote back then, something can be said for either answer. But there's a third thing one might say: once the story's been told, there is not further question to be answered. You can say what you like about sameness, the important thing is that you really have no serious reason to avoid using this technology -- provided it works, of course!

One day you travel by e-mail, the technology actually works a little better than usual. The scan does not actually destroy the person at the departure point. So now we have two people, just as you imagined in your question. As you write: if they both were identical with the pre-departure person, then they'd be identical with each other -- and this they surely are not, seeing that they are miles apart from one another and having a heated conversation with each other on the telephone (about who gets to be with hubby and the kids).

When you used the technology in the old days, when the scanner destroyed the person at the departure point, you thought of e-mail travel as being just as good as taking the train. You may be a different person each time, strictly speaking, but why mind? Parfit examines the plausibility of this attitude for the branchline case, where you are the person who survived the scanning. He imagines that the scan did damage after all and that you are going to die rather soon. Can you be as cheerful about this, in light of the person at the destination point, as you used to be pre-scan in your previous e-mail travels? It would be hard to be cheerful like this in the face of imminent death, but Parfit makes a good case that you have reason to be. So have a look and see what you think.

My younger brother, who is 13, is arguing that he will not go through any

My younger brother, who is 13, is arguing that he will not go through any drastic changes in personality and mannerisms from now until the future and therefore a child is no different from an adult. I argued in the contrary stating that he will go through a lot of changes that might radically alter his outlook on life and personality. Is this correct or does it vary from person to person?

If I have it right, your brother thinks he won't change much, because he thinks that people in general don't change much from teen years to adulthood. He then goes on to draw a conclusion: children (or at least, teenagers) aren't really any different from adults. So we have two questions. First, is the premise true? Is your brother really right when he says that people who have reached the ripe old age of 13 are pretty much as they will be as adults? That's not a philosopher's question as such, though I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that many people change a good deal after they get past their teen years. But there's another question: even if we granted your brother his premise, what about his conclusion?

It would depend, wouldn't it? It may be that people's basic personality (cheerful or prickly or inclined to fuss-budgetry...) is set by the time they reach their teen years. And it's pretty plausible that mannerisms are laid down early. But I'm guessing your brother thinks his argument gets him quite a bit more: the right to adult privileges. That's not so clear. Even if thirteen-year-olds are in many ways like the adults they will become, there's something else we can say: the parts of the brain that govern decision-making and planning (the frontal lobes) aren't ready for the corner office and the keys to the liquor cabinet. If you click here or here, you can see a couple of the many hits that a bit of googling will come up with on this topic.

This won't come as a surprise to anyone who's spent a lot of time around adolescents (not least the parents among us!) or has a good memory for their own teen years. The science is simply giving us the "why" behind something we already knew.

There are exceptions, of course. Some thirteen-year-olds are remarkably mature. Maybe your brother is one of them, though the fact that he thinks so doesn't exactly distinguish him from his peer group. But his rough-and-ready generalization doesn't get him where he wants to go, as he'll likely agree himself in 20 or 30 years.

Suppose a man commits murder and is then promptly involved in a car crash that

Suppose a man commits murder and is then promptly involved in a car crash that leads to complete loss of all his memories prior to the car crash. The police have indisputable proof that the man did indeed commit the murder. Should they prosecute? If you conclude that they should because in some sense he's physically the same person what if a murderer somehow makes a copy of themselves and then commits suicide, should the copy be prosecuted? If you conclude that they shouldn't be prosecuted because the person after the accident is a different person from before the accident what if there's indisputable evidence that all of their memories will return in 5 years? 5 weeks? 5 days? To my mind the person after the accident is a different person from the one who committed the murder and should therefore not be prosecuted. If the memories return then they should be prosecuted but we shouldn't punish them for a crime "they" didn't commit. But I am unsure as to how much of their memories need to return before...

Wow, you have come up with a case I love to use in my philosophy of mind to connect issues of personal identity to moral responsibility and "moral luck." I have students read the Oliver Sacks' case of Donald ("Murder" in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). Donald took and, while high, killed his girlfriend. He had no memory of the incident (assume this is true for now) and was found not guilty by reason of (temporary) insanity. A few years later he was hit by a car and suddenly (re)remembered the gruesome murder (offering details only the killer could know). The case raises lots of questions: Is Donald on PCP (DPCP) the same person as Donald before (DBefore)? And is Donald at trial and the next few years (DTrial) the same as DPCP? And is Donald after recovering his memories from the accident (DAfter) the same as ... and DTrial and DBefore??

And beyond these questions about personal identity, there's the question of moral luck: assuming that Donald before (DBefore) had no more reason to think he'd become a killer than anyone else planning to take PCP, should DTrial (or DAfter) be charged with murder (DPCP seems to have intentionally killed his girlfriend, as in second-degree murder)? Or is Donald on PCP such a different person that it is only fair to blame him for doing something as stupid and illegal as taking PCP but not for murder?

So far, I've basically just re-iterated your very interesting questions, but I thought the parallels were interesting. Now, how to answer them? Well, everything depends on your theory of personal identity. If you hold John Locke's memory (or same consciousness) theory, as you seem to, then it seems that DTrial should not be punished for what DPCP did since he can't remember it, but as you suggest, DAfter could be punished for what DPCP did--unless you want to bring in the moral luck worry and say that even though DAfter remembers it, he shouldn't be blamed for more than taking PCP since DBefore had no reason to think he'd do what DPCP did! Except you might think there is something bad about DBefore's character that predisposed him to murder when he loses his inhibitions! Or you might want to charge him with manslaughter as we do with drunk drivers who kill (another case of moral luck since the drunk driver who doesn’t kill may have just gotten lucky someone didn’t cross his path). And then there's the (epistemic) problem of how we can know whether DTrial is faking it or not (the problem of other minds rears it's ugly head). Even Locke suggested that we must punish the man who commits a crime while drunk and says he doesn't remember it because we can't be sure, and we have to deter others from trying to get off by committing crimes while drunk (well, he said something like that). So, as a general rule we may need to punish bodies for what they do even if they claim not to remember doing it. Or we may decide to punish bodies because we hold a bodily criteria for personal identity. If I read Derek Parfit right, he seems to suggest that our practical interests (such as legal responsibility) will set the boundaries of the conditions for personal identity (e.g., we'll just have to stipulate what to say about weird cases) rather than there being a metaphysical truth about personal identity which we then apply to our practical interests (such as legal responsibility).

I better stop before I try to deal with your case of the murderer copying himself.

What makes me me? That is to say, what makes me different from another person?

What makes me me? That is to say, what makes me different from another person? It's easy to answer in a general term. You are you, with different thoughts, emotions and DNA. But it's at DNA where the answer becomes confusing and tricky for me. As far as I am aware, DNA is the information of you, of which everything about you is first started, and where what you're current situation is stems from. Then, of course, it is probably correct to say that an exact matching strand of DNA will lead towards the exact same results after you are "born" or created (at least, to stuff that are not environmentally depending). Now, as far as i know, your brain, thoughts and consciousness all derived genetically and are not affected environmentally. So, and I'm sure this has been discussed a lot, if you where to clone yourself, you would expect somebody who looks exactly the same as you to be born. But then, what about the psychological side of it? Seeing as we both come form the same source, and all the information that...

Some of your difficulty -- very reminiscient of Leibniz, by the way -- may be caused by the word "different." Take a very simple case, two water molecules perhaps. Are they different? In one sense, they are exactly the same. Yet in another sense they are different or (perhaps better) distinct. You can tell that they are not the same in this second sense by counting: there are two, not one. And you can tell this, in turn, by attending to their space-time locations.

Similarly with your more complicated example. At any given time, there are two distinct locations at which a human being with this DNA is located: you at one place and your clone at the other. If he is living on earth, he's likely to be a bit different from you due to what the two of you have eaten and experienced. But he may be living on a planet that is an exact replica of this one, and his life may then mirror yours exactly with him thinking and doing exactly what you think and do, perhaps even simultaneously. He would still be distinct from you by virtue of his location. You are here and he is there.

Why is the continuation of the human atomic structure an insufficient

Why is the continuation of the human atomic structure an insufficient explanation for continued personal identity of an individual? If subject "a" remains subject "a" on an atomic level surely that constitutes the continuation of that subject. Arguably the atoms change over time, but not all at once. If say one atom changes on Monday, and then next on Tuesday, the very fact that an atom from Monday remains on Tuesday (even if it was the new atom on Monday) allows for the continuation of that subject. This simplistic example shows how on a basic level something of the person remains prior to the present moment.

Here's another thought experiment that philosophers sometimes appeal to in this context. Suppose someone invents a teleportation machine (like in Star Trek). The machine scans your body, vaporizes it, and then recreates a molecule for molecule duplicate somewhere on Mars. Would you survive this process? That is, would the person on Mars be the same person who stepped into the machine on earth? Or would you cease to exist, only to be replaced on Mars by someone who is exactly like you? If personal identity is just a matter of physical continuity, then you probably don't want mess around with teleportation.

If the sperm that fertilized the proper egg of one of my great-great-great-great

If the sperm that fertilized the proper egg of one of my great-great-great-great grandmothers had been a different sperm (from the one that actually fertilized it) and, apart from that, everything had been pretty the same until today, wouldn't I be me?

It isn't entirely obvious that I, say, could have been female from conception, and the assumption that the fertilizing sperm was different certainly leaves that possibility open. But if I could have been female, then your great-great-great grandfather (let's say) could have been female, and one of your great-great grandwhatever's parents would have had a hard time conceiving a child together.

Maybe that isn't the sort of possibility you had in mind. But it's not obvious how to restrict it and still get plausible results. Let's suppose you could have been the result of fertilization by a different sperm. What's so special about the sperm? Why not a different ovum, too? But now consider that other ovum and sperm. The latter could have fertilized the former even if the ovum and sperm from which you were actually formed still got together. But then are you your own twin? I don't think so. So it doesn't look as if you could have been the product of a different ovum and a different sperm. But if not, then why should only one of them be required? It's not obvious how to answer this question.

I am a different person to the person I was 10 years ago. This change has been

I am a different person to the person I was 10 years ago. This change has been brought about by various dramas and experiences that have unfolded over short and long time-scales. I didn't realise that the events were changing me until after they had affected me, so I could say that all the experiences I am having now are making a new me that I don't know and will not recognise until I have changed so much that I can clearly see a difference. So is there such a person or an individual as 'me' or am I a different 'me' at any time of my existence? Does the concept of self exist? (I really hope this makes sense!)

This is one of the more contentious and continuing questions that I've encountered in philosophy...and the way you put it makes perfect sense. So you are likely to get a great variety of answers.

I like J. David Velleman's account of triadic, reflexive selfhood: he argues that the "self" has different meanings depending on the question it is used to answer: questions about metaphysical persistence (how is the entity I call my "self" the same thing now as it was in the past and will be in the future, which I take to be the focal point of your question); about psychological self-regard (when I think about my "self," what is it I'm thinking about?); and about the generation of autonomous action (how does a particular action have its source in my "self" as opposed to some outside force or influence?). You can find this account in Contours of Agency:Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, ed. Sarah Buss (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2002), pp. 91-123, and criticism that it is overly inclusive, granting selfhood tothings like robots, in Diana Tietjen Meyers' “Who’s there? Selfhood, self-regard, and social relations,” Hypatia 20 (2005), pp. 200-215.

My own answer is that all three of Velleman's meanings can be brought together by thinking of the self as an autobiographical narrator whose story extends backward and forward in time, who creates a self-image as protagonist of the story and who authors the protagonist's actions. It might be said that the "self" is just what a given self, or autobiographical narrator, perceives itself to be from its own first-person perspective. Certainly a self is capable of transformation without ceasing to be the same self...but how much? I'd say the changes wrought by your various dramas and experiences are part of the autobiographical narrative of a single self. But there are many philosophers who would disagree, and have very good reasons for doing so.

If my mum hadn't got pregnant with me and I'd never been born, would I be

If my mum hadn't got pregnant with me and I'd never been born, would I be someone else? Sorry that isn't very well phrased, I hope you understand what I mean.

I think most philosophers nowadays would say, no: If your mother had never gotten pregnant, then you simply would not have existed. It's not a pleasant thought, at least not for you, but there you have it.

There is a lot of evidence that reincarnation is a fact, yet the proposition and

There is a lot of evidence that reincarnation is a fact, yet the proposition and evidence are ignored or rejected by western society. What evidence would have to be presented for it to be accepted?

I can well imagine that there could be such evidence. But for the evidence to be truly trustworthy, it would have to be collected by people who were neutral, more or less, on what it was supposed to demonstrate, and the evidence would have to be in some sense replicable, and to stand up to critical scrutiny by reasonably neutral parties. So far as I'm aware, there is no evidence for reincarnation that meets anything like this sort of standard, however.

Hello, I have reached a conclusion that is quite dangerous to my health and

Hello, I have reached a conclusion that is quite dangerous to my health and could lead to a lot of trouble. I need to ask someone and see if they come to the same conclusion. My question is: are you the same person you were 1 year ago or even 5 minutes ago? I figured that the self changes over time, regarding both personality and physical appearance. As you gain knowledge and change your opinion, your personality changes and you seem to be totally different then you were before. your physical appearance also changes over time, the cells in your body completely replace themselves in about 7 years (I think). Although your memory really doesnt change over time, only how you perceive this memory does, and how you perceive the world around you. To further define my question: because we are constantly changing and are becoming a new person (except for our memory which ties our life together and gives us the illusion that we are the same person) should I be living completely in the present and totally...

Pinning down precisely wherein personal identity consists is certainly a thorny problem in philosophy, which has been debated for centuries and still seems quite far from a definitive solution. I can't promise to solve it for you, but here are a few considerations that you might find it interesting to ponder:

1. Let's look at the way you set up your question: "As you gain knowledge and change your opinion, your personality changes and you seem to be totally different then you were before." You're using the same pronoun throughout, which is already enough to imply that there is just one enduring thing here to which this pronoun continues to refer. If you really believed that the things which existed in these different times really were distinct, wouldn't you refer to them in different ways? Moreover, you're attributing to change to something, but that too seems to imply an enduring identity. The very notion of change, the notion that a thing is now different from how it used to be, suggests that the same thing existed then as exists now, but merely happens to have different properties in these two different times. This, in turn, implies that the 'self' cannot simply be equated with the bundle of properties that it possesses at any given moment, and that these can come and go without any change in the identity of the self. But perhaps you might feel that it's a mistake to put too much weight on the accidents and imperfections of language, and don't feel that we can draw any valid metaphysical conclusions from the way we happen to use pronouns and so forth. In which case, then consider this:

2. How do you propose to 'live completely in the present'? It's easy enough (though imprudent) to disregard the long-term consequences of one's behaviour: but, no matter how self-indulgent and dissolute one's behaviour might be, one does still have to wait some time to reap the benefits. I'm glad that you added "... or even 5 minutes ago" to the way you set up the question, because this is a very important point. If we push your argument to its logical conclusion, you won't have any reason to care about what experiences 'you' (or, to avoid begging the question, someone very much like you) are going to have in five minutes from now, or even in just a few seconds. Suppose you were to decide: "I don't care about the future; I don't care whether I'm going to be living on the streets in a year's time, or hungover tomorrow; I'm just going to get blind drunk tonight, because tonight is all I care about." But your argument would suggest that the person (or people) who exists through the remainder of this evening is not the same person as you: so why would you care about the pleasures they are going to have in the near future, any more than you care about the pains they're going to incur in the further future? All that you can do right now is lift the glass to your lips. It takes time for the alcohol to get into your stomach, and then into your bloodstream, and finally into your brain: but, by then, and by your logic, it will no longer be your brain. So the argument in favour of disregarding negative consequences to yourself seems to speak equally against seeking positive benefits for yourself.

3. But let's suppose that the person who exists in a year, or in five minutes from now, really is a different person from you, as different from you as the person you see on the other side of the room right now. Don't we still have responsibilities towards other people? If you were to do something purely self-serving, without giving any regard to the negative impact that your action was having on the people currently around you, most people would say that you were morally at fault. Why, then, shouldn't we also say the same thing about future individuals? Even if we allow that they are not literally identical with you, shouldn't you still give them the same regard as you would to any other distinct person?