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In answering question 24759, Michael Cholbi writes: "It's important not to

In answering question 24759, Michael Cholbi writes: "It's important not to confuse the facts by which others know or identify a person and the facts that constitute his or her identity as a person. The way you and I think about Nelson is in terms of social facts about him (his accomplishments, etc.). If I were struggling to remember who was South Africa's first post-apartheid leader, you'd naturally tell me, "Don't you remember? It was Nelson Mandela."" Professor Cholbi intended that as an argument in favour of the theory that "He's not Mandela unless he has that genetic constitution." But suppose we are extremely well informed geneticists and you were struggling to remember who was the person who had the unique sequence of nucleotides CTAG repeated for 999 times between locations 1A237C and 1A324A. I would also tell you: "Don't you remember? It was Nelson Mandela." What is the difference between the genetic and the social fact? Or the difference between genetic constitution and whatever events that...

Thanks for following up. You're asking about a number of issues at once, so let's see if we can distill them out.

First, you wonder why people must have "essences" at all. That's a big question -- Hume is a well-known philosopher who can be read at suggesting that persons or selves don't exist. That 'no self'' position is a minority view within philosophy, but is arguably the position espoused by Buddha and has some affinities with the 'eliminative materialism' defended by Paul and Patricia Churchland. I'd encourage you to explore those views further.

Second, in my earlier response, the point that we might identify someone on the basis of social facts about him or her was not an argument for genetic facts being essential to a person. Rather, my purpose in making that point is to illustrate how this line of reasoning is invalid:

Whether a is F can be reliably determined by whether a is G. Therefore, G is a's essence.

To see why, suppose (again) that the way we would normally identify Mandela is by reference to social facts about him: his personal history, accomplishments, etc. It wouldn't follow that those social facts constitute Mandela's identity. After all, there are other facts about a person by which we might be able to reliably identify him or her without those facts being essential to that person. I can pretty reliably identify the comedian Carrot Top by his massive orange hair -- but his massive orange hair clearly isn't essential to him. If he cut or colored it, he wouldn't be a numerically different person. So the general point is that even if some fact can be relied upon to identify something, that fact need not be that thing's essence. And that goes for genetic facts too: If I could reliably pick out a person on the basis of her genotype, it wouldn't follow that her genotype is her essence. Of course, if some property is a person's essence then of course we can identify that person by picking out whomever has that property -- but the contrary doesn't follow. So I was not arguing from the claim that we could pick someone out on the basis of her genetic constitution to the claim that her genetic constitution is her essence. That would've been a bad argument!

That said, you're correct that I didn't offer earlier an argument in favor of our genotypes being our essences. And in general, the philosophical dialogue around this issue tends to employ intuitions about what sorts of changes a person can undergo while still remaining that same person over time. As I said, I share some of your skepticism regarding genetic facts being our essence. But for defenders of that view, it seems intuitive to think that while virtually every other fact about a person might change (including social facts) without a numerically distinct person coming into existence, a change in that person's genetic constitution would result in a new, distinct person. If you find that thought intuitive, then you're likely to think that genetic facts are our essence. If not, then it would be worth exploring what's mistaken about that thought.

I have been reading Stanford Encyclopedia's article on the "non-identity problem

I have been reading Stanford Encyclopedia's article on the "non-identity problem". I find it very interesting, but in the whole article it is assumed that one person is the same person in two alternative realities if and only if he or she came out of the same egg (genetically and perhaps atom by atom) produced by her biological parents. I find this idea very wrong. Consider an alternative reality where a man named Nelson Mandela did the same important things that Nelson Mandela did in our reality, but who was conceived and born two months later than our Nelson Mandela. Does it make any sense to say that he would not have been Nelson Mandela? It doesn't, it makes sense only for philosophers who don't want things to make sense at all.... And what if the same egg produced a person completely different from our Nelson Mandela and with a different name? Would that person be Nelson Mandela? I am sure he wouldn't, for no reason, except if you *stipulate* that it has to be that way. Now you may ask: where do you...

I'm pretty confident philosophers do want to make sense of personal identity. But you are taking issue — not unreasonably, in my estimation — with a claim many philosophers make in motivating the non-identity problem.

Let's review the reasoning that's supposed to generate this problem. Let's imagine Nelson is brought into existence in circumstances C1. In order for Nelson to have been harmed by being brought into existence in C1, then there must be some other circumstance C2 in which Nelson could have been brought into existence which would have been better for Nelson. But (the reasoning goes) in any circumstance beside C1, the individual brought into existence would not have the same genetic constitution, and so would not have the same identity, as Nelson. Hence, there is no other circumstance into which Nelson could have been brought into existence, and so Nelson could not have been harmed by being brought into existence at C1. (And the point generalizes: No one is ever harmed — or benefitted — by being brought into existence.)

You are questioning the claim that had Nelson been born with a different genetic constitution, he could not have been Nelson. This claim can be expressed more precisely:

A person's genetic constitution is uniquely essential to her identity as a person.

I.e., all other facts about person can be different while she remains the same person, but a person's genetic constitution cannot. Let us call this claim G.

One point you make to criticize G can be dismissed pretty readily. Names are entirely contingent and so don't establish identity. If I had been named Django von Mozart, I would be the same person with a different name.

Your stronger point (suggested by your remarks about "purpose or context") is that identity is better explained by something other than genetic constitution: a person's accomplishments or other social facts. Let's us call your claim S.

Particular social facts about a person are uniquely essential to her identity as a person.

That's vague but good enough for our purposes. The question at hand: Why prefer your S to G? I have my doubts about G, but here's how I think defenders of G, and those who think the non-identity problem is a genuine philosophical puzzle, would argue for G over S.

First, it's important not to confuse the facts by which others know or identify a person and the facts that constitute his or her identity as a person. The way you and I think about Nelson is in terms of social facts about him (his accomplishments, etc.). If I were struggling to remember who was South Africa's first post-apartheid leader, you'd naturally tell me, "Don't you remember? It was Nelson Mandela." In other words, defenders of G may claim that your S does well in telling us how we pick out a person, but doesn't tell us what facts constitute their being that person. (This also bears on the point about names: Names are ways of picking out or designating persons, not constituting them.)

For defenders of G, the answers to your hypotheticals are clear: In the alternative reality in which someone conceived two months later than Mandela (or conceived from a different egg) was conceived in our reality did the same important things as Mandela did in our actual world, that person isn't Mandela. Mandela's genetic constitution is essential to him: He's not Mandela unless he has that genetic constitution. Everything else about him, including all of these social facts, is contingent. Suppose that Mandela had not become a student leader at Fort Hare; had not joined the ANC; had not been imprisoned at Robben Island; etc. That would entail, according to defenders of G, that Mandela's biography was different -- not that the person in question isn't Mandela. Your hypothetical Mandela, presumably, would just be an ordinary person.

G appeals, I think, to our sense that genetic facts make us up: most everything else about us can change but we remain essentially the same. I probably haven't said enough to convince you of G, but I don't think its defenders are just "stipulating" truths about identity.

Does it actually make any sense when someone claims that they wish they were

Does it actually make any sense when someone claims that they wish they were born in a different era or location or to a different family? Sometimes, someone will say that they wish they'd been born in, say, 1950. Without thinking too hard about it, it seems to make sense. But if I do think about what they said, it really doesn't. Let's say we have two timelines. We have the first one in which the person says they wish they were born in 1950. And then we have the second one in which, for whatever reason, there was one more person born in 1950 that wasn't born that year in the first timeline. The problem I see is that there's really no way of linking these two people. Who's to say if they're "the same"? They'd have different experiences, different looks, and probably different personalities. I could see this maybe being resolved by throwing in the concept of a soul, but that doesn't really seem like a logically-sound option (if you and I (as souls) switched bodies for the day, would either of us be...

As far as I can tell western and Buddhist philosophers would probably agree that

As far as I can tell western and Buddhist philosophers would probably agree that if at noon Jones is in London and Brown is in Paris, then Jones and Brown are not identical people, because they are discernible (in this case by location). However it seems like they would disagree in the case of Jones in London at noon and in Paris at 6 PM. A western philosopher might say that while Jones in London can be discerned from Jones in Paris, this discernment is cancelled out by the fact that the two situations don't happen at the same time, as in the example with Jones and Brown, and so Jones in London at noon is still identical to Jones in Paris at 6. Whereas a Buddhist philosopher might say that Jones in London at noon and Jones in Paris at 6 can't be identical people, not only because they are discernible by location, but also because they are discernible by time. Mustn't there be something wrong with one of these views, or both perhaps? If they're both correct then Jones in London at noon is both identical...

One thing to ask is what is being referred to by the expressions "Jones in London at noon" and "Jones in Paris at 6pm." Whatever, if anything, is referred to (denoted by) those expressions would seem to be strange: a "time slice" of Jones or a "space-time slice" of Jones. Now, some philosophers do say that such things exist, which are usually called "temporal parts" of Jones. Other philosophers say that there's no good reason to believe in the existence of temporal parts.

Defenders of temporal parts would agree that the two temporal parts referred to aren't identical. But, they say, those two temporal parts can belong to a single individual, Jones, provided that the temporal parts are related (perhaps causally related) to each other in the right way.

On the other hand, opponents of temporal parts can say that a single individual, Jones, has both the property of being in London at noon and the property of being in Paris at 6pm. Jones doesn't have those properties literally at the same time but instead timelessly or atemporally.

Neither defenders nor opponents of temporal parts would be forced to say that Jones is distinct from himself or herself.

Does the identity of indiscernibles principle indicate that, for example, a

Does the identity of indiscernibles principle indicate that, for example, a person with N number of hairs, who then loses a hair, is not identical to the person with N -1 number of hairs? Unless I'm mistaken the principle is basically that entities having all of their properties in common are identical entities, but is it also true that two entities not having all of their properties in common (like Bill with N hairs and Bill with N -1 hairs) are not identical? Can entities with different properties nevertheless be identical? If so, how can we determine that Bill and Sally aren't identical, since merely not having all of their properties in common does not exclude the possibility of identity?

You're correct that the Identity of Indiscernibles says that qualitative identity (i.e., identity of properties) implies numerical identity (i.e., just one individual rather than more than one).

You then asked about the converse principle, which says that numerical identity implies qualitative identity: in other words, any individual has all and only the properties that it has. This converse principle, the Indiscernibility of Identicals, is even more secure than the Identity of Indiscernibles. Even those who challenge the Identity of Indiscernibles (such as Max Black, in his classic dialogue "The Identity of Indiscernibles") tend to accept the Indiscernibility of Identicals.

As for Bill with n hairs and Bill with n-1 hairs: The defender of the Indiscernibility of Identicals would probably insist on describing Bill's properties in a more fine-grained way. For example: Bill has the property of having exactly n hairs at time t1 and the property of having exactly n-1 hairs at time t2. Because those properties are themselves time-indexed, Bill has both of those properties: not at one time but timelessly or tenselessly. If so, then it's not that Bill has one of the properties and lacks the other, in which case the Indiscernibility of Identicals looks safe.

There's much more to be said, of course, about this interesting topic. You might start with this SEP entry.

Why is relative identity an unpopular theory? What I read generally asserts that

Why is relative identity an unpopular theory? What I read generally asserts that it is not accepted by very many philosophers, but some of the examples don't seem defective at first blush, like two copies of Animal Farm being identical stories but distinct books. What don't philosophers seem to like about the theory of relative identity?

I'm not sure why other philosophers dislike the notion of relative identity. I find it unattractive because (1) it's a more complicated notion than absolute identity and (2) I don't see how the added complication solves any problems or illuminates any distinctions that we can't solve or illuminate without it.

Take the example you gave: two printed copies of Animal Farm. I say that those items are absolutely distinct. I take it that relative-identity theorists say that the items are identical -- one and the same individual -- qua story but not qua printed book. But why not say, instead, that the two printed books are type-identical tokens -- absolutely distinct physical tokens of a single story-type -- just as multiple distinct tokens of the single word-type "tokens" occur on the screen you're now reading? The type/token distinction is already available and independently motivated. So I see no reason to invoke relative identity in order to understand the example you gave.

At any rate, the reasons for accepting relative identity that I've seen don't persuade me to accept it. Perhaps there are good reasons that I haven't seen.

How can I define myself? I'm basically a combination of cells created by DNA

How can I define myself? I'm basically a combination of cells created by DNA instructions who react to stimuli. Can I take credit for anything I do if everything I say, believe, and do is based on my genetic make-up and environment? Furthermore, how can I ethically love someone for reasons that aren't their doing? My parents tell me not to love someone for things they can't help, such as looks and intelligence, but you can't help anything you do. If I donate to charity, that's not really 'me' being a good person, it's my body reacting to my surroundings and determining it would be a good contributor to my overall survival. Is there a 'me?' Please help!!!!

I responded to somewhat similar skeptical worries about personal identity in my reply to Question 4958. You might have a look there.

To respond to your specific claims here:

(1) Even if we grant that you're "basically a combination of cells created by DNA instructions [that] react to stimuli," surely that's not all you are. In a petri dish we can grow a combination of cells created by DNA instructions that react to stimuli, but it won't submit a question to AskPhilosophers. Not all combinations of cells -- again, assuming that's what you are -- have equally impressive capacities.

(2) Even if "everything [you] say, believe, and do is based on [your] genetic make-up and environment," surely that not all it's based on. You submitted a question to AskPhilosophers at least partly based on your desire to get an answer to it and your belief that this website is one place to go; there's no reason to think you would've done so without any such desire or belief.

(3) Your parents' advice seems to be based on reasoning that launches an infinite regress: you're allowed to admire only those virtues that someone chose to cultivate, but surely a person's choice to cultivate a particular virtue stems in part from some virtuous feature of his/her character, which in turn will be admirable only if chosen, and so on ad infinitum. Why think that our concept of being admirable contains a requirement that's in principle impossible for anyone to satisfy?

(4) When I perspire on hot day, that's simply "my body reacting to my surroundings and determining it would be a good contributor to my overall survival" (if we construe "determining" in non-agential way). But why think that when I donate to charity, that's all that's going on? Charitable donation is much more cognitively complex, and much more reasons-based, than perspiration, and I think the difference makes a difference.

What defines a individual? What makes someone who they are?

What defines a individual? What makes someone who they are?

What a difficult question! I believe (but could be wrong) that you are asking a question in terms of meaning, social significance, psychology, perhaps raising an ethical matter... There are two broad, distinct views to consider: one views individual persons as part of greater wholes --either in terms of societies, tribes, families, the state or the collective, perhaps a religious community or tradition. Another views the individual in terms that are very much anchored on a person's own values, desires, beliefs, action. So, the first is a kind of external point of view: how is the individual seen or should be seen in a larger context...while the latter is more internal. I suggest that a reasonable position would take the middle ground. An extreme internal position would seem to be close to absurdity: if I think I am a great musical, athletic egg, it is probably reasonable to think I am delusional. And an extreme external position would seem to be very dangerous. In some forms of Marxism, for example, your freedom and character are assessed in ways that seem to crush the understanding that individuals have an integrity of their own.

Is my memory an important part of who I am or can I be ME without my memories?

Is my memory an important part of who I am or can I be ME without my memories?

Good question. My own take on this is inspired by works of Richard Wollheim, “The Thread of Life”, Derek Parfit , “Personal Identity” and Bernard Williams “The Self and the Future” (though Williams argues for an opposed view).

I distinguish between on the one hand, my body and brain, and on the other, my mind. I choose to think of myself as my mind. I think my mind is made of, or, as we say, ‘realized by’, my brain, in something roughly like the way a statue is made out of, or realized by, a piece of clay. The piece of clay is not identical with the statue. It existed before the statue came to be. And if the clay in the statue were very gradually replaced with new clay, over time, the statue would survive without the help of the original clay from which it was made. I also think my mind is, or is like, a set of computer programs. In manmade computers the programs are usually realized by patterns of silicon chips. The chips could exist without making the patterns, as the clay could exist without being the statue. And the programs could persist with a replacement of chips. In biological computers, the programs are normally realized by patterns of neurones.

Right now, I seem to myself to be a centre of consciousness, a thing that is aware of itself and the world around it from particular, subjective point of view. The way I and the world appear to myself in consciousness is the causal upshot of the interaction of very complex and sophisticated programs in my brain (and perhaps other processes of feeling and consciousness realised by the brain in ways we do not yet understand and perhaps never will) and the external world which affects my skin, retinas, nostrils etc. (along with internal bodily processes).

The way I and the world appear to me is thoroughly coloured by my own interpretive processes, thoughts, feelings, and preconceptions. Memory to some extent preserves this highly first-personal viewpoint. This highly personal, subjective experience, of the way things, including myself, appear to me now, will to some extent be accessible to a being tomorrow ... it will remember this.. from ‘the inside’, from its subjective first-person point of view at that time. It will remember what it is like to be me now and this will inform.. infuse, colour.. what it is like to be it then. I certainly hope so anyway, because if any being tomorrow is me, then that will be the one.

This kind of memory seems to me to be the most important thing about the persistence and survival of the self. If you wiped the memories from my brain and installed some new programs.. some other person’s memories or fake memories or whatever, then my brain and body would survive. But as far as I am concerned, that would not be me. It is like the statue and the piece of clay. If you take a statue, of say, a unicorn, then remodel the clay into the shape of say, Saturn, you would have the same clay and a new statue, but the old one would be gone. Memories shape us to make us who we are.

If a man/woman kills someone and gets in an accident then gets amnesia is the

If a man/woman kills someone and gets in an accident then gets amnesia is the person still accountable for their past actions on the grounds that they're a "new person," because they have no traits of old self?

Certainly. I now responding to your question but if, as may happen, I forget what I have said, it does not mean I am not responsible for what I have written.

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