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Reduction to Open Individualism

by Iacopo Vettori - September 2016

Chapter 1: The problem of definition and persistence of personal identity

1. To manage the problems of definition (what makes you you) and persistence (what makes you remain you through all your physical changes) of personal identity, there have historically existed two families of theories: dualist theories and reductionist theories. There has been less support for dualist theories these days, because they appeal to something that is not detectable in our physical world. This makes them unfalsifiable theories, and for this reason they are not much considered in the current scientific and philosophical debate. However, for the sake of completeness I will not exclude them. I think that every mental phenomenon has a physical counterpart, but as you will see, my critique of personal identity is mainly directed against the identity of all physical entities, so some readers may think that dualism could offer an alternative solution. I think that even a dualist solution cannot work, and that Open Individualism offers a better solution which overcomes the most important problems that cause the contraposition between the reductionist and the dualist theories.

2. Briefly, dualist theories postulate that our personal identity is determined by a soul or a surrogate of the soul, meaning that there is something that is not detectable by physics that has a defined identity and therefore each of us has their own defined personal identity. This answers the need to define the identity of a person (you are your soul) and explains its persistence (your soul does not change as you grow older). Some theories may claim that the soul has some characteristics that are not reducible to anything physical, others may regard it just as a placeholder of personal identity. In my view, these differences do not matter. Beyond the problem of unfalsifiability, the crucial defect of dualist theories is that if we suppose that the personal identity of every person is defined by their soul, the reason for the existence of your personal identity is doomed to remain forever without any rational explanation: you have to acknowledge that you find yourself being a soul with your own personal identity, but nobody will ever be able to explain why your soul and your personal identity had necessarily to exist. You should take this fact as “given”, as if you were predestined to live your life, from the beginning of time, and no questions can be asked about it. I will discuss this in more detail later, when speaking about the Individual Existential Problem.

3. To avoid dualism, reductionist theories of personal identity have to appeal to something physical to which to reduce personal identity, but this ends up creating more questions than answers. These theories have been discussed by many reductionist philosophers and are analyzed by Derek Parfit in his book Reasons and Persons, published by Oxford University Press in 1984. The problems these philosophers have discussed cannot have a satisfying answer because they try to define personal identity by anchoring it to the identity of objects, supposing that objects could be a solid ground for this purpose, when actually grounding identity in objects has many problems, as we will see. Moreover, the persistence of personal identity becomes so difficult to explain that Parfit and other thinkers give it up altogether, saying that actually we gradually change our personal identity over the years.

4. At the beginning of the part of the book that addresses personal identity, Parfit makes a distinction between qualitative identity (such is the identity of two things made in the same way) and numerical identity (such as the identity of a thing that actually remains the very same thing in time). Initially, he says that personal identity is about the numerical identity of each person, but eventually he concludes that in a reductionist view, personal identity has to be reduced to qualitative identity, except when more than one person has the very same qualitative identity. This exception raises more questions than it provides answers, so the debate remains open. Anyway, Parfit’s work identifies in Psychological Continuity and Psychological Connectedness the source of the sense of self. Psychological Connectedness is the holding of some direct psychological connections such as having the same memories, intentions, desires etc. Connectedness can hold to any degree. The connectedness is considered strong if there are enough direct connections between two psychological states. Psychological Continuity is the holding of overlapping chains of strong connectedness. These concepts are very important in considering the Open Individualism framework, because they constitute our illusion of being different subjects of experience, of having separate personal identities.

5. On the reductionist view, a person’s psychological state can be mapped onto the physical structure made of neurons in our brain. Other philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, think that personal identity necessarily depends on the fact that our brain is a mass of matter different than that of other brains, that it is independent in its structure. This means that it is the matter itself which has a specific identity. Both these theories have trouble with the persistence of personal identity over time, because both the matter and the structure of our body change gradually in time. Parfit thinks that our personal identity changes gradually whenever Psychological Connectedness does not hold any longer between the current and a previous psychological state. Parfit does not define how long Psychological Connectedness must hold sufficiently strongly to avoid the changing of personal identity; it is possible to imagine it not lasting more than a single instant, shrinking the lifetime of a single personal identity towards zero. This is why Daniel Kolak named this view “Empty Individualism”. In the extreme case, we should imagine being frozen in a single instant of time, subject to the illusion that time flows. I find this view claustrophobic, but to dismiss it definitively, we have to consider the Individual Existential Problem discussed later. Other philosophers are inclined to think that a persistence based on a mixture of material and structural elements may allow personal identity to hold for an entire lifetime or a shorter period of time, but anyway longer than a single instant. Actually, no mixed model can currently properly answer every problem that arises. The important point is, all the reductionist theories of personal identity regard personal identity as depending directly on the identity of the physical object of your brain or a bigger part of your body. For this reason, to criticize this concept of personal identity from the ground up, we have to criticize the identity concept when applied to inanimate objects.


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