Are people special? Notes for November 18

Main points

The official question of the day was: can questions about personal identity have indeterminate answers?

That is, can it be indeterminate whether person A is the same as person B?

We say that sort of thing about objects. It’s indeterminate whether the frequently repaired lectern is the same lectern as the one that was put in Pearsons way back in the misty dawn of time. It has some of the same parts as the original lectern and some different ones that were introduced in various repairs over the years. That’s all there is to say about it. There’s no more definite answer to the question “is it the same lectern?”

If we could say the same sort of thing about Williams’s experiment, that would give us a clean-looking result. We could say something like this: “The A-body person after the experiment has the same body as A had before the experiment and similar psychological characteristics as B. There is nothing more determinate to say about whether it’s the same person as A or not.” Or, as John put it, it depends on what you mean by “person” when you ask whether A is the same person as B.

But there’s a problem. Suppose we told A that it would be indeterminate whether he would be identical with the A-body person after the experiment. How is A supposed to think about his future? Will it be indeterminate whether he experiences torture? What does that mean? It can’t be that it would feel hazy, like a drugged person. The person who experiences the torture will be wide awake and experiencing everything clearly.

If you find this as confusing as Williams and I do, then you have good reason to think that people are special. Unlike most other things, their identity over time can’t be indeterminate. We’re all or nothing creatures.

Or so it seems. Our next author will take aim at that conclusion.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted November 18, 2009.
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