Can it be indeterminate? Notes for November 17

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 table is the same table as the one that was put in Pearsons back in 1929 (say). It has some of the same parts as the 1929 table 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 table?”

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.”

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 (and I think you all did), 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. Micah likes him, so we can anticipate his entering the fray next week.

Our discussion

First, as I said, I thought it was fantastic. Really. The arguments were crisp, it was heated, but everyone listened with respect. And best of all, I just dropped out of the picture for the second half of the class. Way to go!

Of course, we didn’t necessarily reach any conclusions. But that’s often the way good discussions on difficult matters go.

Second, we didn’t discuss the official question of the day. The lines were drawn over whether a person is:

  1. a human animal or man, in Locke’s terminology
  2. or a collection of memories, character traits, and other psychological characteristics: a personality, if you will.

I’ll just note that the two tough questions for the second view were:

  1. Brittany’s: a person can suffer amnesia without dying.
  2. Eleanor’s: if remembering a past person’s experiences and thoughts is a necessary condition for being that person, then I have been blinking in and out of existence since, uh, I came into existence. Where do I go every night?

I can imagine answers.

Perhaps Yavor was on to the best way of answering Brittany’s tough question. He suggested that you might survive partial or reversible amnesia but not an irreversible case.

And maybe a person is the kind of thing that isn’t always identifiable. A sound, for example, can have interruptions. Think of a car alarm. There, one sound has periods when it’s audible and periods when it’s silent. It didn’t “go” anywhere, that’s just the sound that it is.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
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