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Psychological Continuity Of Personal Identity Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1588 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this chapter I describe my position with regards to personal identity over time. I describe the limits of acceptable psychological change, and discuss which elements of the psyche are essential to our survival. I also attempt to address whether psychological change has a physical cause or not.

The Psychological Criterion for Identity

Sydney Shoemaker suggested the theory of psychological continuity as an improvement upon memory continuity. While losing our memories would certainly be a huge loss, it could be possible for people to maintain the same psychological life despite this. But what do we mean when we speak of psychological life? This encompasses more than just memories, including beliefs, passions, and tendencies. Clearly, our mentality changes greatly during the course of our lifetime. This theory, then, allows for a similar transition as Locke’s memory criterion. As long as I am psychologically connected to my past self, I am still the same person as I was.

Criticisms of this position

But what about almost complete personality changes? For example, people who have lived lives of terrible sins may experience a religious conversion and change almost every aspect of their lives totally willingly. Does this mean they are literally no longer the same person they used to be?

Marya Schechtman claims that if people change their beliefs, they must have empathic access to their old beliefs. This does not simply entail having a good memory of those beliefs, but being able to recall them with the same passion as when they were fervently held. Schechtman states that they must look upon their old beliefs favourably and still give them some weight in the decisions they make today. However, many people dismiss their old beliefs and do not wish to give them any weight at all, because they no longer see these old beliefs as relevant to their current decisions. Schechtman gives the example of a party girl who mellows after becoming a mother, to the point that she views her younger days with embarrassment and even disdain. According to Schechtman, this woman is not the same person as she was as a teenager.

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But it seems that maturity, and the changes in belief which come with it, are inevitable. For example, children tend to have a very self-centred approach to life and only behave in their own interests. Yet as they mature they gain a greater understanding of manners and courtesy, and are able to put others before themselves when necessary. If we must give weight to our old opinions, as Schechtman claims, we must all give the selfish child within us an opportunity to disregard the feelings of others. It seems that giving all our previous beliefs some consideration results in us giving weight to a lot of contradictory views. More importantly, Schechtman’s attempt to keep a link open to our old selves results in us behaving a manner which is untrue to our new selves.

I, however, believe what is more important is that the changes a person undergoes as they grow older and presumably wiser, are voluntary changes. As long as the changes are not somehow imposed upon the individual, perhaps as a result of brainwashing or conditioning, the changes a person goes through should not cause them to become an entirely new person.

[I believe that change in identity over time is unavoidable, unless one lives in a box from birth. The first few years of our life are spent developing an identity. After that, most of our life is spent learning and trying new things which challenge that identity. Sometimes we integrate our new knowledge (not just factual, but also societal and emotional…) into the identity we have at the time, and sometimes our old beliefs are pushed aside and replaced by this new information.]

I believe that the Ship of Theseus is an appropriate analogy for the development and changes which occur in one’s identity. The usual type of development which occurs in our identities is a gradual one, where new knowledge is integrated alongside the knowledge we already had. If, however, we were to dismiss all of our previous passions, dispositions, beliefs and opinions at once, it is difficult to defend the position that we are still the same person as we were before. It seems the only way we could defend this position is with the criterion of bodily continuity, which we have already seen is not that helpful.

From this we can conclude that what is needed for us to retain our identity over time is for the changes to be gradual and voluntary.

Some may claim that any psychological changes we undergo must have a physical cause. This has not yet been confirmed by science, though. Many psychological disorders which may affect our identity do have physical symptoms on the brain. But it is impossible to determine causality in these cases. For example, people with depression have lower levels of serotonin(?) than people who are mentally healthy. However we cannot determine whether this is the cause of the depression or the result of it. So we cannot tell whether it is brain continuity or psychological continuity which is the real issue here.

But regardless of whether or not psychological change has a physical cause, it seems the brain is still needed to encapsulate our psychology. As we discovered from the chapter on bodily continuity, our DNA is an important aspect to the continuity of our selves. This means that our psychology in a robot would not really be us.

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What Matters For Psychological Continuity

Defining psychological continuity in terms of style of thought which, though possibly a result of past experiences, do not depend upon our memories of them. Amnesiacs often demonstrate the same styles of thought as they had shown prior to their loss of memory. It is also possible that we regularly forget bits of information and later reform those memories in the same way as before.


But what if the personality change is not total? What if there remains one tenuous psychological link to our past self, while everything else is lost. How many psychological links must there be in order for our identity to live on? During the course of our lifetime the majority of our psychology changes, so majority isn’t good enough. Refers again to Ship of Theseus- perhaps if the change is gradual enough it’s okay. Problem tends to occur when the change is a majority one and sudden.

What if memories were downloaded to a robot? This would still be you according to psychological continuity. Again, suggests that the physical body is needed to encapsulate and verify the mental element (although this is dangerously Cartesian. But to be fair, the only person who objects to that is Ryle, who isn’t all that great).

Ultimate challenge: what is psychology if not, essentially, the brain? Cannot defend an argument based on a mysterious immaterial mind, but may have to resort to this until neuroscience is able to explain the location of each element of the personality.

Similarly, cause and effect cannot be established. Is the change in personality a result of a change in the brain, which seems to suggest it would be involuntary, or does our intentional change or development of personality cause our brain to work differently?

Parfit describes a scenario where a scientist attaches a number of switches to a man’s brain. As each switch is flicked, they cause the man to become slightly more psychologically like Napoleon. After half the switches have been flicked, the man’s psychology is half his own and half Napoleon’s. Once all the switches have been flicked, his psychology is completely identical to Napoleon’s. Williams argues that, as each change caused by the switch is so slight, changes in identity are subject to the same problem as Sorites’ problem and the heap paradox. This is because each change is so slight that we are inclined to say that individually they do not change the man’s identity. But if no switch changes his identity, we must conclude that when all the switches have been flicked he is still the same man he was, despite having none of the same tendencies or memories. Parfit suggests that we are simply mistaken in our belief that the question ‘Will I die when the next switch is flicked’ must have an answer. He argues that it is absurd to believe that there is a sharp borderline which is so incremental that we could never really know the location of it. Therefore, he concludes, it is far more sensible to adopt a reductionist view of personal identity. Which is?

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However, I argue that the sharp borderline which exists can be knows quite easily. While many may claim that we lose our identity somewhere around the 50% mark, where the majority of our psychology becomes more similar to that of someone else’s, I claim the distinction is much sooner. I believe that our identity is lost as soon as the scientist flips the first switch. Although the effects are minimal, our psychology has been artificially altered into something which is not the same as us. The fact that we allow this tampering simply because the effects are minimal is what lures us into the heap of the paradox.


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