Home > Philosophy > Identity Crisis: An informal presentation of the problem of personal identity.

Identity Crisis: An informal presentation of the problem of personal identity.

Here is something I wrote a few months ago but never posted. It is my pre-research thoughts (partially edited) on the problem of personal identity. As such, it is quite informal and perhaps easier to understand than the paper I recently wrote for my philosophy seminar.

Here is a problem:

I don’t want to die (no, this isn’t the problem yet). Or more precisely, I want to live forever. So I devise a way for this to happen. First, I clone myself down to the smallest detail. This is not merely a genetic clone. This clone is an exact replica of myself, including memories, personality quirks, and the rest of my psychological traits. To make this work, I am examined by all the necessary scientific experts and their machines that copy all of the necessary information and store it in a hard drive. They can then use their “God” machine that uses the stored information to construct a copy of myself: flesh, bones, and the rest.

The initial plan is to delay the creation of a clone until I have died. Once that happens, scientists would then be given permission to create another me. As I was cloned at the age of (say) 25 years old, a 25 year-old me would walk out of the machine. And once that person died, the process would repeat and I would, presumably, have the potential to live forever (or nearly so). (Also, let’s assume that upon each death, scientists copy all of my newly acquired psychological traits and store them so that each new clone is always exactly similar to my previous self.) But I am curious. I want to see if it works now. So these scientists test it and to my surprise it works. I walk out of the machine.

But wait, I don’t walk out of the machine. A clone of me does. As myself, I am still having the first-person experience of seeing a machine and a person who looks like me emerge from it. I am not having the experience of emerging from a machine and seeing a person who looks like me standing still. And I am certainly not experiencing both.

Then I think to myself, “That makes sense. This is a clone, after all. I am myself and he is himself.” But this poses a serious problem to my life-after-death solution. If this clone–which looks and acts and thinks and remembers exactly like me–is not me, then what makes me think that a new clone, constructed after my death, will be? It seems to be the case that when I die, I die. There can be an exact replica of me living–and to outside observers it will seem as if I am indeed still living–but I won’t be. I will have died and my first-person experience will have ended.

As an interesting thought experiment, imagine that one of your closest loved ones dies but is replaced by an exact replica without you knowing it. So as far as you are concerned, your loved one is as fine as ever. But then imagine that, eventually, you come to find out what has really happened and that your loved one has been dead for a few years or months. Although on all appearances it certainly seems that your loved one is still alive, you come to realize that somewhere along the way the person you loved is gone. This is an intuitive way to show that although A and B might be exactly similar, A is not identical to B. If this is right, this poses a serious problem for films like Deja Vu and perhaps even The Prestige…although in the case of The Prestige I think the problem is acknowledged, which adds to the overall impact of the ending. More importantly, however, it poses a problem for our conception of personal identity: if the clone is merely exactly similar to me and not identical, then what does personal identity consist in (our psychological traits, our brains, our bodies)? In other words, do we even know what personal identity is: what makes it that the person I am now is the same person 10 years ago or 1 day ago? The test case given above concerning the clone is formally known as the Reduplication Problem. Such a problem has served to completely and utterly destroy our intuitive conception of personal identity.

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  1. 01/10/2009 at 6:24 pm

    I haven't really thought about this much, so pardon my novice question. What is our "intuitive conception of personal identity"?

  2. 01/11/2009 at 1:47 am

    Umm, I suppose that each individual is a self, an "I" that is continuous over time. That I am the same person as the person you spoke with yesterday and the same person who did X, Y, and Z 10 years ago, and who was born 22 years ago on such and such a date in a certain place. Perhaps I shouldn't say "intuitive," but the Reduplication Problem has made philosophers struggle to determine what it is that our personal identity consists and as such, has resulted in some rather bizarre proposals that seem completely counterinuitive. The result is that what we essentially don't quite know what personal idenitity is…or if we do know, it is much different that we naturally or intuitively might have thought.I can post my paper but it is quite long and somewhat technical. Perhaps I could post a few portions of it and explain the problem more thoroughly.The central problem of personal identity is determining what our personal idenitity consists in…or what makes some person P2 at a time T2 the same as an earlier person P1 at time T1. Another way to ask this is to ask: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity over time. Or what is it that makes you the same person as that person yesterday that did this and that and said this and that and so on?

  3. Ben
    01/15/2009 at 11:51 am

    What are you a psychologist now?

  4. 01/15/2009 at 3:08 pm

    Nope. Tis all philosophy.

  5. 01/20/2009 at 8:30 pm

    Good thoughts, Mithrandir. I had a similar example in my mind where somebody has a terminal illness and gets offered by the doctors to be recloned to a state before the illness kicked in. The patient agrees – and in fact dies – while the healthy clone takes over his life with all his memories. Everything is back to normal for his family and friends, however not for the orginal person who died in the first place. Well, if I was the clone this would keep my mind busy for some time struggling to find "my own" personal identity.
    Here's quite a good read on the subject:

  6. 01/20/2009 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks. And yes, that is also a good example.

    I have not read the book you mentioned but I have read various other
    books/journal articles on the subject. It's such a fascinating topic
    that tends to bring out the limits of our understanding.

  7. 01/21/2009 at 1:20 am

    The book is a collection of essays about this subject and references
    back to the philosophy of John Locke. Not something you want to read
    like a novel but more to get some new ideas around this mind game.If
    you have got some time on your hand I wouldn't mind some links to your
    sources. Also if you know about some forums dealing with this subject ?

  8. 01/21/2009 at 4:38 pm

    I don't know of any forums, sorry. The primary source that I used was:Personal Identity by Harold NoonanIt is sort of an introductory text but it is far from easy reading. Another book: Personal Identity (Great Debates in Philosophy) by Shoemaker and SwinburneSwinburne is a religious philosopher who advocates for what Derek Parfit has called the Simple View: the view that our personal identity consists in some non-analyzable and ultimately non-material substance. Shoemaker is a materialist and obviously opposes this view.Another book consisting of a collection of essays by one of the great moral philosophers of our time: Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams. In the first essay–"Personal Identity and Individuation"–Williams proposes The Reduplication Problem for the first time.Another groundbreaking article in this field is Derek Parfit's "Personal Identity." Unless you have access to journal articles, I'm not sure how else to get it. Although I haven't read it, I'm sure he covers much of what he says in that article in his book: Reasons and Persons.

  9. 01/21/2009 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you for that, Mithrandir. These authors all have an essay in the book I mentioned above (except Noonan). I will go after Bernard Williams book first which interests me the most for now.
    Personally I think we all reduplicate ourselves over time, i.e. make a copy of ourselves from time unit to time unit taking with us all memory and traits and this way provide some sort of continuity. Given that the previous copy of us disappears in the past you could argue that this is rather a move than a copy but anyhow the principle is the same.
    In this context death means the end of the copy line but when mourning about a lost one it's probably good to remind ourselves that we all (still living people) have "died" and are still constantly "dying" in the sense that we as that younger person are as much not around anymore as the person we grieve about – meaning that both of us are in fact dead (from this present point of view) and alive (in the past).
    Hope that makes sense – it looks like our language is not really designed for that kind of talk (and if somebody still manages well then they won't be understood by the audience anymore ;>). Thank you for your time.

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