Re: A calculus of personal identity

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Wed, 12 Jul 2006 21:00:52 +1000

Brent Meeker writes:

> I would say that what makes a statement like "we're the same person from moment to moment" true is
> that it's an inference from, or a part of, a model of the world that is "true" in the provisional
> sense of scientific theories, i.e. it subsumes and predicts many emprically verified observations
> (e.g. if I wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you your name you'll reply 'Stathis') and
> it has not made any falsified predictions. So in this sense we could say that our model of
> personhood is better than that of the day-people - not in the sense that we can show theirs is
> false, but in the sense that ours has greater predictive power and scope.

If I were a day-person and you woke me in the middle of the night, I would say that the person who went to bed last night was Stathis-1 and the person now awake is Stathis-2. I would agree that Stathis-1 and Stathis-2 are comprised of mostly the same matter and have similar mental attributes, but the fact remains, the brains of my species have evolved so that waking up from sleep makes them believe they are a new person. This isn't a model or a theory; it's more like reporting that I'm hungry, or frightened. Philosophical problems arise when this feeling of continuity of identity (or lack of it) is equated with some empirical fact. It happens that in our own evolution physical and mental continuity has been strongly correlated with the subjective feeling of continuity of identity, and it is tempting to say that therefore physical and mental continuity is equivalent to or (slightly weaker) necessitates continuity of identity. However, this default model that we all use day to day is flawed on two counts. Firstly, the correlation is not necessary, but contingent on evolutionary circumstances. It is easy enough to imagine rational beings like the day-people who have a completely different approach to personal identity. Secondly, the default model is not even internally consistent, as shown in duplication thought experiments. If I am to be duplicated tomorrow and one of the copies tortured, I am worried; but when tomorrow comes, and I am not tortured, I am relieved. How is it that I "become" one or other copy when my mental continuity with both is the same? There is no ambiguity in the empirical facts, but there is ambiguity in how I experience continuity of identity - because these are two different things and there is no simple, consistent relationship between them.

Lee Corbin's solution would be that we should take the empirical facts alone - both copies are me - and dismiss the nagging feelings that make us think otherwise, but this reminds me of an old Australian poem in which a drunk is receiving counselling for his addiction: "you've convinced me it's bad for me, now convince me I don't like it."

Stathis Papaioannou
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Received on Wed Jul 12 2006 - 07:01:53 PDT

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