Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bernard Williams on the problem of personal identity

What is it for the same person to exist over time? This is a question of perennial human concern. The issue of personal identity is one of the most perplexing of all the issues discussed so far and what renders perplexity to the issue is the fact that upon identity is based the distribution and justification of reward and punishment. The failure on the part of just distribution of reward and punishment would lead not only to the breach in moral responsibility that one person has towards other, but would also explicate the impotency of all the philosophical discussions taken so far, on the issue of personal identity. Antony Flew concludes one of his essay with the remark that “The search for the talismanic definition which shall solve all possible problems, and the search for the real essence of personal identity is...a mistake.” For this question, there can be no true or false answer, which we’ll see shortly.

But before that, it should be absolutely clear from the outset, what is it that we are seeking. And the one response which finds favor is, we are aiming at an answer to the question what is it on the basis of which we say that a person on t2 is same as that on t1? The issue with we are concerned here is the numerical identity i.e. the identity of a person over a period of time.

All the thinkers who engage themselves in finding out the answer, put forward viewpoints which, though divergent on various points, agree on at least one, i.e. since we are dealing with ‘persons’ or ‘individuals’, the criteria of personal identity should be such which “individuates”, more precisely, individuates uniquely. This also provides reasons for citing “memory” and “bodily identity” as the possible criterion of Personal Identity. They are the most cited criteria because what we call ‘memory’ and ‘body’ are the things most personal and unique in themselves. This paper would then begin with a historical treatment of the problem of Personal Identity followed by tracing the path taken by “ Bodily Continuity” theorist Bernard William and seeing how dexterously he makes consistent, the take on Personal Identity in historical milieu, at the same time keeping his treatment of the problem totally new and intelligent.

One view endorses the standpoint that bodily death is not the end of one’s personal existence. This dualist view, endorsed by Plato, Descartes, Butler, Reid and many others, is that we are a union of material body and immaterial soul. The body and the soul are different substances, one physical and the other mental, and each can exist without the other. It is the soul which gives us our distinctive identity and it does not perish when the body dies. We continue to exist in some immaterial realm. So, the Dualists hold that I am the same person from birth till now because I have the same soul. This non- reductionist standpoint views that identity consists in spiritual soul. If the soul is same, person is same.

Other views fall into two broad categories, physical and psychological. There are physical theories which identify a person with some biological item- typically the brain or the body. One good reason for preferring the brain version is that there is a possibility that a person would survive if his brain were successfully transplanted into a new body and his old body destroyed. But there are complexities in this too as far as the determination of the personal identities are concerned, which we shall see shortly. But before that it is required that we analyze a third category, i.e. of psychological theorists who refuse to make any identification of “same brain-same person” criteria. Instead, they take the identity of a person over time to be determined by the continuation of his distinctive stream of mental life. Interestingly, this stream could, in principle, continue in some non-biological item, an artificial brain for instance. What matters is that one’s mental life continues; all that is required is that there is psychological continuity/memory. On such a view, a person survives teletransportation, a thought experiment in which there is psychological continuity but no material continuity.

The propounder of this edge was John Locke, who, in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” provided the earliest systematic treatment of the problem of Personal Identity in the history of modern philosophy. He advocated Memory or Psychological Continuity as the sole criterion of personal identity which led his theory to be called “memory theory of personal identity”, according to which the identity of persons through time is ‘constituted’ by the memory that the person has of his/her past action.

Vehemently opposing this view were the views of the dualists Thomas Reid and Joseph Butler where Reid argued for the thesis that the relation between memory and identity is simply of an “evidential” nature: memory gives person evidence that he/she is the same person as the person who did something at some previous time.

Butler, for his part, demonstrated the circularity of Locke’s argument and reasoned out that the definition of personal identity in terms of the consciousness of personal identity presupposes the very thing in question. Thus, he writes-

“…one should really think it self evident, that consciousness of personal identity presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute personal identity.”

What I have done so far is to summarize the debates on personal identity in historical parlance. The ambition of the present work is not merely to do so. It, infact, focuses on the larger picture, to try to grasp the true nature of the balancing treatment given by an especially stimulating and insightful philosopher Bernard Williams, whose papers usually are admirably clear and always reward careful and sustained study. The beauty of Bernard Williams’s argument lies in his approach to the problem of Personal Identity where he puts forward two arguments: one in an argument in favor of mentalist criterion of personal identity and the other is an argument in favor of the bodily criterion of personal identity, with the conclusion that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with these arguments individually; the solution to the problem of personal identity can be taken a step further if we synchronize both the approaches together, for we will fall into an inevitable “risk” if we pay heed to only/any one of them.

The crux of Berlin’s argument is that Bodily Identity is always a necessary condition of personal identity; memory and other personal traits being the sufficient condition of the same. William, though insist on the bodily identity as a necessary criterion, defers to the claims of memory as a possible additional criterion, which becomes evident when he writes that we cannot settle the question of personal identity “merely by deciding the identity of a certain physical body…..consideration of personal characteristics and above all memory must be invoked.”

Williams begins his treat with the assertion that there are two special problems about personal identity. First, the fact that man is conscious about his own identity, and second, that the question of personal identity cannot be simply answered by recoursing to the identity of a certain physical body. The identity of the body is not a sufficient condition of personal identity, other factors, viz- memory and personality traits should be taken into account. So, if Williams succeeds in showing that Bodily Identity is not a sufficient condition of personal identity, and that it cannot work without the considerations of memory and other personal traits, then he succeeds to formulate a consistent and working thesis for the task at hand.

His first success comes when he shows, in line with our analysis that, the criteria of personal identity should be such which “individuates” uniquely, which deals with the ‘particular’. Williams shows how memory is involved when we talk of particular personality. So the paradigmatic question of personal identity, instead of being “Is he the same person as he use to be?” is “Is the (particular) personality he has now the same as the one he had before?” An answer to this question would show whether we can make sense of particular personality in terms of memory and whether there can be personal identity without bodily identity. What adds peculiarity to this endeavor is Williams formulation of two ‘obvious’but important features of memory, which are of great worth if we are examining as to whether memory be granted the honor of being the sole criteria of personal identity. The first feature lends equality to remembering and knowing. A remembers X implies that X really happened. Here ‘to remember’ = ‘to know’. Secondly, all claims to remember need not be true. To quote Williams: “not everything one seems to remember is something one really remembers”. This, then, is the shift which renders it impossible that memory be treated as the sole criterion of personal identity; but with the point that memory has to be the constituent of the criterion since it seems to be universally agreed that (if any criterion is required at all) more is required than bodily identity. And this is precisely what William aims to show in his work, that even though bodily identity is the necessary condition of personal identity, we have to defer to the claims of memory as the possible additional criterion.

Clearly, I am often justified in asserting personal identity on the basis of bodily identity, but in these cases it seems, I must be assuming that other requirements ( like, considerations of personal characteristics and memory) have already been satisfied.

We also see that Williams’s explication of ‘event’ and ‘action’ also adds another solid dimension to his project. Suppose there is a man, call him Charles, who has undergone a radical change of character and after getting up he claims to remember those actions and events which he denied doing before or witnessed before. Adding to the complexity, he now denies those actions and events which he previously claimed to have done or witnessed. William asks- Can we now say that he has a different personality? We can say YES but with riders. If Charles claims to remember doing any action then he is definitely the same person since an action is done only by one individual person (William asks us to ignore the joint or co-operative actions), his claim to witness an event might not provide solid help since an event might be witnessed by more than one person.

But if we look back at the second ‘obvious’ but important feature of memory which asserts that not all memory claims are to be taken at face value, we can say that Charles might not be the same person whose actions and events he claims to remember. What does this show but the fact that instead of our trying to put apart mind and the body, the normal operation of one ‘mental’ criterion involves the ‘bodily’ one. But what if whatever Charles claims turns out to be true? Maybe on examination we find that there are other witnesses of the events which Charles claims to have witnessed. What do we do then? Then, instead of saying that Charles had a change of personality, we’ll say that it is a case of, maybe, clairvoyance. But this leads to another ambiguous position. Now that Charles shares the witnessing of the events with number of persons, this would be amounting to say that Charles is identical with anyone who witnessed the event, or some particular person who witnessed it. And it is in the latter of the two cases that we can ascribe “change of identity” to Charles.

This was for events, we’ll now see how ‘actions’ provide better ground for the estimation as to whether there is a change of personality or not. Now, unlike events, actions have only sole doer which individuates some one person. So if Charles is claiming to have done a certain action and if there is any way we can find out who performed the action then surely we can know who he now is. William makes it all the more engrossing by assuming that Charles’s claims ‘actually’ resembles and points toward the life history of some person, say, Guy Fawkes. What do we say now? Is Charles now Guy Fawkes? Or has Guy Fawkes come back to life via Charles? It’s perplexing. But there is a subtle beauty in this perplexity because it pushes rational limits to its end. And we’ll see how William through this example brings to life the whole debate of ‘memory cum bodily identity’ criterion of personal identity.

According to Williams, this is not as easy as it looks. We might be tempted to say that Charles (except for his personality traits, skills and so on) is now Guy Fawkes, since he claims to remember the events and actions from latter’s life. We might say that except the body, Charles has become just like Guy Fawkes. But the response to this is that ‘memory’ was introduced to deal with just this. Williams writes-

“..granted that we need similar personal characteristics. skills, and so on as necessary conditions of the identification, the final-and, granted these others, sufficient condition is provided by memories…and it is these that pick out a particular man."

The thing to note here is William’s assertion that it is logically impossible that two persons should correctly remember being the man who has done the action or the man who saw the event, but it involves no logical impossibility that these two different people claim to remember the effects mentioned above. What this assertion shows is that we are under no obligation to accept whatever Charles is claiming. We need not grant him the identity he seeks because there is a possibility of a third person claiming the identity which Charles does. It is very much of a logical possibility that just as Charles has undergone a radical twist of personality, similar change is experienced by some third person, say, his brother Robert. What now? There can be at most two possibilities-

Both Charles and Robert are Guy Fawkes, which is absurd because it leads to the implication that Guy Fawkes would be in two places at once. Another major absurdity would be that both Charles and Robert are identical with each other since they are identical to Guy Fawkes.

Now that we cannot ascribe identity to both, we can at best say that one of them is Guy Fawkes and the other one is merely identical to him. But this stand too, is vacuous since we have no theory to determine who is same and who would be similar.

If these are the possible but implausible cases, then we might better hold on the plausible thesis that both have somehow become like guy Fawkes and thus if this is the case, taking into account two people, then why should it not hold good for a single person? It doesn’t hold plausible for two people because in that case the Identity question loses its peculiarity. Instead of asking “Is this x the same x as that x which…?” we cannot obviously ask, “Are these two x’s the same (x?) as the x which….?” So we see that we cannot speak of identity in terms of the latter question. Apart from this, one more reason why we cannot grant it identity is the fact about the application of the laws of ‘identity’ and ‘exact similarity’. Though we can draw a distinction between identity and exact similarity as far as material objects are concerned, we cannot do the same for persons and their identity. And this notion of identity is given to us, primarily by the notion of spatio-temporal continuity. The distinction of ‘being identical’ and ‘being exactly similar’ cannot be extended to either a person’s character or to his memory. And this becomes all the more problematic in cases of memory, for if we are going to describe Charles’ relation to Guy Fawkes in terms of exact similarity of everything except the body, we are going to have difficulties in finding terms of reference to his memory claims. For instance, we cannot say that he has the same memories as Guy Fawkes (as this would imply that Charles is, in fact, Guy Fawkes; the very thing we want to repudiate) nor can we say that the memory claims made by Charles are those made by Guy Fawkes (for we don’t know what memory claims were made by Guy Fawkes). All that we know is that Charles’ life fits that of guy Fawkes.

We see, then, the problem with ascribing identity of guy Fawkes to both Charles and Robert. Both cannot be identical. What then? Do we ascribe identity to one of them and deny it to the other? No, we don’t. In fact, we cannot. For the simple reason that we don’t have any logical grounds for this judgment. On what basis do we choose one and abandon the other? The rational course, would then be, that we abandon both. From this argument Williams followed his conclusion that if we cannot ascribe identity of Guy Fawkes with one of them, we can as well do away with both. Williams summarizes this argument in the beginning of his article “Bodily Continuity and Personal Identity” in the best simplest possible manner, as follows:

“Suppose a person A to undergo a sudden change, and to acquire a character exactly like that of some person known to have lived in the past, B. Suppose him further to make sincere memory claims which entirely fits the life of B. We might think these conditions sufficient for us to identify A (as he now is) with B. But they are not. For another contemporary person, C, might undergo an exactly similar change at the same time as A, and if the conditions were sufficient to say that A=B, they would be sufficient to say that C=B as well. But it cannot be the case both that A=B and C=B, for, were it so, it would follow that A=C, which is absurd. One can avoid this absurdity by abandoning one or both of the assertions A=B or C=B. but it would be vacuous to assert one of these and abandon the other, since there is nothing to choose between them; hence the rational course is to abandon both. Therefore, I argued, it would be just as vacuous to make the identification with B even if only one contemporary person were involved.”

“Bodily continuity and personal identity” is not merely a response to the criticisms made by Robert C. Coburn of the arguments which Williams made in order to show that “bodily continuity is a necessary condition of personal identity and the similarity of memory claims and personality traits could not be a sufficient condition of the same”. It renders clarity to some of his ideas which were not explicitly mentioned before, for instance, the stand that if memory and personality traits are granted the place of being the sufficient condition of personal identity then this would be like asserting that there is no difference between identity and exact similarity, which is absolutely fallacious. Another is the point that identity is a one-one relation and that the principles of one-many or many-many relations cannot be a criterion of identity. These are just the glimpses of the contents of William’s thesis which renders the human treatment that he gives to the problem of personal identity.

William shows Coburn’s critique to be problematic by virtue of the ambiguous manner in which he formulated his case. Coburn’s claim that William’s conclusion when applied to his example brings forth “unacceptable results”, rests on the misunderstanding that one of William’s agenda is to make sure that the ‘consequences’ are right. But William makes it clear that his primary concern was not the ‘consequence’ but ‘the grounds of such identification’.

Coburn case consists of a man called George who disappears suddenly and another man coming to the scene ‘a moment later’ who is exactly similar to George. Coburn calls him George*. And claims that, by William’s account, George would not be identical with George* which is fallacious. But William in his response doesn’t allow any liberty to Coburn and shows every possible loophole in his interpretation, rather misinterpretation, of William’s thesis. Williams shows how he is mis-understood on the following three grounds:

When he discussed Charles and Guy Fawkes’s case, he was dealing primarily with finding the grounds of granting identity, and not with the ‘consequences’ that were to follow from this exercise. (Of course, William doesn’t deny that consequences are important. It’s just that, it was not on his agenda in that discussion)

Secondly, William shows how Coburn example is not the same as that to which the same criteria could be applied as that of Williams. Coburn doesn’t explain the ‘peculiarities’, or the details of his example which though look insignificant are of immense importance. For instance, he is not explicit about how much time has passed before the coming into scene of George*. This is important because on it depends the idea of place; if the time-gap is more, it is more probable that George* appeared on a different place than the one from where George disappeared. Whereas if the time lapse was very less, it should have been made clear the reasons for doing so.

These are some of the restrictions which should be implemented to Coburn’s example otherwise it doesn’t fall into the league, which William is following. And if the changes are made then it no more remains eligible to be called as the counter-example to William’s example. The principle of William’s example, as mentioned before, is that identity is a one-one relation. He writes:

“This principle states a necessary condition of anything’s serving as a criterion of identity. It clearly does not state a sufficient condition…”

Coburn’s example doesn’t pass this test in the sense that the ‘appearing somewhere at sometime after the disappearance of the individual...’is a many-one relation.
Apart from these, one other aspect worth the attention is William’s “reduplication” argument discussed in detail in “Are Persons bodies?” where he attempts to answer to four prominent objections, of which “reduplication” founds favor in the fourth and the most ‘forceful’ one. The objection is- “The identity of persons is not the same as the identity of bodies.” What is taken as the bottom line here, is the argument (popularly known as ‘counter-example) given by Shoemaker in his book “Self knowledge and Self Identity”. Shoemaker tells the story of two men, Brown and Robinson, who undergo brain operation. There brains are removed from their bodies and at the end of the operation, by some mistake, Brown’s brain is fitted in Robinson’s head and Robinson’s brain is placed in Brown’s head. The man with Robinson’s brain and Brown’s body dies. The other survives. The resulting person has all the memories of Brown and in the course of time he begins to show all the personality traits and mannerism of Brown. Now what do we call him, the person just like Brown but with Robinson’s body? Though Shoemaker doesn’t immediately give an affirmative answer, he nevertheless, later , writes:

“If, as I believe, it would be reasonable in this case to say that Brownson (the surviving person), remembers events in Brown’s life, it would also be reasonable to conclude that Brownson is Brown….In any event, this seems to be a case in which the question of whether X is the same person as Y ultimately turns, not to whether X is bodily continuous with Y…but on whether X can remember events in Y’s life.”

This example exemplifies the battle between memory and bodily continuity. And William is quick to see that though it is a persuasive counter example, it shows divergence from bodily identity and suggests that what governs the identity of the body is the identity of the brain, i.e. the body which now contains the brain of X must be the same body as the body which earlier contained the brain of Y- which is absolutely absurd. What can be said about Shoemaker’s example is that it avoids the re-duplication problem. As William himself would say- Identity does not allow for any re-duplication, in the sense that there cannot be two persons, not identical with each other, each of who satisfies the principle. That is, it cannot be the case that there be two bodies, each of which contains at the same time precisely X’s brain.

So we see how Williams’s thesis falls into place with an appeal to common sense logic. But despite this, there have been numerous critiques of his viewpoint which is not surprising as it marks the genius of his work. J.A.Brook is one of such critiques who write-

“ Its refutation requires nothing not already at hand…Refuting it removes a preoccupying uneasiness about accepting that personal identity is like other kinds of material object identity.”

William’s argument in question is taken from “The Self and the Future” where he supposes that I am in a tyrant’s prison. The guard comes and tells me that one of the prisoners would be beaten; it might be me or it might not be me. Here I can always guess the outcome of such an announcement. If I get thrashed then I’ll feel pain, if not, then I’ll get hear groans. But suppose the guard comes and tells me that ‘someone’ will be tortured and that person will be connected to me in such a way that it will be undecidable whether to say that person is me. Here I would not know what to imagine of the outcome. By contrast to the previous case I cannot count on any future person. So I cannot anticipate any of the possible alternatives as something which I might go through.

Brook shows that this response will not do. He argues that the subject can certainly anticipate someone being beaten and can do so by imagining the beating from the standpoint of the person receiving it. That would seem to be “projective imaginative thinking”.

Brook further mentions that William seems to have a missed a very crucial point which is that one can anticipate a beating from the standpoint of someone receiving it without making any judgement as to whether the person to be beaten will be one self. The conclusion, then, seems to be that, once we see this, we see that one can guess what would be the case in a situation in which a question of one’s identity with a future person is conceptually undecidable.

“The Self and the Future” finds another critic in the writings of Harold W. Noonan where he shows that “…plausibility of Williams’ argument evaporates…”when one sees that since they are to act selfish, their judgement would reflect the views which are, in fact, not theirs, but of the other person. So for A, B’s viewpoint is wise and for B, A’s is wise.

The two characters of William’s arguments are A-body-person and B-body-person, where A-body-person is someone who has A’s body and brain but the brain has been ‘reprogrammed’ with information from B’s brain such that A’s brain is all clear of his own memories and is filled with those of B’s. Same thing has been done with B’s brain. Now A and B has to make a choice between them, as to who’ll get $1 00 000 and who’ll bear the torture. The peculiar thing is that the choices are made in purely selfish spirit. Now looking at it from a distance the observer rightly conceives that, for all practical purposes, A-body-person is B and B-body-person is A (which clearly shows a bend towards the mentalist criterion of personal identity).

Noonan shows the weakness of this argument by asking the readers to pay attention to the fact that the choices of A and B are bound to reflect their views on personal identity, for each is concerned that he gets the money and the other gets the punishment. But since A’s brain is filled with B’s views and B’s brain is filled with A’s views, so they should share each other’s view on personal identity. This amounts to showing that for A, B’s views are wise and, similarly, for B, A’s views are wise. And how this happens is best expressed in Noonan’s own words as-

“Hence each must regard the choice he ‘recalls’, i.e. the choice made by the person with whom he is psychologically identical, as a wise one, and he must regard his own choice as a wise one if and only if it is a choice in accordance with the views on personal identity he presently holds, i.e. the views which are reflected in the choice he ‘recalls’.

This shows that insofar as the A-body-person and B-body-person are likely to make statements that appear to provide support foe a mentalistic criterion of personal identity, this will only be so if they are themselves believers in such a criterion.
We see, then, how William has been attacked on most of the explanations he caters to the effect that though bodily identity is a necessary condition of personal identity, the mentalistic criterion should be, necessarily, taken into account (though not as the sufficient condition). John Perry, amidst the vast pool of criticisms against William, nevertheless, concludes, quite rightly, that “…Williams’s reflections…achieve something more. They identify and illuminate problems with the concept itself, with which any account must come to grips”

No comments:

Post a Comment