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The problem of identity - Journal of Interest
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14 Dec

The problem of identity

Identity

The concept of identity doesn’t usually get much scrutiny, but it’s one we tend to have a lot of assumptions about that often haven’t been properly thought through. The implications of a change in our understanding of what it means to be an individual are enormous – it could affect our criminal justice system, our laws, politics, and our understanding of personal responsibility.

One problem is that who we are changes over time. ‘I’ am not the same person who I used to be 10 years ago, yet I still claim it was ‘me’. Our bodies cycle through configurations of atoms, and most cells in your body will have been replaced or expired in 7 years’ time.1 The you who existed 7 years ago was made from a largely distinct set of atoms from the you who exists today.

This would seem to imply that we’re best described as a wave rather than as specific configurations of matter, but a quandary arises here when we start to follow this line of thinking – what if someone collected all the atoms2 that made you from the past and put them back together again? Who would be you? There would be two, and both would be you, but I suspect we wouldn’t treat it that way.

Consider, for example, if one version ‘stole’ from the other – I think we’d still see fit to treat it as a crime, even though both are, conventionally, the same person and you can’t steal from yourself. If we did agree to respect both as separate individuals then this now produces a difficult question: why should it matter whether or not they existed simultaneously? After resolving to treat them as distinct persons, what difference should the mere distance of time make?

Obviously practicality would be a primary objection, but speaking purely ethically now, if we agreed that these people were functionally separate individuals, then it becomes possible for the younger to unjustly harm the older. The younger could for example take out a large loan to be agreed to be repaid in 7 years, live lavishly and hedonically, and then slowly transition into another individual who has now been burdened with the debt of the previous person. Other crimes could include what might constitute ‘gross negligence’ or outright harm towards the body.

These ideas immediately throw forward a range of other implications. We can now see a new relationship between people emerge – the reverse of familial relationships. Where in families the old give life to the young, in people the young give life to the old. It makes sense to think of a person’s younger incarnations as his ancestors, and his future selves as his descendants.

Additionally, our treatment of people based on past crimes would be called into question. A person who has been imprisoned for more than 7 years would be a different person to the one who committed the crime and was imprisoned – he would be his descendent. A model that sees the purpose of justice as the punishment of people for their wrongdoings would be moved to release people after 7 years, or else be accused of punishing descendant for the crimes of their forebears.

However, compared with genetic descendants, individual descendants inherit much more than just looks and dispositions – they inherit complete behaviours and world views. A modern theory of justice which concerned itself only with protecting and improving society wouldn’t be faced with any comparable dilemma; if a person could be reasonably deemed to be a threat to others, an intervention (e.g., prison) would be made to prevent them from causing harm. This kind of system still leaves itself potentially open to criticism of the kind expressed by Minority Report, however.

The effects on criminal law I expect would be minimal. The question of what to do with a person who harms their future self draws parallels with the question of what to do with a mother who harms her unborn children – there’s not much that can be done. Any criminal consequences would harm both the parent and the child, which would be unjust, and using the law as deterrent is unlikely to be effective either. It’s already in a mother’s best interest to care for her future children because of the strong psychological incentives left over from evolution. A woman who gambles away all her money or takes drugs whilst pregnant is unlikely to be convinced to do otherwise by law.

It’s the same with each individual – transitions in personhood are imperceptible, and so each person always acts as if he or she were to themselves experience the consequences of their actions. It’s also true that even if this behaviour was overridden by an intellectual understanding of the process, a person is still more likely than not to be benevolent towards their future selves, and any laws to prevent people from doing otherwise would likely be so effete as to not enter into a person’s consideration.

Another consequence of the fragmentation of the self is that you will die much sooner than you realise. The you of today will fade out of existence, replaced by someone very similar to you, but not quite you. You’re Theseus’ ship,3 having its planks slowly displaced until you’re something very different. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – indeed, it makes no tangible difference to our day-to-day lives. If anything it gives us comfort in the face of death, apparently each of us remembering all there is to know about it, having all experienced it a number of times already.

Politically, such an understanding of life would probably push us further left. The freedoms of the right would be criticised both for putting future persons at risk where risks taken might fail, and then for unduly disadvantaging others where risks taken might succeed, benefiting a person who had little claim in the making of his riches.

The justification of class stratification would come under greater pressure if people viewed not only children as inheriting riches at the cost of others, but each and every person having a diminished involvement in the accumulation of their wealth. The less involvement a person had in achieving their wealth (when the private ownership of that wealth was to the disadvantage of the greater public), the less effective the arguments would be for allowing that person to keep that wealth. Private wealth that has neither been earnt nor is kept to the greater benefit of the public would naturally draw attention.

The outcome of these thoughts would likely be a move towards greater social equality. For the everyday person this would of course be good, but for the rich it would obviously be less so.4 The traditional justification for private wealth – that its ownership had been legitimately earnt through one’s own hard work – would experience some strain, but it’s quite possible that the argument that private ownership of considerable wealth is beneficial to the economy (and therefore to society) could pick up the slack in its place.5

Personal responsibility would also experience a shake up, but only if a belief in free will remained prevalent, which I expect it won’t. Personal responsibility can only exist if people have a recognised freedom to embrace or shun it – if determinism takes over as the default view,6 it would already accomplish the effect that belief in the fragmentation of the self would otherwise have: the treatment of people as if their decisions weren’t necessarily their free choice.

I don’t think much of this will happen though – not as a result of a change in the understanding of the nature of the self. Change in philosophical thought of this type7 is usually slow, and the abandonment of dualism is likely to accomplish all these effects and more in a much shorter time-frame.

It’s interesting to note that cell replacement isn’t a necessary component for this altered understanding of the self. Our lives span given lengths of time. Assuming that moments that have been experienced previously will not be experienced again, it’s just as appropriate to say that the ‘you’ who experienced a previous moment is gone – dead. Their existence has completely been snuffed out by the continuous succession of the moments that followed it.

Even if a person was compositionally the same as they were in a previous moment, their entire existence was that moment, which ended, replaced with another existence composed of a new moment being experienced. The only ‘me’ that currently exists is the one typing these words; all the others are gone forever, their thoughts only known to me now from the imprint they left on my memories.

Already, you’re a different person than the one who started reading this essay. Try to enjoy your moment while it lasts.


  1. It’s not true that every cell in your body will be replaced, but most are and at different speeds. The number of 7 years is often quoted but I haven’t seen it used academically, so treat it with caution. It’s enough for this essay to acknowledge that people’s physical make-up changes over time. 

  2. Some atoms are never replaced (for example, those used in neurons in the cerebral cortex), but the same point could be made if we imagined some process (for example a disease) which did replace these atoms – the thought experiment would reach the same conclusion. 

  3. See the Ship of Theseus

  4. Actually, equality could quite readily increase the quality of life for rich people as well as poor, but it wouldn’t necessarily increase the quality of life of all rich people. For more information see, for example, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. 

  5. I don’t agree this argument holds much merit, but it’s quite possible that people would subscribe if rich people succeeded in making it seem superficially sensible. One example of this effect is poor Americans’ unlikely support for trickle-down economics. 

  6. Books questioning it are being published and well received, for example Sam Harris’ Free Will, and materialism has for a long time been the default approach in science. A continued increase in scientific literacy and a decline in religious belief could be a recipe for widespread scepticism of free will. 

  7. Metaphysics and other philosophical domains change slowly because their claims cannot be refuted without being anchored to facts. In this case, science will be able to confirm the degrees to which a person has changed compositionally, but as what we define the ‘self’ to mean is still a matter of philosophy and matters of philosophy are generally viewed to be of little consequence to the average person, the permeation of new ideas is likely to be slow. 

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