“The Vow” and personal identity

A film came out recently called The Vow. You can see a trailer here.

It’s based on a true story about a couple who married, but just months later, a car accident left the wife without any memory of her husband and a dramatically changed personality. The vow of the film’s title is the marriage vow they made to each other: the story is of how the husband spent time caring for and getting to know his wife again. Go here to see an interview with the real-life couple.

The question for us is whether he is actually getting to know his wife again, or whether it is someone entirely new. Our instincts would hold that it is the same woman: she had memories from before their wedding. But say the story was more extreme: if she had no meaningful memories of her past at all, would we feel comfortable saying she was another, or a new, person? It would seem not.

For the philosophically inclined, this is not a problem for the psychological criterion of personal identity. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, someone could have no conscious psychological link with a past self at all, but if there is a causal link, that may be enough to “carry” one’s identity. Still, the story behind the vow is a ready challenge to our immediate intuitions about personal identity and worth considering.

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The brain, the body and “cellular memory”

The BBC has a story that probes the neurological grounding for many aspects of our personal identity.

Most of the story focuses on one man, Chris Birch. It reports:

Looking at past pictures of himself, 27-year-old Chris Birch struggles to remember or identify with his old self. He used to be a 19-stone, beer-swilling, party-loving rugby fan from the Welsh valleys, the life and soul of a party. He worked in a bank and loved sport and motorbikes.

After a freak accident in 2011, he says he underwent a big change to his personality. He believes that he has gone from being straight to gay.

Towards the end of the article, the writer outlines other dramatic changes experienced by people following a stroke:

Tommy McHugh suffered a stroke in 2001 which unlocked his creative side. He used to be a builder and is now an artist, sculptor and writes poetry…

Debbie McCann, a grandmother from Glasgow, suffered a stroke in 2011 and began speaking with an Italian accent, although she had never been to Italy.

These offer tantalising hints as to how our brains apparently define or determine aspects of our identity. Interesting but hardly surprising.

However, there is an unexpected example in the article:

In 2008, Cheryl Johnson claimed her personality and taste in literature had changed after a kidney transplant. She swapped popular novels for high-brow books by Dostoevsky.

That happened after a kidney transplant? Here is a Daily Telegraph article about her case, in which she is quoted saying that organ receivers can “pick up…characteristics from [their] donor”. This seems pretty far-fetched, but the article states that:

Academics in America have developed a theory called cellular memory phenomenon to explain the personality changes that are allegedly experienced by some transplant recipients.

Interesting. It certainly seems possible that some organs might affect the brain in a certain way, so that if you gain a new organ, it might affect your brain in the same way that it affected its previous owner. This could almost be taken as common sense, it seems to me.

But the advocates for cellular memory claim that memories can actually be stored in parts of the body other than the brain. It seems there is little strong evidence for this. The Telegraph article linked to above quotes a spokesman for UK Transplant (an organisation that I have struggled to find online, but anyway) who said: “While not discarding it entirely, we have no reason to believe that it happens.” (Also see this article to read about some of the far-out claims made for cellular memory and related ideas.)

The very possibility, though, raises interesting questions. What would be the implications if our kidneys (or other body parts) did carry some of our memories or personality traits? How would it affect our thoughts on organ donation? Would it become taboo? These questions feed directly into the topics raised by this blog’s current series on the philosophy of personal identity.

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When identities collide

There has been a lot of fuss in the UK recently over an advertising campaign in London. A campaign by gay rights group Stonewall currently running on London buses proclaims:


A counter-campaign was organised by two Christian groups that was to proclaim:


It has now been banned. All the gory details can be found on UK news sites.

This raises interesting questions about personal identity. It is worth reading an article by Nelson Jones for the New Statesman that highlights a truth obscured by the controversy. He points out that there are people who would identify both as gay and religious, and for many of those people, those two identities create a difficult tension in their lives. Inevitably, neither campaign succeeded in acknowledging such complexities.

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Series: Part 5 – The problems with the psychological criterion

To continue the series on personal identity, we will consider the problems with the psychological criterion. It is probably the most widely held view of personal identity today thanks to its intuitive force. There have been two primary objections which have been ably answered, but they lead to more difficult questions.

To repeat the definition given in the last post, the psychological criterion holds that it is some form of psychological continuity, such as that expressed in memories, mental states or consciousness over time, that makes a person X at time t1 identical to something Y at time t2.

The first traditional objection was presented by Thomas Reid in response to the above formulation. (Remember from the last post that Locke was one of the original formulators of the psychological criterion, and so Reid is responding directly to him):

Suppose a brave officer to have been flogged when a boy at school for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life; suppose, also, which must be admitted to be possible, that, when he took the standard, he was conscious of his having been flogged at school, and that, when made a general, he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness of his flogging. These things being supposed, it follows, from Mr Locke’s doctrine, that he who was flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and that he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general. Whence it follows, if there be any truth in logic, that the general is the same person with him who was flogged at school. But the general’s consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging; therefore, according to Mr. Locke’s doctrine, he is not the person who was flogged. Therefore the general is, and at the same time is not, the same person with him who was flogged at school.

In other words, logic tells us that if a = b, and b = c, then a = c. But the psychological criterion suggests that even if a = b and b = c, a may not equal c. And this seems absurd. (Read Thomas Reid on personal identity here; essay III, chapter 3 in particular. The quote above is on pages 248 and 249.)

Second, Joseph Butler argued that the psychological criterion is circular:

…one should really think it self-evident, that consciousness of personal identity presupposes, and therefore cannot constitute, personal identity, any more than knowledge in any other case, can constitute truth, which it presupposes.

In other words, to say that memories (or other psychological connectedness) is evidence of personal identity is circular, because such psychological elements are exactly what personal identity consists in. So to insist on the psychological criterion is essentially to say “personal identity is the criterion of personal identity”, and that gets us nowhere. (Read Butler on personal identity here).

Against the first objection, Derek Parfit (among others) has offered a reformulation of the psychological criterion which focuses on indirect memory connections, instead of direct memory connections. If I remember being X, and if X remembers being Y, then that is enough for me to be psychologically continuous with Y. Or in Reid’s example above, the general can be the same as the boy flogged at school, because he remembers being the gallant officer who remembers being the boy.

Against the second objection, the response is to introduce a new concept like memory but without the link to identity: Parfit calls it quasi-memory. It may be self-contradictory to say that I remember doing something that someone else did, but I could still “quasi-remember” it.

There is a more serious objection that applies to the psychological criterion (whether or not you have reformulated it in response to the above objections). There are many times in the past to which I am not linked psychologically either directly or indirectly: for example, if I fall unconscious for a time, or even just sleep. Under the psychological criterion, at those times I cannot be identical with my past, conscious self! This seems wrong.

This objection leads to a further refinement to the criterion: that psychological continuity consists in saying that person X is psychologically continuous with person Y if the current mental states of X are so because of the mental states of Y. Therefore there is no need for a conscious appreciation of one’s current or past mental states, allowing for personal identity to continue through or despite periods of unconsciousness (for example).

However, the most fundamental objection to the psychological criterion is that of fission. If you are replicated, and a copy of you is present, under the psychological criterion we would have to say that both I and the copy are identical to a past person, X; but we would say that I and the copy are not identical to each other. How is this possible?

This leads to a range of responses, all of which seem odd to varying degrees. One response is to say that before the copy was made, there were essentially two copies of you residing in the one body, and so I and the copy are identical with the past halves of the original me. This seems bizarre to say the least. Another response is to say that my past self effectively dies, and two new people appear, when a copy is made; but this leads to the odd situation where my past self “dies” if both I and the copy survive, but if the copy dies, my past self seems to live.

This question of fission has led some, notably Parfit, to reject the notion of personal identity altogether – but that is a question for us to explore in the next post.

There are, of course, other objections (and responses) to the psychological criterion. Some focus on questions about how we relate as thinking persons to being physical, embodied creatures. The answers depend on metaphysical conclusions and questions considered by the philosophy of mind, which is beyond my sphere of expertise. For a comprehensive review of the above objections and others, I recommend the entry on personal identity at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Blog hiatus

Hello again. I will be posting on this blog again soon and expect to do so regularly in the future, though not at the rate I did previously.

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“The problem was my sexual identity.”

The other day I mentioned in a post [edit: now deleted, because it was rubbish] that people care most about their “social identity”, something that sounded right but I left largely undefined. In hindsight, there’s another candidate for most-talked-about-topic that comes under this blog’s purview: sexual identity.

A feature in the New York Times last weekend brought it to mind. Titled “My Ex-Gay Friend”, it tells the story of a man who used to write for a gay magazine, XY, in San Francisco. Today, he identifies as heterosexual, and traces the change back to his Christian conversion. It’s a fascinating, well-written story, and directly considers questions around sexual identity and how it might be formed and articulated.

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Christopher Shields on personal identity

Philosophy Bites interviewed Christopher Shields about personal identity a few years ago. You can find the podcast here. It serves as a good introduction to the topic, and is worth listening to if you are enjoying this blog’s current series on the philosophical analysis of personal identity.

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