Show

Personal Identity

Week of: 
December 16, 2007
What is it: 

What is necessary for a person to survive over time?  Is it the continued existence of the living body?  Or is it just the living brain?  Or is it one's psychology, which might persist even without one's original brain in a computer or in an entirely new brain?  How important are questions of personal identity for ethics and rationality? John and Ken are joined by Raymond Martin, Professor of Philosophy at Union College and co-author of The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.

Listening Notes: 

Ken and John begin this week’s episode by discussing what philosophers mean by personal identity, and why they think such a thing exists. Ken proposes a simple definition: personal identity is simply the same thing we mean when we talk about the identity of two objects, where the objects just happen to be people. But John disagrees. He argues that people mean something very different when they refer to the identity of persons. He thinks there’s a psychological sense of identity that is most important to people when they are referring to who they are. Even still, Ken counters, there is always just one person who is undergoing changes over the course of his/her life. So what does this psychological sense matter? Thus begins the debate about personal identity.

At this point, Raymond Martin enters into the discussion to try and help clear up the confusion between Ken and John. Ken queries Raymond as to why he should plan for the future, why he should care about the old guy he is going to grow into. Caring about ones future self can become a very confusing concern when you consider different thought experiments regarding personal identity. By looking at the intuitive judgments people have in response to these experiments, it is possible to understand what matters most to individuals when they are acting out of concern for their future self. Ken, John, and Raymond enter into a trying debate about psychological and bodily criterions of personal identity, and attempt to discern whether there is a correct answer about which captures the essence of personal identity best. What happens when your body undergoes drastic changes, do you remain the same person? What if those changes effect your mind, like in the case of Alzeimer’s disease?

At this point, the discussion turns to questions about self governance and autonomy.  The ethical landscape of questions related to the personal identity and wishes of people who have undergone grave psychological changes because of disease proves to be challenging terrain. Ken and John, in addition to our guest Raymond, attempt to sort out and make sense of the implications of personal identity for rationality and morality.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (SEEK TO 00:04:23): Zoe Corneli takes us on a tour through Hollywood and its different representations of personal identity. She presents the deep questions about the nature of personal identity, and what our bodies and brains say about who we are from “Being John Malkovitch”. “Freaky Friday,” the “Young Frankenstein”, and “Star Trek” all address how identity is malleable to the extent that we can modify our brains.
  • Ian Shoales The Sixty Second Philosopher (SEEK TO 00:48:38): Ian Shoales speeds us through a discussion of cognitive dissonance and wishful thinking, and the relationship to personal identity. Cults, God, Relationships, Iraq, and Los Angeles—Shoales leaves no topic out of this sixty second report.

Raymond Martin, Professor of Philosophy, Union College

Related Resources: 

Bower, Bruce. “Self-Serve Brains”. Science News, Vol. 169, No. 6, Feb. 11, 2006, p. 90.
Dennett, D. “Where am I?”.
Hughes, James, J. “Brain Death and Technological Change: Personal Identity, Neural Prostheses and Uploading”.
"Identity/Identity formation". Encyclopedia of Psychology. Findarticles.com.
Martin, Raymond and Barresi, John. Personal Identity.
Olson, Eric T. "Personal Identity".  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Perry, John. Personal Identity.
Rorty, Amelia. The Identities of Persons.
Staying Alive: The Personal Identity Game. (An online game.)  The Philosopher’s Magazine.
Articles by guest Raymond Martin:

Get Philosophy Talk

Radio

Sunday at 10am (pacific) on KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio, San Francisco

Podcast

Individual downloads via CDBaby and iTunes. Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via iAamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • July 31 : More Than Pun and Games
    Puns have been called both the highest and lowest form of humor. There is something about them that is at once painful and pleasurable, capable of...
  • August 7 : The Dark Side of Science
    Science aims tell us something about nearly everything, from the atoms in our cells to the motions of the stars. It assumes that knowledge is good...
  • August 14 : The Big Bang - Before and After
    The Big Bang theory is the prevailing theory about the “birth” of the universe. It posits a singularity, or super high density state from which the...
  • August 21 : This Is Your Brain on Art
    Humans actively seek to create and consume art. Its compelling nature has been discussed in the humanities since its inception, and the philosophical...
  • August 28 : Dangerous Demographics: The Challenges of an Aging Population
    All over the world, people are living longer and having fewer children than ever before. In less than two decades, one fifth of the US population...

Support Philosophy Talk

DONATE TODAY

Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!