In trying to answer the question of what a person actually is, by which I mean what is essentially them, we can approach the question by asking the following- what can be taken away from a person’s identity without them ceasing to be them? Thinking back to Derek Parfit’s Teleporter thought experiment, we can wonder ‘if we couldn’t transport every single piece of a person, what could we leave behind?’.
One experimental philosopher who wishes to take a sideways look at the issue is Josh Knobe. In an interview, he proposes a thought experiment by dividing our emotional, instinctive urges and our logical, rationalized attitudes. He does this as follows-
Imagine that a person was openly homosexual, had a homosexual relationship, and campaigned actively for gay rights. They use their rationality to come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and that people who oppose gay rights are unreasonable. However, deep down, he finds his own gay feelings repellent, and does not feel okay with himself. Knobe asked people which one is the real him, the rational (pro gay) him, or the instinctive (anti gay) him. Almost every person surveyed said that it was the rational him which was the real him.
Then he decided to flip the coin. He asked people to imagine the following- There is a man who is opposed to homosexuality, he campaigns for the abolition of gay rights, and uses his rationality and logic to conclude that homosexuality is wrong and unnatural. However, deep down, he is gay and has homosexual feelings. When Knobe asked people which one was the real him, the rational, logical (anti gay) him, or the instinctive (gay) him, people almost unanimously conclude that the instinctive emotional him is the real him.
The interesting issue here is that people are inclined to conclude that the real him corresponds to whatever we believe to be ethically correct, or corresponding with our worldview. At this point we draw a blank as to the decision of whether the rational or instinctive him is the real him.
I would like to propose an alternative view to this problem. My belief is that both the instinctive and the rational attitudes are the real him. Is it really so hard to imagine that a person can hold conflicting views on an issue? Or is it so unusual to see somebody behaving in one way in one instance, and another way in another instance? Every single person acts one way, talks about certain things and so forth with one person, then changes their behaviour and topics of conversation with another person. Rather than saying a person is a happy/unhappy person, and likes x/y, we should say that a person is happy under condition [a] and unhappy under condition [b], and expresses an interest in cars under social condition [c] and expresses an interest in tulips under social condition [d]. People may be understood to change over time, but they also change in situations and moods, maybe as a form of adaption.
How can a person have conflicts in their instincts and rationalizations though? I think this question is simple. The mind is modular, each part functioning to deal with different kinds of information. Some parts of the mind are instinctive, some mechanical, some rational, some taxonomize, and so forth. It is not unreasonable to think that these parts of the mind can come into conflicts. In fact, some philosophers explain consciousness as being a way to resolve these conflicts. I have written before about how consciousness can be thought of as a spotlight to focus on an issue.
Daniel Dennett calls this ‘fame in the brain’. We have a monumental number of thoughts, experiences and sets of data flowing around our brain, and also into our brain via our senses, and we need a way to organize this. One consequence of this is that we have a singular memory of a situation, rather than multiple memories of a situation. However, another consequence of ‘fame in the brain’ is that we can focus on problems, conflicts in our minds, in society, and so forth, and reach a conclusion about how we should feel and understand these things. A consequence of this is that our views, personalities, dispositions, are being constantly revised, like an effect program with a feedback loop.
This sits nicely in line with aspects of Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Aristotle famously said that virtue is a matter of habit. This does not mean that there isn’t a conscious aspect of our ethics and behaviours. What it means is that we can use our rationality to try and craft who we are. Suppose you have lived your life never opening doors for other people, then one day you decide that it is a matter of good conduct to open doors for other people. It will not initially be a habit to open doors for people as it contravenes our instinctive behaviour. However, by repeatedly making a conscious decision to behave in this way, it will become part of our behaviour, part of our habit.
The question of whether our instinctive selves or our rational selves are our real selves could be answered ‘both’ quite reasonably. The instinctive self is effectively a working model of behaviour, the product of the Aristotelian habits. The rational self is the system which evaluates and changes the habits, the dispositions of the instinctive working model self. This doesn’t make answering the question of what is essentially ‘us’ any easier, however. The answer presents its self as true that more is the real ‘us’ than we originally thought.