The Persistence of Persons- Roderick M Chisholm

Am I the same me throughout time?

Is the ‘I’ which is me, me in and of its self, or me in virtue of contingent factors such as the previous ‘I’s one could posit me as having been? Or to put it another way, am I a single self which persists throughout time, or a series of selves which develop as I do? Roderick M Chisholm argues that the self can only ever be the self in and of its self, not in virtue of purported other selves, nor external factors.

He opens up his paper by asking us to imagine hoping for rain next Thursday. If we are hoping for rain next Thursday, are we making a decision for our current self, or a future self? If we are hoping for rain now, are we making the assumption that we will still want the rain next Thursday? Or will we imagine that a future self in that situation will have a different perspective from us at present? If I am making a decision about a future self, or myself next Thursday, I am borrowing properties from who I am now.

I could be a succession of selves, an ‘ens successivum’, in which I am a continuation of changing selves, each one resting its veridicality of nature contingent on its containing essential data transferred from previous selves.

Chisholm’s next move is to attack the position that we could be a succession of selves, (ens successivum). After that the next attack is on the position that the future self would be a separate self, one in which current biographical information is borrowed from the current self.

The first claim Chisholm makes is that we are wrong quite often about past details of the self. If we are mistaken about the details of the past, then the connections between those details of a proposed past self and the current self are broken. This would be an obvious problem for those who believe that the current self rests on previous selves. He admits, however, that there is no reason to doubt the facts of past selves which SEEM to be true. On this account, all that would be needed is the perspective that past details had influenced our present.

He reminds us that Kant defended the ens successivum. Kant believed that each successive ‘I’ couldn’t be the current ‘I’. However, he believed that they all identify to the continuity holding the earliest ‘I’ to the present ‘I’. However, if Kant was right, then the only real self would be the current self, and all previous selves would be selves separate at the point of perspective or creation. A further problem is that if we can be deluded about the past at any point in time for which we are perspectivally conscious, then each self is a point at which we can be deluded about the past in a different way. This would mean that ‘self 5’ (to pick an arbitrary number) could be deluded about a detail which would be integral to the personal identity of ‘self 9’. Therefore, an identification with the continuity does not entail an identification with the actual self. Nor is it true that all essential details actually hold continuity, merely that it is possible to confabulate the continuity of selfhood.

Next, he deals with Locke. Lock believes that what is important for the ‘I’ is that it has a continuity of consciousness, and continuity (by perspective) of memories which connect the current self to the self-perceived biography of the ‘I’. Locke therefore thought that selfhood could persist even if you were to wake up in a new body. All you would need is a perspective that the self had continued. In Locke’s famous ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ he gives us a thought experiment where a prince and a cobbler wake up in each other’s bodies. He believes that the prince’s consciousness in the cobbler’s body, and vice versa, would be the real prince (and respectively, the cobbler) because they have the conscious experiences of identity.

Chisholm isn’t so sure. If you took a bag of five apples, then put the apples into another bag, the apples would still be the apples. However, transference of biographical details such as memories and dispositions isn’t so simple. As we have already recognised, one innate foible of being human is our potentiality to remember the past incorrectly. Just as it would be problematic to assume all data necessary for transference between prince and cobbler to be a veridical ens successivum, it would also be problematic to assume that all necessary information could persist from one self to another. To connect selves, Chisholm says, there would have to be a veritable transference of detail. This would be too problematic to posit.

Locke attests, in his ‘Essay…’, that the self is transferred from one ‘I’ to the next ‘I’ in the same way as a hand casts a shadow, the ‘I’ being the shadow. Memories, for example, make an impression, and the impression is that contour by which the necessary details are ‘cast’ into the new self. However, for this to be true, the self could not be a self in and of its self (ens per se), and would instead be the current self in virtue of other details (ens per alio).

Could the self be merely annexed to the thinking physical form, where the ‘I’ as a thinking thing (for how could the ‘I’ not be?), and the physical body (also as a thinking thing, for we know that the brain produces mechanisms of thought) are contingently joined? Chisholm says that there is no way this would work. The four options would be-

  1. Neither self nor body think (obviously false)

  2. Self, but not body, thinks (but we know that the body thinks)

  3. Body, but not self, thinks (then there would be no reason to posit the self)

  4. Both body and self think (but this is positing more thinking things than is necessary)

All four are obviously false, meaning that selfhood could not be a product of transference of properties, coupled with conscious awareness.

At this point, Chisholm feels he has suitably refuted the ideas that the self could be a successivum, and that the self is an ens per se, a thing within its self, not a thing in virtue of other selves, nor of other facts. Next, he returns to the ‘I’ which hopes for rain.

Will this person I posit next Thursday be me, as in the ‘I’ in its present form? Only if the next-Thursday ‘I’ was no different from present ‘I’. for something to be the same thing, it would have to share the same properties, yet if I am positing me-next-Thursday as a new ‘I’, it can’t be the same thing.

If X= present me, or me sempiternally, and Y= future me, then

X= Y would also entail that

Y= X, and also

X= X

Therefore, the me of the future has to be the same ‘I’ as the self at all present points in time, including the present ‘I’. Chisholm believes that rather than there being a succession of ‘I’s, there is one ‘I’, which exists in a state of constant becoming. It doesn’t require a succession of data transferals because the data is maintained, but whith accumulations and omissions. All that is integral to the constitution of ‘I’ would persist because there was no succession of ‘I’s, merely one unit which holds the ‘I’ data, with various memories, experiences, and so forth, attached.

Somebody may say ‘Jones isn’t the person he used to be’, and in one sense it is quite valid. However, its validity is demarcated singly to Jones’ biography in the public realm. If you see Jones on a regular basis, you have an idea of who Jones is as a person. Suppose you haven’t seen Jones for five years, when you see him again, you will likely be inclined to say that he has changed. However, Jones has retained all which is essentially him from his perspective. To me, I haven’t become a new person, I have simply developed. It doesn’t make sense to say ‘I’m a new man’, except as a figure of speech.

Chisholm leaves us with two thought experiments to contemplate. In the first one, he asks us to imagine that we are going under an operation. There are two options-

OPTION 1: you can have the operation, sedated, have no experience of the operation. However, this will be expensive.

OPTION 2: Have the operation awake, it will be excruciatingly painful, but the doctor will give you special medicine afterwards which makes you forget the experience completely. This procedure is significantly cheaper.

The doctor could console you about the cheaper procedure and say that if you have no recollection of the experience, you could disregard it from your life completely. Before the operation, you are Jones, afterwards, you are Jones too, but during it, it is Steve. However, just because you are not consciously aware, retrospectively, it doesn’t mean you would be inclined to not identify with the incident. It would seem that awareness of biographical information creates association, regardless of our conscious experience of it. We would,, by disposition, make Steve back into Jones.

Secondly, he asks us to imagine that in the future, Jones will divide into two people. At point of division, both are exactly him. However, both will go off and live separate lives. One, he is informed, will live a wonderful life, whilst the other will live a terrible life. We, or Jones, are asked to decide which one is Jones. Verily, Jones would incline towards the positive future. Why? Because we are inclined to make positive decisions for ourselves in the future. This is what Chisholm proposes. However, he reminds us not to choose the future Jones which closest resembles the current Jones. This is because looking for a version of Jones which best resembled the current Jones would be a fallacy to the same effect as believing X= Y without Y= X, it would hold the problem of the ens successivum.

Chisholm Proposes a final emphasis- we should think of the self like Water. If you reduce the temperature of liquid water to below zero, it will freeze. If you heat it to above 100, it will turn to steam. It is a mistake to think of one or another as the true nature of water, they are all the true natures of water under different conditions. In the same way, Jones in five years is still the true Jones, merely Jones under the condition ‘five years in the future’. This is how Roderick M Chisholm defends the view that we exist as units in and of themselves.

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