New year – new you?

Are we the same as we always were – and do our memories matter?  The myth of the continuous self.  By Lisa McLellan

It is the start of a new year, which for many represents a new start.  With all the best intentions, we promise ourselves that this year we will be good.  We resolve to quit smoking, to go on a diet, to get fit.  We see the start of a new year as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.  Of course, only a select few of the most determined individuals will follow through with their resolutions (I have given up on such false promises!)  It remains true, however, that we are all changing, all the time.   The problem is: what makes you you?

What makes you the same person as you were 20 years ago?  I was a child of 5 in January 1990.  I was that child, and that child was me.  What constitutes this relationship of identity between that child in 1990 and the person writing this in 2010?  My body is now very different from that of the 5 year old child.   It is a different size, a different shape, and it is made up of different cells.  It seems therefore that bodily continuity does not work as a proof of personal identity.

It may be argued that although my body is now very different from that of my 5 year old self, the changes have been gradual and so continuity has been somewhat maintained.  A classic example of such change without change of identity is that of the wooden boat.  If the wooden planks of the boat are replaced one by one, replacing one plank per year, say, then it will be several years before the whole boat has been replaced.  Is it still the same boat?

It seems plausible to say that it is.  If it remains the same boat after the first plank is replaced, then surely it is also the same boat a year later, when the second plank is replaced.  Where can we draw the line?  At what point is the identity of the boat compromised?

John Locke argued that our memories are the key to our personal identity.  What makes me the same person as the 5 year old child is the fact that I have memories of the same experiences that the child had.  This is appealing.  It seems intuitive that the persistence of the self is correlated with the persistence of a single stream of consciousness and memory – linking past states to present ones.  So perhaps I am the same person as the child – provided I remember doing what the child did.

Thomas Reid objected to this explanation.  He argued that the persistence of the self cannot be constituted by memory alone.  He provides a famous counter example to Locke’s suggestion.  It involves a young boy, who is beaten by his school master.  The boy grows up to become a young Lieutenant, who in later life becomes a General.  As a Lieutenant he remembers being beaten at school, and when he is a General he remembers becoming a Lieutenant, but by the time he is a General he has no memory of being beaten.  Therefore, the Lieutenant is the same person as the boy, the General is the same person as the Lieutenant, but the General is not the same person as the boy, according to the memory theory.  It seems that memory alone will not suffice as the condition of personal identity.

So it is that both my mind and my body are subject to change.  I have no memories of being a toddler of 2, and the physical constitution of my body is very different from that of my 2 year old body, yet we still regard that 2 year old to be the same person I am now.  Is gradual change enough to quell doubts about what constitutes the self?  Or do we admit that the persistence of the self is merely a useful illusion.

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