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What Is Personal Identity

Philosophy : Philosophy Articles

The question of personal identity looks at what it is for us to exist from one time to another. Broadly, if I am person x at time t, then what does it take for me to still be the same x at time t2. What are the persistence criteria - what needs to be true for x at t2 to be the same person as x at t1?

People disagree greatly over these issues. Standardly, we recognise people as being the same by what they look like - i recognise Tom because he looks the same today as yesterday. This is the physical criterion. However, most think that it is not enough - if Tom was in a terrible accident that left a body in a hospital bed that looked nothing like Tom physically, we would still say that is is Tom.

Another criterion is the psychological - since the body in the hospital bed has all the memories of Tom, then we say it is still Tom. However, is this enough? If he suffers from amnesia, then is he still Tom? We want to say that he is.

Some people think that we need both physical and psychological continuity, others that we just need one or the other.

Still others shun both and say that all it needs to be the same person is to be the same animal, to have the same body and brain from time a to time b. So if Tom wakes up and thinks he is Napoleon and can remember everything that Napoleon did, he is in fact still Tom since he is the same human animal. This view is called animalism.

There are also other views, though the above are the main ones. It is a difficult and confusing issue. Then the problem is escalated by asking what happens with clones, and transporters, and other such thought experiments. These are used to tease apart our intuition and to try and see how personal identity fairs in these bizarre circumstances - if the transporter malfunctions and 'I' end up both here and on Mars, which one is really me?

What do you think it takes for personal identity to hold true? Let us know.

By: Dan on Tue, Jun 11th 2002

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