The Psychological Account of Personality Identity

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This is the 55th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at dualist accounts of personal identity. This post begins discussing the psychological account of personal identity.

Remember that an account of personal identity seeks to explain what it is about me that makes me continue to be me over time and through change. There must be something that grounds my continuation as me despite the fact that various things change over time. Psychological views begin with the insight that, when you wake up in the morning, you know who you are without looking at yourself or seeing if anything is physically the same compared with yesterday.

Like dualists, those who hold psychological views think it's coherent to imagine the possibility of waking up in some other body. But they don't want to insist that personal identity has to do with an immaterial soul. Some of them don't want to believe in such things to begin with, and others prefer to remain silent on the issue so that their theory of personal identity doesn't require taking a stand on that issue. What makes me me is the same whether materialism is true or false.

In particular, pychological views rely on things like memory, personality, beliefs, desires, and character traits to continue from your previous set of memory, personality, beliefs, desires, and character traits, with perhaps some change but not a very drastic change. Some continuity of these properties must be present for the person to continue.

The earliest version of the psychological account, in fact from the earliest explicit discussion of personal identity that I even know of, is John Locke's memory account of personal identity. Locke claimed that memory alone is enough to make someone me, and without memories of my doing something, God couldn't hold me responsible in the afterlife for having done it, since it wasn't me who did it.

But Locke's view faces several problems. One is that we do think of amnesiacs as people who can't remember things that they themselves did. It doesn't seem as if we generally take people to be a new person just because they can't remember having done something.

Another is that there seem to be possible ways of having memories of something that shouldn't have anything to do with being the person who did the things those memories seem to be of. In other words, there are fake memories. If memory determines the continuation of the same person, we need to agree on what counts as a genuine memory. Consider someone implanting memories into my brain (by hypnotism, neuroscience, or some other method we can't as easily think of). I didn't do the thing I seem to remember. So memory alone can't make me the person who did it. What if we had the technology to remove from my brain all memories I've got, replacing them with all of Michael Jordan's? Which is the real Michael Jordan? Obviously the original is. But why is he the original and not whoever is there in my body? It's circular to base your account of personal identity on memory and then to explain which one is the original person based on which one has the original memories. If you define the person in terms of memories, you can't also define the memories in terms of some prior notion of which person is the original. Personal identity was defined in terms of memory, and now real memory is defined in terms of who the original person is. We haven't explained anything.

One way to fix the memory account is to say that what makes a memory genuine is that it's caused in the right sort of way. Fake memories are not caused in the right way, not caused by the events remembered but, e.g., by a hypnotist faking it. Real memories are caused in the right way, i.e. by the events themselves as they occurred. Then personhood is defined in terms of real memories (and so ultimately in terms of being caused in the right way. This is no longer circular.

However, does it solve the problem? What method of being caused in the right way results in my surviving death? When you copy memories from Michael Jordan, and put them into my brain, it seems as if they're being caused by the events in question (as opposed to, say, making up memories of something that never happened). You need some criterion for when such memory-creation from real events is sufficient to make the person be the original and when it isn't. Perhaps that's not an insurmountable problem, but it will be tricky to do this kind of thing without generating a circular account. You can't base your response on anything that has any assumption of which person is the original. I don't have a lot of hope for this, but that might be due to my deep-seated intuition that this account gets things backwards. The reason the memories in my brain aren't real memories, is because I didn't do the things they seem to be about. Michael Jordan did, and I'm not him. The tendency to try to define real memories in terms of the person doing them seems to me to be natural, because that probably is at least part of what explains which memories are genuine. But that means the psychological account is wrong, since it gets the order reversed.

In the next post, I'll present an even more disturbing problem for the psychological view: the duplication problem.

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