On Philosophy

November 12, 2006

What Matters For Psychological Continuity

Filed under: Self — Peter @ 12:06 am

It is not unusual for people to have forgettable days, days where it is hard to remember exactly what happened, simply because the day was so trivial that nothing stands out. But even in a boring day we are conscious, have experiences, ect. And if these aren’t incorporated into the person we are the next day does this mean the person who existed on that day no longer exists? Certainly not, at least it seems most natural to claim that we are the same person. And so when attempting to define personhood through some kind of psychological continuity obviously memories can’t be the sole basis for this continuity, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to say that we are the same person as the one who lived through such uneventful days.

Must we include memories at all in our definition of psychological continuity? When we consider cases of amnesia it seems like we must, since obviously the person who exists after an amnesia inducing event is not the same person who existed before. Let us assume that our intuitions about such a case are correct. Even so it doesn’t prove that memories have some role to play in our definition of personhood, because when someone’s memories are erased so are their interpersonal relationships, which are based on those memories. I propose that why we feel that the people who exist before and after a case of amnesia are different is because afterwards the person no longer knows about their relationships and role in society. If we could erase all of a person’s memories while leaving the knowledge of their role in society intact I think that we wouldn’t consider that change to have produced a new person. After all, they would still relate in the same way to others, still know their name, ect, although they wouldn’t be able to describe to us why they were in that role.

However a person’s relationships to other people, their role in society, is not enough to define them. We can imagine imposters who take the place of a person, relating in the same way to the rest of the world, and thus being impossible to detect. But, even though we can’t tell that they are imposters, I don’t think that there is any motivation to describe them as the same person. So, in conjunction with a person’s role in society, there must be some internal factors that come into play when defining personhood. Normally memories play the role of the necessary internal factors, but we are not forced to rely on them, there are other internal psychological features that we can appeal to as well.

When we take out memories we are left only with the current way in which a person is thinking. I don’t know of a way to succinctly describe the properties that define how we think, but perhaps style of thought will work. Now obviously I can’t prove that our style of thought is distinct, I can’t even say exactly what other prosperities that it could be broken up into. However, it certainly seems likely that we all have our own unique way of thinking. For example, when we are presented with a picture we will make different connections, and respond to it in different ways. Of course these differences are probably rooted ultimately in our memories, but our memories don’t always actively come into play when thinking, and even if some memory was responsible for our tendency to make a certain connection it is conceivable that we could forget the memory and still make the connection (in fact I suspect this tends to happen quite often). In fact even after a case of amnesia people seem to have a similar style of thought after the event, showing that it is at least partially independent of memories.

And so my proposal is that we can define the psychological continuity that is essential to being a certain person in terms of the person’s role in society and style of thought, without any appeal to memories. Certainly this seems to agree with our experience, or at least my experience. We may remember things on occasion, sometimes when making an active attempt at recalling some piece of information, and sometimes spontaneously when something in our environment jogs our memory. But remembering is only a small part of our total mental life. Much of our thinking occurs without any reference to memory. And if this is the case it seems mistaken to define personhood on the basis of something so rarely used.

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