Friday, 29 May 2015

Reflections on Personal Identity

The common Western idea of personal identity has depended on continuity of memory since John Locke and is a central element in English individualism. This was contrasted with ‘mere’ bodily continuity, with mind and body firmly separated, which was assisted by another notion – that mind was associated with a ‘soul’ which had some being or continuity beyond the body after it had died (or even outside the body, while the latter was still functioning separately, in some schools of thought).

This idea of a continuity beyond death, based on a separation of body and mind, is still held by many people as a matter of faith. It gives psychological comfort to some but it has not been demonstrated as ‘true’ (scientifically probable). It is a possibilian concept. Continuity of memory, however, is a different kettle of fish. Since Locke’s day, we have seen ‘scientific’, certainly suggestive theoretical, evidence that conscious memory, accumulated in layers of perception and constantly constructing the ‘self’, is only a small part of the story.

We have Freud’s postulate of the unconscious to contend with but also growing evidence that the historic genetically constructed structures of the brain construct both our perceptions and the selection and holding of those perceptions in such a way that memory becomes a very slippery matter in its relation to what actually happened even in the moments before it is formed. Memory is not just the accumulation of perceptions into a form of identity but the unwitting selection of perceptions, one that relies on discontinuities, redrafts and revisions that are built-in to the ‘person’ by their genetic and experiential history.

There may be an inability to perceive some things or a determination to forget in the context of trauma or some other need. If personal identity is memory then that personal identity is not smoothly constructed in many cases but is a partly wilful and partly unconscious creation which involves as much forgetting as remembering. This is not incompatible with, say, the metaphysics of Nietzsche to the effect that we can be nothing other than we are and that we are doomed to repeat ourselves eternally.

The ‘will to power’ (in his sense) of an organism that integrates body and mind into a being that is also integrated into raw existence can easily accommodate the idea that we are not conscious of the discontinuities as well as conscious of the apparent continuities in our identity. Indeed, the mix of conscious and wilful (or apparently so) change in ourselves with part-conscious (or illusory) and with unconscious (or biological or environmental) changes to the forms by which our perception is structured is in greater accord with Nietzsche’s existentialism than with Locke’s gentlemanly English liberalism.

Modern psychologists are only the professional end of a truth universally recognised by most of us who can see the world in a critical way – that memory is as often false as not and so, by extension, that our personal identities are ‘false’ constructions that: a) depend on our body’s and earlier mind’s determination of what should be perceived and then held for future use; and b) are what that same mind should unconsciously choose to forget or bury deep in the process of creating the present which we can then call our ‘self’ at any one time.

Memory, in short, is not all that personal identity is but is only its expression to our consciousness. Placing the possibility of existence beyond the body to one side, our personal identity may be a memory at each point in our life but that memory is possibly false and our personal identity is probably false if we believe it to be true without further questioning. By a paradox, if we know and believe our memory and identity to be ‘false’, it becomes more ‘true’ (yes, truth can be relative here) because the entry of the thought of a false memory as possibility, even probability under certain conditions, gives us the opportunity to choose to be ‘critical’, that is either to accept our personal identity as ‘true’ for us in its falsity as an act of will and freedom (insofar as we can ever be free) or to investigate, critically, what may be false in order to make ourselves more ‘true’.

We are not valuing the ‘true’ here as the ‘good’ – being ‘true’ is merely defined as according with objective or at least scientifically validated reality. Being in accord with objective reality has no necessary relationship in itself with the value of ‘good’ but that is another debate.  Personal identity, in fact, is never anything other than ‘true’ in value terms because it is ‘true’ to the person that has that identity. The ‘falsity’ arises only when the person perceives a ‘falsity’ themselves in what they had held to be true, hence the argument in this note – that realisation of ‘falsity’ requires a new ‘truth’ or new identity formulation even if this is a reaffirmation of the ‘falsity’ as ‘truth’. In this way, once we understand that Locke’s assertion that personal identity is memory is to be taken as a truism of sorts, but one without much relationship to the objective truth of our condition in the world – that is, that ‘false memory’ means ‘false identity’ in any terms that are not totally subjective to the person and so represents more or less of a disconnect between persons and their world – then we can rethink that position in the world

This must generally result in one of three responses – denial, conscious reaffirmation of the given or critical investigation of the self.  Let us pause here and say that no value judgement can be ascribed to any of these responses. The denial that a person is anything other than memory, even if the memory (say) includes the assertion that the person was once Emperor of France when all the external evidence points to this not being case, is a legitimate human response to their condition in the world.

The assertion that the historic world leader and this person who believes themselves to be (wrongly) that past world leader are different in personal identity terms just because one accords with objective reality and one does not is merely a matter of the degree by which the identity is practically adaptive to the world. All those unaware of their ‘falsity’ have more in common, mad or not, than any of them do with those who are aware of it. Madness and 'inauthenticity' (to use an older and rather value-ridden existentialist term) are far from identical however. 'Inauthenticity' may be a necessary condition for personal survival in the world as it is constructed. Madness is a poor way of physically surviving in the world outside the most caring of welfare states, communities, tribes or families.

Each personal identity in its particular case of unawareness has been constructed to function for that person but both cases, madness and 'inauthenticity', have in common the fact that neither is aware of their condition or, until having become or made aware of it, are able to treat that condition critically. The thought experiment here is of the man who chooses madness in response to conditions and becomes mad - is this possible?  Did Nietzsche do this? Was this his genius? Human society, on the other hand, could probably not function easily without the vast majority of persons not questioning their condition for most of the time. Unquestioning is a necessary element in the construction of the social.

Left critics of the workings of society have been fully aware of this for some time, hence their frustrated assertion of the need to act to raise consciousness in order to effect change because, left to themselves, most people would accept existing conditions as true and construct their personal identities precisely to fit their environment. These people become their world – cogs perhaps but also able to survive where those who question might end up in camps or penury. It is the source of the instinctive conservatism of the mass of the population and the difficulty behind attempts to effect change even when all logic points to it.

But being or becoming aware of the fact that our personal identities are ‘false’ to the degree that our memories are false because we are our memories (albeit embedded first in a body with its memory and a society with its collective memory) creates only persons who are different not better and the uncovering of this truth about identity does not necessarily result in more than marginal change. The conservatism of society is often very logical – just as are the narratives of the great movements that challenge this conservatism.

Our bodies, meanwhile, are repositories of unconscious material memory. Their genetic component (without going down the route of the collective unconscious) means that a proportion of that memory exists from before the actual creation of that body. Societies too are repositories of collective memory. The habits and instincts of persons are easy to transfer from one community to another (certainly under conditions of modernisation) but also respond (without further self-questioning thought) to the ‘norms’ of a particular time and place which then impact on the formation of memory and so identity. Memory is constructed out of continuous socialisation and the relationship between memory and social identity is at the heart of 'tradition'.

To challenge one’s own personal identity may often involve challenging one’s own body image and capabilities, the ‘norms’ of society and the representation of oneself in society – it might even suggest radical action: gender change, migration, abandonment of tribe or faith (or acquisition of one).  The point is that knowing that one’s personal identity as a construct of false memory does not necessarily predispose someone to radical rather than conservative actions.

It enables radical choice, that is true, but radical choices, if based on unconscious reaction to the tension between society and material circumstances and ‘true will’ can be far from conscious. They may derive from a reaction to memory that makes them no more authentic than those of the conservative mind set who determines on full acceptance of his or her condition without further thought. Awareness that memory and so identity can be explored and reconfigured is a-political and even a-social.

The only virtue of awareness is that it does not rely on an unconscious balancing of mind, body and society (which clearly creates contentment for some but not others) but recognises that, where the mind is not in accord with body or society and where personal identity is not in line with something approaching ‘true will’, the person, in that moment of recognition, can make choices and that those choices involve the management of perceptions and the investigation of memory (or the abandonment of acceptance of memories as valid in the rejection of beliefs) in order to realign a person and the conditions of their existence.

In the case of beliefs, memory is certainly slippery. To believe something is a core element in personal identity and the shift of a belief from a present state to a memory of what was once believed represents a major shift of identity in itself. Chaos Magicians exploit this in order to play with their own identities in a way that strikes the vast majority of humanity as wasteful and absurd but these are not idle thought experiments in coming to a view on the stability of identity in our species.

So Locke is, of course, correct that our identity does rely on memory but we must recognise now that memory is constructed and false more often than not so that our personal identities are as much constructs of our bodies and society as of our conscious will and actual experience. Although this is true, this is not an excuse for a valuation of some minds as better than others just because of their awareness of this falseness of identity because no identity can ever be anything but false in an absolute sense. Nor can we necessarily draw the extreme conclusion that we have no selves (which is an entirely different argument, if currently fashionable one, to criticise another day).

Having an identity that is true to itself is still having an identity that is constructed or that has been constructed out of perceptions that can never tell the whole story about external reality (not to mention our ignorance of other minds and the workings of a society where so little can be observed directly by the subject).  An identity expresses the needs at any one time of a person who is made up of a mind set in a body constrained by social and technological reality. Thus, there is never any absolute freedom but nor is there any requirement for total determination of circumstances.

Liberation is merely a cast of mind, a calibration of society, body and mind and so a calibration of perception, of memory and of identity. The constant struggle between the psychological and physical continuity theories of identity thus rather misses the point. What might be better considered is a theory of constant discontinuities in which a body (and a society) and a mind with only apparent continuity are both required but in which the ‘normal’ integration of the two can be discontinued without either mind or body ceasing to have some ‘memory’ of itself.

A body without a mind is still the body of the person and can be reactivated as such under certain conditions (as after a coma) and that body would influence a new mind that entered it through its biology and brain structure. Perceptions and capabilities would change identity – we only have to consider the male/female difference and the effects on a mind with memories of another gender in a body swap to know how identity would adjust with biology. Continuity perhaps but also a recasting of memory to fit biology would be likely.

A mind might be reloaded or transferred or duplicated in a machine or another body but, from that point, the new material conditions would create new ways of perceiving and thought that would create a separate identity from any identical mental clone in another body, whilst still showing continuities with the past through inherited shared memory. In the memory clone case, each ‘person’ has a separate identity based on possibly small changes in material circumstance despite shared memories – reproducing the ‘I’m Sharon but a different Sharon’ problem of Battlestar Galactica.

Identity is not fixed but changes and shifts in relation to the environment. It is fraught with discontinuities even when simplified down to one mind in one body. The recognition of this complexity should make the psychological-physical debate redundant. It should also help us to be suspicious of the truth-claims made about ourselves by ourselves and by all other persons of themselves and create a scepticism about claims that any single mind can have the answer to any social problem without the help of other minds or that any person can have the ultimate solution, if there is one, to one’s own problems except oneself.