The Philosophical Question of Identity
One of the biggest questions in modern philosophy concerns the notion of ‘identity.’ Famous academics such as Bertrand Russell, John Locke, and Sam Miller have long pondered upon what it is that makes someone unique, and the qualities that go along to build up the ‘soul’ and the mind.
“Who Am I,” is a question that has troubled philosophers for centuries. Miller, in the late 1800’s, speculated that it was the soul that differentiated him from others. As he was aware of the decay of the human body over time, he speculated that there must be something about himself and others that was consistent, regardless of the time and place it was in.
When trying to comfort a dying friend, Gretchen Weirob, he claimed that he believed that the soul to be at the core of identity, and that there must be a life after death as the soul is not controlled by time.
Weirob, in rebuttal, created one of the most famous counter arguments to the ‘soul’ hypothesis of identity. She claimed:
(1) If the identity of people is in their immaterial and unobservable souls, when we make a judgement on another, we are actually making a judgement on their immaterial and unobservable souls.
(2) If such judgements were about immaterial and unobservable souls, they those judgements would be groundless and without foundation.
(3) People’s judgements of others are not always groundless and without foundation.
(4) We must not be judging immaterial and unobservable souls.
(5) A soul is not what makes a person.
Similarly, John Locke disagreed with Miller’s hypothesis of the soul, instead arguing that one’s identity was held within their consciousness, specifically within memories. As memories were an objective experience that was totally unique to one specific person, and that was no subjected to change over time, Locke hypothesised that it was there that one’s identity was found.
(1) A person considered in one point of time is the same person considered in a different point of time, if and only if they contain the same memories.
However, Locke encountered the problem of people who forget memories. For instance, according to Locke’s original hypothesis, a baby and a grown adult would be different beings, as they would not share the same memories as the adult would struggle to remember life at age two.
Hence, Locke revised his memory hypothesis to as follows:
(1) A person considered in one point of time is one and the same person as one considered at another point of time, if and only if there is an overlapping chain of memories connecting them together.
It is in this way that an old man is the same person as himself at age thirty, who is the same person as himself at age fifteen, who is himself at age eight and so on. The overlapping chain of memories is a sufficient requirement to indicate sameness in being, and satisfied Locke’s queries on the notion of identity.