The presentation of the co-director of our Center, D.Volkov “Self as a useful illusion” took place within the dialogue between the Russian scientists and the Dalai Lama. Below you can see its text, slides, and video.
One of the main issues discussed in contemporary Russian analytic philosophy is the problem of personal identity. The problem consists in defining what is the self and what makes a person at one moment the same with a person at another moment. The interest in this issue was recently propelled forward by the advancements of neuroscience, our understanding of the brain and research in artificial intelligence. So both philosophers and scientists are working on this problem. Its importance is also justified by its relation to moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires that we identify a person at different moments.
For example, a person commits an immoral act. A few months later it is being discovered by his acquaintances. They blame the person in present for his wrongdoing in the past. The person might also blame himself for the immoral action. These reactive attitudes, responses by the other people and the agent himself, can only be justified if the past action can be attributed to the person in present. This implies that we can identify the person in two different moments in time. If we can’t do this nobody would ever be responsible for their actions in the past, good or bad. But is this a problem at all? Maybe the answer is obvious?
Most lay people naturally think it is. But contemporary philosophers and scientists argue that it is more complicated. There are at least two reasons.
1. Persons are not unified agents: they resemble a society composed of multiple interconnected individuals.
The brain of a person is composed of multiple modules which execute a discrete cognitive function relatively autonomously from the other modules. One of the leading neuroscientists describes it in the following way: the human brain has a variety of widely distributed nonverbal systems that are nonetheless able to produce and control behavior. These behaviors are observed by the speaking part of the brain in the left hemisphere. If one of the modules produces strange behavior, the speaking part of the brain comes up with strange ideas to explain it. We see this in neurological syndromes such as anosagnosia (this is a class of mental illnesses accompanied by the denial of illness) and in the split-brain patients. But it occurs in the normal brain as well. The brain can be viewed as a seat of multiple agents competing for control and retrospectively rationalizing each others’ behavior. In other words parts of the brain are making up stories about the motives of the other parts. The lack of unification and superficial integration poses the first obstacle for personal identification. The second obstacle is constant change in the human body, psychological states, and personal characteristics.
2. Persons significantly change. Almost nothing stays constant during the lifespan of a person.
Human bodies grow and age. Majority of 50 trillion cells that make up a human body die and get replaced. Each type of cell has its own lifespan. Red blood cells live for about four months, while white blood cells live on average more than a year. Skin cells live about two or three weeks. So the body doesn’t stay constant, most of it is being replaced by new parts.
Psychological and cognitive functions also change. Persons acquire and lose their abilities, they change priorities, moral values, beliefs and desires. They acquire and lose memories. In all these respects a human fetus, a teenager, an adult and an old man are very different. What grounds the belief that this is the same person? Maybe we just feel and experience it?
Inner states are constantly changing, leaving nothing but a trace of slowly degrading memories. When we reflect upon our inner states we find only the content of these states but nothing like experience of self. I’m now experiencing this conference. I can see parts of my body but there is nothing in the experience that I can call the experience of self. Is seems that the self is a very elusive entity from both the first-person and third-person perspective. But we need to track it to justify responsibility.
Western philosophers have developed three main 3 approaches to resolve the puzzle of the self and personal identity. 1). Mental substance approach; 2). Bodily approach; 3). Psychological approach.
Mental substance approach. According to the mental substance approach what stays constant throughout life of a person is a soul, some kind of mental substance. The soul can have different mental properties (mental states or psychological characteristics) but they are not essential for its identity because they change. Most western lay people probably believe in something like that. However this approach is vulnerable to criticism by the verification principle. According to this principle, if a statement has no means of verification it is meaningless. I think it is possible to show that the statement that “I am the same person as me 10 years ago because I have the same soul” is meaningless therefore the mental substance approach leads to absurdity.
If the mental entity has no essential properties souls can change places without us knowing about it. In fact my soul could have replaced your soul now and neither of us would notice. The soul hypothesis has no way of verification. That is why it is meaningless and this approach doesn’t help to resolve the problem of personal identity. The next to consider is the bodily criterion of identity.
Bodily approach. Some philosophers believe that the identity of person is preserved through some kind of bodily continuity. In other words I am now the same person as I was 10 years ago, because our two brains are physically continuous. This approach passes the verification test in simple cases but is vulnerable in more complicated hypothetical examples. One of such cases is the split-brain transplantation.
Over the course of the last century organ transplantation has overcome major technical limitations. Breakthroughs include developing techniques for vascular anastomose (reconstruction of blood vessels), managing immune response and preservation solutions that enable prolonged periods of ex vivo storage (storage of organs outside the body). Kidneys, lungs, livers and hearts have been transplanted. 4 Brain transplant will be possible in the future; it may be even possible to transplant two hemispheres of a brain into two different skulls.
So imagine we transplant my left hemisphere into One body and my right hemisphere into Second body, let’s call them Lefty and Righty. These two bodies will survive, because each hemisphere in fact can survive the death of another hemisphere. This would be called a split-brain transplantation. But where would I go? Am I now in the Lefty or in the Righty Body? Bodily criterion can’t resolve this. This shows that the Bodily criterion is insufficient. But there is a reason to think it is wrong. It is the possibility of uploading the mind to an artificial brain.
There are many Russian philosophers and scientists who believe that human intelligence and mind are computations which could be carried on an artificial platform such as silicon microchips. In other words, it is possible to program a computer in such a way that it would not only simulate the outgoing signals of the person’s brain but in fact be a person. Now if this is indeed possible or even logically consistent it means that the person can carry on his life in a digital form. This undermines the Bodily criterion of personal identity. We are left with a third approach, the Psychological approach.
Criterion: psychological continuity
A person at t2 is the same as a person at t1 if the person at t2 is psychological continuous with the person at t1
By psychological continuity one usually means the causal connection between one set of psychological traits (set of values, priorities, memories, desires) and another
Psychological approach. According to the psychological approach I am now the same person as I was 10 years ago, if I am now psychologically continuous with myself from 10 years ago. By psychological continuity one usually means the causal connection between one set of psychological traits (such as values, priorities, memories, desires) and another. This approach avoids at least the last type of criticism, namely the criticism that a person potentially can survive without a physical body as a software on a computer platform. This is part of the reason why the majority of Russian philosophers consider psychological criterion as the most promising.
However, this criterion is vulnerable too. It is vulnerable to the hypothetical case of reduplication.
Psychological traits can in principle be copied not only to one but to several other brains or several other artificial platforms. This will cause a situation where one person is psychologically continuous with several other persons. So according to the psychological approach one person 10 years ago can be identical with many other people now. This seems absurd and probably shows that the Psychological approach to personal identity is false. What is left then?
Narrative approach. As it was shown above three classical approaches to personal identity have drawbacks. However, there is another relatively new approach that is more promising — the narrative approach. It promises to resolve puzzle cases in personal identity debate and shed new light on the nature of the persisting self. According to the narrative approach supported by some philosophers in Moscow Center for Consciousness and St. Petersbourg University a person at two different moments in time should be viewed as two parts of the same object, like two rooms that belong to one house. In other words, persons have not only spatial parts, but also temporal parts. These temporal parts are unified by an autobiographical narrative.
The narrative is a story about some agent, his actions and motives, presented in the consequential order. In this story the previous events explain the consequent events and the actions are justified by agent’s goals, values, priorities. The individual events acquire meaning as a part of the whole story. This differentiates a narrative from a chronicle.
The narrative approach can be traced back to both analytic and continental philosophers but also to the idea of two famous Russian scientists: psychologist L. Vygotsky and neurophysiologist A. Luria – their principle of “extracortical organization of complex mental functions”. This concept implies the mental functions are often formed with the support of external auxiliary tools. Auxiliary tools like pen and paper establish new functional connections between various 6 brain systems that were previously independent (audio-visual connections). One of those tools is autobiographical narrative. It creates self and connects self across moments in time. This idea is at the core of the narrative approach. How does it solve the puzzle cases I previously discussed?
The narrative approach denies the requirement of numerical identity for survival or responsibility. It also denies the requirement of one and only one successor. In other words according to the narrative approach person persists if his narrative persists and integrates new parts. It also implies that a person as a unified numerically identical agent persisting in time is a fiction, but it is a useful fiction which helps to interpret and predict the behavior of a human.
Conclusion. I have explained the core issues in the personal identity debate in Russian analytic philosophy. I have also presented three classical solutions and showed their drawbacks. I explained a fourth alternative solution to the philosophical riddle — the narrative approach to personal identity. This approach can be grounded in ideas of Russian scientists and it avoids some of the potential criticisms.