Personal Identity: a Materialist Account
Shoemaker (Sydney)
Source: Shoemaker & Swinburne - Personal Identity, 1984, pp. 67-132
Paper - Abstract

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  1. This essay develops ideas suggested in my earlier writings, especially:-
  2. A more remote ancestor is my book "Shoemaker (Sydney) - Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity" (1963).
  3. I am grateful to all of those, including countless students, whose criticisms, questions and comments have helped me clarify my thinking on this subject. I especially thank Carl Ginet and Alan Sidelle, for helpful comments on my contributions to this volume.

  1. Introduction – 69
  2. The Concept of Identity – 71
  3. The Memory Theory – 77
  4. Objections and Revisions – 80
  5. Personal Identity as Psychological Continuity2 – 89
  6. Functionalism and Personal Identity – 92
  7. Circularity Circumvented – 98
  8. Unity of Consciousness and Self-Consciousness3 – 102
  9. Mind and Body – 106
  10. The Brain-State Transfer Device – 108
  11. Personal Identity and Animal Identity – 112
  12. The Duplication4 Objection – 115
  13. Survival and the Importance of Identity – 119
  14. Is Personal Identity “Simple and Unanalysable”? 122
  15. Conceptual Analysis or Factual Analysis? 126
  16. The Duplication5 Argument Revisited – 130

  1. From earliest times people have found intelligible, and sometimes believable, the idea that persons are capable of surviving death, either in disembodied7 form or through bodily resurrection or reincarnation8. And many a piece of popular fiction relies on the idea that a person might have different bodies at different times. We are also familiar, both from fiction and from the annals of psychiatric medicine, with the idea of two or more distinct 'personalities' successively manifesting themselves in one and the same body. Yet another such idea is that two distinct minds or consciousnesses might simultaneously inhabit the same body — and recent studies of 'split-brain patients' have suggested to some investigators not only that this is conceivable but that it actually happens9. One way of raising the problem of personal identity is by asking whether, or to what extent, such ideas are coherent, and what it is about the nature of personal identity, or our concept of it, which permits, or forbids, such envisioned departures from the normal course of events.
  2. The problem of personal identity can be viewed as an aspect of the 'mind-body problem'. For a variety of reasons we are inclined to resist the view, so strongly suggested by the current scientific world view, that mental states and processes are nothing over and above certain highly complex physical and chemical processes. One reason is the 'special access' we have to our own mental states. One comes to have knowledge of these states without observing, or gathering evidence about, the physical states of one's own body; and possession of the knowledge seems compatible with total ignorance of one's own inner physiological states, and, more generally, the condition of one's body. And if one reflects on what one knows in having this self-knowledge — the existence of intentional states like believing that Argentina's inflation rate is higher than Brazil's, and qualitative states like seeing blue and having an itch — it is difficult at best to see how this could be reducible to any facts about one's behaviour or neurophysiology. Puzzlement about the nature of mental states is bound to give rise to puzzlement about the nature of persons, the pre-eminent subjects of such states. And this in turn manifests itself in puzzlement about personal identity — for a central part of understanding the nature of a kind of things (like persons) is understanding the identity conditions for things of that sort. The considerations that make it seem that mental states cannot be physical states also make it seem that persons cannot simply be physical bodies, and that personal identity must consist in something other than bodily identity.
  3. Among the things to which persons have a 'special access' are facts about their own identity over time; they have in their memory knowledge of their own past histories. One's memory-knowledge of one's own past differs strikingly from one's knowledge, including memory knowledge, of the past histories of other persons. If I claim to remember you doing something yesterday, it is at least a theoretical possibility that my claim is in error, not because my memory is mistaken, but because the person I remember doing that thing is not you but someone who looks just like you and whom I have misidentified as you. But if I claim to remember that I did such-and-such yesterday, it is absurd to suppose that I could be mistaken in that way. And whatever may be said of my judgements about the identity of others, it is certainly not the case that I ground such judgements about myself on evidence of bodily identity. Here again the nature of self-knowledge raises questions about personal identity, in part by calling into question the natural view that the identity of a person is simply the identity of a living human body.
  4. A rather different source of perplexity about personal identity has to do with the special concern persons have for their own continued existence and their own future welfare. Imagine that a wizard demonstrates to you his ability to reduce any object to a pile of dust by a wave of his wand and then, with another wave, to create an exact duplicate10 of that thing out of another pile of dust. If one really believes that he can do this, one probably would not be too averse to letting him do it to one's kitchen stove. But only a monster would offer his wife or child as a subject for the wizard's trick, and only a madman (or a suicide) would offer himself. Or so it initially strikes us. Our concern for personal identity, the kind of importance it has for us seems totally different in kind from the concern we have for the identity of other sorts of things. And this is linked to the special concern each person has for his or her own future welfare. It is this that gives point to many of our moral, social and legal practices, and explains the significance they attach to considerations of personal identity. If a person does an action, it is that same person who can later be held responsible for the action, and whom it is appropriate to punish or reward for doing it. If someone buys something, it is that person who is subsequently entitled to the use of the item purchased. These principles, which are constitutive of the institutions of punishment and property and the concept of moral responsibility, are intelligible only against the background of a conception of human motivation in which a central role is played by the special concern each person has for his own future well-being.
  5. An account of personal identity ought to make intelligible the knowledge we have of personal identity, including the special access each of us has, in memory, to his own identity, and it ought to make intelligible the special sort of importance personal identity has for us. It ought also to cohere with the rest of what we know about the world. In my own view, this last requirement means that an account of personal identity ought to be compatible with a naturalistic, or materialistic, account of mind. To a large extent, the mind-body problem, including the problem of personal identity, arises because of considerations that create the appearance that no naturalistic account could be true; and I think that solving the problem has got to consist in large part in dispelling that appearance (while acknowledging and explaining the facts that give rise to it). Finally, our account of personal identity must be compatible with the logical principles that govern the notion of identity itself. It is to these that we now turn.


Also excerpted in "Van Inwagen (Peter) & Zimmerman (Dean) - Metaphysics: The Big Questions".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: This is the Acknowledgements section, p. 68.

Footnote 6: Full Text, ie. pp. 69-71.

Footnote 9: See "Nagel (Thomas) - Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness", 1979.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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