Intuitions about Personal Identity: An Empirical Study
Nichols (Shaun) & Bruno (Michael)
Source: Forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology, Special issue on experimental philosophy
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Abstract

    Williams (1970) argues that our intuitions about personal identity vary depending on how a given thought experiment1 is framed. Some frames lead us to think that persistence of self requires persistence of one’s psychological characteristics; other frames lead us to think that the self persists even after the loss of one’s distinctive psychological characteristics. The current paper takes an empirical approach to these issues. We find that framing does affect whether or not people judge that persistence of psychological characteristics is required for persistence of self. This difference is not explained by whether the case is framed in first or third person. By contrast, open-ended, abstract questions about what is required for survival tend to elicit responses that appeal to the importance of psychological characteristics. This emphasis on psychological characteristics is largely preserved even when participants are exposed to a concrete case that yields conflicting intuitions over whether memory must be preserved in order for a person is to persist. Insofar as our philosophical theory of personal identity should be based on our intuitions, the results provide some support for the view that psychological characteristics really are critical for persistence of self.

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