- Persons exist longer than a single moment in time; they persist through time. Strikingly enough, we are still in need of a theory that makes this natural and widespread assumption metaphysically comprehensible. Metaphysicians are deeply divided on how to account for personal identity and on whether there is such a thing at all. Many have actually cast doubt on the latter, thereby following the sceptical path famously taken by David Hume.
- The reason why we haven’t found so far a waterproof metaphysical justification for our everyday belief in personal identity might lie in the fact that personal identity is an illusion. It might, however, equally lie in the insufficiency of the explanatory approaches hitherto taken. Is it really, to speak with Hume, the question of personal identity that is ‘abstruse’, or do we rather have to blame the metaphysicians for having failed to grasp the problem correctly1?
- In this chapter I shall pursue the second of these two options. I take it that the accounts of personal identity put forward so far fail for fundamental reasons: they are committed to the wrong kind of ontology. In fact the debate on personal identity is stuck in a dilemma, manifest in the antagonism between reductionist theories, which reduce the identity of persons to weaker continuity relations, and non-reductionist theories, which declare it to be a primitive ‘further fact’. Personal identity is either eliminated or mystified.
- I wish to claim that this dilemma is a special case of a general dilemma of persistence, and that it can be overcome only if we replace the underlying metaphysical framework, shared by both sides of the debate, with a new one. Thing ontology, which gives priority to unchanging static things, must give way to process ontology, which takes process and change to be ontologically primary.
- I shall defend this claim in three steps:
- First, I shall briefly present the dilemma of personal identity.
- Second, I shall identify the thing-ontological roots of the dilemma. These roots can be traced — through reductionism’s and non-reductionism’s disagreements on what persons are (bundle theory vs substance theory), on what constitutes reality most fundamentally (Humean ontology vs substance ontology) and on what persistence is (perdurantism2 vs endurantism3) — back to a striking similarity: the disappearance of change on both sides.
- On the basis of this analysis, I shall demonstrate, third, how acknowledging the biological nature of human persons and switching to a process-ontological framework4 accordingly lays the foundations for a convincing account of personal identity exactly by rehabilitating change.
- I shall conclude by highlighting the most important assets and implications of such a move, as well as by indicating key tasks for further elaborating a bioprocess view of personal identity.
- Interestingly, Hume’s own position on this matter is ultimately not entirely clear either, as evidenced by the famous ‘Appendix on Personal Identity’ in his Treatise, where he complains about the result of his philosophical analysis being no less absurd than the absurdities it was meant to overcome; see Hume 1966: 317. See also the detailed discussion in Meincke 2015 (ch. 3.1).
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