What is the physicalist view on the continuity of personal identity?

For example, suppose something terrible will happen to my body in the far future... would the physicalist say it's rational to be afraid (because it will still be you) or irrational (because it isn't you... it's another physical system)?

ie: Under the physicalist position, is continuity of personal identity just a convenient fiction, or is there something more to it?

  • 1
    Physicalism is not a comprehensive system of ideas. It proposes a material world, but is far from describing it (e.g. what is 'identity' for a physicalist?). The continuity of any identity is moreover a metaphysical subject.
    – RodolfoAP
    Jun 2 at 14:21
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    Bundle theory similar to Hume's, Dennett's Consciousness Explained is a standard exposition. Will be "you" or "not you" are nonsensical conceptions on this view, they presuppose Cartesian fictions. Whether it is rational to have an emotion is a dubious question, emotions are not rationally controlled, but to the extent that they are I suppose it is rational to ignore fictitious problems in the Epicurean spirit.
    – Conifold
    Jun 3 at 6:43

Indeed as you conceived, it's very hard for physicalism to ground continuity of personal identity as wiki reference here:

One concept of personal persistence over time is simply to have continuous bodily existence. However, as the Ship of Theseus problem illustrates, even for inanimate objects there are difficulties in determining whether one physical body at one time is the same thing as a physical body at another time. With humans, over time our bodies age and grow, losing and gaining matter, and over sufficient years will not consist of most of the matter they once consisted of. It is thus problematic to ground persistence of personal identity over time in the continuous existence of our bodies.

The teletransportation problem of Derek Parfit is designed to bring out intuitions about corporeal continuity. This thought experiment discusses cases in which a person is teleported from Earth to Mars. Ultimately, the inability to specify where on a spectrum does the transmitted person stop being identical to the initial person on Earth appears to show that having a numerically identical physical body is not the criterion for personal identity.

Thus we could know all the facts about a person's continued existence and not be able to say whether the person has survived after the perfect teleportation in principle. Parfit concluded that we are mistaken in assuming that personal identity is what matters in survival; what matters is rather psychological connectedness (memory and character) and psychological continuity. Identity is not as determinate as we often suppose it is, but instead such determinacy arises mainly from the way we talk. People exist in the same way that nations or clubs exist. Following David Hume, Parfit argued that no unique entity, such as a self, unifies a person's experiences and dispositions over time. Therefore personal identity is not "what matters" in survival. A key Parfitian question is: given the choice between surviving without psychological continuity and dying but preserving psychological continuity through someone else's future existence, which would you choose? Parfit argues the latter is preferable.

However, there's an argument from relational theory of life-sustaining processes which is also called biological processes to try to ground persistence of personal identity in the same reference:

Nevertheless, this approach has its supporters which define humans as a biological organism and asserts the proposition that a psychological relation is not necessary for personal continuity. This personal identity ontology assumes the relational theory of life-sustaining processes instead of bodily continuity.

So under this relational and process philosophy POV, personal identity can be related thus grounded to certain physicalist biological processes. Biological processes are those processes that are vital for an organism to live, and that shape its capacities for interacting with its environment. Biological processes are made of many chemical reactions or other events that are involved in the persistence and transformation of life forms.

  • But then aren't we left with the problem of how to determine identity of "biological process"... this seems just as difficult. Is the biological process of my body the same biological process that was running yesterday... how would we answer such a question? Jun 3 at 1:46
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    @AmeetSharma of course it's not settled yet since it's just an argument not a proved or demonstrated conclusive proposition. It's a hard topic continued to be studied in life sciences and even AGI. It just shifts focus from static composite cells to some life sustaining dynamic processes of these composites like Whitehead's process philosophy, of course not convincing yet... Jun 3 at 1:52

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