Thursday, May 19, 2011

Definition of identity and the mind-body problem

To: James M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Definition of identity and the mind-body problem
Date: 25 July 2002 08:15

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 July with the corrected version of your essay of 16 July for the Philosophy of Mind program in response to the question, 'What is identity? What is the relevance of a definition of "identity" to the problem of the relation between mind and body?'

I like what Ortega has to say about the self. I was charmed by his little book 'Some Lessons in Metaphysics' (Norton), where he proposes the formula, 'I am myself and my circumstances'. What he means is that 'I' is a relational concept, not a name of a substance. It is only in terms of the idea of 'I' as the name of a substance that the traditional oppositions between materialism, idealism and dualism can be expressed.

Philosophers are forever looking for ways to get behind a dispute and upstage the participants. This is something Kant does in various places in the 'Critique of Pure Reason', for example in the Antinomies of Pure Reason, where he shows that the theory that 'the world has a beginning in time' and also the theory that 'the world has existed forever' arise from a false, shared framework. In his Critical philosophy the question of 'the beginning of the world' cannot be posed in that way. (An 'antinomy' involves a pair of contrary propositions which appear to be contradictory, whereas in fact there is a third, overlooked alternative. This logical idea later became the core of Hegel's philosophical method, his 'dialectic'.)

It seems to me that a possible philosophical point of your examination of 'My Experience' (if I may speak for you) is to try to see if there might not be some logical space for manoeuvre in between these various 'isms'. The way things turn out, however, is that each of these three traditional ways of relating mind to body make an appearance in everyday experience. Everyone can cite experiences of when the mind seems to be physical, or when physical things seem to be mental, or when mind and matter appear as separate entities, in co-operation or at odds with one another.

It's hardly surprising, when you think about it, that the ideas which motivate the great metaphysical systems relate back to common experience. The materialist, idealist, dualist each identifies one particular type of experience as most illuminating of the whole. It is their epiphany. They are perhaps not even aware of doing so, because if they did become aware, they would realize that not all experiences fit this artificially restricted paradigm.

The point of the essay question did not directly concern identity over time (which is also discussed in the program) but rather identity at a time. What you say about personal identity - as applied to your own case as a representative example - certainly has implications for the problem of relating the criteria of bodily continuity, mental continuity etc. in a logical definition of 'personal identity'. Memory, as you show, is a much more complex thing than analytic philosophers working in this area are generally prepared to allow. However, this is not primarily what I was thinking of in raising the question, 'What is identity?' in relation to the mind-body problem.

In terms of the critique of the 'substance' theory, we can say that identity is a concept that involves putting two names on either side of an 'equals' sign. The identity statement is true if and only if the names refer to the 'same thing' and false otherwise. As Frege showed in his famous essay 'Uber Sinn und Bedeutung' ('On Sense and Reference') this is a blatantly circular definition (because it talks about 'the same thing' which is the very concept we are seeking to define). However, it will do to identify the area that we are exploring. As I explain in the program, identity statements can (surprisingly) convey information. To say that Morning Star is the Evening Star is not a tautology. But what is important, from our point of view (and Ortega's) is the implication that we are indeed dealing with *things*. The inner view provides the opportunity to 'name' various items of mental stuff. The outer view provides names for various items of physical stuff. The philosopher then speculates whether any identity statement involving names for inner and outer stuff can be true.

However, if, as the radical critic of the 'substance' idea seems to imply we have already gone astray in raising the question of identity (and I should point out before I forget that Hume, in criticizing Descartes' notion of mental substance, fully embraces the idea of substance, making each individual idea a self-contained 'substance' with an identity all of its own) then materialism, idealism and dualism are all equally non-starters so far as the problem of understanding the nature of our embodied existence is concerned.

My argument, for what it is worth, is that even if we *do* grant the 'substance' view, it is in fact impossible to make sense of identity statements where there is a name for an inner, mental something on one side of the equation and a name for an outer, physical something on the other. But that is another story.

One thing that I have not said is that I was moved by your account. Although it reads as a letter to me (you refer to our previous discussion at one point) I would like to see some suitably modified version of this as an article in 'Philosophy Pathways'. Would you be interested in doing that?

I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for your illumination.

All the best,

Geoffrey