Will Wilson at Postmodern Conservative suggests that I must have an extraordinarily strong commitment to reductionism if I’m prepared to bite the bullet and accept the “no further fact” thesis about personal identity, which runs “contrary what every fiber of my being tells me.” Apparently my fibers sing a different tune, since I can’t say I experienced my acceptance of that view as some hard fought battle to overcome a hardwired conviction about the nature of the mind. It felt much more like watching an apparently intractable dispute or puzzle dissolve in the realization that it was a bit of semantic confusion all along: You meant river banks, while I was talking about savings banks—don’t we feel silly! The premise of Will’s post is that this must represent some kind of resolute insistence on a physicalist theory in the face of the powerful evidence of introspection. But the “no further fact” view has often been advanced as one that follows, not from some model of how physical reality must work, but from close introspection. Probably the most famous case in the Western tradition is the Treatise of Human Nature, where it’s not so much the force of relentless logic as close attention to the workings of his own mind that leads Hume to question the idea of some fixed and persistent self:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I call reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.
I had actually forgotten this part, but scanning now, I see that he too stresses that this is a case where language is the true source of the puzzle, and that quandaries about personal identity “are to be regarded rather as gramatical than as philosophical difficulties.” Moving outside the Western tradition, of course, the “no further fact” view dovetails nicely with Buddhism, which is almost entirely an introspective research program. The illusion of the persistent and unitary self, that tradition teaches, dissolves not in the acid of theory but the light of committed inward contemplation.
So why does the idea seem so (ahem) self-evidently true to so many people? I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language. Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found. There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation. So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance. In every context we actually deal with, to be told it is an “open question” or a matter of “grammar” whether or not we will survive a particular experience just sounds absurd—like someone trying to pull a fast one—because, of course, it isn’t like that in real world situations: The survival of brain, body, and all the mental traits we’re centrally concerned with go together. Even when it comes to external objects, when we think it’s important whether “the same thing” continues to exist, we have a sense of how weird it is to encounter a different set of conventions, though usually we ultimately recognize that it is a matter of convention. Consider this passage from Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See:
I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century. “So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.
Little wonder we’re still more attached to the ordinary conventions for ascribing personal identity. But when people talk about the strong intuitions they have about the nature of the self, I think they’re often really talking about an attachment to a linguistic and social convention rather than an unmediated apprehension of what it’s like to be one’s self.