The essence of ‘I’

Jhavee asked:

Can a person have essence? If personal identity is determined by a thinker’s memories and expectations, can any of these be essential, or must they not all be accidental?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Here’s a movie dialogue you might recognize:

Agent Smith: Do we have a deal, Mr. Reagan?

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?

Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important, like an actor.

Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

In this memorable scene from ‘The Matrix’, Cypher wants to ‘remember nothing’. Hating his present life, all he wants is to be inserted back into the Matrix where he can enjoy juicy steaks and be someone important. — The scriptwriters evidently felt that there was no contradiction or absurdity in the idea that I will survive even though my future self will remember nothing of the life I live now.

At the beginning of ‘The Bourne Identity’, we, the audience know from frantic action back in Washington who Jason Bourne is, but he does not. His life before the fishermen hauled him out of the Mediterranean Sea is a complete blank.

Amnesia is a popular device in the moves, that one could even call a ‘trope’. We see something that the protagonist does not: we see him, or her, as a physically embodied entity with a history that remains unbroken even while the thread of consciousness is fatally severed.

It is all-too easy to conclude from this that bodily identity is the crucial thing. Or, if you want to be more sophisticated, you might go with something like David Wiggins’ idea (‘Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity’, ‘Sameness and Substance’) that what matters in personal identity is physical continuity of the ‘causal source’ of personality and consciousness in an ‘organized bundle’, i.e. the brain. So, in theory, ‘I’ could survive a brain swap and wake up in another person’s body.

In ‘The Man With Two Brains’ actor Steve Martin keeps his crash victim ex-wife’s brain in a jar. (Somewhere on the Pathways to Philosophy web site is the photo.)

— This is all complete piffle.

Absolutely, there is an essence to being ‘I’. How could there not be? But the essence has nothing to do with identity in time or place. If there really were such a thing as a ‘physical source of consciousness’ (an absurd notion, as I have argued elsewhere) you could still duplicate this thousands of times, just like a computer running Mac OS X or Microsoft Windows.

Then again, without the possibility of any physical connection (given that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light) ‘I’ can fully imagine ‘waking up’ on the other side of the galaxy. Would I still be me? Could I be? Say what you like, the question makes no sense, and neither does any answer you could give.

Regardless of time, at this very moment I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. One can say, uninformatively, that the essence of ‘I’ is whatever it is that ‘makes the difference’ between a world without I and a world with I. Except that we absolutely don’t know what that is. It’s a complete mystery. I ought not to exist at all but here I am, now, at this moment, when, seemingly, I might not have been at all!

Professional philosophy is so mired in ideology — the ideology of ‘logical analysis’ or the ideology of ‘deconstruction’, or whatever — that it is impossible today to have a serious discussion of these issues without being forced along some ‘party line’. To undergo academic training in philosophy requires, first and foremost, that one learns to not see what is staring you in the face. And what is that, you ask?

Just look in the mirror, and you will see.

2 thoughts on “The essence of ‘I’

  1. ” To undergo academic training in philosophy requires, first and foremost, that one learns to not see what is staring you in the face. And what is that, you ask?”

    Like that.

    A question: Did you undergo academic training in philosophy?

    1. Yes, all the way to a doctorate (from the University of Oxford). So I know what I am talking about. Although academic philosophers would disagree. They would, wouldn’t they?

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