Are we just dust floating around in space, living out an accidental existence? Or are we put on Earth for a reason?
If you’ve asked yourself questions along these lines, do not continue reading. I do not wish to exacerbate any pre-existing existential crisis with a personal identity crisis.
Oh, you’re still here? I was low-key hoping we could just avoid the question in the title and move on with life.
Jokes aside, this is a tricky question. It is a question that sparks even more questions than it does answers.
Is it even worth asking this question, if we might never know who we really are?
Even if we found a possible answer — if we can communicate the idea of a ‘true self’ — we will never know if it is true until we die. For us to know that something is true, especially in the case of personal identity, it arguably needs to stand the test of time.
In this case, the test takes a lifetime.
Unfortunately, that’s not practical.
So in this article, I’d like to share a non-comprehensive list of ideas I’ve found in my research in relation to the personal identity crisis, from a philosophical perspective.
Like a cupcake selection — except it’s less sweet and gets progressively more confusing for your taste buds.
Before we dive into the meat of the question, let’s take a step back and swim in the shallow waters first.
Table of Contents
- Going meta: why do we ask, “Who am I”?
- Identity over time — numerical versus qualitative identity
- Essential property — body theory and memory theory
- Takeaway — Heraclitus’ paradox
Why do we ask, “Who am I”?
Besides voluntarily inducing an identity crisis?
Our identities affect our behaviour. It defines our values and principles, which is at the core of how we make decisions.
For most people, we want to understand who we are so that we are aware of why we do what we do, be more empathetic towards others and ultimately, understand our little role in this gigantic universe.
It is also popularly portrayed in media, society, and even ingrained in our language that “I don’t know who I am” connotes being lost, directionless, and makes you more likely to make choices heavily influenced by others.
Whereas “I know who I am” seems to imply that one can live truthfully, authentically, purposefully and meaningfully.
Our environment (education, culture, parenting, religion etc) can influence our beliefs. This begs the question, how much of our identity (if any) is truly ours?
This ‘core idea of ourselves’ is what we mean when we ask, “Who am I?”
(We could go down this route further by asking: do we craft our own identities or are we born with them? But let’s not go there for now.)
Who am I… 5 years ago? Now? 10 years from now?
Who am I? Philosophers and laypeople from ancient to modern times have mulled over this question, yet no one can give you a single definitive response to it.
One factor making this question so complex lies in the word, “am”. When is “am”?
Do our identities change over time? I imagine most of us would say, yes.
Are we the same person we were when we were born?
To better answer this question, we’ll have to distinguish between numerical and qualitative identity.
Numerical identity is absolute.
A Guitar X, for example, is numerically identical only to itself. It is not numerically identical to another Guitar Y of the same characteristics, because they are not absolutely the same thing.
If two objects are numerically identical, they would simply count for one, not two.
Qualitative identity involves properties.
Guitar X is, however, qualitatively identical to Guitar Y, because all of the properties of Guitar X correspond to the properties of Guitar Y, such as string type, body shape, colour and material.
In philosophy, when we say that something is ‘the same’, it is often useful to clarify whether they are numerically or qualitatively the same.
So, are we the same person we were when we were born? Well, yes and no.
No, because qualitatively, we might have changed in terms of beliefs, lifestyle or appearance. We have evolved — physically and mentally — from babies to adults.
Yes, because fundamentally, numerically, I’ve been and always will be: me.
To the latter response I say, what constitutes ‘me’?
This brings us to a concept called the essential property.
An essential property is a property that an object must have.
It is what makes the object, the object.
Where does the essential property of an individual lie? What makes you, you?
Our essential property lies in our bodies
The body theory states that our essential property is our physical body.
At age 67, you are the same person as you were at 5 because you have the same body.
We identify someone as being the same person we saw 5 minutes ago because they have the same body.
But what if someone lose an arm or a leg? Replaces their teeth, or changes their appearance?
Following the body theory, any changes that occur to their physical body must mean they are now not ‘them’ anymore. Would you agree?
Those who believe that the soul is where human consciousness resides in might not favour the body theory.
Furthermore, consider the fact that our cells get replaced periodically. Does that mean every time our body gets replaced by new cells, we become a new person?
Here’s a thought experiment to test your viewpoints.
The Ship of Theseus
A long time ago, a legendary ship that was used by Theseus to win a battle was preserved at a harbour to commemorate the event.
As time passed, the wood that made up the ship began to decay.
The citizens replaced the old parts with new ones as they rot. One by one, all parts of the ship were replaced.
Is the ship now the same ship as the one that was taken to battle?
My initial response was, no. Numerically, all parts of the ship are different.
Another possible reason is no, because the ‘new’ ship is not the same one that Theseus took to battle. It is qualitatively different because it doesn’t have the property that the original ship had (Theseus’ presence on it).
Some might say yes, because since the ship’s parts were gradually replaced (as opposed to all at once), the essence of the ship is preserved.
If so, what if someone collected all the old parts and began constructing their own Ship of Theseus in their home? Is their ship the original ship? Or is it the restored ship at the harbour?
What does this have to do with personal identity?
The thought experiment reinforces the main issue we are dealing with:
Where does the ‘identity’, or essence, of an individual lie?
In their physical parts? In the consummation of different parts? (Our memories, experiences, physical, emotional and mental.) Or do we exist independently from our changing parts?
The perspective we choose will greatly influence our answer to our main question — Who Am I?
Our essential property lies in our memories
John Locke proposed the memory theory to explain where identity lies.
Because you “retain memories of yourself at different points, and each of those memories is connected to one before it”, you have a chain of memories that make you who you are.
We are the sum of our past experiences. When we go to sleep and wake up the next morning, we wake up who we were the night before, because our mind remembers that person.
There are arguments against the memory theory as well. Generally, people don’t remember the moment when they were born.
Moreover, the older we get, the more likely we are to develop dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other related diseases that cause us to lose our memories.
How do we account for that missing link in memory? Are we just, identity-less then?
Would you say that Person A is no longer Person A anymore when they develop dementia, compared to when they didn’t have dementia?
What about the temporary loss of consciousness when someone is very drunk?
This has even greater implications as it sparks debate about whether a drunk person should be held responsible for the actions they made when they were drunk (i.e. when they were not ‘themselves’).
There may never be a conclusion to these questions.
We will always have arguments from both sides, but it is nevertheless worth it to keep pondering and questioning our beliefs.
To end off, and hopefully provide a little clarity I’d like to share a story illustrating Heraclitus’ paradox.
Heraclitus once said, “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and ever different waters flow.”
This points to the Doctrine of Flux, which states that some things remain the same only because they change.
A river is only itself because it has ever-changing, flowing waters in it.
Having different waters doesn’t mean it ceases to be the same river.
If there was no flowing water, it would just be an empty hole in the ground. Without change, it is no longer itself. It is no longer a river.
Thus, not all paradoxes have to be ‘reconciled’. Perhaps they already are, and we just have to accept them as it is.
Who am I?
I am my past experiences, thoughts, feelings, body, mind and everything in between, all at the same time.
Even if it doesn’t make logical sense.
Who am I? The answer to life’s most defining question
Personal Identity: Crash Course Philosophy #19 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trqDnLNRuSc
Who am I? A philosophical inquiry — Amy Adkins (TED)
Identity Over Time (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus
The Paradoxes of Heraclitus
Thanks for reading. Please clap 👏 for this story to let me know if it was valuable to you. Have a great week!