Personal Identity, Life History, and Abortion

Personal Identity, Life History, and Abortion

by Julian O’Dea PhD

Nietzsche: “it is only that which has no history which can be defined”.

I have been trying for some time to obtain a copy of a book of essays by the Australian philosopher, Douglas Gasking, namely “Language, Logic and Causation” (1996). I read it some years ago, and was very impressed by its clarity.

One essay he wrote, which was fairly influential, was on what he called “clusters”. In this essay, he discussed, as I recall (and this is my problem – I have not been able to check again) the example of a convoy as a kind of cluster.

In the case of a convoy, there may be a single designation, say RT48, and the convoy will be referred to by that name before, during and after it sails and delivers its goods. Professor Gasking was possibly thinking about wartime convoys in the North Atlantic and so on.

A few years ago it occurred to me, and I am not sure if this is an original idea, that the concept of a cluster of the convoy type would be a good way of looking at a person’s personal identity over a lifetime.

The bodily and mental changes over our lives might leave little of our original nature left. From conception to death, we are changing constantly: losing, gaining and remodelling organs; our cells and the atoms in our cells being constantly replaced; and our views, life statuses, memories and so on constantly changed as well. So, what remains of us as individuals?

A convoy is a cluster of things (ships) which may change over time as to the individual ships in the convoy, perhaps having none of the same ships at the end as started out (perhaps this is impossible in a military sense, but please military buffs bear with me – it is only an analogy). Perhaps a human being is like a convoy, in which nothing of what started out will remain at the end, but which can reasonably have a single designation, such as “Convoy RT48″ or the man “John Smith”.

This idea obviously relates to the old philosophical puzzle of The Ship of Theseus. The same article gives a nice example involving a popular music band called The Sugababes. Does my example of Convoy RT48 differ in any essential way from “The Ship of Theseus” situation (sometimes referred to as the case of “my grandfather’s axe” – which is the same one Grandpa used, except that the handle has been replaced twice and the head three times).

So, what is the difference between, on the one hand, the Ship of Theseus and “my grandfather’s axe” and, on the other hand, “RT48″ and the man who was christened “John Smith”? Is there a difference? Could it be that the language used in discussing a convoy or a human being presupposes change over time, in a way that the designation of an object such as an axe or a ship does not? Growth and change are expected of a convoy as a cluster of ships or of a human as a cluster of physical and mental traits.

When referring to a convoy or a human being with a unique name, we tacitly assume that it is a cluster of things which is fated to change over time. It is like referring to a group of birds in the air as a flock, while knowing that the individual members will likely change over time.

It would be possible to imagine a migration of birds from one place to another, in which all the birds that started at the very beginning happened to not finish, but some of the birds that started later from locations along the route did happen to finish. Nevertheless I don’t think anyone would be doubtful about the fact that a migration had taken place.

I am not sure about the originality or correctness of this suggestion, but I think it is worth thinking about in the context of the problem of what constitutes personal identity.

In summary, does our personal identity as a man or woman more resemble a migration of birds or a convoy of ships, a loose and ever-changing collective, than it does a single object made up of parts like a ship or an axe?

A corollary of this approach is that there is no true “adult”, “mature”, “fully formed” human. We are constantly maturing and gradually senescing. It is not possible to pinpoint a point when we are fully human. That would be like trying to point to an ever-changing convoy or migratory flock, and saying, “look, now it is a true convoy – or a true migration”. Similarly, there is no point at which abortion or infanticide is not the destruction of a human life which is proceeding on a continuum to its ultimate end in death. A convoy or a migration retain their essential character from inception to the end of the trip.

This has also been published here on Academia.edu.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by RichardP on April 28, 2015 at 6:14 am

    “The sunrise was beautiful this morning”.

    What’s a sunrise? What does “beautiful” mean? What is a “morning”? How does the word “this” relate to the other words in that sentence? What’s a sentence?

    Verbal shortcuts are necessary. They depend on assuming things about the hearer or reader of our words. If we stopped to define every term and every part of speech in the sentence when we tried to talk, no conversation would ever be had.

    And, incidentally, my opening sentence is scientifically incorrect. The sun does not rise. It never has. It never will.

    But, upon reading my opening sentence, did you get a sense of what I meant? In spite of all of the words I wrote between that opening sentence and this one?

    Verbal shortcuts are necessary. There is no great philosophical mystery behind them. We can’t communicate if we don’t make assumptions when we speak or write.

    When did “my grandfather’s axe” cease to be his (grandfather’s) axe. Well, when he gave it to me. My grandfather’s axe became “the axe my grandfather gave me” as soon as he gave it to me. That is a verbal shortcut, to distinguish that axe from all of the other axes I have. It ceased being “my grandfather’s axe” the moment he gave it to me (or the moment he died, ignoring that it might still belong to his estate, but not to him). It didn’t need to have it’s handle or blade changed n times to make that so. But, “my grandfather’s axe” still tells you which one of the fifteen axes I have that I am talking about. A verbal shortcut. A necessary part of communication. Same thing with the ship that Theseus sailed. No matter what planks are replaced, if they were there when Theseus sailed the ship, they are part of the ship that Theseus sailed. A verbal shortcut to help identify the ship we are discussing from all other ships that we could be talking about.

    And then there is the human. The “Ship of Theseus” didn’t have DNA. My granfather’s axe didn’t have DNA. But I do. You do. Every human does. That unique DNA code is what makes each of us who we are. When a cell is replaced, the new cell contains the same DNA as the cell that was replaced. That DNA contains the unique code that makes me who I am. All of my cells are replaced every seven years. And yet the cells that make up who I am now contain the exact same DNA code as the cells that made up who I was seven years ago. That code is what makes me who I am. I don’t think there is complete agreement that “The bodily and mental changes over our lives might leave little of our original nature left.” (your quote) I think the DNA code lets us end our lives with our original nature intact. What is not left intact because of decayed bodily functions is our ability to impose our nature on our surroundings in quite the same way we can when we are younger.

    Still, a good article with good questions. Which leads to this – assuming we accept this as a true definition: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing;” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). I die. My body returns to dust. I’m dead. I know nothing. And then, I am standing before the judgement seat, being judge for things I did while in the body. Who is it that is standing there? And how do I remember the things I am being judged for when my memory disappeared at death? I have obviously been reconstituted. But from what? Do I have DNA? If yes, is it the DNA I had before I died? Is my memory stored in my DNA? If not, how am I to remember the things I am being judged for? At the judgement seat, am I my grandfather’s axe? The Ship of Theseus? Or Locke’s patched sock? Is any part of me standing there part of who I was when I died? (Rhetorical questions, all.)

    Reply

    • I am anxious to give at least a preliminary response to these thoughtful remarks.

      Firstly, I think the situation of “my grandfather’s axe” is not just pettifogging about something which is obviously meant. I could point to an axe in a corner of my shed and say “that is my grandfather’s axe” and mean what my listener takes me to mean, that that very axe, unchanged apart from a bit more wear, was one that my grandfather used. If it were to transpire, however, that neither the handle nor the blade were ever used by my grandfather, because I had replaced both, my listener might feel himself deceived.

      I once got into a surprising amount of social trouble by asking a car restorer how much restoration a car could be given and still be considered the original. Perhaps there is some kind of tacit understanding of how many (if any) new, replacement components a restored vintage car can be given and still be considered a collector’s item. Ten percent replacement parts? If someone knows, I would be happy to learn the answer.

      Or to take another example, if I claim to possess a Titian, and it has been cleaned and slightly retouched over the years, nobody would dispute my claim. But if it were actually largely repainted by his students, the case would be less clear (this raises for me the interesting question of why a “studio work”, no matter how good and representative, is generally not considered to have the same value as a masterwork, but that is a discussion for another day.)

      I wrote: “From conception to death, we are changing constantly: losing, gaining and remodelling organs; our cells and the atoms in our cells being constantly replaced; and our views, life statuses, memories and so on constantly changed as well.”

      In response, you suggested “That unique DNA code is what makes each of us who we are. When a cell is replaced, the new cell contains the same DNA as the cell that was replaced. That DNA contains the unique code that makes me who I am. All of my cells are replaced every seven years. And yet the cells that make up who I am now contain the exact same DNA code as the cells that made up who I was seven years ago. That code is what makes me who I am … I think the DNA code lets us end our lives with our original nature intact.”

      I think you are giving too much importance to DNA. I have two objections to having our lasting individuality rest in our DNA. One is that I wrote of “life statuses, memories … constantly [changing]”. Second, even setting that aside, our DNA does not translate to our individuality in a one-to-one way. DNA has to be expressed through other nucleic acids, through proteins, and under the influence of levels of methylation for example. I understand that methylation levels can be affected by the environment. People now talk of “epigenetics”.

      Moreover DNA is expressed to some extent sequentially; not all at once. That is why we develop and change physically over time. Why men are not born with beards or women with breasts.

      If DNA were the locus of our individuality, then identical twins would essentially be the same person. I don’t think most people would accept that conclusion.

      The last questions you raise are challenging. All I would say is that Ecclesiastes is not the final word on these matters. It is famous for being a rather low-spirited meditation:

      http://www.brentcunningham.org/?p=200

      I think it is traditional belief that we will have bodies of some kind after we are resurrected. Other than that, there is a pious opinion that we will be reborn as young healthy adults. But obviously, these are deep questions.

      Reply

  2. Hey J,

    The term ‘generational cohort’ comes to mind.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Julian O'Dea on December 11, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/07/rebecca-goldstein-personal-identity/

    “The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change”

    Reply

  4. Posted by Julian O'Dea on May 6, 2016 at 5:34 am

    From “Awareness” by the late Fr Anthony de Mello SJ:

    ” “I” is something other and more than the body. You might say the body is part of “I”, but it is a changing part. It keeps moving, it keeps changing. We have the same name for it but it constantly changes. Just as we have the same name for Niagara Falls, but Niagara Falls is constituted by water that is constantly changing. We use the same name for an ever-changing reality.” “

    Reply

  5. Posted by Julian O'Dea on May 21, 2017 at 4:05 am

    Some relevance for the issue of personal identity?

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Roko's_basilisk

    Reply

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