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.