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Chapter 5

PERSONAL IDENTITY


"Strange difficulties have been raised by some," says Bishop Butler, "concerning personal identity, or the sameness of living agents as implied in the notion of our existing now and hereafter, or indeed in any two consecutive moments." But in truth it is not easy to see the strangeness of the difficulty, if the words either "personal" or "identity" are used in any strictness.

Personality is one of those ideas with which we are so familiar that we have lost sight of the foundations upon which it rests. We regard our personality as a simple definite whole; as a plain, palpable, individual thing, which can be seen going about the streets or sitting indoors at home, which lasts us our lifetime, and about the confines of which no doubt can exist in the minds of reasonable people. But in truth this "we," which looks so simple and definite, is a nebulous and indefinable aggregation of many component parts which war not a little among themselves, our perception of our existence at all being perhaps due to this very clash of warfare, as our sense of sound and light is due to the jarring of vibrations. Moreover, as the component parts of our identity change from moment to moment, our personality becomes a thing dependent upon the present, which has no logical existence, but lives only upon the sufferance of times past and future, slipping out of our hands into the domain of one or other of these two claimants the moment we try to apprehend it. And not only is our personality as fleeting as the present moment, but the parts which compose it blend some of them so imperceptibly into, and are so inextricably linked on to, outside things which clearly form no part of our personality, that when we try to bring ourselves to book, and determine wherein we consist, or to draw a line as to where we begin or end, we find ourselves completely baffled. There is nothing but fusion and confusion.

Putting theology on one side, and dealing only with the common daily experience of mankind, our body is certainly part of our personality. With the destruction of our bodies, our personality, as far as we can follow it, comes to a full stop; and with every modification of them it is correspondingly modified. But what are the limits of our bodies? They are composed of parts, some of them so unessential as to be hardly included in personality at all, and to be separable from ourselves without perceptible effect, as the hair, nails, and daily waste of tissue. Again, other parts are very important, as our hands, feet, arms, legs, &c., but still are no essential parts of our "self" or "soul," which continues to exist in spite of their amputation. Other parts, as the brain, heart, and blood, are so essential that they cannot be dispensed with, yet it is impossible to say that personality consists in any one of them.

Each one of these component members of our personality is continually dying and being born again, supported in this process by the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe; which three things link us on, and fetter us down, to the organic and inorganic world about us. For our meat and drink, though no part of our personality before we eat and drink, cannot, after we have done so, be separated entirely from us without the destruction of our personality altogether, so far as we can follow it; and who shall say at what precise moment our food has or has not become part of ourselves? A famished man eats food; after a short time his whole personality is so palpably affected that we know the food to have entered into him and taken, as it were, possession of him; but who can say at what precise moment it did so? Thus we find that we are rooted into outside things and melt away into them, nor can any man say he consists absolutely in this or that, nor define himself so certainly as to include neither more nor less than himself; many undoubted parts of his personality being more separable from it, and changing it less when so separated, both to his own senses and those of other people, than other parts which are strictly speaking no parts at all.

A man's clothes, for example, as they lie on a chair at night are no part of him, but when he wears them they would appear to be so, as being a kind of food which warms him and hatches him, and the loss of which may kill him of cold. If this be denied, and a man's clothes be considered as no part of his self, nevertheless they, with his money, and it may perhaps be added his religious opinions, stamp a man's individuality as strongly as any natural feature could stamp it. Change in style of dress, gain or loss of money, make a man feel and appear more changed than having his chin shaved or his nails cut. In fact, as soon as we leave common parlance on one side, and try for a scientific definition of personality, we find that there is none possible, any more than there can be a demonstration of the fact that we exist at all--a demonstration for which, as for that of a personal God, many have hunted but none have found. The only solid foundation is, as in the case of the earth's crust, pretty near the surface of things; the deeper we try to go, the damper and darker and altogether more uncongenial we find it. There is no knowing into what quagmire of superstition we may not find ourselves drawn, if we once cut ourselves adrift from those superficial aspects of things, in which alone our nature permits us to be comforted.

Common parlance, however, settles the difficulty readily enough (as indeed it settles most others if they show signs of awkwardness) by the simple process of ignoring it: we decline, and very properly, to go into the question of where personality begins and ends, but assume it to be known by every one, and throw the onus of not knowing it upon the over-curious, who had better think as their neighbours do, right or wrong, or there is no knowing into what villainy they may not presently fall.

Assuming, then, that every one knows what is meant by the word "person" (and such superstitious bases as this are the foundations upon which all action, whether of man, beast, or plant, is constructed and rendered possible; for even the corn in the fields grows upon a superstitious basis as to its own existence, and only turns the earth and moisture into wheat through the conceit of its own ability to do so, without which faith it were powerless; and the lichen only grows upon the granite rock by first saying to itself, "I think I can do it;" so that it would not be able to grow unless it thought it could grow, and would not think it could grow unless it found itself able to grow, and thus spends its life arguing in a most vicious circle, basing its action upon a hypothesis, which hypothesis is in turn based upon its action)--assuming that we know what is meant by the word "person," we say that we are one and the same from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death, so that whatever is done by or happens to any one between birth and death, is said to happen to or be done by one individual. This in practice is found to be sufficient for the law courts and the purposes of daily life, which, being full of hurry and the pressure of business, can only tolerate compromise, or conventional rendering of intricate phenomena. When facts of extreme complexity have to be daily and hourly dealt with by people whose time is money, they must be simplified, and treated much as a painter treats them, drawing them in squarely, seizing the more important features, and neglecting all that does not assert itself as too essential to be passed over--hence the slang and cant words of every profession, and indeed all language; for language at best is but a kind of "patter," the only way, it is true, in many cases, of expressing our ideas to one another, but still a very bad way, and not for one moment comparable to the unspoken speech which we may sometimes have recourse to. The metaphors and facons de parler to which even in the plainest speech we are perpetually recurring (as, for example, in this last two lines, "plain," "perpetually," and "recurring," are all words based on metaphor, and hence more or less liable to mislead) often deceive us, as though there were nothing more than what we see and say, and as though words, instead of being, as they are, the creatures of our convenience, had some claim to be the actual ideas themselves concerning which we are conversing.

This is so well expressed in a letter I have recently received from a friend, now in New Zealand, and certainly not intended by him for publication, that I shall venture to quote the passage, but should say that I do so without his knowledge or permission which I should not be able to receive before this book must be completed.

"Words, words, words," he writes, "are the stumbling-blocks in the way of truth. Until you think of things as they are, and not of the words that misrepresent them, you cannot think rightly. Words produce the appearance of hard and fast lines where there are none. Words divide; thus we call this a man, that an ape, that a monkey, while they are all only differentiations of the same thing. To think of a thing they must be got rid of: they are the clothes that thoughts wear--only the clothes. I say this over and over again, for there is nothing of more importance. Other men's words will stop you at the beginning of an investigation. A man may play with words all his life, arranging them and rearranging them like dominoes. If I could THINK to you without words you would understand me better."

If such remarks as the above hold good at all, they do so with the words "personal identity." The least reflection will show that personal identity in any sort of strictness is an impossibility. The expression is one of the many ways in which we are obliged to scamp our thoughts through pressure of other business which pays us better. For surely all reasonable people will feel that an infant an hour before birth, when in the eye of the law he has no existence, and could not be called a peer for another sixty minutes, though his father were a peer, and already dead,--surely such an embryo is more personally identical with the baby into which he develops within an hour's time than the born baby is so with itself (if the expression may be pardoned), one, twenty, or it may be eighty years after birth. There is more sameness of matter; there are fewer differences of any kind perceptible by a third person; there is more sense of continuity on the part of the person himself; and far more of all that goes to make up our sense of sameness of personality between an embryo an hour before birth and the child on being born, than there is between the child just born and the man of twenty. Yet there is no hesitation about admitting sameness of personality between these two last.

On the other hand, if that hazy contradiction in terms, "personal identity," be once allowed to retreat behind the threshold of the womb, it has eluded us once for all. What is true of one hour before birth is true of two, and so on till we get back to the impregnate ovum, which may fairly claim to have been personally identical with the man of eighty into which it ultimately developed, in spite of the fact that there is no particle of same matter nor sense of continuity between them, nor recognised community of instinct, nor indeed of anything which goes to the making up of that which we call identity.

There is far more of all these things common to the impregnate ovum and the ovum immediately before impregnation, or again between the impregnate ovum, and both the ovum before impregnation and the spermatozoon which impregnated it. Nor, if we admit personal identity between the ovum and the octogenarian, is there any sufficient reason why we should not admit it between the impregnate ovum and the two factors of which it is composed, which two factors are but offshoots from two distinct personalities, of which they are as much part as the apple is of the apple-tree; so that an impregnate ovum cannot without a violation of first principles be debarred from claiming personal identity with both its parents, and hence, by an easy chain of reasoning, WITH EACH OF THE IMPREGNATE OVA FROM WHICH ITS PARENTS WERE DEVELOPED.

So that each ovum when impregnate should be considered not as descended from its ancestors, but as being a continuation of the personality of every ovum in the chain of its ancestry, which every ovum IT ACTUALLY IS quite as truly as the octogenarian IS the same identity with the ovum from which he has been developed.

This process cannot stop short of the primordial cell, which again will probably turn out to be but a brief resting-place. We therefore prove each one of us to BE ACTUALLY the primordial cell which never died nor dies, but has differentiated itself into the life of the world, all living beings whatever, being one with it, and members one of another.

To look at the matter for a moment in another light, it will be admitted that if the primordial cell had been killed before leaving issue, all its possible descendants would have been killed at one and the same time. It is hard to see how this single fact does not establish at the point, as it were, of a logical bayonet, an identity, between any creature and all others that are descended from it.

In Bishop Butler's first dissertation on personality, we find expressed very much the same opinions as would follow from the above considerations, though they are mentioned by the Bishop only to be condemned, namely, "that personality is not a permanent but a transient thing; that it lives and dies, begins and ends continually; that no man can any more remain one and the same person two moments together, than two successive moments can be one and the same moment;" in which case, he continues, our present self would not be "in reality the same with the self of yesterday, but another like self or person coming up in its room and mistaken for it, to which another self will succeed to-morrow." This view the Bishop proceeds to reduce to absurdity by saying, "It must be a fallacy upon ourselves to charge our present selves with anything we did, or to imagine our present selves interested in anything which befell us yesterday; or that our present self will be interested in what will befall us to-morrow. This, I say, must follow, for if the self or person of to-day and that of to-morrow are not the same, but only like persons, the person of to-day is really no more interested in what will befall the person of to-morrow than in what will befall any other person. It may be thought, perhaps, that this is not a just representation of the opinion we are speaking of, because those who maintain it allow that a person is the same as far back as his remembrance reaches. And indeed they do use the words IDENTITY and SAME PERSON. Nor will language permit these words to be laid aside, since, if they were, there must be I know not what ridiculous periphrasis substituted in the room of them. But they cannot consistently with themselves mean that the person is really the same. For it is self-evident that the personality cannot be really the same, if, as they expressly assert, that in which it consists is not the same. And as consistently with themselves they cannot, so I think it appears they do not mean that the person is really the same, but only that he is so in a fictitious sense; in such a sense only as they assert--for this they do assert--that any number of persons whatever may be the same person. The bare unfolding of this notion, and laying it thus naked and open, seems the best confutation of it."

This fencing, for it does not deserve the name of serious disputation, is rendered possible by the laxness with which the words "identical" and "identity" are commonly used. Bishop Butler would not seriously deny that personality undergoes great changes between infancy and old age, and hence that it must undergo some change from moment to moment. So universally is this recognised, that it is common to hear it said of such and such a man that he is not at all the person he was, or of such and such another that he is twice the man he used to be--expressions than which none nearer the truth can well be found. On the other hand, those whom Bishop Butler is intending to confute would be the first to admit that, though there are many changes between infancy and old age, yet they come about in any one individual under such circumstances as we are all agreed in considering as the factors of personal identity rather than as hindrances thereto--that is to say, there has been no death on the part of the individual between any two phases of his existence, and any one phase has had a permanent though perhaps imperceptible effect upon all succeeding ones. So that no one ever seriously argued in the manner supposed by Bishop Butler, unless with modifications and saving clauses, to which it does not suit his purpose to call attention.

Identical strictly means "one and the same;" and if it were tied down to its strictest usage, it would indeed follow very logically, as we have said already, that no such thing as personal identity is possible, but that the case actually is as Bishop Butler has supposed his opponents without qualification to maintain it. In common use, however, the word "identical" is taken to mean anything so like another that no vital or essential differences can be perceived between them; as in the case of two specimens of the same kind of plant, when we say they are identical in spite of considerable individual differences. So with two impressions of a print from the same plate; so with the plate itself, which is somewhat modified with every impression taken from it. In like manner "identity" is not held to its strict meaning--absolute sameness--but is predicated rightly of a past and present which are now very widely asunder, provided they have been continuously connected by links so small as not to give too sudden a sense of change at any one point; as, for instance, in the case of the Thames at Oxford and Windsor or again at Greenwich, we say the same river flows by all three places, by which we mean that much of the water at Greenwich has come down from Oxford and Windsor in a continuous stream. How sudden a change at any one point, or how great a difference between the two extremes is sufficient to bar identity, is one of the most uncertain things imaginable, and seems to be decided on different grounds in different cases, sometimes very intelligibly, and again at others arbitrarily and capriciously.

Personal identity is barred at one end, in the common opinion, by birth, and at the other by death. Before birth, a child cannot complain either by himself or another, in such way as to set the law in motion; after death he is in like manner powerless to make himself felt by society, except in so far as he can do so by acts done before the breath has left his body. At any point between birth and death he is liable, either by himself or another, to affect his fellow- creatures; hence, no two other epochs can be found of equal convenience for social purposes, and therefore they have been seized by society as settling the whole question of when personal identity begins and ends--society being rightly concerned with its own practical convenience, rather than with the abstract truth concerning its individual members. No one who is capable of reflection will deny that the limitation of personality is certainly arbitrary to a degree as regards birth, nor yet that it is very possibly arbitrary as regards death; and as for intermediate points, no doubt it would be more strictly accurate to say, "you are the now phase of the person I met last night," or "you are the being which has been evolved from the being I met last night," than "you are the person I met last night." But life is too short for the pen-phrases which would crowd upon us from every quarter, if we did not set our face against all that is under the surface of things, unless, that is to say, the going beneath the surface is, for some special chance of profit, excusable or capable of extenuation.


Samuel Butler

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