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Personal Identity 101: The Mind and Consciousness Theory


Personal identity 101 was designed as an independent series of articles around the topic of identity and self. It joins various philosophical, psychological, and sociological theories with the aim of explaining the importance of personal identity and inspiring discussion on different existential questions. Articles will be saturated with diverse ideas and concepts, anticipated or scientifically proven theories with the purpose of encouraging readers to dive deep into the topic and identify their position in this dilemma.

Personal identity 101 consists of 8 articles. After completing the course, readers will be able to see the correlation between society and the self and vice versa.

  1. The Body Theory

  2. The Mind and Consciousness Theory

  3. The Soul Theory

  4. How Identity is Socially Constructed

  5. History, culture, and myself

  6. Contemporary world and its influence on personal identity

  7. Identity problems and solutions: Am I good enough?

  8. Future of Personal Identity: Flying cars and smiling Android

The Mind and Consciousness Theory

As discussed in the previous article Personal Identity 101- The body Theory, humankind has been puzzled by questions such as "Who am I? And what makes me?" Different scholars and the greatest minds of our civilization have been baffled by the question of Personal Identity. All the promises that we have given to others or ourselves, or decisions, preferences, plans, and everything that we call part of our lives to make sense as far as we are the same individuals. Apart from this, understanding identity help solve the dilemma of the life and death battle. It easies the fear of getting lost in eternity by seeding the hope of life after death and survival. However, there is no solid definition of identity. As result, there are various ideas about the topic from all over space and time. This article reviews the mind and consciousness theories of personal identity.

Cogito, ergo sum- I think, therefore I am. (Rene Descartes, 1644)

One of the most influential works in the history of philosophy is Discourse on the Method by Rene Descartes, a 17th-century French philosopher. In the book, he questions his knowledge and tries to understand the nature of our reality. He falls into uncertainty as he can no longer tell what is real. Ideas he believed to be true have been proven wrong, and nothing appeared as constant anymore. However, he found the proof of his existence - thinking. I think therefore I am, he writes. Starting from this point, philosophers all around the globe got inspired by his idea. Numerous scholars started acknowledging the power of the mind as a clue of existence. Even today, a considerable part of philosophy and ideas around self are built around this idea. But is our identity assuredly defined by our thinking? This brilliant idea would be perfect for discovering self and discovering own existence. Yes, indeed it gives us assurance that we exist as humans, conversely, does not suggest anything about how identity, or self, is preserved. For instance, change of mind could be a serious threat to identity if one's self was defined by thoughts.

Cogito Ergo Sum, i think, therefore i am. Rene DescarteAlternate titles: I think, therefore I am, Je pense, donc je suiss
Figure 1: Cogito Ergo Sum

For other thinkers identity is connected to cognitive functions, but instead of thinking they talk about memories. Hence one of the most popular personal identity explanations lies within the memory approach. One remains as the same person via the chain of memories, connecting one moment of a person’s life to another one. Even if the person grows old and changes, this chain of memories ensures that the self will remain the same. Nonetheless, this theory has several flows. First of all, what happens if the person is suffering from dementia, or undergoes amnesia? Does this mean one ceases to exist? Also, the human mind can not store all the moments of years of our lives. Most of the memories disappear after a month or two. Thus, most of the moments that average adult minds can recall are from ages 15-25.

The “reminiscence bump” which is the tendency for older adults to remember events that occurred during their adolescent and early adult years, can account for 60% of all memories. (Shelby Burr, n.d.)

17th century English Philosopher John Locke was one of the followers of the Memory Theory, but his explanation was more complex.

John Locke holds that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity. He considered personal identity to be found on consciousness (viz. memory) and not on the substance of either the soul or the body. (John Locke on Personal Identity, n.d.).

His approach does not recognize the body or the soul as part of the identity, but consciousness. Locke draws a clear distinction between the brain and consciousness. The brain-like other substance might change. Therefore, it is only a temporary material part of the fleeting body and it is not the same as consciousness. On the other hand, consciousness remains the same throughout time. John Locke claimed that even if one moved own consciousness from one body to another, he would remain the same personal identity as it would transfer together with the consciousness. On the other hand, he writes that in case consciousness is damaged and the person is suffering from loss of memories, his existence and self will be dangered. Even if this person remains in the same body and is attributed with the same soul as before, under those circumstances, Lock would still consider personal identity as lost.

“In all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and we losing sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing” (Piccirillo, 2010)

Essay concerning Human Understanding John locke
Figure 2: John Locke. Essay concerning Human Understanding

Locke’s memory theory has a lot of critiques and opposition. There is no tangible research or experiment that would confirm or discard his hypothesis. However, a thought experiment proposed by the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams helps readers understand the dilemma better. Suppose you, person A and another person B are subjected to some experiment. Scientists will transfer your consciousness to the body of the other person and his consciousness to your body. After the procedure, you will be given a choice. That based on your decision, one person will receive a considerable amount of money, while the other one will be tortured. Which body or person would you save? One with your body or one with your consciousness? Your answer must be the indicator of where you think your identity is. Yet, as far as this experiment is only hypothetical we can not really know the results, we can only have our own opinions. Unfortunately, the human mind and imagination can not answer complex questions and riddles like the one proposed by Bernard Williams. It is hard to imagine the life of those two individuals after this type of change of their natural settings, especially if their lifestyles are significantly different or they had opposing gender.

René Magritte. (1966). Décalcomanie
Figure 3: René Magritte. Décalcomanie

To sum up, the Mind and Consciousness theories by thinkers of different times try to identify personal identity by cognitive functions such as thinking, memories, etc. Rene Descartes considered thinking as the undoubtful proof of his existence. His famous phrase I think, therefore I am has started a new era in understanding self and personal identity. Later, more attention was drawn to the memory theory of personal identity. Various scholars, including John Locke, believed that one remains the same person by the chain of the memories that connect one point of life to another point in the past.

However, later development of the Mind Theory of the personal identity stayed focused on cognitive functions but excluded the brain as the part of the identity. The brain does not mean consciousness. It is part of the body, and the body for the followers of Mind and Consciousness Theory does not matter. Apart from this, John Locke believed that in case of transition of consciousness from one substance to another, personal identity would go with the consciousness to the new form. There are no tangible proofs or measures to test his idea, but Bernard Williams's thought experiment helps us analyze it. However, it is hypothetical and still leaves the question of where is identity unanswered.

Based on all these, the Mind and Consciousness Theory of personal identity lacks tangibility and empirical proofs and we cant consider them as legitimate. therefore, our quest for personal identity continues.


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Irina Berdzenishvili

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