Supplement to “On personal identity”. Three references

harari, Runciman & Macfarlane

On personal identity

Analyses of the dwindling ability of people to understand themselves as a unitary, self-consistent person abound. Here are three examples:

Disaggregated personhood

First, David Runciman’s political diagnosis in the dispute with Derek Parfit1:

„Derek Parfit has argued that our attachment to the illusion of a single identity over time is one of the things that stifles our moral and political imaginations.2 We instinctively believe that we have more in common with the person we will be in twenty years’ time than with the person sitting next to us right now. Parfit thinks that is wrong: we are as disconnected from our future selves as if there were physical space between us. I am not the me I will be in future. The two of us are essentially separate people.
If only we could see that, we might start to reconfigure our moral priorities. First, we would be more solicitous of our neighbors and of people further away, given the time we currently spend worrying only about ourselves. Second, we would do more to guard against doing harm to people who don’t yet exist (for example, by squandering natural resources). It it is wrong to hurt the person sitting next to me, it is also wrong to hurt my or your future self. Disaggregated personhood should make us better and more responsible people than we are at present.
So far, there is little sign that information technology is having this effect. Parfit was writing in the mid-1980s, before the digital revolution had got going. His arguments assumed a backdrop of relative political stability: under conditions of calm philosophical reflection we should be able to see the things owe to each other and to our future selves. In other words: first we stabilize, then we take our identities apart, then we put our moral universe back together again. At the moment that process is being played out in reverse: first we take our identities apart, then we destabilize, then we see what if anything is left of the moral universe we built. Our personalities are getting fractured in little ways, piece by piece – health data over here, WhatsApp over there, Twitter chattering away in the background – with our anything to give us a shared perspective on what’s happening. This is not taking place in a philosophy seminar. It is lived human experience, which makes calm reflection almost impossible. For now, technology is fraying us more that it is liberating us.“

These “disaggregated selfs” will be second-rate victims of a technocratic elite. That is one of the dangers that will come after the demise of democracy, according to Runciman.

You are not a story

Yuval Noah Harari provides an even more fundamental criticism of the idea of a unified subject who can tell his or her own story to himself or herself3:

„In order to understand our selves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‚self‘ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacturing, update and rewrite. There is a story-teller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now. Like the government spin doctors who explain the latest political upheavals, the inner narrator repeatedly gets things wrong but rarely, if ever, admits it. And just as the government builds up a national myth with flags, icons and parades, so my inner propaganda machine builds up a personal myth with prized memories and cherished traumata’s that often bear little resemblance to the truth. (…)

Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should not identify with your Facebook account or the inner story of the self. Instead, you should observe the actual flow of body and mind. You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair. And just as you are not the winds, so also you are not the jumble of your thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the sanitised story you tell about them with hindsight. Your experience all of them, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them. People ask ‚Who am I‘ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.“

Harari also offers a provisional solution: meditation is the way to assure oneself of the working of one’s own mind, before the algorithms understand us better than we ourselves.

Robert Macfarlane offers a different solution: contact with the untamed nature4. However, this is more a yearning scenario than a practicable socio-psychological recipe:

Disembodiment and dematerialization

„We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity. We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us – the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it. In almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.
The blinding of the stars is only one aspect of this retreat from the real. In so many ways, there has been a rising away from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness. We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialization. The almost infinite connectivity of the technological world, for all the benefits that it has brought, has exacted a toll in the coin of contact. We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sound, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies that we absorb. A constant and formidably defining exchange occurs between the physical world around us, and the cast of our inner world of imagination. The feel of a hot dry wind on the face, the smell of distant rain carried as a scent stream in the air, the touch of a birds sharp foot on one’s outstretched palm: such encounters shape our beings and our imaginations in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt. There is something uncomplicatedly true in the sensation of laying hands upon sun-warmed rock, or watching a dense mutating flock of birds, or seeing snow fall irrefutably upon one’s upturned palm.“

Even though these analyses are very different from each other – dissipation by digital media, ignorance of the working of one’s own mind, loss of contact with body and nature – the mode of complaint about a lost stability of self-understanding is common. The presentation of stable fictitious or historical identities responds to this vague sense of loss. The more brutal the social system, the more hardened the identity of the resisters must be. Today, few want to resist, but many want to escape the general uneasiness of identity diffusion. Perhaps this can explain the boom of dramatised resistance novels on the German theatres.

  1. David Runciman, How Democracy Ends. London: Profile Books, 2018. Kindle ed. Pos. 2670
  2. Derek Parfit, *Reasons and Persons* (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), part 3. Conclusion. Annotation by Runciman
  3. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Part V: „Resilience“, Ch. 20 „Meaning“,„The supermarket a Elsinore“. London: Jonathan Cape, 2018
  4. Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places. London: Granta, 2007, p. 203

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