Wednesday, April 23, 2008

the problem of identity.

david lewis says that there is no problem of identity, and he has a point.  there is no conceptual problem of identity.  identity is a relation-- the most basic relation:  everything is identical to itself and nothing is identical to anything that is not itself.  what is identical will have all of the same properties, and what is not identical will differ in properties.  some properties are intrinsic (the property of being red), and some are relational (the property of being a sister, or of having one foot out the door).  some properties are accidental, like having brown hair (you could change them and still be recognizably yourself) and some properties are essential, like a triangle having three sides, or you not being a fungus (the object in question wouldn't be itself minus the property in question).  identity is the perfect sameness of all properties-- intrinsic and extrinsic, essential and accidental.  

like most of david lewis' wonderfully clarifying explanations of thorny philosophical issues, his analysis of identity solves no lived problems.  he reminds us that there is no problem about what identity is-- a thing is identical to whatever it is and nothing it's not.  but what are you?  the problem of what your identity is still sits there, knotty as ever, and probably unanswerable.  the philosophical problem is solved-- we have clearly articulated standards for what it means to be identical.  but we have no more clue than we ever did about what we're identical to, or of how to recognize the answer should we ever stumble upon it.  for this,  lewis sends us back to inspect the actual world.  it's fair, admirably honest even, but that's what we were doing before.  am i doing any better job of it for having taken time off from my inspections to read this analysis of what it is i'm trying to do?  unclear.


boo. said...

and some properties are virtual! what then? what's the relationship between the identity i carry with me through the "real world" and the identity i express online through electricity and code?

laura.g said...

what happens THEN is, you move back to boston and we argue about it! no, wait, did i say 'argue'? i meant 'collaborate'.

Lowry said...

In my opinion the question "What are you?" is unanswerable because it doesn't specify a context.
A little Gregory Bateson for your reading pleasure:
"it takes at least two somethings to create a difference. . . .
“There is a profound and unanswerable question about the nature of those ‘at least two’ things that between them generate the difference which becomes information by making a difference. Clearly each alone is – for the mind and perception – a non-entity, a non-being. Not different from being, and not different from non-being. An unknowable, a Ding an sich, a sound of one hand clapping.” (Mind and Nature, 64)

To me it seems that a person considered alone, in relation to nothing, is also an unknowable.