Thursday, June 24, 2021

Anderson versus Materialism, Part II: The Problem of Personal Identity over Time

Back in February this year I posted an entry in which I interacted with the first of several “daunting philosophical problems for materialists” culled together by James Anderson in a blog entry of his own titled Materialism and Mysteries. Anderson himself cited statements made by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman in a blog post of his own about his relationship to materialism, where Ehrman states that he has been “more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years.”

In my own entry, I examined what Anderson dubs “the problem of the unity of consciousness,” which consists of a single question (mind you, not an argument): “How could a material object like the brain, extended across space and composed of billions of discrete physical parts, serve as the basis for the unity of our conscious experience?” The way Anderson frames this “problem,” I get the impression that he thinks the elements of each brain are scattered all over the universe.

Also in my own entry, I mentioned that if there were interest, I would be willing to explore other supposed problems in Anderson’s list. Well, a few readers have since written to me, some more at length than others (thank you!), offering feedback on what I had already written and also asking for more. So in this entry I consider the second of Anderson’s challenges for materialism.

Now by doing so, I want to make sure to clarify that I am not in any way attempting to defend philosophical materialism. On my understanding, materialism in the final analysis hinges on a rejection, implicit or otherwise, of the axiom of consciousness, and to whatever extent a philosophy does this – whether it calls itself materialism or something else – it cannot be true, nor can it serve as an integrated basis for a rational understanding of man and reality. Consciousness is real, it is irreducible, and it is inseparable from the human condition. It is also fundamental to all cognition, hence the axiom of consciousness is literally undeniable: any act of denying the axiom of consciousness makes use of consciousness and thus performatively takes for granted the truth of the axiom of consciousness. (For an extended discussion of this, see chapter one of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.)

Moreover, I find the supposition that one must therefore be a materialist (on this understanding) if and because he rejects theism, frankly naïve and entirely wrongheaded since it does not follow from a rejection of theism that one therefore must reject the axiom of consciousness. Indeed, it is in large part a consequence of my recognition of the truth of the axiom of consciousness that I reject both theism and materialism, and there is no internal inconsistency or even hazy paradox of any sort involved in this.

So with that, I turn my attention to Anderson’s second “daunting philosophical problem” for materialists, which goes as follows:
The problem of personal identity over time. If the matter of my brain is entirely replaced over time, how can I be the same person as that cute little boy in photos from the 70s?
As with Anderson’s previous “daunting philosophical problem”, here we again have just a bare question. While a question can raise many issues for discussion, it is not a substitute for argument. Is there supposed to be an argument for the view that the identity of something cannot persist over time if elements that make it up swap out and get replaced over time? Don’t tell that to Quiet Riot!

If a “daunting philosophical problem” can exclusively take the form of a question, then surely more questions are allowed. So my first question on this is: If this is a problem for materialists, why wouldn’t it be a problem for everyone else as well? Presumably Anderson does not think this is a problem for theism, otherwise I don’t think he’d be raising it as a problem specifically for materialism. But if this is a legitimate problem which in fact falls under the purview of philosophy as such (is it?), exactly how does believing in a god overcome this? Are we to suppose that some or all legitimate philosophical issues just go away by affirming theism? Does belief as such contain some kind of mystical property, like magic spells and wiccan incantations? “Just believe, and all these problems disappear.”

Additionally, where does the Christian bible address what Anderson styles as “the problem of personal identity over time”? If this is a problem that one invites by disbelieving Christianity, what is Christianity’s specific solution to this problem that one automatically forsakes by rejecting Christianity?

It’s not at all clear how theistic belief has any actual relevance to the question Anderson raises here. Whether you believe there’s a god or not, you still have a brain, and your brain is still what it is: a biological organ consisting of who-knows-how-many cells (and I frankly doubt they’re scattered throughout the universe), operating according to its nature as a brain, and entirely capable of what brains generally do as part of a larger nervous system belonging to a biological organism. These facts are impervious to whatever beliefs one happens to have, and they were in place before any beliefs were adopted to begin with. Adopting one set of beliefs over and against another set of beliefs will not alter any of this. Indeed, having a functioning brain is a necessary precondition of adopting any beliefs or “presuppositions.” Greg Bahnsen tells us that a “worldview” is “a network of presuppositions,” and a presupposition is a category of belief (cf. here). No belief can have metaphysical primacy over the nature of brains, and therefore by extension neither can a worldview; rather, a functioning brain is a necessary for holding beliefs and considering or adopting any worldview. Existence, not consciousness, holds metaphysical primacy. So again, if Anderson’s question (not an argument, mind you) poses a “daunting philosophical problem” for one worldview, why wouldn’t it be a problem for any and all worldviews? If all the matter of one’s brain is entirely replaced over time, this takes place regardless of what one believes or what worldview one adopts. But I have not found any discussion of this problem in the bible, so I doubt it is a problem that the bible can solve.

To the extent that this is a real problem, it does not seem to pertain only to brains, human or otherwise. When my phone rings, how is it that this is the same phone that was silent just seconds earlier? When I put my Dodge Terrier in drive and motor it down the street, how is it that this is the same vehicle that was in park just a moment earlier? When my wife changes out of her jogging sweats into a pretty dress, how is it that she is still the same person? Are these real philosophical problems? If one thinks they are, I’d question how well-suited his philosophy is to the reality we actually live in. The question apparently aims to challenge our assumptions about identity, time, causality and related concepts, and not just any concepts, but concepts of a fundamental nature. So again, it is worthy to ask: What is our starting point, what is our understanding of concepts, and what are our most fundamental concepts based on? These are the kinds of questions which Objectivism tackles head on at their very root. Objectivism begins explicitly with axiomatic concepts. Thus, in my assessment, Anderson’s “daunting philosophical problem” only underscores the need for Objectivism.

Many thinkers have accepted the view that identity is incompatible with change, that change is somehow a contradiction of nature. For example, Greg Bahnsen tells us (in his radio exchange with George H. Smith):
it’s a tremendous philosophical mistake to assimilate the law of causality to the laws of logic, but if you study the history of philosophy, you’d know that this idea that things have a determinate nature and that’s why they behave the way they do is associated with the conclusion that there can be no change, that is, it’s impossible for things to change, well, because the law of identity prevents things from changing.
I take it that, by the fact that Bahnsen even raises this notion in his exchange with Smith, himself a philosopher, Bahnsen actually endorses this view which pits the law of identity in opposition to change. In fact, however, this view itself is – to borrow from Bahnsen – “a tremendous philosophical mistake,” for it arbitrarily denies an entity’s constituent potentialities, including all the actions it can and does perform, as being part of its nature. This mistaken view holds surprisingly wide currency among thinkers, even though it is directly observable that entities act and that the actions which entities perform depend on the nature those entities possess. It is in the nature of a crow to fly when it leaps off a wire and flaps its wings just as it is in the nature of my phone to ring when someone calls my number. In fact, if someone told me, “Hey, Dawson, I tried calling you earlier and you didn’t answer. Did you not get my voicemail?” and yet I never heard my phone ring or got a voicemail, I might suspect something is wrong – either my phone has a problem, or the person misdialed. I certainly would not suspect that the phone I do have could not have rung or received a voicemail because then it would no longer be my phone if it had! Moreover, on an epistemological level, it is in the nature of our conceptual capacity to continually add to our knowledge what we discover about things, so that what we know is in fact in line with what we discover in the world. This would include the entire category of actions which an entity can perform, not only those which we have observed it performing. So I see no genuine philosophical problem here.

Scientifically, one could ask: Does the person’s DNA change over time? My understanding is that one’s DNA is more or less static over his lifespan (certain unmentionable vaccines notwithstanding). If that’s the case, then a scientific answer to Anderson’s question may be at the ready. It would stand to reason that, even if all the cells in my brain, indeed throughout my entire body, get replaced tenfold over the span of my life, if my DNA remains constant, then clearly there’s something about my genetic identity that persists over time. After all, my identity is an indivisible biological whole, not reducible to a single cell or some subset of cells. The same is true with consciousness: consciousness is irreducible, just as is existence. But one would search in vain to find these truths in the Christian bible.

On an even more fundamental level, the persistence of identity over time could only be philosophically problematic if one assumes that time is independent of existence, figuring either that there is no integral relationship between the two, or that existence is somehow dependent on time and not the other way around. Such an assumption may very well be what drives the view that action can have no identity. Thinkers throughout history have fallen into the trap that identity must be completely static, unchanging, immutable, and thus causality can have no relationship with identity. I suspect that Bahnsen, given his statement above, fell for this as well. The thinking apparently goes as follows: If A is A, as the law of identity affirms, then how can A change? How can causality be linked to identity? Many thinkers great and small have stumbled over this purportedly paradoxical quandary. But again, notice that the problem here takes the form of a series of questions. There’s no argument anywhere in sight.

Such quandaries arise from faulty philosophical assumptions. The conclusion that causality cannot be linked to identity arises from the assumption that action as such has no identity. But we distinguish between various types of actions all the time (we have a grammatical part of speech for this, called verbs), which would not be possible if action has no identity. There are clearly differences between swimming and dancing, writing and sleeping, analyzing and jogging, etc. If a man is standing in line at a bank waiting for his turn at the teller’s window, we would not say he’s running a marathon or demolishing a skyscraper. He may be involved in those activities elsewhere, but these are not the activities he’s performing at the moment. How would we be able to distinguish between these different actions if action as such has no identity? The answer is that action does in fact have identity, which means that the assumption that causality can have no relationship with identity is wrong, that the assumption that identity is necessarily static is also wrong. (For more on this, see my entry Does Objectivism Deny the Reality of Change?)

Similarly, the former assumption that time and existence are independent of each other is also wrong. Time is essentially the measurement of motion, and motion is a type of action. Thus time is metaphysically dependent on action. But action is not a standalone phenomenon. Action is something which entities perform. Thus action as such is metaphysically dependent on the entities which perform actions. And of course, those entities must exist in order to perform any actions at all. So existence is a precondition of time, not the other way around. Thus Objectivism is entirely right to begin with the explicit recognition of the irreducible fact that existence exists.

Sometimes thinkers find it necessary to invent problems that aren’t real problems. That may be a consequence of seeking to protect a confessional investment which would otherwise be threatened by acknowledgement of fundamental facts. Since (a) Anderson’s “problem of personal identity over time” is really just a question rather than an argument, (b) he nowhere indicates where the answer to this question can be found in the Christian bible, (c) the problem, if it’s a real problem, would be a problem for everyone regardless of what they believe, and (d) rational answers are available to such questions thanks to Objectivism, I suspect such motivations may be in play here.

Either way, I’m glad this isn’t one of my problems!

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Another great one! And I loved how you worked Quiet Riot into the piece.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Ydemoc,

I had a feeling you'd appreciate that one!

Hope you're doing well!

Robert Kidd said...

I don't think many Christians really understand what materialism is, they've just been told it's really, really bad and that all atheists are materialists. They should really deal with their own pressing philosophical problems first before trying to criticize others. They could start with their acceptance of subjectivism in their metaphysics and epistemology.

Robert Kidd said...

Hi Dawson,

I know you must have file cabinets full of ideas for blog posts but I think you might find this Jason Lisle video of an "ultimate proof of creation" interesting. My irony meter exploded when he talked of an irrefutable objective proof of creation. It's from 2019 so maybe you've already seen it.

Love your blog. If it wasn't for it and a couple of other places I visit, I'd have gone insane during these times. It is a refuge, a balm, a sanctuary for me and so I thank you.

Robert Kidd

Robert Kidd said...

Forgot the link, duh.


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks for the well wishes!

Things are good, but between getting up at 3:45 a.m. to do my work (2:45 when daylight savings time rolls around), trying to stay in shape by weightlifting and hiking on alternate days, and then going to bed usually around 7:45 p.m. (6:45 when daylight savings rolls around), I'm finding it difficult to do much else!

Hope you're doing well, too! (Seems like you are.)


Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for the comments, Robert & Ydemoc! Sorry for the delay in getting back. I'm in the peak of busy season right now and can hardly catch my breath! The time just gets swallowed up so relentlessly!

Thanks for the link, Robert. I haven't looked at the video yet. Not sure when I will or if I'll have time. I recognize the name - Jason Lisle - and I think I've interacted with some of his content in the past. To answer your question, it's true - I have several folders on my machine with hundreds of drafts for new blog entries. Some are admittedly well over a decade old at this point. I don't know if I'll ever get the time to revisit them and edit them for posting. Maybe the bin is the best place for some of them after all! But it's probably a good idea that I take some time and review some of them at some point.

Ydemoc, your schedule sounds very much like mine. I'm up by 3 am virtually every day, if not earlier (today I got up at 2:30 am). I always hit the ground running, but that's figurative. I am a committed workhorse. I haven't lifted weights in years. Though I should. I still get my daily green tea.

Thanks to everyone who's ever stopped by to read my yammerings. I really do appreciate your time and feedback.