Of Id and Identity

By Jin-yeong Yi

Phineas Gage with tamping iron

One time I was chatting with a cousin who had a religious worldview that appeared to be a hybrid of Christianity and Buddhism (belief in the Christian God + samsara/moksha). At one point I asked, what is it about the individual that remains constant from one life to another? He replied: “Craving.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, who apparently was very much a Buddhist himself, once wrote:

“The character of man is constant: it remains the same, throughout the whole of life. Under the changeable shell of his years, his relationships, and even his store of knowledge and opinions, there hides, like a crab under its shell, the identical and real man, quite unchangeable and always the same. Only in respect to direction and content does his character undergo apparent modifications, which are the result of differences in one’s age in life and its needs. Man never changes; as he has acted in one case, so he will always act again—given completely equal circumstances (which, however, includes also the correct knowledge of those circumstances). A confirmation of this truth can be gathered from everyday experience. But one encounters it in the most striking manner when after twenty or thirty years one meets an acquaintance again and soon catches him doing the same silly things as formerly.”[1]

In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer recounts a humorous exchange he once had with Deepak Chopra:

“When I asked what happened to little James Leininger’s soul if his body was now occupied by the soul of a World War II fighter pilot, Chopra offered this jewel of Deepakese: ‘Imagine that you’re looking at an ocean and you see lots of waves today. And tomorrow you see a fewer number of waves. It’s not so turbulent. What you call a person actually is a pattern of behavior of a universal consciousness.’ He gestured toward our host. ‘There is no such thing as Jeff, because what we call Jeff is a constantly transforming consciousness that appears as a certain personality, a certain mind, a certain ego, a certain body. But, you know, we had a different Jeff when you were a teenager. We had a different Jeff when you were a baby. Which one of you is the real Jeff?’ Jeff Probst looked as confused as I felt.”

Mind-body dualism or no, universal consciousness or no, I think Dr. Chopra actually brought up an interesting point. What exactly is the self?

I think Ray Kurzweil has a pretty good definition:

“…I am principally a pattern that persists in time. I am an evolving pattern, and I can influence the course of the evolution of my pattern.”[2]

Richard Carrier’s definition isn’t shabby either:

“In reality, [a person’s name] is a synonym for a particular collection of character features, values, desires, beliefs, and memories, all of which are necessarily involved in the chain of causation from the initial call for a vote up to the rise of the desire to vote one way or another.”[3]

Oliver Sacks’s definition is also worth considering:

“Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us.”

From my notebooks:

One’s predilections can change; one’s opinions can change; one’s desires can change; one’s very personality can change; but one’s past cannot change. Therefore, a person’s identity is who they were yesterday, who they are today, and who they will be tomorrow.

If this is true, then personhood is an ever-dynamic process that is always unfolding. The typical individual is constantly changing physically and mentally. He starts off as a single cell and then goes through several major physical stages as he approaches decay and death. By the time he is an old man, he will have gone through not only numerous changes in body shape, height, and weight, but also numerous changes in opinions. His views on religion, his politics, his manners, his attitude, his tastes, his interests, his desires—many of these will have changed dramatically throughout the years. Reviewing his personal history, the individual cannot point to the person he was at such and such a point in time and say, “That is who I really am. That is the quintessential I.” In other words, the self is not any one of the contradictory persons that an individual was at a certain point in his life.

What, then, is the one thing about an individual that remains constant? Their history, for all history is written in stone. If anything, the self appears to be nothing more or less than an individual’s history of physical and mental development and change.


[1] Essay on the Freedom of the Will

[2] The Singularity is Near

[3] Sense and Goodness Without God 


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