The 20th century brought us a thriving of individuality and freedom to many ends, many of which are good. It seems as if we did not reach the heights of our individual personal identity as I write this in 2021 as of yet, and people thrive to explore their identities and find out who they are. From a philosophical standpoint, all this makes no sense, and this is the case since quiet some time, depending who you ask. It was Derek Parfit contribution through his first book “Reason and persons” to conclude that all personal identity is – in a nutshell- constructed, and does not make any sense.
Some people may argue about the continuity of memories, we are basically what we remember. Me, I forget many things, and I am sometimes even glad about it. In addition, memory is indeed very fleeting, and more often than not, our memories are plain wrong. When Bob Dylan wrote the first volume of his autobiography, some people pointed out that they remember some stories quite differently. The Master did not care. All of us are often the same. We think we have a memory, but in a nutshell, we made a memory up, or if you want to blame someone, your brain did that.
Our atoms, molecule and cells are constantly changing. Hence we cannot be the physical matter that builds us. How would you otherwise make sense of Elvis, who -many want to point out to me- yet I can hear his music and see him dancing on video. The King seems very much alive, as is his music. Bodily continuity ends at some point, and since all matter changes constantly all the time, it is indeed hard to defend personal identity via bodily matters.
Are we our cultures, then? Cultural identity is surely something that we could try to settle on, and should. However this is again hard to fix onto a single person, because the times when cultures resolved around one person have slowly come to and end. In ancient Egypt the Pharao had the mighty command to build the Pyramids, and while the Pyramids still remain, all of Egyptians ancient culture is long gone.
Then there is the soul. May it be the Abrahamic religions, yet also Hinduism and also other religions such as some of First nations, the soul is quite central to many beliefs people held, and some still hold. While this is totally up to them, it will be hard to settle on a proof about the existence of a soul. While hence such religions hold the soul as kind of the ultimate claim for personal identity, only in a believers beliefs can this claim hold any value. For everybody else is may not be convincing. The Buddha had a slightly different approach, because causal links do matter in Buddhism, yet the concept of Anatta -non-self- underlines in some lines of thinking any claim of identity or permanence.
Memories, matter, culture or the soul all can thus hold a key to some people concerning personal identity, yet I conclude for myself that if these are not universal answers to the problem of personal identity, then they hold no universal value at all. Do not misunderstand me. Many people get great help in difficult times by knowing that their culture will go on, that they think they will go to heaven, or they will never be forgotten. While all these can be pathways to diminish the sorrows of life, and especially life’s end, I agree with Derek Parfit that these forms of personal identity do not matter.
Interconnectedness is instead what really matters. We are all connected by our actions, and how these may create meaning for other beings. This is not about memories of our actions, or about some afterlife reward system. Instead it is about the general contribution our actions may have, and the consequences that may arise out of this. In other words, this is absolutely not about us as a person, but about life in total. If one of our actions leads to a better outcome overall, then we all get better. While some may see this as a grand overture to altruism, one might simply ask, what the alternative would be? A dog eat dog world, the good old hedonism, or maybe pessimism may lead to -you guessed it- nothing. Material gain will perish, the memory of you will perish, hell -even your soul may perish. Ok, the last one was a cheap shot.
I always think that the funniest scenario would be if everybody would get what they believed in. Imagine how thrilling the memory of you would be in a million years, given that it would never fade. Consider how you feel in heaven or hell after a million years? I could image it would get boring either way. Only on the continuity of culture I could somewhat settle, because cultures evolve. To me, the best scenario would be that I am gone, but that the bundle -as Hume called it- but the impact I had through relations with other remains. The Greek word “”trope”” comes to mind, which could be understood as “change”. If we changed things for the better, then we did good. This would as well be in line with the Buddha. What is however I think best about it, is that it is hard to deny that this would have meaning and truth. In other words, who could counter-argue the suggestion that we should leave the world a better place than as we arrived in it, and that this change was at least partly through our actions.
To conclude, personal identity was a nice construct that emerged as a way towards a greater freedom in societies that were often less free or not free before. Times are different today, as more and more people perceive the capability to become free. As part of this gained freedom, many explore ways towards our own personal identity. Much meaning was lost through that, and we may sometimes have even lost track of the ultimate goal, that is how we can change the world for the better. This is who I would like to be.