Saturday, 2 June 2012

Essential identity: The essence of essence

It seems that we cannot tie the identity of a person to their physical characteristics or to the atoms that make up their bodies. The former cannot be true because we regard physically identical individuals to be distinct people. The latter cannot be true because these atoms are recycled constantly.

It seems identity of people and things may be bound up in some sort of non-physical mystical "essence". If this were not so, Christopher Walken could have just bought another watch for Bruce Willis.

There is nothing about Bruce Willis's watch that physically marks it as different from any other watch of that make and model. If you replaced it with an identical one and destroyed the original, he wouldn't have known the difference and would not have been hurt in any way.

However if you told him you had done it, he'd be likely to kill you.

Suppose for the sake of argument that the Viet Cong had ultimately found and confiscated the watch. Perhaps the best thing for Christopher Walken to do in that situation would have been to buy another watch and simply pretend it was the original. Would he have done anything wrong?

It's only this idea of essence that makes this an interesting question. Essence ascribes value to objects beyond their physical attributes.

And value is not only sentimental. If I were able to produce an exact replica of Michaelangelo's David, it would not be worth as much as the original because people value the essence of the original beyond its physical attributes.

It seems to me that this valuing of one physical object over its identical counterpart is irrational. And I'm not alone. This is one of seven ways otherwise sane people commonly behave irrationally according to The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking by Matt Hutson. There's a clip of him discussing this in interview with Robert Wright on While Hutson describes essence as irrational, in his book he argues that many of the ways normal people think irrationally may serve to make them happy, well-adjusted and sane. Irrationality can be a good thing.

And I agree. If I were more prone to magical thinking, I would probably enjoy going on holiday more.

My rejection of essence may be why I don't particularly enjoy going to historical sites. I don't get much of that thrill associated with being in a place where great people once stood or events of great significance took place. I feel no great excitement at being in the presence of famous objects in museums. The only thing I get from being physically in front of a real painting that I would not get from viewing a JPEG is maximising the fidelity of what I see.

This does not mean that I have no interest in history or art. Rather it means that I attach much greater importance to ideas and information than I do to physical presence. And yet I do share the intuition of essence, even if it doesn't influence me to the same degree as most people.

So why do we have this intuition? Well, if you are religious, then the concept of essence as applied to people is synonymous with the soul. Perhaps we have this intuition because we perceive these souls.

This answer does not satisfy me. I am not religious and I do not believe in a soul. Assuming that souls exist does not make the problem go away. While in development, distinct embryos can fuse and individual embryos can split. If you believe that embryos have souls, then souls must also be capable of fusing and splitting. This means that souls cannot have the properties of continuousness and uniqueness that we seem to need to explain the concept of identity.

I do not see any justification for the belief in the essences of people or things. And yet, as noted, I share this intuition. I suspect this is because it is a product of evolution, just like our other natural instincts and intuitions.

This makes sense because the concept of essence has great utility. In practice, we cannot usually tell if two objects are absolutely identical. We should care if someone takes a spear and replaces it with another one as the replacement may be inferior in some way.

People are certainly never identical in practice. We have unique relationships with each individual. Our interactions with them will have consequences. It makes sense to think of them as being continuous unique entities, as in practice they actually are.

This is only revealed as a useful abstraction rather than an absolute truth when you consider certain thought experiments that result in paradoxes if you assume that personal identity has fundamental meaning.

In my next post, I'll consider some of these paradoxes and explain how I view personal identity.

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