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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

One -- but Not the Same

Schwenkler, J. Byrd, N. Lambert, E., & Taylor, M.
Philosophical Studies


Ordinary judgments about personal identity are complicated by the fact that phrases like “same person” and “different person” have multiple uses in ordinary English. This complication calls into question the significance of recent experimental work on this topic. For example, Tobia (2015) found that judgments of personal identity were significantly affected by whether the moral change described in a vignette was for the better or for the worse, while Strohminger and Nichols (2014) found that loss of moral conscience had more of an effect on identity judgments than loss of biographical memory. In each case, however, there are grounds for questioning whether the judgments elicited in these experiments engaged a concept of numerical personal identity at all (cf. BerniĆ«nas and Dranseika 2016; Dranseika 2017; Starmans and Bloom 2018). In two pre-registered studies we validate this criticism while also showing a way to address it: instead of attempting to engage the concept of numerical identity through specialized language or the terms of an imaginary philosophical debate, we should consider instead how the identity of a person is described through the connected use of proper names, definite descriptions, and the personal pronouns “I”, “you”, “he”, and “she”. When the experiments above are revisited in this way, there is no evidence that the differences in question had an effect on ordinary identity judgments.

From the Discussion

Our findings do, however, suggest a promising strategy for the experimental study of how philosophically important concepts are employed by people without formal philosophical training. As we noted above, in philosophy we use phrases like “numerical identity” and “qualitative identity” in a somewhat artificial way, in order thereby to disambiguate between the different meanings a phrase like “same person” can have in ordinary language. But we cannot easily disambiguate things in this way when we wish to investigate how these concepts are understood by non-philosophers: for a question like “Is the man after the accident numerically the same as the man before?” cannot be posed to such a person without first explicating the meaning of the italicized phrase.