Pondering Personal Identity

Marya Schechtman

Marya Schechtman. Photo by Micki Leventhal

Who or what is the “me” in “me”? What is self? Is it body, mind, soul—or some combination of all three? If I suffer a brain trauma and experience a radical memory loss or personality change, am I the same person? With a heart transplant I am still myself, but if my brain is transplanted into your body—and vice versa—where are you and where am I?

Historically the province of theologians and philosophers, the modern academic study of personal identity lies at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and biology. Marya Schechtman, associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor in the Department of Philosophy has been focused on the question of “PI” and the philosophy of mind since her days at Harvard. Most recently, she spoke at a meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, an advisory panel of national leaders in science, medicine, ethics, law, religion and engineering.

Schechtman’s The Constitution of Selves was published in 1996 by Cornell University Press and issued in paperback in 2007. In this work based on her dissertation, she developed the narrative view of personal identity, theorizing that individuals constitute their identities by developing autobiographical narratives that bear the right relation to facts about the environment, the general concept of a person and other people's concepts of who they are.

“My interests have been grounded in John Locke’s view of personal identity in which the notion of personhood is defined in terms of the sameness of consciousness. Locke defined the terms for the modern philosophical debate about personal identity by saying that identity does not come either from having the same body or the same immaterial soul but rather from the continuity of consciousness,” Schechtman explained. “Locke defines ‘person’ as a forensic term—meaning it has to do with responsibility. A person is a being who can be held morally responsible for his or her actions, can reason prudentially and care about the future, and is an intelligent being who has reflection and can consider itself the same self over time.

Discussions about what constitutes identity and what it means to be a person are of critical importance right now. 

“Discussions about what constitutes identity and what it means to be a person are of critical importance right now. Increased life expectancy, advances in neuroscience, reproductive and medical technologies, and the bioethical and neuroethical issues arising from these advances demand participation by philosophers as we seek to develop guidelines and policies around 21st-century realities.”

In 2004 Schechtman presented at the Interdisciplinary Symposium on Personal Identity and Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. That contribution led to the invitation to speak at the meeting of the Presidential Commission in February. The Hopkins conference had exposed her to the work and concerns of neuroscientists—and of clinicians who deal with the reality of individuals and families coping with disease and trauma-induced brain disorders.

“Recent developments in neuroscience have done a great deal to help us better understand the material basis of awareness, thinking and feeling,” said Schechtman. “But it is not evident that this understanding will tell us everything we need and want to know about the nature and importance of human cognition, moral sentiment, emotions, love. It is becoming increasingly important not to lose sight of the bigger picture in the face of the truly exciting neuroscientific results that are coming our way every day. Science may someday determine the physical mechanisms behind consciousness and personal identity but the ethical questions require, and will continue to require, thoughtful answers.”

As science fiction becomes science reality a host of theoretical problems become everyday, practical concerns. “Provide me with a new hip, a prosthetic arm, a kidney, a heart—okay. A new brain, not so sure. For most people it’s more of the core ‘me’ that gets affected if something happens neurologically,” said Schechtman. “What if a treatment for Parkinson’s causes a profound personality change? How do we think about that and how do we relate to the patient? A person with early-onset Alzheimer’s may tell their family that they don’t want to be kept alive beyond a certain point, but then at late-stage they are content and enjoying life. They contract a life-threatening but easily-treatable infection. Whose wishes take precedence: the previous personality or the ‘new’ person? Is this indeed a new person—or a person at all if defined in Lockean terms?

“The research I am doing now will hopefully make a contribution to the ongoing question of how to deal with the vastly different phases of people’s lives and an understanding of how disruptions of identity impact families and society. I am currently focusing more on the social dimensions of personhood and how being a person is not just defined by psychological and biological factors, but also by the social structures and relations you are a part of, and through which we create culture. I’m looking at how one interacts with and navigates the social world and the equilibrium that results.”

Schechtman is completing a book tentatively titled Staying Alive: Personal Identity and the Unity of a Life. In it she argues that the question of personal identity is one in which practical, scientific and metaphysical questions must necessarily be addressed together. “The dialogue between theory and practice must continue if the scientists and philosophers are going to contribute in a meaningful way to society,” she said.