Personal Identity — How ‘Real’ are You?

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1980

We all believe things. Beliefs are ideas that we accept as true; true meaning we take them to model the “real world”. It seems that the more of our beliefs that are actually true, the better off we are. This is because we are better able to plan to get the things that we want, and avoid the things that we don’t want, if we have true beliefs. This article aims to better clarify the “true” aspects of a belief in personal identity. What is personal identity? Is it something real? And if not, what are the implications?

Personal identity is an important concept to discuss as it underpins basically everything we do. Generally it’s defined as a person’s essential being (“I” or “me”) that distinguishes them from others. From buying an ice cream because “I like chocolate ice cream” to voting “because I don’t like Teddy Roosevelt” to great life events like marrying someone you love or existential lows like contemplating suicide, identity underpins them all. 
 
All these examples rely on something called “I” or “me” and the relations of things in the world to this being. This is often problematic because often “I” might refer to different versions of you, or you might like different things at different times, or often, “I” isn’t clearly defined! We all think we know who we are, but is that really true?

Are you your body? What about the fact that the atoms of your body are constantly being replaced as you eat, grow and age?
Are you your brain? The atoms there are also being replaced!
Are you your memories? We remember different things at different times, and sometimes we forget things. We even remember falsely.
Are you your continued consciousness? We go unconscious every night for 6–8 hours. We also experience different moods and states of mind which alter our consciousness.
Are you your DNA? Twins share DNA, are they the same person?

So since neither our physical selves nor our conscious selves are constant/continuous, how can any “self” be real for more than the time it takes to finish a thought?

It seems like the only condition for “I” is the conscious belief that the experiencing person is continuous over time. It seems the only thing that makes me me, is that all of my ‘selves’ believe they are me. If this is the case, perhaps we should change the old adage

I think, therefore I am
to
I believe, therefore I am.

Is this belief in a personal identity that every single person seemingly holds justified? Is it sometimes beneficial to not hold this idea? Why do we identify our personal selves with broad categories such as “race”, “religion”?

Personal identity seems to only be concepts shared between different consciousnesses, or versions of “I” spread over time. A concept of personal identity is useful to avoid the suffering that a body naturally experiences (hunger, thirst, depression). In addition to helping alleviate suffering, oftentimes it can also be a cause; on the large scale it has been a concept used for mass genocide based on identity, or to push legislation that prioritizes ‘race’ over individual merit (or economic status), and a reason for self-hatred and shame.

So we can look at personal identity as a tool. Like any other tool, we must decide when it is the right and wrong time to use it, or whether it is a good tool in the first place. But the first step is to realize that what we thought was the toolbox, was indeed, just a tool.

Best of luck, whoever you are…

Will