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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Personless persons

I mean by "person" a subject of actions, thoughts, feelings who is able to recognize all them as his/her own. I will leave aside the question of his/her ontological status (an immaterial soul as with Plato, Descartes and many others? a subtle material entity as with some Jewish thinker and more prominently R.M. Chisholm? the epiphenomenon of neuronal movements?) and focus on him/her as person.
Reductionism (either in the Neuroscientific or in the Buddhist form) claims that we can do without "persons" and that in all cases we can describe thoughts, feelings, etc. as events which are not necessarily owned by a person. Yet, we need to make sense of the common feeling of a personal identity through time. Here, the Buddhist has two possible moves:
  1. 1. Personal identity is an illusion. The sooner one gets rid of it, the better. Let us not cling at our own jail.
  2. 2. Personal identity is conditioned (by skandhas, vāsanāsantāna, etc.). It is not absolutely non-existent, but its existence is only vyavahārika, mundane, since it is linked to our worldly dimension. Ultimately, there are no "persons". Memory, intention, future-projection, recognition, etc., can be explained as worldly events, caused by the above conditions. This explanation implies many layers of reality (at least: illusion/error–worldly truth (including personal identity)–absolute truth) and runs the risk to be parasitic on the common-sense notion. In fact, complex explanations are elaborated seemingly only in order to make sense of memory and the like.
On the other hand, the Neuroscientist has also two possible, similar move. I will leave aside the first one (there is nothing but neurones), since it is hardly satisfying. The second case embodies somehow Thomas Metzinger's attempt of explaining personal identity as the result of the evolution of a personal self model. The result of his explanation, however, has no 'reductionist' advantage, since it is by far more complex then what it wants to account for. Hence, why should one "buy" it?

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