According to Einstein, the really great metaphysical question is “when you turn away is the tree still there?”
This is a question not only about reality, but about being, about personal identity. Is reality objective or subjective? What is identity? What is existence? What makes a, a and not b? These questions can never have a definitive universal answer; but, maybe the answers are far less important than the question. Then again the question “how am I,” is one of the most important questions in someone’s life. It is, as Nathaniel Branden, that question one asks when they are alone in the world at 3am. It is the question that defines them and their interactions with the world. Self-concept and self-esteem are highly important aspects of people’s life, but for the most part people bypass the metaphysical questions and remain in a concrete plain of existence.
It is easier and more comforting to simple answer the question “who am I?” with the answer “I am so-so. I have a body, this body; I have a mind, this mind; these are who I am.” This answer is immediate and forthright, it bypasses difficult and uncomfortable metaphysical questions. It gives one an immediate and unshakeable self-concept that functions perfectly well in the average day to day life of most people. However, take the plunge into the muddy waters of questioning existence, being, and reality is exhilarating and can leave one with a fuller self-concept.
Three basic theories of personal identity are the same body theory, the same soul theory, and the psychological continuity theory. The same body theory posits that a person at one time is the same as a person at a different time if and only if they have the same material body. This seems sensible, someone is the same person if and only if they have the same body. However, this theory does not really hold up. Take for example, Kafka’s story of The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has become a giant insect. The question is, is Gregor Samsa still Gregor Samsa? His body has changed but has his personal identity? A more realistic and more problematic question is that of people in general. How can one say that to be the same person one must have the same body, given that over time people’s bodies change?
A second theory that gets around the problem of bodily change is the same soul theory, which states that a person at one time is the same person at a different time if and only if they have the same immaterial soul. This theory says that someone is the same person if they have the same soul over time. The most obvious problem here is that souls are immaterial so it is impossible for someone to know that they have the same soul over time. However, some link the soul to consciousness, meaning that it is possible to know that one has the same consciousness over time. This was the position of John Locke, to quote (emphasis added):
Now take which of these suppositions you please, it is impossible to make personal identity to consist in anything but consciousness; or reach any further than that does.
There are some objections to Locke’s concept of personal identity, for example that raised by Thomas Reid:
If our personal identity consists in consciousness, as this consciousness cannot be the same individually any two moments, but only of the same kind, it would follow, that we are not for any two moments the same individual persons. but the same kind of persons.
A third theory of personal identity is the psychological continuity theory. This theory says that a person at one time is the same person at another time if and only if they are psychologically continuous, i.e. have the same series of episodic memory. This is a compelling theory, personal identity is about psychological identity, about experience. I am the same person today as I was yesterday because both of these people have the same series of memories. However, there are many objections to this theory. The biggest can be summed up as: “Identity is transitive; memory continuity is not” (Olson, 2016).
Consider this scenario: a young man plays in the street (y), later a middle aged man is a shopkeeper and remembers playing in the street (m), still later an elderly man sits in the retirement home and can remember being a shopkeeper but cannot remember paying the playing in the street (e). According to the psychological continuity theory the middle age man is the same person as the young man (m=y), the elderly man is the same person as the middle aged man (e=m), but the elderly man is not the same person as the young man (). This clearly makes no sense. Some get around this problem by defining psychological continuity more broadly. However, the deep problem still remains, the physical body still seems to be a major part of identity.
This may lead to a broader view of personal identity, a mixed view. Perhaps, personal identity is a mixture of parts. Perhaps, personal identity involves possessing a body, a consciousness, and a psychologically continuous life. Perhaps, not. Personal identity is essentially personal.
Existence and Being:
What does it mean to exist? This is perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question that has deep and wide spread consequences in all manner of other realms. It is even greater than the question many would say is the most important or most controversial, that of “does God exist?” The reason that “what is is existence” is far more fundamental than “does God exist” should be clear. The question “does God exist” contains the word, “exist.” To understand what it means for God to exist one must understand what existence is. It is like the question “do trees grow?” One can hardly answer this question without some concept of what it means “to grow.”
Indeed, certain positions on the question of existence complete preclude the God question. For example, nihilism, the position summed up by Helmut Thielicke as, “Nihilism literally has only one truth to declare, namely, that ultimately Nothingness prevails and the world is meaningless.” Clearly, an absolute nihilism would completely rule out the existence of God. Though, a less extreme existential nihilism (that existence is meaningless) may not completely preclude God, though Camus believed it would.
Another view of existence, though an unpopular and highly flawed one, is the solipsism. This view is simply: “My mind is the only mind that exists.” This is deeply flawed and leads to a great number of fallacies. This is sometimes sense as René Descartes chief error, he believed that his way of thinking (his mind) was universally applicable. Pure solipsism would eliminate the possibility of God; however, Cartesian dualism was designed to prove God’s existence and, at least for Descartes, did so. Indeed, Cartesian dualism shows that some philosophical systems are designed to include God.
The chief example outside of Descartes, is the immaterialism of Bishop George Berkeley. This is summed by the famous quote: “esse est percipi” (“to be is to be perceived.”) According to this something exists only if it is perceived by a mind (a perceiver), thus the tree is only there when it is perceived by someone. The clear objection is that this would lead to a near absurdity, namely, things stop existing if they stop being perceived. However, Berkeley, a deeply religious man, believed that things never stopped being perceived, because God was always perceiving everything in the world. The opposite theory to this is that of realism.
Realism holds that things really exist either independent of perceivers entirely (direct realism) or that things exist independently of the observer but that perception mediates between the observer and the object (indirect realism). A definition of “generic realism” is offered by Alexander Miller (2014) as:
a, b, and c and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as F-ness, G-ness, and H-ness is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.
Another view of reality is that of nominalism. However, this term is vague and really refers to two different philosophical trends (Rodriguez-Pereyra, 2015). One type of nominalism posits that there are particular objects and everything is particular; the other type posits that there are concrete objects and everything is concrete. A view near those of the nominalists is that of medieval philosopher Scotus (Copleston, 1993):
Scotus’ view certainly cannot be equated with the theory that every nature is of itself individual, since this he expressly denies, though in view of the fact that Scotus, while postulating a formal distinction between haecceitas and nature, denies their real distinction from one another, it seems to be implied that a thing has haecceitas or ‘thingness’ by the fact that it exists. His theory is not the same as that of the Nominalists, since he postulates contraction of the nature by the ‘ultimate reality’; but the fact that he speaks of ‘ultimate reality’ would seem to imply that a nature acquires this ultimate reality through existence, though it is not, says Scotus, existence itself.
Another interesting question concerning existence is its relation to being. “Many philosophers distinguish between being and existence. That is, they distinguish between what is expressed by ‘there is’ and ‘exists’” (Van Inwagen, 1998). However, both Van Inwagen and W. V. O. Quine state that there is no difference between “there is” and “there exists,” i.e. there is no difference between being and existence. To quote Van Inwagen again, “I deny that there is any substance to the distinction: to say that dogs exist is to say that there are dogs, and to say that Homer existed is to say that there was such a person as Homer.” Thus, according to Quine and Van Inwagen (and others), there is no difference between existence and being. To be is to exist.
Clearly, there is no single answer to the question of existence. Furthermore, it is clear that certain views of existence lead to certain views of reality.
Do Shrimp Ride Bicycles?: The importance of questions
The questions of existence and of personal identity cut to the very core of what it means to be human. There are many different answers to these questions, but maybe the answer isn’t important. Maybe that is the real moral of this story, questions are sometimes more important than answers. Obviously, personal identity and the nature of existence, of reality, are very important. However, are the answers the important part or are the questions. Does it change one’s day-to-day life if they believe they are the same person as before because of their body, soul, psychology, or something else? Does it alter they way people interact if existence is one thing or another? Honestly, probably not. What may change people’s day-to-day life and their interactions is questioning personal identity and existence. It opens up worlds of thought or interest and of wonder.
Questions are more fun than answers. However, this is unsettling and can create great deals of anxiety. Maybe, just maybe, this anxiety is a really important aspect of life. The examined life is the questioning life, the anxious life, the life of not-knowing.
These subjects are difficult. If I’ve made a mistake, or misrepresented something, or missed something please tell me in the comments! Also, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments! Thank you!
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