An Identity of My Own
- I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity by Jonathan Glover
Allen Lane, 207 pp, £15.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9001 5
- Choice: The Essential Element in Human Action by Alan Donagan
Routledge, 197 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 7102 1168 6
The unity of my mind is something that I can appreciate when I use it, but it is hard to isolate and analyse. Without it, I could not have checked that sentence or added this one to it, and yet, when I turn my mind inwards onto itself, the source of its unity remains elusive. Is it something additional to all my thoughts and feelings, wholly au-dessus de la mêlée? What are the vicissitudes through which this anima vagula is capable of maintaining its own identity? How separate is it from the rest of the natural world? That last question forces itself on us not only when we think about the possibility of surviving death but also when we make any ordinary choice in daily life. For whatever people end by thinking after they have studied philosophy and considered the arguments for determinism, there is no doubt that they begin with the conviction that they are genuine originators of their own actions, that when they choose to do them and do them, they could have chosen to refrain and refrained.
These questions are evidently deep and, if they are difficult, it ought at least to be clear in what direction I should look for their answers. Should I look to philosophy or to psychology? Should I turn my mind not onto itself but to its functions, in the hope that they will reveal how its unity is achieved? If I listen to philosophers, I shall probably start by reflecting on my memory, which gives me my sense of my own identity down to the present moment, but perhaps I ought also to include my intentions, because, when I extend this line in thought for a certain distance into the future, my own intended actions help to fix its orientation.
Or maybe the original source of my mental unity is the integration of my various sensory fields at any single moment. I see the fork on my left and the knife on my right and I know how to move my body in space in order to take in the food that I see in the centre, and, at an earlier stage, some other sense may have told me which way to go in order to get into the position to eat. Our philosophical tradition is a very theoretical one and it is easy for us to forget how much our own actions contribute to the picture of the world around us. We think of the world as our stage waiting there for our performance to begin. But the movements of infants exploring their own bodies and the space immediately surrounding them are actions, and, without having performed them ourselves, we would never have learnt to distinguish the actors from the stage. Our own bodies are only a special part of the natural world and their limits are discovered by experiment. This boundary provided Freud with a model when he drew the line between the Ego and the rest of the mind: the inner subject confronts the raw, unworked material of the Id in much the same way that the whole person confronts the external physical world.
But perhaps the integration of sensory fields is a function too close to the centre of the mind to give us a clear idea of the way in which our mental unity is achieved. Maybe we should look further out for the answers to our questions. The lens of the mind can hardly be turned onto itself and it may be easier to appreciate its unifying power if we look at its more distant achievements. There is a school of psychologists who suggest that the real person is not an elusive self au-dessus de la mêlée but simply the sum of the roles that he plays: we are like actors who never come off-stage, and no interview after the performance can reveal our true selves. If this view leaves us too hollow-centred, at least it stretches us to include more of the richness of our actual lives.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989
In his review of Jonathan Glover’s and Alan Donagan’s books, David Pears claims that ‘if … the philosophical analysis of human agency has altered our view of our place in the world as human agents, it has never done so alone, but always aided by some factual hypothesis. This is very clear in cases of diminished responsibility and it ought to be equally clear in the limiting case in which the factual hypothesis is universal determinism’ (LRB, 19 January).
This seems to me to be wrong. Philosophers who have tried to alter our view of our place in the world by appealing to the factual hypothesis of universal determinism have standardly argued that if determinism is true then we cannot be truly free or morally responsible agents in the way that we ordinarily suppose. And such an argument is surely correct. But it has also been argued that you don’t have to appeal to any factual hypothesis like that of determinism in order to show this, because true responsibility is logically impossible – it’s impossible whether determinism is true or false. In which case philosophical analysis of human agency may alter our view of ourselves as agents unaided by any factual hypothesis like that of universal determinism. Pears needs to show what is wrong with this second argument.
Here is a very brief version of it. According to our ordinary, strong conception of free will, free will entails true moral responsibility; and true moral responsibility entails being truly deserving of praise and blame (and punishment and reward) for our actions, in the strongest possible sense. Perhaps the most graphic way to convey this conception of responsibility (or free will or desert) is this: it’s responsibility of such a kind that if we have it then it makes sense, at least, to suppose that it might be just to punish some with damnation in hell, or reward others with bliss in heaven. This idea makes perfect and clear sense, if we have such responsibility, even if it is in fact part of a highly extravagant and distasteful myth. Less eschatologically, many suppose that this idea makes sense simply because we are the ultimate, absolute, buck-stopping originators of our actions, in some sense which is certainly not available if determinism is true.
One could call this conception of freedom and responsibility heaven-and-hell (H&H) free will. The familiar point is that if determinism is true, then H&H free will is not possible. The less familiar point is that H&H free will is impossible even if determinism is false. For suppose some of our actions do occur partly or wholly as a result of occurrences which are themselves random or indeterministic. How could that help to give us H&H free will? How on earth could it make us responsible for those actions in such a way that we could be truly deserving of praise and blame for them? Again, suppose that some of those features of our mental make-up which lead us to act in the way we do are not determined in us (say by heredity, upbringing and environment, and ultimately by events which occurred before our birth), but are instead the outcome of indeterministic events. How on earth (which is where we are) could that help make us deserving of praise and blame for our actions? It seems that indeterminism (the falsity of determinism) is no help at all, if we are looking for H&H free will. It seems that what we would need for H&H free will is not just indeterminism but ultimate self-determination or self-creation, on the part of free agents. But it appears that such self-creation is logically impossible.
Why do we need it and why is it impossible? We need it because if we are to be ultimately responsible for our actions, then it seems that we must be ultimately responsible for how we are mentally, at least in certain respects, since our intentional actions are necessarily a function of how we are mentally. We must be ultimate ‘originators’ of ourselves, and our natures, at least in certain respects. But this is logically impossible: the attempt to describe how we could possibly be ultimate originators of ourselves and our natures in this way leads self-defeatingly to infinite regress.
For suppose that one could somehow choose how to be, in certain respects, and could then bring it about that one was that way. In order to do this, in such a way that one became ultimately responsible for how one was, one would already have to have existed prior to one’s choice, with a certain set of preferences about how to be, in the light of which one chose how to be. But then the question would arise: where did these preferences come from? Or were they just there, unchosen preferences for which one was not ultimately responsible? To be ultimately responsible for oneself one would have had to have chosen these preferences in turn. But then one would need another set of preferences in the light of which one chose them. And so on. One could never get back behind oneself in such a way as to be able to create oneself in such a way that one was ultimately responsible for how one was.
This also bears on a claim recently made in the LRB by Sherry Turkle, who concluded her review of Jacques Lacan’s Seminars (LRB, 5 January) by saying that ‘the individual is “decentred”. There is no autonomous self. What sex was to the Victorians, the question of free will is to our new Fin de Siècle.’ It is true that if there is no self as ordinarily conceived, then there is no free will, as ordinarily conceived. But it does not follow that free will is possible if the self is. If the above argument is right, conclusions about free will do not depend on conclusions about the self in this way. Even if you can save the self, you can’t save free will.
Jesus College, Oxford