Saturday, July 3, 2021

Intuitions, Language, and Identity

 I know I haven’t posted in a very long time. But here’s something interesting to think about:


Much is made of our intuitions in the personal identity game of bodies and souls. We can think of scenarios where we could exist outside of our bodies, or in a different body, and on that basis (and through some modal reasoning) arrive at the conclusion that we are souls that have bodies. Or we might think that, for example, when you strike my hand, you have hit me, thus revealing that I have an intuition that I am my body. What to do with these competing intuitions?


One possibility is to think of our language use. Suppose my son Rowan approaches me and says, “Who are you?” I may look at him and say simply, “I am Daddy.” Did I make a predicate statement? While I could have said, “I am adaddy,” that is not what I meant. Did I make an identity claim? Sort of. For while I am identical to the person my sons call “Daddy,” this isn’t quite what I meant, either.[1]

Instead, I mean something like “I am your father, the person you call your father—your Daddy.” What’s the upshot? When I say, “Ow, you hit me!” as your hand strikes mine, I do not intend to communicate that I have an intuition that I am my hand. Nor am I even trying to say that you hit part of me, and hence communicate that I have an intuition that I am my body (I know this since I find being identical to my body quite counterintuitive). Instead, I am trying to say something like “Ow, you hit my hand, which belongs to me.” Indeed, if asked to explain, I would further elaborate: “This hand is deeply connected to me.” I find all this far more plausible for my own thinking than thinking that I intended to communicate, “Ow, you hit my personal self!”


Finally, lest the reader find all this terribly unlikely, note we have a serious parallel in language about emotional states: “When she said that, it really hurt me.” As far as I know no one means something like “When she said that, particular neurons fired such that particular brain states came about such that my body, which is identified with me, was emotionally hurt” or anything like that. Instead she simply means “When she said that, it really hurt my feelings.” And no one should thereby think that the person saying this is identical with her feelings.


Just a fun return to philosophizing, finally writing down things that come to mind while I’m doing something else (instead of forgetting later in the day, as has happened countless times since COVID). Feel free to comment below!


[1] A related but separate issue could arise in the fact that I could simply argue I existed as the person I was prior to ever having sons, or even prior to becoming mature through puberty, and thus identity may not be what I should go for, anyway.