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Personal Identity

Ahead of my presentation to the OU Philosophy Department in February, I'm brushing up on the philosophical questions surrounding personal identity. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice introductory article.

Personal identity deals with questions that arise about ourselves by virtue of our being people (or, as lawyers and philosophers like to say, persons). Many of these questions are familiar ones that occur to everyone at some time: What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die? Others are more abstruse.


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I hope you will post more on your views on this issue or post an outline or copy of the text of the presentation that you give at OU.

As a Christian pastor, you're probably not, I assume, going to subscribe to the Buddha's view, which I find rather compelling, so I am interested to see what a thoughtful Christian like you (and I further assume that you don't subscribe to the somewhat simplistic yet popular notion that a human person is just an incorporeal soul temporarily residing within a body) espouses.

Scott Jones

no, not a soul.

What view of the Buddha's are you referring to?


anatman: no self

The Buddha seems (the same problems arise with uncovering an accurate picture of the historical Gautama as with the historical Jesus) to have taught that there is no self; there is no permanent, unchanging entity to which one can point and say: “That is the self."

That which we generally call the self, rather than being a static, enduring entity, is more like a flowing, ever changing, ever evolving river (hat tip to Heraclitus): various personality traits, dispositions, moods, beliefs, and behaviors as well as memories, intellectual capacities, and epistemic content are continually in flux; thus, there is no self, just the changing flow of psychological characteristics.

The Buddha's teachings seem rather similar to Hume's bundle theory of identity.

Scott Jones

Yes, it does. And really I don't think Locke was way outside the range of this either, though he did still have elements of substance theory.

In grad school this topic didn't animate me much because I kinda figured that most of the relevant points had been made by Locke and Hume and that much of the current discussion was like how many angels on the head of a needle.

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