The death of the ego: In response to personal identity theory

In keeping with this week’s task that required a thought experiment that follows Derek Parfit’s two fundamental questions of personal identity, out of pure fun and challenge, I decided to write an example and argue against personal identity. As Parfit states that to prove the personal identity we must 1. Have the belief that questions about identity must have the right answer. 2. Have the belief that if there are no answers to identity questions, we cannot answer “certain important questions about things like survival, memory and responsibility.” My thesis will be based on the “death of the ego”, i.e. the unity of nothingness, the irrelevance of the material, that is, what is historically advocated by Zen Buddhists, Maister Eckhart, Sufi thinkers and people who have experienced union with everything under the influence of psychedelic substances. Parfit with his thought is a personal identity sceptic but he never goes too direct with his writing to points I’ll claim today.

If we take that personal identity is a map of indicators that is a truly unique set of circumstances that coherently build an individual from birth to the moment he or she is currently in then we could take any individual as an example of personal identity. In this case, let it be me, Arman Fatić, born on August 13, 1992, in Sarajevo, a minimalist, vegan, sugar abstainer, film critic, “writer” philosophy student, and a religious sceptic who practices Islam more as a practical philosophy rather than an organized religion. As an individual made up of the above qualities I should ask if Arman has the being of special nature (i.e. whether my experience is really mine, whether what I experienced from birth has remained and built up to what I am today) as well as the importance of my identity (whether my memories are mine, whether my responsibility is truly mine alone, and whether my existence truly is).

If we start from the question of the being of my special nature, Arman who appeared in 1992 certainly did not have this same personal identity as Arman today. The only thing these two Armans have in common is the moment they appeared in this world. As younger Arman got its name sometime around September 20, 1992, it is not necessarily possible to associate it with the former. However, the birth itself on August 13, 1992, is not really that specific, because if we dig into archives we would know that 8 more babies were born in Sarajevo on the same day. Yes, one could argue that the only baby to become Arman later was born at 1:10 p.m. but we should also ask ourselves about the very nature of time? About time zones and different calendars, that is, we should take into account that our time determinants are subjective, they are a human creation and as such, they are not reliable. But here, in this case, that this specific time moment with these specific coordinates in the universe does not belong to any being other than the one identified today as Arman, who / what guarantees that this being is the same as the one that is writing this here and now?

As Parfit argues, this certainly comes from the coherence of experience, but if we are completely honest, Arman who is writing this now has no experience of his birth. Birth is a narrative that I learned about later when I was around 4 years old, so as such I have no opportunity to extract proof of my birth and existence. Yes, the experiences that Arman (whom I know) gained from the age of four to the present day, are experiences that are unified as one person. Yet here we come to the importance of identity itself. The Arman I remember from the age of four did not have any of the specific identity traits that today’s Arman has. How then can I claim that it is the same person?

If I say I remember developing my experiences, it might sound a little pretentious. Surely this would be proof for Parfit that I exist, but this wouldn’t be a proof of personal identity, and for him, as a philosopher, this claim would be good enough. But I feel like even the existence is something a bit too pretentious to claim here. As I have already said I am a writer and as such, I have had the opportunity to construct innumerable characters who had a wide variety of traits. Who / what guarantees me that what I call my memory is not just a construction of the character that resides in this body. Or perhaps the better question is, are all the characters I have ever written essentially me, who dwell in this body? Is Renard, a loner, performative artist living in the woods with a fox, from the story “Let me count the ways” me or someone else? Why is she less me compared to me sitting and writing this now under the name Arman? If the answer to this question lies in human anatomy, then why is Borut, the lost traveller from the same story, more or less me in relation to Arman? At this point, Parfit would argue with his q-memories, the thesis that simplified says that: If it looks like a memory, if it functions as memory, if it is a memory it’s a q-memory. So for him, even the fake memories, the values and memories that I imagined and gave to my characters could still be counted as memories.

But here is where things become tricky, yes I can agree with Parfit in a pure analytical philosophical sense but in a moral sense, this is rather a troublesome point. If we were to look for the answer of true/ fake memories in the notion of responsibility, that is, if we said that Arman Fatić is the one who receives bills every month and who has to pay rent for the apartment while the other two, Renard and Borut, do not have to, what kind of responsibility would I have if I had a pseudonym? For example, my pseudonym would have a responsibility to a publisher to deliver texts on time while I with the name Arman would still have a responsibility to pay rent and the like. That is, a pseudonym would make money and I would spend it? Are me and my pseudonym one because we share one body? But maybe my pseudonym writes horrible things, disgusting and unimaginable to me. Am I responsible if my pseudonym offends or horrifies someone with its writing? Or what would happen if I changed the name Arman to what was my pseudonym and the bills still came to a person named Arman? Do I with a new name (and potentially a new personal identity) have obligations to my landlord and would I have to bear consequences because I did not pay for something that is neither on my name nor mine by the nature of my identity?

Changing a name today is not as difficult, same could be said for gender, and therefore personal identity is something fluid, especially when we are not sure that our memories and experiences are truly ours, that is when we cannot offer any exact evidence. So the very source of survival is then questioned. If I am Arman today and feed this material body to survive, will I, tomorrow, in case I change my gender and name, still bear the responsibility to nourish anything material or mental that is essentially Arman’s? In case of a change like the suggested one, is there anything in this new person that can be claimed or called in the name of what previously was Arman? With saying this, Parfit’s claim of the only links to personal identity psychological continuity and psychological connection fail to coherently adapt and stay.

In the end, I, who am here and now, am neither the first person born on the said date, nor the first person from the said place, and in particular I am not the first person to identify with the above signifiers. This person we call Arman picked up these signifiers from other people who identified themselves by their actions as such.

The conception of time and space is a label assigned by other beings who are not me and who are equally erroneous and subjective in their resolutions like me and about whom I can claim less accurately than about myself. The only thing I can claim is that everything is a lie, a series of statements coming from incomplete beings trying to get over chaos by giving themselves symbolic identifying determinants. As each of these beings has a separate perception, then everything that is is not reliable. All that is is nothing, it is a void that all these beings, as well as themselves, name (symbolically determine) in order to try to establish some understanding. In the end, the only thing I can truly claim is that everything is the same because everything is equally in the lie, ignorance and insane naming game.

For all of those that see this as a cheap depressing existentialist spiritualist trickery, maybe the best clue what value does this bring brings Parfit himself as he states:

“Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating and consoling. When I believed that my existence was a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life and more concerned about the lives of others. 

When I believed [that personal identity was a further fact of importance] I also cared more about my inevitable death. After my death, there will be no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections as those involved in experience-memory…There will later be memories of my life… My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad..” 

PS: The person who identifies as Arman Fatić and wrote this hopes that a person who identifies as prof. of Ontology at Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana will take this a bit longer writing that is trying to escape the topic (while talking about it) as a legitimate weekly assignment.

Ljubljana, 23.4.2020.