Neurologists have demonstrated plasticity in the spatial sense of self, or body-image. Not only are the ‘phantom limbs’ of amputees somewhat malleable, under special circumstances (and also remarkably intractable under others), but we can be induced to perceive a detached rubber hand, lying on a table, as our own hand, and even to feel that the table-top itself is part of our own body. But how plastic, if at all, are our ideas of ourselves extended into the future and the past?
Published in 1970, Bernard Williams’ “The Self and the Future” is one of the seminal papers that gave rise to the contemporary philosophical debate on personal identity. Williams presents two series of thought-experiments, which lead his own intuitions in opposite directions on the question whether a future person, described as having a certain relationship to his present self, would be himself or someone else. One set of cases tends to persuade him that what matters in personal identity – the relation that makes us the same person over time – is psychological continuity. The other set of cases makes him think that bodily continuity is more important. Williams reports being left “not in the least clear” which is right.
Williams presents this as a philosophical problem. I suggest it is more fruitfully regarded as an experimental result – a single data-point in a psychological experiment, with Williams as both subject and experimenter. If repeated with a larger, and less contaminated, sample population, such an experiment could shed the light of empirical research on the question with which I opened this post. I hope someone will undertake such a study, which could lead in interesting directions. (more…)