Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

14: Theories of Human Identity:
Who are we?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         After considering what we are it seems logical to consider who we are. In the history of philosophy, only four general theories of the Self have emerged.
         The Billiard Ball Model: we are who we are. We are separate and distinct individuals. Each one of us is a complete and united individual. We know what we know we know who we are. In traditional religion we are an immortal soul: simple and unique. Legally we are a person separate from all others: blamable and/or praiseworthy. Politically we have individual human rights. Our language supports this view: consider when we apply an adjective to a person: He is ______ (nice, psycho, rude, cute etc.) When some one asks “what do you do?” and you answer “I am a ______ (teacher, student, doctor etc.); when you say that “Once a ____ always a ______” or “People never change.” or “He will always be like that.” you are implicitly thinking of the self within the billiard ball model framework. This model presupposes a fixed and unchanging human nature. In this model we may not know what to do, we may have difficulty choosing what is best, ideal or good from two or more choices but we are never conflicted with choosing between two different 'bests,' ideals or goods – the choice made will either be right OR wrong; correct OR incorrect. In this view of human identity losing your Self does not make sense because you are yourself. Your continued existence is the link that ties you to your past – you are you because you have had a consistent continuous physical existence throughout your life. In this view we are free willed agents or we are not free willed agents: it is an either-or dichotomy.
         The Onion Model: we are made up of different layers of identity based on our relations with the world. The individual Self according to the onion model is made up of all our relations (and there maybe hundreds); take them away and we are left with nothing; Just like an onion in which if you keep peeling you are left with only onion peels. A person who has alter egos or multiple personality disorder does not have a core identity anchor but rather a violent internal tension between two (or more) layers of identity. This model assumes either a human nature that is totally changeable or that there is no such thing as human nature. People according to this model can never be authentic; we are all actors playing parts in the drama of human existence; destined to play the roles we are in by the circumstance of our particular lives. People in this model are conflicted not only in what to choose but in the criteria of what is best, ideal and good. For example: a person may be torn between following the good of the society verses their own personal good – in such cases, both choices may be right and/or wrong; correct and/or incorrect – but in fact it is all an illusion since we are determined and there is no free will. Losing your self is very easy because you are the relations you have in the world and they can and do change. Our identity is ours because we have a memory of our relationships with the world.
         The Onion Core Model: This model is a synthesis of the first two. We have many layers to our personality that are determined by outside forces but there is a deep unchanging core: our true selves; our true human nature; something that cannot be peeled away no matter how hard we or others try. When you say: “He is not really that way; he really is a good kid deep down.” or “a tiger can change its stripes but it is still a killer.” you are implicitly claiming that a person's core is in conflict with their actions or the layers of their different relational identities. In such a model therapy, love, torture and/or circumstances can help change behavior but it cannot change the person's true deep down identity. Changes that a person makes are merely the changes an actor makes in taking on a role. In this model losing your self is never complete but can happen to a degree. The answer, according to this model of the age old question: “are we free or are we determined?” is: we may be free in some areas but we are not free in other areas of life.
         The Bundle Theory of the Self: we do not have a Self as a substance – that is the Self is not real. When we use the first person pronoun, “I,” there is no real object. In other words, the idea of the object we call “I” is a useful tool to think about bundles of properties associated with our existence. We experience life as memories, sensations and thoughts; these are real. But then we link them together for the convenience of thought and name them “I.” Then we start to think of “I” as a real object because our minds naturally do this when there is contiguity in time and space (if we hear a sound every time we bounce a ball we naturally make a connection and say the ball caused the sound). In order to see the illusion of the “I” better, try an introspective thought experiment: imagine a yellow banana to the right of a red apple; then imagine the yellow banana to the left of the red apple...I suspect that in the process of doing this you DID NOT imagine your self doing it; it just happened. If you did this in the real world or even imagined yourself doing this in the real world, you would have used your hand to move the banana. However in the world of the mind there is no Self that does anything. This is evidence that the Self is a mental construction to make sense of the real world but that the Self does not have any independent existence. Therefore the “I” is not real – it is a construction of our minds. We are, from the point of view of this model, truly a bundle of memories of perceptions. We are not human exactly rather we remember that we have associated with other entities that have called themselves human. Our Self is just a memory: we change through new experiences or by forgetting old experiences. In this model losing your Self is not possible only forgetting your Self and the question: “are we free or determined?” would seem to be an irrelevant question in the same way that asking it about the characters in a novel would be irrelevant.
         1) Which model do you prefer or which seems most accurate? Or can you imagine a better model?
         2) How does your preferred model inform your concept of:
         1. Love and happiness
         2. Forgiveness
         3. Friendship/companionship
         4. Competition/cooperation
         5. Family and work
         6. Law and government
         7. Passions and purpose
         3) How does your preferred model deal with people that are:
         1. Insane
         2. Criminals
         3. Saints
         4. Heroes
         4) How does your preferred model influence your conception of:
         1. Treatment for the insane
         2. Punishment for criminals
         3. Reward or praise for saints and heroes
         5) Which model fits best with western conceptions such as freedom, openness and tolerance?
         6) Which model would benefit a dictator if the people were to implicitly believe it? Why?
         7) Which model do you think is healthiest for you and for your society? Why?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren