A critical review to Bernard Williams in "The Self and the Future"

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2017

11 Pages, Grade: 4.00


Seth Carter 03/21/2017

Response to Bernard Williams "The Self and the Future,"

In the essay, "The Self and the Future," Bernard Williams presents two instances of a thought experiment that, when followed, lead the reader to intuit two distinct conclusions on the preservation of personal identity, in spite of the methodological similarity of the two cases. Upon analysis of the two experiments and how differences in their presentation may influence our perception of continuity of the self, Williams concludes that the two cases highlight limitations in the methodology of thought experiments that must be recognized before drawing significant philosophical conclusions from them. Sifting through the intuition of both instances of experiment, I wish to argue that the second instance of the thought experiment provides a more accurate characterization of identity. Conversely, the first instance of the thought experiment relies on the intuitive import of psychological terms to conclude more than the proposed experiment actually justifies. These issues can be conceptually resolved by examining the language employed in each thought experiment, and considering the implications of psychological and physical changes through specific examples. Once this is done, I argue that Williams's thought experiment in its second formulation provides significant support for a theory of personal identity based on bodily continuity and I consider several potential objections to the claim for the purpose of rebuttal.

In the first instance of Williams' thought experiment, we are asked to entertain a scenario in which a researcher is able to extract and transfer information from two individuals, A and B, such that the memories and character of A and B are interchanged and form the entities body-person A and body-person B, entities that have the originally named bodies of A and B, but with the other person's memory and character traits.

Prior to the experiment, both of the individuals are told that one of their bodies will be given the benefit of a monetary reward, and the other will experience torture after the interchange has occurred. It is then assumed that both would prefer money over being tortured and express this desire. Once the transition is made, and body-people A and B are formed, the researcher is presumed to make an arbitrary decision over which entity receives money and which one receives torture. Williams proceeds to explain that whichever one is tortured, because he or she has the memory of a person who asked not to be tortured, will honestly insist that this is not what he or she remembers choosing. Correspondingly, the body-person that is rewarded will be able to honestly state that he or she is receiving the outcome that he or she remembers choosing. Williams concludes from this experiment that the testimony of the individuals provides good reason for thinking that the identity of A has been transferred to a new body, in the form of body- person B, and that the identity of B has been likewise implanted in body-person A (p.182).

Williams entertains a number of further possibilities in the thought experiment to support this claim, namely that if person A experienced anxiety and person B experienced painful memories prior to the experiment, that they would carry these features with them after the process, such that if body-person A were asked about anxiety, he or she would not remember and instead express disappointment at retaining painful memories while body-person B, if asked about his or her painful memories, would similarly not remember such a thing while instead expressing disappointment that his or her anxiety has not lessened (p.185).

The second instance of Williams' thought experiment asks the reader to imagine that he or she is being experimented upon in the first-person and simply told that he or she will be tortured tomorrow. If the experimenter proceeds to tell the subject that his or her memories will be taken away before the torture and that new memories belonging to another person will be implanted in the subject's brain, it seems quite clear from the first person perspective that fear about tomorrow's torture will not be lessened, and that in this regard, our impression is that tomorrow's pain will be our pain regardless of the change in information within the brain (p.186). Williams then concludes that this concern with our body's future pain indicates that our concern for our future self does not seem to based on psychological states alone, contrary to the first thought experiment (p.187).

In order to clarify why the second thought experiment provides a more accurate intuition of personal identity than the first, we first need to consider the self not merely as an indivisible 'monad,' the way that Leibniz or Reid once conceived it, but as the result of an amalgamation of a number of distinct neural and cognitive processes that, in union, provide us with the experience from which our concept of self arises (Reid, 109). Although there is certainly practical utility in considering the self as an indivisible entity for purposes of law and emotional simplicity in regards to human relationships, the necessity of breaking apart the components of our experience of self is made necessary by the nature of Williams' thought experiments, which actively address such parts as the information of the brain, memory, character, and our experience of pain piecemeal. By breaking down these conventionally valued aspects of personhood, it is then possible to distinguish between aspects that are merely valued and aspects that are not only valued, but necessary for the appreciation and greater significance of the other aspects of personhood.

Problems in the first instance of the thought experiment may be divided into two categories: those that appear to arise from the presumption of more implications than the suggested changes in the experiment necessarily allow for and those that arise from the reliance on the dubious testimony of the hypothetical body-people A and B. I will focus on the former due to the significance of the observation that many or perhaps even all of these suggested problems are avoided in the second formulation of the thought experiment, which I believe makes it a strong argument for identity based on bodily continuity. Once this is done, the question of the body peoples' sentiment and status as persons may be more carefully broken down.

In beginning examination of what actually is thought to occur in the first thought experiment, it may first be asked, is it truly coherent to think an entity can possess the real first-person memories and character once tied to another body by transmitting information alone from one brain to another? The notion that character follows predominantly from memories or information that may be transferred without fundamentally altering physical composition is itself questionable. Modern neuroscience has discovered numerous correlations between chemical balances whose alteration has been the foundation of treatment for a plethora of illnesses relevant to character, be they diseases of high anxiety, depression, or even schizophrenia (Nutt). This consideration brings into question how much of even a possible qualitative degree of identity body-people A and B could respectively have with people B and A, to say nothing of a full assertion of personal identity.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


A critical review to Bernard Williams in "The Self and the Future"
Indiana University  (College of Arts and Sciences - Philosophy Department)
PHIL-P300 Philosophical Writing Methods
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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418 KB
Philosophy, Thought Experiment, Personal Identity, Bernard Williams, Critique, Philosophical Methodology
Quote paper
Seth Carter (Author), 2017, A critical review to Bernard Williams in "The Self and the Future", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/371667


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