Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved February 23, 2024, from

6. Methodological Objections

Psychological theories of identity have also been criticized for the crucial role they give to fanciful hypothetical cases in their development and defence. As we have seen, both the initial arguments for, and the further refinement of, psychological theories depend heavily upon the use of cases involving fictional technologies or bizarre occurrences - body switches, fission, memory transplants and suchlike. A variety of concerns have been raised about this method.

Bernard Williams (1973) demonstrates that different ways of describing the same case can evoke vastly different intuitive responses, raising worries about the reliability of the intuitions generated by these stories. Kathleen Wilkes (1988) argues that the critical hypothetical cases are underdescribed and that this makes the intuitions they yield suspect. More generally, she objects to the science-fictional aspects of these cases. Worlds in which teleportation and body swapping could occur would be so different from our own, she argues, that there is little reason to believe that our judgements about identity in these worlds tell us anything interesting about our identity. She thus suggests that we abandon the methodology of science-fiction scenarios and instead look more closely at real-life cases that raise questions of personal identity (e.g. multiple personality, mental illness, hypnosis, split brains).

In general there is a good deal of scepticism about the proliferation of increasingly bizarre and impossible puzzle cases in the discussion of psychological theories. These kinds of issues are likely to become more complicated and interesting as more and better empirical results in neuroscience and neuropsychology provide new insight into what kinds of alterations are possible for creatures like us.

Citing this article:
Schechtman, Marya. Methodological Objections. Personal identity, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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