A Refreshingly Old Take on Identity

In the Winter 2011 issue of Salvo, Tom Gilson writes about the reductionist interpretation of neuroscience findings:

In 2007, Scientific American reported on “Your Brain in Love,” including this wisdom:

Researchers have revealed the fonts of desire by comparing functional MRI studies of people who indicated they were experiencing passionate love, maternal love or unconditional love. Together, the regions release neuro­transmitters and other chemicals in the brain and blood that prompt greater euphoric sensations such as attraction and pleasure.4

Apparently no poet, artist, novelist, or philosopher ever knew where the fonts of desire were to be found. How could they? They didn’t have functional MRI (fMRI) machines.

There is a predictable reductionist sameness about these articles. You or I could almost write them before we read them: Brain researchers study human experience y, and discover that human experience y is nothing but some region x lighting up in our brains. Admittedly, I’m taking a rather reductionist approach of my own: I’ve reduced all this research and journalism to a neat little formula.

. . .

1. Ethics and morality reside in the brain.
2. We look in the brain, and we find regions lighting up under stimuli.
3. Therefore, ethics and morality, at their core, are probably nothing but parts of the brain responding to stimuli.

. . .

This article came to mind while I was reading a conversation between Alan Saunders, host of The Philosopher’s Zone, and John Finnis, Emeritus Professor of Law at University College Oxford and a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the States. They discuss how human beings regarded such things as the self, the mind, and free will before MRI machines were around. Excerpt from the “Shakespeare, Identity and Religion” transcript over at the Radio National website:

. . . .

Alan Saunders: But let’s turn to Aquinas, because we’re going to talk about personal identity. Can you outline his theory of personal identity?

John Finnis: Well, neither Aquinas nor Shakespeare use the term in that sense, and that’s one of the interesting things, I think, about Shakespeare, and indeed about Aquinas, that they have concepts which we know of and use ourselves with different terms. I think that’s a philosophically interesting and important point, that one can have a concept without having a term that locks onto it one-to-one. In both Aquinas and Shakespeare you find a conception of personal identity expressed in terms of other concepts; in the case of Shakespeare like the thing I am, or the self, and similarly in Aquinas you have a very, very strong conception of self-determination by free choice. That’s, I think, the master concept in Aquinas.

Alan Saunders: So…

John Finnis: One’s choices last in one’s, what we would call, character, in one’s, what we would call, identity.

Alan Saunders: So presumably I have an identity that is something to do with who I was born as, but the rest of it is my choice?

John Finnis: Yes. I’m part author of myself, and partly not author of myself, but constituted, what I am, by my birth as a member of the human species, and I have the identity I have, according to Aquinas, because of the material basis, the bodily basis, of my existence, and because that is informed and shaped and active by virtue of my human soul. So, I have this body and soul unity which is me, a human being, and that’s my nature as it’s given to me, and then there’s the nature that I…the sort of second nature, that I establish by my choices.

Alan Saunders: Returning to bodily matters, Shakespeare never loses sight, does he, of the fact that the personal identity that each of his characters has, that character has by being this living body rather than that living body?

John Finnis: No, he never does. He of course is capable of playing around with the idea of spirits, fairies and so on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he always brings us back to that bodily reality.

Alan Saunders: On ABC RN you’re with The Philosopher’s Zone and I’m talking to John Finnis, Professor of Law at Oxford and at the University of Notre Dame in the States about Shakespeare, religion and identity. John, despite one’s bodiliness, for both Aquinas and Shakespeare one can, as it were, be present to oneself, can’t one?

John Finnis: Yes, that’s an extremely important concept and dialectical, argumentative device in Aquinas. Aquinas’s controversies with the radical, partly Islamist, Aristotelians of the University of Paris are marked by his appeal to this understanding of oneself, this presence to oneself, which identifies one as oneself and not others, and not simply a fragment of some vast single soul, which was the concept of the radical Aristotelians. The idea of presence to oneself, of course, everyone knows is there in Shakespeare, in the form of the soliloquy, and you get soliloquies like the soliloquy of Richard III just before his final battle and death at Bosworth in which he talks in a remarkable way about the self and it’s his conscience in this case and his struggle with his conscience, all expressed in terms of myself.

. . . .

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