Nagel, Chisholm, and Locke – Metaphysics of the Mind

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 22 November 2016

Nagel, Chisholm, and Locke – Metaphysics of the Mind

It is very difficult to attribute characteristics to a mind when we know it does not actually exist in the physical realm. Though, personal identity has been connected to the mind. However, it is tricky to determine what exactly comprises one’s personal identity. Although it is a difficult concept to grasp, philosophers such as Nagel and Chisholm attempt to construct their own position on the characteristics of the mind. By comparing Nagel and Chisholm’s positions on personal identity, it is evident that identity is a development of both body and mind.

Nagel shows that we cannot properly identify a mind, and if this is the case then it is impossible to attribute personal identity to a mind. In turn, he attacks the idea that personal identity can be defined in terms of physical attributes. Chisholm shows that although things are constantly changing, they still remain the same. He argues that it is the mind that holds our identity, regardless of physical alteration. In my view, the physicalist perspective of identity is the most logical when contrasted to the mentalist argument simply due to the fact that we do have a self-identity, and Nagel does not attempt to define what it is.

Locke’s argument finds a middle ground between Nagel and Chisholm as he argues for a conscious and bodily continuity of the mind. In order to identify the mind-body problem and argue that identity is a development of the mind, Nagel’s position must be analyzed. Firstly, when addressing the mind-body problem, Nagel states that one cannot explain the mind body relationship through logic, functions, or intentions. He argues that these states can be ascribed to robots that may indeed behave like people, however robots do not experience anything, and it is experience that influences the mind (436).

Nagel’s bat analogy helps solidify his position on experience which is that no one can experience the same thing as another. He claims that; “even to form a conception of what it is Kristen Biduk 6949215 like to be a bat…one must take up the bat’s point of view” (442). Meaning, one must have the same thinking patterns as the other which Nagel argues is impossible. He argues that it is our consciousness which provides the mind-body problem. Although one can relate to what it is like to be a bat, it is impossible to fully comprehend it because in order to become a bat, conscious-ness must be forgotten.

For that reason, one cannot know that others have a mind, but one can perceive that they do. Chisholm opens his argument with providing an analysis of the Ship of Theseus and explains that identity is transitive, meaning that it is always changing. Similarly, he uses the example of the river and how although it is the same exact river, it is given different identities based on geographical location. The identity of the river is changing. Based on his view of alteration, Chisholm suggests three possibilities for alteration and identity.

Firstly, we can deny the transitivity of identity, but he proves this to be a problem. His second suggestion is that nothing alters, but this too proves to be problematic. For example, if one was to cross the border of the United States of America and the border patrol officer asked if he was the same as the person in the photo, he would say no. Because, when that photo was taken he had certain characteristics, and now, x amount of years later he has different characteristics, and is therefore a different person. Clearly this is an issue.

Thirdly, he analyzes Butler’s position on the misuse of the word ‘is’ in that, for example; there exists something at a certain place (P) at a certain time (t) that is identical with same thing at a different place (Q) at a different time (t1). By saying identical, he means they exist in together, however it is mathematically impossible. He concludes that such things are entia per alio (made of). Entia per alio is something that exists because a Kristen Biduk 6949215 mind makes it up. For example, a pencil is entia per alio because without a mind, it is simply an object. The mind makes the pencil an object for writing. Without a mind giving meaning to something, that something has no identity.

In regards to self-identity, I find it difficult to agree with the mentalist perspective. Nagel’s writing, “What is it like to be a Bat? ” does not provide sufficient insight to the development of self and self-identity. He bases his writing solely based on defining the mind. It is true to say that we cannot properly identify a mind. How can we as a whole, understand something we do not actually know exists? We can assume it exists but it provides no understanding. Based on this belief, Nagel concludes that because we cannot properly identify a mind, we cannot connect personal identity to a mind.

But where can we find our personal identity? He claims that our identity does not lie within our physical attributes which leaves identity suspending in the air. The mentalist perspective is limiting in the sense that it does not take in to account outside variables that can impact one’s identity. We are not born with an identity and I feel as though Nagel’s position is implying that we are. Additionally, our identity is developed from our consciousness, and we do not become conscious of ourselves at infancy.

We develop our self-identity through time and it is consistently changing. Chisholm is much more realistic when it comes to defining personal identity. We cannot assume that our identity is purely based on our minds, for our minds are influenced by our physicality. In turn, our physicality is influenced by society. We identify with ourselves based on what others think of us. For example, if someone weighs three hundred pounds, they may identify themselves as unhealthy because that is what society has told them. Similarly, if that three hundred pound person lost weight and now weighed one hundred and thirty pounds, that Kristen Biduk 6949215 person may identify themselves as healthy.

If they used diet and exercise as a method to lose the weight, they may identify as athletic. This proves that personal identity is indeed transitive. It will always be in a constant state of change depending on the influences around them. We have identity because others around us have provided us with our identity. One could argue then that if one was to lose only ten pounds then identity will not change because the change is only slight. If we analyze the Ship of Theseus once more, Chisholm argues that slight changes still have an impact on our identity because our identity is always changing.

By using the problem of Theseus’s ship however, it gives us ideas of identity for inanimate objects. One could argue that it is not relatable to beings with consciousness however I would have to disagree. Our consciousness, or our memories are what hold our self-identity. If we lose an arm or leg, we are still the same person because our minds still hold our memory. While the mentalist perspective does not take into account physical impressions, and the physicalist perspective lacks some insight on our own consciousness, Locke provides an explanation that touches on both sides.

Locke argues for a conscious continuity and not a bodily one. He begins with clarifying that all minds have a common structure wherein there are two qualities within our identity: primary and secondary. The primary quality consists of consciousness. I can identify with myself because I am conscious of my own existence. The secondary qualities consist of qualities that are changing, such as hair length or weight.

He insists that our primary qualities are what provide us with identity however he agrees that secondary qualities must be analyzed. Our secondary qualities are always changing while our primary qualities are static. Without the secondary qualities, our identity would not change, Kristen Biduk 6949215 which Chisholm proved. In comparison to both Nagel and Chisholm, Locke’s argument holds the truest because he takes into account both perspectives and develops the most logical understanding of identity. Additionally, Locke states that there is a first and third person perspective on identity. The first person identity is what one makes of himself.

The third person helps confirm one’s identity. Both of these together help form one’s true personal identity. For one without outside influences has nothing to base their identity on. For example, if one was to look at cases of people raised in isolation, it will be seen that they have no sense of reality or identity. They were left to their own thoughts with no outside stimulation. When they leave their isolated prisons, they rediscover their identity by identifying with their outside influences. In conclusion, it is almost impossible to justify the mind/body problem.

Both Nagel and Chisholm’s perspectives on identity are fairly vague and both lack a deeper understanding of the mind. I truly believe that it is the mind that holds our identity. However an identity is highly structured by its outside influences. Without a body or without society, one would have no identity. Some can argue that there can be a mind without a body, but it just doesn’t make rational sense. If hypothetically, one was to have their mind switched into a different body, he would still identify as himself. For it is our mind that holds our identity, however our mind is within a body.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 November 2016

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