Imagining Being Someone Else and Personal Identity

Andrea Sauchelli is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His areas of current interest include: (i) Personal Identity, the Self, and Applied Ethics; (ii) Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art (Art and Ethics).

Andrea Sauchelli is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His areas of current interest include: (i) Personal Identity, the Self, and Applied Ethics; (ii) Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art (Art and Ethics).

A post by Andrea Sauchelli.

Can you really imagine being someone else—mind you, not just suppose that you are someone else, but imagine being an altogether different person? In what sense and to what degree can we actually achieve this task? What are the theoretical consequences of episodes of imagining being someone else for the contemporary debate on personal identity?

Some philosophers interested in personal identity have claimed that not only can we imagine being someone else, but also that we can imagine being someone else from the inside or, as it is sometimes glossed, from a first-person perspective (Ninan 2009, 2016). In their writings, this capacity seems to involve experiences; for example, that you are imagining being Nicolás Maduro from the inside as he was in February 2019, is understood as implying that you are experiencing the world from his internal or subjective perspective as it was at that specific time. A caveat here is that, according to some philosophers, such imaginings need not be taken to be equivalent to imaginings that would violate the necessity of identity (or non-identity). In particular, on some accounts, imagining being someone else is an imaginative project that is different from imagining that the person who imagines is identical to someone else. It is not entirely clear to me which account of mental content can successfully vindicate this idea (see Williams 1966/73 and Ninan 2016 for discussion).

Defenders of what is called the Simple View of personal identity—in general supporters of this view tend to believe that personal identity depends on a soul or a simple immaterial substance, although there is no consensus on how the Simple View should be defined (Olson 2012, Sauchelli 2018: chapter 1)—may argue that such imaginative projections from the inside are not only possible, but that some of these imaginings support their metaphysical theories, indirectly and directly. Indirectly because, if successful, imaginative projections from the inside would show that psychological or physical theories of personal identity are wrong, and directly because they appear to show that all there is to personal identity is a simple entity (e.g., a featureless soul). More precisely, their reasoning would run as follows. Since we do imagine from the inside being anybody else (perhaps in the sense of imagining having a series of qualitative properties generally associated with this individual), independently of what the other person’s physical or psychological features are, and, since the imagination of the kind at issue here is a reliable guide to metaphysical possibility, what you imagine is metaphysically possible. Hence, it is metaphysically possible for you to be anybody else, even individuals with psychological or physical features entirely different from your actual ones. (Some constraints can apply here, for example, that the individual you are imagining being must have a perspective.) From this conclusion, the reasoning continues, it would also follow that it is not essential for you to have any of your psychological or physical features. If you are essentially a person and if none of your psychological or physical features, including the relevant chains of psychological connections depending on them, are essential to your identity as a person, then psychological or physical theories of personal identity are wrong—at least when these theories are understood as providing necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity in and over time. Once it is established that psychological or physical theories are incorrect, if we nonetheless believe that personal identity is not an illusion, the only or best account of personal identity is supposed to be one that employs as a central explanatory notion the concept of a Pure Cartesian Ego or featureless soul. (This line of reasoning is taken and adapted from Williams 1966/73. Swinburne 1984, Blackburn 1999 and Ninan 2009 discuss these issues but do not all endorse soul-based theories of personal identity or the reasoning in precisely the form I have presented it; for example, Ninan attempts to find a way of reconciling the above intuitions about our alleged unconstrained capacity to imagine being someone else from the inside with naturalism.)

I will raise just a few points for discussion. First, metaphysicians do not always consider the recent literature on the kind of imagination that plays a central role in their theorising, a capacity which closely resembles what, for example, Currie and Ravenscroft call recreative imagination (Currie & Ravenscroft 2002). In brief, Currie and Ravenscroft characterise recreative imagination as the capacity that underpins perspective shifting; more specifically, states of recreative imagination are states in which we exercise our capacity to experience belief-, desire- and perception-like states—states very similar to beliefs, desires and perceptions in which, for example, we may have imagery of non-occurrent states of affairs we take to belong to points of view that are not ours. Such an imaginative faculty is also sometimes regarded as playing a crucial role in our capacity to ‘mind read’ other people. For instance, some suggest that we employ this form of imagination to mentally simulate other people’s perspectives (not all the participants in the debate on mind reading regard recreative imagination as the main or pivotal mental capacity responsible for our capacity to understand other minds; see Heal 1998, Goldman 2006 and Spaulding 2018). Although very unlikely, it is not impossible that some works in the literature on simulation and mindreading may even vindicate some of the claims made by supporters of the previous reasoning in favour of the Simple View. However, what is more likely is that a cross-fertilization between these two subfields—the metaphysics of personal identity and mindreading—would prompt some metaphysicians to make subtler claims and distinctions regarding the kind of imagination they think of as providing knowledge of the nature of persons and their continuity over time. Some work in this direction, albeit not always in connection with the literature on mind reading, has been done by philosophers interested in constructivist or narrative theories of personal identity—roughly, the family of theories according to which personal identity over time depends (partly or entirely) on the content and structure of certain mental states such as imaginings, imaginative projections, or on agency (Velleman 1996, Schechtman 1996, Mackenzie 2008, Sauchelli 2018: chapter 6).

Now, provided that there is a specification of ‘imagination from the inside’ that captures some of the features that metaphysicians regard as relevant for debates on personal identity, we may further question the epistemological credentials of such imaginings. For example, someone sceptical of such credentials may opt for one of the following strategies. First of all, we may adopt an error theory about these almost-unconstrained imaginings from the inside—the idea is that supporters of the Simple View are not really imagining what they claim they are imagining. The other strategy is to claim that, although these philosophers do imagine from the inside in the way they suggest, these imaginings do not provide evidence for the belief that we can persist independently of our psychological and physical features or connections, call this the non-probative theory (see Kung 2010 and 2016 for this distinction and some of its applications in other areas).

One reason to opt for the first strategy—the one appealing to an error theory about almost unconstrained imaginings from the inside—is that at least the most ambitious imaginative projects of this kind do not seem to be possible, given our limited imaginative capacities to project ourselves into radically different perspectives. In the context of their discussion of empathising with schizophrenic patients, Currie and Ravenscroft argue that, for non-schizophrenics, such imaginative projections seem hard to achieve. Other discussions on the limits of empathy may suggest similar limitations to the kind of perspective we can adopt (Goldie 2000, Batson 2009). Besides, at least part of the recent literature on ‘transformative experiences’ seems to be based on the presupposition that some shifts of perspective are simply not attainable (Paul 2014).

Alternatively, we may argue that, although there is a relevant sense in which it is possible that we imagine being anybody else from the inside, it is not a kind of probative imagining and thus does not justify or provide evidence for beliefs about personal identity. Following Kung’s recent work on imagination and modal knowledge, it seems that the part of mental content determining that my imagining from the inside of the kind previously discussed regards a wholly different person’s perspective is merely stipulative. Nothing in the mental imagery related to my imagining being entirely someone else seems to represent that I am this other person, only the stipulation that I am would make the mental image part of the appropriate content involved in the imaginative project at issue. After all, the qualitative contents of the imagery of me being someone else and of the other person’s perspective are supposed to be the same. Now, if Kung is correct, imaginings the alleged relevant probative feature of which is a virtually unconstrained stipulation are not probative and thus no knowledge about our essential properties (or lack thereof) should be based on them.

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Many thanks to Rafael De Clercq and Dan Marshall for their comments on an early draft of this post.


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