General Question

aaronou's avatar

What defines who we are? What is our identity?

Asked by aaronou (735points) August 1st, 2008

I can lose motion in my body, or even a number of my parts, but people would still say I am me. I can lose my mind and my memory, but sitting in a nursing home, people would still identify me as Aaron. Or maybe when these things go downhill, maybe I am not me. What specifically makes me who I am, what defines us as an individual, what is a person’s identity?

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13 Answers

trumi's avatar

D to the N to the A, plus the person you are in the deepest part of your mind as a result of your childhood nurturing.

marinelife's avatar

The sum of all those things, the body, the mind, the memory plus the memories of us held by others. You retain your identity as long as you live, even if you are no longer aware of it.

Poser's avatar

Either what Marina said, or the sum total of all the things we manage to buy in our lifetime. I’m still trying to decide which one.

Harp's avatar

When I read Nikipedia’s question yesterday about Sorites’ “pile of sand” paradox, it occurred to me that this is a perfect metaphor for the self. We can start systematically nibbling away or changing all of those elements that we consider to be constituents of our identity—memories, station in life, physical being, knowledge, personallity, etc.—and presumably arrive at a point where that identity is compromised, but what would that point be?

Do the changes that an Alzheimer’s patient goes through of progressive loss of any sense of personal history mean that at some point they are no longer who they were? If so, then are we ever who we were? What are the implications of the fact that the details of my own sense of personal history come and go and mutate like some crazy dream? How real is the past, anyway? If our identities derive from it, that question bears asking.

The same kinds of problems arise when we consider the physical components of identity. For a lengthy but fascinating exploration of this aspect, take a look at Oscar Falconi’s thought experiment in which he imagines a machine capable of perfect dissolution and reconstitution of a human.

In the interest of full disclosure, my approach to this question is colored by many years of Zen practice, which constantly rubs one’s nose in the question of the reality of the self. It’s impossible to emerge from that process fully believing that there is any durable self-essence, a basis of identity that carries over from one moment to the next. At best, we are a process that moves through the world like a wave moves over the ocean. What makes that wave the same as it was 5 seconds ago?

scrappyblue's avatar

Identity is a social construct defined by our social relationships formed in the past, present and future. Memories and others’ expectations help form our identity. If you never had interaction with another human being, you’d probably would not have much of an identity. You’d be a human, physiologically-speaking, but not a being that exists in the social realm which grounds much of what we do day-to-day.

susanc's avatar

Dust in the wind; all we are is dust in the wind.

What I find interesting is that we’re all so anxious about what constitutes “us”. Even the sufis, even the Zen masters, concern themselves with it, albeit beautifully. So… I will post a new question.

drhat77's avatar

even in death you can still retain your identity. National or religous figures long dead mean something to a great number of people. their public identities might be at wide odds with who they really were, but the way people “remember” them probably bears a good enough resemblance to them that it could still be considered their identity.

nina's avatar

You define your identify to yourself, you are what you think you are.
Others identify your identity for themselves – you are to them what they think you are.

windex's avatar

you are Not your mind, you are Not your body, you are Not your memories

I believe you are “your feelings” (many will disagree)

Poser's avatar

@windex—That reminds me of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk quote: ”’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank. You’re not your job. You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself…. You’re not your name…. You’re not your problems…. You’re not your age…. You are not your hopes.”

gattonegro's avatar

i am the story i wrote, but read by you.
we want to think we are not so many things. the money we have or the money we dont have, the job we have or the job we want to have, etc. the fact is that we are exactly that.
we cant run from it thinking or wishing we are more complex. we are not, we are very simple beings. we are what we experience. lets not confuse what we are with what we wish we were. hahahahahahahhahahahahha. vanity could lead to so much stupidity.
dont run. stay put and that is what you are.

gattonegro's avatar

one does not have to like who one is. one has to accept it and make the best out of it.
the questions sounds so complicated because of this only. once you get over this, you will see how simple the question is.

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