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What the pandemic tells us about personal identity

We have become more used to seeing others through screens and software, but we are embodied beings and digital communication can feel lacking. What effect will this have on us? 

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Like many of us these days, I spend half of my life online. There’s no point fighting it. If I want to connect with anyone beyond my nuclear family, I have to do it virtually. We Skype and Zoom and FaceTime. Chances are, if I have seen you in the last month or two, I saw an image of you on a computer screen and heard your voice through headphones — the same way you experienced, or failed to experience, me.

Our evacuation to the internet sparks urgent, practical questions. What about those who lack sufficient access to the World Wide Web? How far can online interaction meet our emotional needs? But there are more contemplative questions, too. What will happen to our sense of identity as we interface with others, increasingly, as avatars and not beings in physical space? Will we embrace our disembodiment, or recoil from it?

In the Western tradition, disdain for the human body is a philosophical cliché. At the birth of Ancient Greek philosophy, Socrates bids farewell to his bodily remains, living happily as a soul among immaterial Forms. Two thousand years later, the story goes, Descartes gives birth to modern philosophy with: “I think, therefore I am”, arguing for a “real distinction” between mind and body. 

Even those who don’t appeal to separate souls may sever our identity from our physical bodies. In a notoriously opaque chapter of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the 18th-century philosopher John Locke equates identity with the stream of consciousness, imagining a cobbler who wakes up with the mental life of a departed prince: “Everyone sees he would be the same person with the prince.”

If our minds are what we essentially are — our thoughts and feelings, memories and plans — then what we share in cyberspace is really and truly us. We might even find our virtualisation liberating. Free from the anchor of physical space, we can be with anyone, anywhere, at any time. 

Online interaction has undeniable virtues. I am happy to “see” my friends and colleagues, not just talk to them on the phone. And as a teacher, I prefer Zoom meetings to cancelling class. True, my students aren’t learning as much as they would in person. But I think they are learning something. And the regular schedule of meetings affords them — and me — a semblance of ordinary life. 

But it’s only a semblance. We can feel that something’s missing in these encounters. It’s not just the inconvenience or technical imperfection of the medium. It’s a sense of alienation, of intimate distance. Whatever the impressions of other people, our digital incarnations are not us. We are not simply minds, accessible through screens as well as through flesh and blood; our bodies are essential to what we are.

Ironically, the argument that shows the importance of embodiment for our identity was made famous by a philosopher who questioned its conclusion. In his 1984 masterpiece, Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit explored the possibility of disembodied survival. Adapting John Locke — along with Star Trek — he described a system of teleportation in which our psychological profiles are copied into bodies on other planets, while our bodies on Earth are destroyed. Everyone who sees the newly animated bodies believes that they are seeing us. By similar means, we might upload ourselves into computers, if computers could be made to think and feel. 

The problem with this thought experiment is that none of these simulacra would in fact be us: we can’t survive uploading or teleportation, not if it works this way. We can prove this by imagining a freak malfunction. 

Suppose that, by some electrical fluke, you survive with your body intact, on Earth, as your psychology is transcribed to a body on Mars. You remain exactly where you were, confused: what happened? One thing is clear, however: the person now on Mars who thinks she is you is wrong. She is a mere facsimile. 

If the copy isn’t you in this freak scenario, she can’t be you in the original scenario, where your body is destroyed. Your relationship to the person who receives your psychological profile is the same, regardless of your survival or destruction on Earth. Either way, it’s not enough to make them you. There is more to your identity than psychology.

I said that Parfit questioned this conclusion: his view is complicated. In the background is a sociological quirk. The philosophy of personal identity is one of the subfields of the discipline in which kooky views are widely held, some of which aim to make room for survival-by-teleportation, and in which scientifically educated common sense — according to which we are animals of the species Homo sapiens — is not the default position. 

It ought to be. We are essentially embodied, living things. If philosophers have thought otherwise, the reason may lie in their use of thought experiments, conducted from an armchair, in which we imagine being turned to stone and then revived, or picture ourselves waking with the body of a beetle. The armchair method has its uses, but it’s misleading here: we can imagine surviving these incidents, but we can’t in fact survive them. What we essentially are is revealed to us by the empirical study of human life, and our biology does not permit such fanciful adventures.

Our corporeal identity is evident, too, in the experience of isolation we now share. When we connect with friends and colleagues through our terminals, laptops, phones, there is a void between us. We cannot feel each others’ breaths or movements; we cannot look at the same object in our surroundings; we cannot sense each others’ warmth, or stand together or apart; we cannot touch. What we get is an impression, not the thing itself. 

The stress of social distancing and the palpable inadequacy of virtual interaction manifest a basic truth of personal identity: we are embodied beings, not streams of consciousness. In craving contact with each other, we crave physical not just psychological proximity. When we communicate through our screens, we feel the absence of others even as they share their thoughts. That’s why Zoom is bittersweet.

It isn’t easy to predict the effects of this deprivation. Will it foster the illusion of freedom from the body, the dream of digital escape? Or will it induce us to cherish our analogue lives? Our organic vulnerability plays out in newspapers and on screens, its scale disturbing and as yet uncertain. So, we shelter in place. I hope our isolation leads us to appreciate what we really are, as well as what it means to be with others, in person — as bodies, and not just minds.

Kieran Setiya is Professor of Philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide and tweets @KieranSetiya.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.