NOTES on Richard Taylor (1919-2003): Materialism and Personal Identity


In the second edition of his book Metaphysics (1974), Richard Taylor (1919-2003) examines the advantages and disadvantages of believing in the metaphysical theories of Materialism (in the form of the Identity Theory, aka the Identity Thesis) and of Dualism.


Taylor describes the Identity Theory as the belief that I am a body only. I do not have an immaterial mind; I have only a material body. Thus, I am identical with my body. Whenever I talk about myself, I am really talking about my body.

As Taylor writes, “Now if my having a body consists simply in the identity of myself with my body, then it follows that I am body, and nothing more.”

As you can see, the Identity Theory is a version of Materialism, the metaphysical theory that says that all reality is material, not mental; in other words, Materialism says that all reality consists of bodies, not minds.

The Identity Theory does have a great advantage in its simplicity. What makes up a person is not mysterious; a person is simply his body and nothing more.

Of course, this simplicity avoids the Mind-Body Problem that Dualism faces. According to Dualism, a person is composed of both a body and a mind, and the two interact with each other. For example, when my body is ill, it affects my ability to think clearly when taking a test. The interaction also works from mind to body. When my mind commands my arm to rise in the air when I want to answer a question that the teacher has asked, my arm will rise in the air (unless I am paralyzed or restrained).

However, this interaction of body and mind raises a problem: Since mind is immaterial and body is material, how can two such dissimilar things interact? Dualists have had a very difficult time answering that question.

Materialism, however, does have a significant disadvantage. Suppose that we are identical with our body. We all know what happens to a person’s body after the person dies: It decays. If the Identity Theory is true, it seems very likely that we are mortal. When we die, our body decays and that is the end of us.

The Meaning of “Identity”

Taylor investigates what the Materialist means by “identity.” He writes, “By ‘identity’ the [M]aterialist must mean a strict and total identity of himself and his body, nothing less.”

But this leads to some interesting consequences. As Taylor writes, “Now to say of anything, X, and anything, Y, that X and Y are identical, or that they are really one and the same thing, one must be willing to assert of X whatever that he asserts of Y, and vice versa.”

But are we willing to do that when we assert that I am identical with my body? I may be willing to say that I am morally blameworthy for something that I have done. Let’s say that I cheated on a test. I can say that I am morally blameworthy, but can I say that my body is morally blameworthy? In addition:

1) I can say that I have a wish (for example, I wish to meet my favorite TV actress), but can I say that my body has a wish?

2) I can say that I am religious, but can I say that my body is religious?

3) I can say that I am in love, but can I say that my body is in love?

In addition, Taylor points out, the Materialist’s definition of “identity” will have problems when it comes to epistemological predicates. For example, suppose that someone is mistaken about something. In Taylor’s example, someone mistakenly believes that today is February 31. Now if this person is mistaken, and if the Identity Theory is true, it must be the case that his body is mistaken, which certainly seems odd.

In Taylor’s words: “Thus, if I believe something — believe, for instance, that today is February 31 — then I am in a certain state; the state, namely, of having a certain belief which is in this case necessarily a false one. Now how can a physical state of any physical object be identical with that? And how, in particular, can anything be a false physical state of an object? … A physiologist might give a complete physical description of a brain and nervous system at a particular time, but he could never distinguish some of those states as true and others as false, nor would he have any idea what to look for if he were asked to do this. At least, so it would certainly seem.”

Platonic Dualism

Platonic Dualism is the view that a person is a soul or mind that has the use of a body. The soul or mind is the real, essential part of the person, and the soul or mind will live on after the person’s body dies. This view is very congenial to many religious people, as it is consistent with their religious beliefs. For example, immortality is central to the Christian faith, and Platonic Dualism supports a belief in immortality.

Platonic Dualism also has other advantages. Human beings wish to think of themselves as being “something more than just one more item of matter in the world,” and Platonic Dualism allows them to do that. In addition, Platonism Dualism avoids the pitfalls of Materialism.

However, as Taylor points out, Platonic Dualism has problems of its own. We can ask how the soul is related to the body. Does the soul possess the body? Possession, however, is a social and a legal term. We possess the things we own, but do we possess our body? A person can own a slave, but the slave still possesses his own body “in a metaphysical sense in which it could not possibly be the body of his master.”

We can also ask this: Does the soul occupy the body? But occupancy is a term that is a physical concept, and since the soul or mind is not physical, we cannot use this term to describe the relationship between the mind or soul, and the body.

And, of course, there is the problem of how the mind and body interact: the Mind-Body Problem.

Note: The quotations by Taylor that appear in this essay are from his book Metaphysics (2nd edition, 1974).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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