What is Identity?

Best wishes for 2013!

Over the next days/weeks I am migrating some chapters of a book on Identity management  I started writing in 2007 from my server pages at www.traction-avant.co.uk.  I have to admit the layout is better there until I figure out the right HTML formatting to use on WordPress.

Enjoy, I hope,  for those who have not seen this material yet. Marcus

Chapter 1 What is Identity?

This book chapter in the making,by its very nature, is mainly concerned with the
management of ‘Digital Identity’, but I thought
it would be wise to first take a small diversion and look into the meaning of ‘Identity’
in philosophy. The reason is clear. Philosophers have pondered about identity
and what makes things or persons the same or different from others far longer
than practitioners of the relatively young science of Information and
Communication Technology (ICT). Taking on board some of their well debated
conclusions may save the ICT practitioner from making fundamental errors
implementing digital identity.

The first thing I learned while researching this chapter is that
mostly philosophers have an entirely different meaning of the word Identity in their
head than your average IT professional or citizen concerned about privacy
matters. In philosophy identity basically means the ‘sameness’ of two things,
where in IT we seem to be more concerned about the ‘differences’ between things
and how to keep things apart.

What did the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle have to
say about identity? What does modern philosophy add to the debate, especially
the 17th century thinkers Descartes, Leibniz and Locke, who are
often quoted on matters of identity? What has more recently been occupying the
philosophical literature on identity? From the 1950’s onward the subject of ‘The
Identity Theory of Mind’ has become very popular once more. This theory holds
that states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of
the brain and so in effect disputes the existence of a separate soul housed in
a temporary vessel of flesh. It is not hard to see how with technological
advances in brain scanners (computerised tomography and magnetic resonance
imaging) it would not be long before philosophers tried to prove or disprove
that touchy point again.

In this book in the main I am not dealing with the
sense of identity that a self-conscious being may have on reflecting about its
own existence. Of course philosophers do talk a lot about identity in this
second sense also, and I will touch upon this subject in this chapter
occasionally. However this is not a self-help book or a book on corporate
branding. If you thought it was, now is the time to return the book to your
supplier and ask for a refund!

Identity ‘It’s all in the mind’

Since the earliest times, Chinese emperors and Egyptian pharaohs
serve as great examples; man has imagined that their afterlife will be similar
to their life on earth. They imagined or were told by priests that their
identity would somehow persist in the afterlife. They arranged to be buried
with the items that they found useful in their lifetime. Some food, weapons. His
favourite concubine(s) if the emperor felt lucky. The Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi
Huang) in 210-209 BC had an army of more than 8000 terracotta soldiers with
real weapons buried in pits around his mausoleum to protect him in the after
life. It didn’t do him much good. A year after his death a rebel army broke
into his mausoleum, smashed the soldier figures and with the weapons thus
captured overthrew the dynasty he founded.

Plato (429-347 BC)

Plato is a good place to start any philosophical discussion
on identity. In Parmenides during the ‘One is many’ and ‘many is one’
debate, he argues the case to death, that there is a real distinction within
each thing between its unchanging eidos (essence, idea, form) and the
constantly changing outward appearance or particulars of a thing or man or
animal (colour, shape, age, size).

If we adopt the definition (see chapter 2) of Identity as ‘a set of claims’ about
a thing or person, then we can see a good fit here. The Identity of a thing or
person then becomes the set of attributes (what colour, what shape, how old,
what size a thing or a man is) that allows us to uniquely recognize or
re-identify that man or thing, but don’t confuse the two! You can give your
credit card or user name/password away but not your identity!

Figure 1 Bust of Plato (429-347 BC)

Figure 1 Bust of Plato (429-347 BC)

What Plato wrote in Parmenides: (He used a dialogue
between his old teacher Socrates and his friends to explain things)

“While Socrates was speaking, Pythodorus thought that
Parmenides and Zeno were not altogether pleased at the successive steps of the argument;
but still they gave the closest attention and often looked at one another, and
smiled as if in admiration of him. When he had finished, Parmenides expressed
their feelings in the following words:

Socrates, he said, I admire the bent of your mind
towards philosophy; tell me now, was this your own distinction between ideas in
themselves and the things which partake of them? and do you think that there is
an idea of likeness apart from the likeness which we possess, and of the one
and many, and of the other things which Zeno mentioned?


I think that there are such ideas, said Socrates.


Parmenides proceeded: And would you also make
absolute ideas of the just and the beautiful and the good, and of all that


Yes, he said, I should.


And would you make an idea of man apart from us and
from all other human creatures, or of fire and water?


I am often undecided, Parmenides, as to whether I
ought to include them or not.


And would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about
things of which the mention may provoke a smile?-I mean such things as hair, mud,
dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry; would you suppose that each of
these has an idea distinct from the actual objects with which we come into
contact, or not?


Certainly not, said Socrates; visible things like
these are such as they appear to us, and I am afraid that there would be an
absurdity in assuming any idea of them, although I sometimes get disturbed, and
begin to think that there is nothing without an idea; but then again, when I
have taken up this position, I run away, because I am afraid that I may fall
into a bottomless pit of nonsense, and perish; and so I return to the ideas of
which I was just now speaking, and occupy myself with them.


Yes, Socrates, said Parmenides; that is because you
are still young; the time will come, if I am not mistaken, when philosophy will
have a firmer grasp of you, and then you will not despise even the meanest
things; at your age, you are too much disposed to regard opinions of men. But I
should like to know whether you mean that there are certain ideas of which all
other things partake, and from which they derive their names; that similars,
for example, become similar, because they partake of similarity; and great
things become great, because they partake of greatness; and that just and
beautiful things become just and beautiful, because they partake of justice and


Yes, certainly, said Socrates that is my meaning..”[i]

Plato also was probably one of the first to argue a
systematic concept of people having a separate body and mind or soul[ii], or whatever you like to call it.
Plato called it nous, the immortal, rational part of the soul. Plato,
like Descartes, saw the mind as identical with the soul. However, unlike
Descartes, Plato argued in Pheado that the soul both pre-existed and
survived the body, going through a continual process of reincarnation. We see
the same concept of reincarnation in the Hindu Religions of India. The Greeks
probably borrowed the idea from them. Reincarnation literally means “to be
made flesh again”.

Figure 1 According to Hinduism, every living being is an eternally existing spirit (the soul or the self). Upon physical death, this soul passes from one body to another in accordance with the laws of Karma and reincarnation. Image copyright BBTI

Figure 2 According to Hinduism, every living being is an eternally existing spirit (the soul or the self). Upon physical death, this soul passes from one body to another in accordance with the laws of Karma and reincarnation.

What Plato wrote in Pheado: (Again he used a dialogue
between his old teacher Socrates and other friends to explain things)

“I reckon, said Socrates, that no one who heard me now,
not even if he were one of my old enemies, the comic poets, could accuse me of idle
talking about matters in which I have no concern. Let us, then, if you please,
proceed with the inquiry.

Whether the souls of men after death are or are not in the world below, is a
question which may be argued in this manner: The ancient doctrine of which I
have been speaking affirms that they go from this into the other world, and
return hither, and are born from the dead. Now if this be true, and the living
come from the dead, then our souls must be in the other world, for if not, how
could they be born again? And this would be conclusive, if there were any real
evidence that the living are only born from the dead; but if there is no evidence
of this, then other arguments will have to be adduced.”[iii]

Aristotle (384- 322 BC)

Later in this book I will be discussing at length Kim
Cameron’s ‘Six Laws of Identity’, but the first ‘law of Identity’ is generally attributed
to Aristotle rather than to Kim and takes on a rather different meaning. In
logic, a branch of philosophy, Aristotle’s 1st law of identity is
formulated as:

‘A = A’

The law is linked to a phrase in Metaphysics Book VII, Part
17 where Aristotle seems to be asking himself ‘why a thing is itself’ and
pointing out it’s a meaningless discussion. However we have to place this
discussion in the context of a larger debate relating to substance and form of
matter. Aristotle was the first to distinguish between matter (hyle) and form
(morphe). According to Aristotle, all objects in the terrestrial realm
(“substances” he called them) are composites of form and matter. Aristotle
adopted Empedocles’ and Plato’s list where matter consists of four elements -
earth, water, air and fire – and argued that these combine in various
proportions to produce all ‘things’. Identity again becomes equal to a kind of
recipe of ingredients or ‘set of claims’. Aristotle also introduces the concept
of essential and accidental properties a thing or man can have. Accidental
properties being attributes a thing can loose without loosing its essence.
Essential properties being the converse. All Greek philosophers agreed that
having a ‘soul’ was an essential property of being a human being and that
animals had none. Having only one leg is accidental.

What Aristotle said:


“Let us state what, i.e. what kind of thing, substance
should be said to be, taking once more another starting-point; for perhaps from
this we shall get a clear view also of that substance which exists apart from
sensible substances. Since, then, substance is a principle and a cause, let us
pursue it from this starting-point. The ‘why’ is always sought in this
form—’why does one thing attach to some other?’ For to inquire why the musical
man is a musical man, is either to inquire—as we have said why the man is
musical, or it is something else. Now ‘why a thing is itself’ is a meaningless
inquiry (for (to give meaning to the question ‘why’) the fact or the existence
of the thing must already be evident-e.g. that the moon is eclipsed-but the
fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be
given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician
musical’, unless one were to answer ‘because each thing is inseparable from
itself, and its being one just meant this’; this, however, is common to all
things and is a short and easy way with the question). But we can inquire why
man is an animal of such and such a nature. This, then, is plain, that we are
not inquiring why he who is a man is a man. We are inquiring, then, why
something is predicable of something (that it is predicable must be clear; for
if not, the inquiry is an inquiry into nothing). E.g. why does it thunder? This
is the same as ‘why is sound produced in the clouds?’ Thus the inquiry is about
the predication of one thing of another. And why are these things, i.e. bricks
and stones, a house? Plainly we are seeking the cause. And this is the essence
(to speak abstractly), which in some cases is the end, e.g. perhaps in the case
of a house or a bed, and in some cases is the first mover; for this also is a
cause. But while the efficient cause is sought in the case of genesis and
destruction, the final cause is sought in the case of being also.


The object of the inquiry is most easily overlooked
where one term is not expressly predicated of another (e.g. when we inquire
‘what man is’), because we do not distinguish and do not say definitely that
certain elements make up a certain whole. But we must articulate our meaning
before we begin to inquire; if not, the inquiry is on the border-line between
being a search for something and a search for nothing. Since we must have the
existence of the thing as something given, clearly the question is why the
matter is some definite thing; e.g. why are these materials a house? Because
that which was the essence of a house is present. And why is this individual
thing, or this body having this form, a man? Therefore what we seek is the
cause, i.e. the form, by reason of which the matter is some definite thing; and
this is the substance of the thing. Evidently, then, in the case of simple
terms no inquiry nor teaching is possible; our attitude towards such things is
other than that of inquiry.[iv]

Figure 3 Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Figure 3 Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Thomas Aquinas (1226 -1274)

Throughout the Middle Ages the main goal of scholastic philosophers
like St Thomas Aquinas seems to have been to reconcile the teachings of the Greek
philosophers with the teachings of the church and what was written as the
gospel truth in the bible. The question whether the soul was united to the body
continued to vex scholastic thinkers. What about the resurrection of the dead?
What is this problem? The problem begins with biblical texts asserting that we
will have the same body at the Resurrection as we did in this life. If a
missionary is eaten by a cannibal, then that could present a bit of a problem
of course. The medieval philosopher might argue that the cannibal having
committed a deadly sin doesn’t qualify for heaven. Until the ‘age of enlightenment’
to say anything that deviated too far from the teachings of the Catholic Church
could get a philosopher in serious trouble.

What Thomas Aquinas (1226 -1274) said:

Chapter II


“In composite substances we find form and matter, as in
man there are soul and body. We cannot say, however, that either of these is
the essence of the thing. That matter alone is not the essence of the thing is
clear, for it is through its essence that a thing is knowable and is placed in
a species or genus. But matter is not a principle of cognition; nor is anything
determined to a genus or species according to its matter but rather according
to what something is in act. Nor is form alone the essence of a composite
thing, however much certain people may try to assert this. From what has been
said, it is clear that the essence is that which is signified by the definition
of the thing. The definition of a natural substance, however, contains not only
form but also matter; otherwise, the definitions of natural things and
mathematical ones would not differ. Nor can it be said that matter is placed in
the definition of a natural substance as something added to the essence or as
some being beyond the essence of the thing, for that type of definition is more
proper to accidents, which do not have a perfect essence and which include in
their definitions a subject beyond their own genus. Therefore, the essence
clearly comprises both matter and form.


Descartes (1596-1650)

In the 17th century, the French philosopher René Descartes came
up with the “explanation for it all”: “Cogito ergo sum”, he
famously said. “I think, therefore I am. But what am I?” Descartes asked. “A
res cogitans, a ‘thinking (or conscious) thing’, he replied.”

Figure 4 René Descartes (1596-1650)

Figure 4 René Descartes (1596-1650)

What Descartes wrote:

“A res cogitans is a thing which doubts, which
understands, which affirms, which denies, which wants, which does not want,
which also imagines and which perceives. Admittedly, that is a great deal of
properties if they all belong to my nature. But why would they not belong to
it? Am I not the very one who doubts almost everything, who nevertheless understands
and conceives of certain things, who asserts and affirms that those things
alone are true, who denies all other things, who wants and desires to know more
about them, who does not want to be deceived, who imagines many things, even
involuntarily, and who also perceives many things as if by the intermediary of
the body’s organs? How can any of that be a less veritable fact than the
certainty that I am and that I exist, even if I were still asleep and even if
He who gave me life used all his strength to deceive me? Further, is there any
of these attributes that can be distinguished from my thought (consciousness)
and that could be claimed to be separate from me? For it is so entirely clear
that it is I who doubt, who understands and who desires, that there is no need
to add anything else to explain it. Furthermore, I so certainly have the power
to imagine, for, although it may happen … that the things I imagine are not
true, it is nevertheless the case that this power to imagine does not cease to
be really within me and forms a part of my thought (consciousness). Finally I
am the one who perceives, i.e. receives and knows things through the sensory
organs, since in fact I see light, I hear sound, I feel heat.”

Leibniz (1646–1716)

What Leibniz has to say on Identity is extra interesting
because he also features in the list of inventors of digital mechanical
calculators which led ultimately to the development of today’s electronic
digital computers. His mechanical calculating machine was apparently capable of
multiplication, division, and root extractions. The binary system, foundation
of virtually all modern computer architectures, is attributed to him. In 1679
he wrote, ”Despite its length, the binary system, in other words counting with
0 and 1, is scientifically the most fundamental system, and leads to new
discoveries. When numbers are reduced to 0 and 1, a beautiful order prevails
everywhere.” Leibnitz was both a philosopher and a mathematician. Rest assured,
he never wrote about digital identity. He is better known for what has come to
be known as Leibniz’s Law or ‘The Identity of Indiscernibles’. This principle
seems to be first hinted at in Section 9 of his 1686 ‘Discourse On Metaphysics’
(See text box below). Leibniz stated his Principle of Identity of
Indiscernibles however in several other places, but only in few of them he gave
arguments for it. One such place is his correspondence with Clarke[vii]. Another such place is in his paper
entitled Primary Truths.

Leibniz stated that no two distinct substances exactly
resemble each other. What this means is that no two objects have exactly the
same properties, not even two identical ball bearings. The Identity of
Indiscernibles is of interest because it raises questions about the factors
which individuate qualitatively identical objects.[viii] Individuation means that which
makes one thing not identical with another –yet another form of the matter v.
form debate that had been raging since Plato and Aristotle and continues till
today. As mentioned before, Aristotle was the first to distinguish between
matter (hyle) and form (morphe). The scholastics made Individuation one of
their most important problems to solve. Bertrand Russell[ix] states the problem as follows:
“Among the properties of individual things, some are essential, others are
accidental; the accidental properties of a thing are those it can lose without
losing its identity- such as wearing a hat if you are a man. A step taken by
Leibniz, was to get rid of the distinction between essential and accidental
properties. We thus have instead of ‘essence’, all the propositions that are
true of a particular thing in question.” Leibniz held that it is impossible for
two things to be exactly alike in this sense. This is his principle of ‘Identity
of Indiscernibles’. Later this principle was criticized by physicists, who
argued that two particles of matter might differ solely as regards to position
in space and time. I won’t even try to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity

Section 27 of the same paper ‘Discourse On Metaphysics’ by
Leibniz is interesting because it forms a link between the thoughts of Plato on
Identity and John Locke discussed next. It is at the core of the whole acrimonious
‘Nature or Nurture debate’ with regard to Identity. In other words: is the
‘soul’ a blank tablet or is our personality and in some ways our identity for a
large part inherited through our genes and pre-determined?

What Leibniz wrote

“I infer from [the Principle of Sufficient
Reason]…that there are not in nature two real, absolute beings, indiscernible
from each other; because if there were, God and nature would act without
reason, in treating the one otherwise than the other; and that therefore God
does not produce two pieces of matter perfectly equal and alike (L V, 21)” [x]


IX: That every individual substance expresses the
whole universe in its own manner and that in its full concept is included all
its experiences together with all the attendant circumstances and the whole
sequence of exterior events.


“There follow from these considerations several
noticeable paradoxes; among others that it is not true that two substances may
be exactly alike and differ only numerically, solo numero, and that what St.
Thomas says on this point regarding angels and intelligences (quod ibi omne
individuum sit species infima) is true of all substances, provided that the
specific difference is understood as Geometers understand it in the case of
figures; again that a substance will be able to commence only through creation
and perish only through annihilation; that a substance cannot be divided into
two nor can one be made out of two, and that thus the number of substances
neither augments nor diminishes through natural means, although they are
frequently transformed. Furthermore every substance is like an entire world and
like a mirror of God, or indeed of the whole world which it portrays, each one
in its own fashion; almost as the same city is variously represented according
to the various situations of him who is regarding it. Thus the universe is
multiplied in some sort as many times as there are substances, and the glory of
God is multiplied in the same way by as many wholly different representations
of his works. It can indeed be said that every substance bears in some sort the
character of God’s infinite wisdom and omnipotence, and imitates him as much as
it is able to; for it expresses, although confusedly, all that happens in the
universe, past, present and future, deriving thus a certain resemblance to an
infinite perception or power of knowing. And since all other substances express
this particular substance and accommodate themselves to it, we can say that it
exerts its power upon all the others in imitation of the omnipotence of the



XXVII: In what respect our souls can be compared
to blank tablets and how conceptions are derived from the senses.


Aristotle preferred to compare our souls to blank
tablets prepared for writing, and he maintained that nothing is in the
understanding which does not come through the senses. This position is in
accord with the popular conceptions as Aristotle’s positions usually are. Plato
thinks more profoundly. Such tenets or practicologies are nevertheless
allowable in ordinary use somewhat in the same way as those who accept the Copernican
theory still continue to speak of the rising and setting of the sun. I find
indeed that these usages can be given a real meaning containing no error, quite
in the same way as I have already pointed out that we may truly say particular
substances act upon one another. In this same sense we may say that knowledge
is received from without through the medium of the senses because certain
exterior things contain or express more particularly the causes which determine
us to certain thoughts. Because in the ordinary uses of life we attribute to
the soul only that which belongs to it most manifestly and particularly, and
there is no advantage in going further. When, however, we are dealing with the
exactness of metaphysical truths, it is important to recognize the powers and
independence of the soul which extend infinitely further than is commonly
supposed. In order, therefore, to avoid misunderstandings it would be well to
choose separate terms for the two. These expressions which are in the soul
whether one is conceiving of them or not may be called ideas, while those which
one conceives of or constructs may be called conceptions, conceptus. But
whatever terms are used, it is always false to say that all our conceptions
come from the so-called external senses, because those conceptions which I have
of myself and of my thoughts, and consequently of being, of substance, of
action, of identity, and of many others came from an inner experience.”[xi]

Figure 5 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 1646 – 1716

Figure 5 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 1646 – 1716

John Locke presents us with a philosophical approach from

the 17th century, which is still relevant today: In his Essay
Concerning Human Understanding
published in 1690 John Locke writes: “To
find wherein personal identity consists, we must consider what person stands
for; — which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and
reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in
different times and places.” In other words ‘persistence’ is a key attribute of
Identity. I as a teenager still have the same identity as I as a middle aged
man. I am the same conscious being, I only wish I still had the body of the
eighteen year old I once was. John Locke was also a great educationalist and
his ideas and methods of teaching youngsters with an emphasis on training in
wisdom and virtue rather than on information as the main object of education is
still considered ‘modern’ today.

What Locke wrote:

6. The identity of man.

This also shows wherein the identity
of the same man consists; viz. in nothing but a participation of the same
continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession
vitally united to the same organized body. He that shall place the identity of
man in anything else, but, like that of other animals, in one fitly organized
body, taken in any one instant, and from thence continued, under one
organization of life, in several successively fleeting particles of matter
united to it, will find it hard to make an embryo, one of years, mad and sober,
the same man, by any supposition, that will not make it possible for Seth,
Ismael, Socrates, Pilate, St. Austin, and Caesar Borgia, to be the same man.
For if the identity of soul alone makes the same man; and there be nothing in
the nature of matter why the same individual spirit may not be united to
different bodies, it will be possible that those men, living in distant ages,
and of different tempers, may have been the same man: which way of speaking
must be from a very strange use of the word man, applied to an idea out of
which body and shape are excluded. And that way of speaking would agree yet
worse with the notions of those philosophers who allow of transmigration, and
are of opinion that the souls of men may, for their miscarriages, be detruded
into the bodies of beasts, as fit habitations, with organs suited to the
satisfaction of their brutal inclinations. But yet I think nobody, could he be
sure that the soul of Heliogabalus were in one of his hogs, would yet say that
hog were a man or Heliogabalus.

9. Personal identity.

This being premised, to find wherein personal identity consists, we must
consider what person stands for;- which, I think, is a thinking intelligent
being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the
same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that
consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me,
essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving
that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will
anything, we know that we do so. Thus it is always as to our present sensations
and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self:-
it not being considered, in this case, whether the same self be continued in
the same or divers substances. For, since consciousness always accompanies
thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and
thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone
consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far
as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought,
so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was
then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it,
that that action was done.

11. Personal identity in change of substance.

That this is so, we have some kind of evidence in our
very bodies, all whose particles, whilst vitally united to this same thinking
conscious self, so that we feel when they are touched, and are affected by, and
conscious of good or harm that happens to them, as a part of ourselves; i.e. of
our thinking conscious self. Thus, the limbs of his body are to every one a
part of Himself; he sympathizes and is concerned for them. Cut off a hand, and
thereby separate it from that consciousness he had of its heat, cold, and other
affections, and it is then no longer a part of that which is himself, any more
than the remotest part of matter. Thus, we see the substance whereof personal
self consisted at one time may be varied at another, without the change of
personal identity; there being no question about the same person, though the
limbs which but now were a part of it, be cut off. [xii]

Figure 6 John Locke (1632 - 1704)

Figure 6 John Locke (1632 – 1704)

Identity Theory of Mind

Identity Theory of Mind is a theory in philosophy dating
back to the 17th century, which pretty much claims that mental
events are identical to the physical events in the brain with which they are
correlated. The theory further developed in the 1950s and is associated with
such philosophers as J.J.C. Smart[xiii],
U.T. Place[xiv]
and Herbert Feigl[xv].
These and later identity theorists were especially influenced by new research
into brain functions, enabled by technological advances in brain scanners
(computerised tomography and magnetic resonance imaging for example) that
suggested that different parts of the brain seemed to be associated with
different feelings.

Give two people a simple pain stimulus and the same parts of
their brain light up on the scanning equipment. Initially a great discovery
maybe, but soon there proved to be a problem with this theory as it was tested
on more complex stimuli. If you take the simple example of showing a card of a
red bus to two people: To the first it may bring back unhappy memories because
once he was annoyed about missing a bus for an important meeting, while to
another person the image of a red bus may bring back a pleasant memory from a
holiday trip to London.

So the Identity Theory of mind was further refined into sub
schools of Type-Type, Type-Token and Token-Token theory to answer some of the
criticisms. Type Identity Theory maintains that there is a correlation between
certain types of brain states and certain types of mental states only. So what
else is going on? Token Identity Theory holds that mental states and brain
states are in fact the same, but no individual state is the same as the next:
They are all individually unique. This accounted for the fact that after some
neurological damage in the brain in rare cases other parts of the brain could take
over that function. This theory developed further into functionalism as
represented by Hillary Putnam in 1967 when he wrote He writes: “I propose
the hypothesis that pain, or the state of being in pain, is a functional state
of a whole organism.”[xvi]
Functionalism compares the brain more to a modern electronic computer. A pocket
calculator and a PC spreadsheet internally use very different stored programs
to come to the conclusion that 2 + 2 = 4. Nobody worries anymore how they
arrive at the result.

What Hillary Putnam wrote:

“I shall assume the notion of a Probabilistic Automaton
has been generalized to allow for “sensory inputs,” and “motor
outputs”–that is, the Machine Table specifies, for every possible
combination of a “state” and a complete set of “sensory
inputs,” an “instruction” which determines the probability of
the next “state,” and also the probabilities of the “motor
outputs.” (This replaces the idea of the Machine as printing on a tape.) I
shall also assume that the physical realization of the sense organs responsible
for the various inputs, and of the motor organs, is specified, but that the
“states” and the “inputs” themselves are, as usual,
specified only “implicitly”–i.e., by the set of transition
probabilities given by the Machine Table…..”

I once heard a very interesting thesis brought forward by
Arie de Geus[xviii],
the author of ‘The living company’. He suggested that somewhere along the
evolution path between animals and humans, man acquired the ability for permanent
storage and retrieval of his experiences of ‘escaping attack’ or ‘foraging for food’
in such a way that during his periods of inactivity (rest or sleep), the human
brain would continue to process these images over and over again but always
using slightly different scenarios evaluating the success of different possible
outcomes. So imagine if you will a caveman having survived a confrontation with
a sabre tiger and having dreamt and re-dreamt his lucky escape in hundreds of
different circumstances. The next time Cave Man meets Sabre Tiger, he
instinctively knows what to do, because he has evaluated over and over again in
his dreams that the best thing to do if he is near a tree, is to climb in it or
If there is no tree nearby to run like hell. Now picture the alternative of an image
of rabbit frozen in a car’s head lights and you see what a tremendous
evolutionary advantage this ability for contingency planning gave to the human

According to De Geus, Swedish Research of MRI scans of the
human brain while dreaming provided real evidence that such repeating brain
patterns are indeed happening when we are dreaming. Naturally each external
stimulus and each ‘Dream of a stimulus’ produces a slightly different pattern
on the MRI scanner, because no person has had exactly the same experiences in
life, or has had the same number of dreams about them. So maybe that’s what
gives us humans each our unique identity? We just have to consider the number
of different possible moves after a number of standard openings in a chess game
to intuitively know this could be true. The hypothesis put forward by De Geus
therefore fits perfectly in the Token-Token variety of the theory of mind.

So is our consciousness and Identity just a reflection of
billions of neurons firing away in our skull or is it separate from it in a way
that there is at least a chance that we may continue our conscious life in the

Identity Theories in popular culture

Putnam also raised a point that there was no reason to
suppose that somewhere in the universe, maybe on a different planet, there might
be a different life-form capable of being in the same mental states as human
beings (e.g. capable of feeling pain) without being in the same physical-chemical
brain state ( e.g. one that correlates with pain in mammals). Take that thought
one step further and why wouldn’t these aliens have a sapient soul as well? Sci-Fi
writer Piers Anthony in his 1978 Cluster trilogy imagined just that. He
introduces us to the concept of ‘kirlian aura’, a life force present in all
creatures but stronger in humans than other mammals and like IQ in geniuses in
some humans exceptionally strong where others have a weak aura. In his book
Kirlian Quest the hero figure ‘Herald the Healer’ has such a strong aura that
he can let his personality (or his identity if you will) jump to another person
and straighten them out. Somewhere in the history of this future world the
inhabitants of sphere Sol have worked out that intelligent beings from other
planets have this ability also and can use it for interplanetary travel. They would
use a receptive body on earth with a low kirlian aura to become temporary host
to these envoys from remote worlds. It offers a whole new explanation for the phenomena
of split personalities and possession. The witches we burned at the stake in
the middle ages might have been ambassadors from another galaxy! The amazing
thing about this theory is that Piers Anthony in one swoop has come up with an
answer for the restrictions of travelling at light speed brought up by Einstein
and has overcome the practical difficulties of how we would communicate with
aliens without needing advanced computers translating speech instantaneously
etc. The mind taking over the alien host body naturally falls into local mode
of communication. When Herald does his own spot of space travelling using
Kirlian Aura transfer, he ends up on a watery planet where whale and dolphin-like
creatures communicate using sonar waves and another time ends up on ‘Disc
world’ where he merrily rolls around the plains of that planet on a set of
wheels spinning his little communication disc.

What Piers Anthony wrote:

‘We have ascertained that this person is an alien
creature occupying a human body.’ The minister of Alien spheres said formally.
‘His Kirlian field is extremely intense, on the order of eighty times human
normal and its pattern is unlike anything we have on record. We believe he is
what he claims to be: an envoy of a non-Sol sphere.’

The ministers of the imperial Earth Council
contemplated the subject. There was little to distinguish the alien. He was
male, of normal height, about thirty years old, in good health. There were no
telltale emanations from his eyes, extraordinary nuances of expression, or any
visible aura. He was just an ordinary man – with a bright tattoo on his right

That tattoo was the mark of a recipient body:
mindless, empty, without personality. Even without the Kirlian verification,
the intelligent animation of his body was highly significant. Only a freak
accident could have done it- or alien possession. For there was no known way to
forge a Kirlian imprint, and Sol lacked the technology to transfer identity
from one body to another.

In the TV series ‘Star Trek’ the Enterprise’s chief engineer
(Beam me up Scotty) famously refused to use the space ship’s Teletransporter
himself. He was afraid that when you were beamed down to the surface of some
planet from starship Enterprise, it might leave behind something crucial: Your
Identity! The same theme re-appears In the 1986 film ‘The fly’ where a
brilliant scientist has invented “Telepods” similar to those used in
Star Trek. Something goes horribly wrong, when the main character uses himself
as a guinea-pig in a matter transmission experiment and his genes are fused
with an ordinary fly that was trapped with him in the Telepod. Seth, now finds
himself slowly transforming into a terrifying mutant creature half human half
fly. In the Matrix trilogy of films (a version of Putnam’s ‘Brain in the Vat’
thought experiment) directors the Wachowski Brothers take separation of mind
and body to yet a different level leaving the audience imagining that given
enough computing power we could all end up being character players in a
gigantic computer simulation.

Conclusion and summary Chapter 1

When talking about identity Management in Information and
communication Technology, what are the problems we are trying to solve and how
could philosophy possibly help?

In ICT we are interested in the general issue of the
identity of things (including human beings in so far as they are things
existing in a world of things). We want to uniquely identify them so that in
some circumstances we can positively say that two things are the same, or are
different attributes of the same thing, while in other circumstances we want to
know for certain that two things are different even though some of their attributes
may be the same. We do this usually as a prelude to determining a ‘membership’ or
a ‘rights’ issue: Does this person have access to a certain application? Does
this data belong to a certain class of data? We are also increasingly
concerned about ethical issues relating to privacy and the unauthorised joining
of data collected for different purposes.

Philosophers have been thinking about identity and debating identity
principles, logic and ethics among peers for much longer than IT architects. I
think we as IT professionals have much to learn from philosophers and I would
like to think philosophers would welcome the opportunity of collaborating and
contributing to the project that is becoming to be known as building ‘the
Identity Meta System’ (See next chapter). When we start our discussions with
philosophers about ‘identity’ it will be useful to clarify our terminology
right from the start, as half the time philosophers have something entirely
different in mind when they speak about Identity. Sometimes they speak about the
most ultimate questions of our existence: who are we, and is there a life after
death? Other times they speak about identity as one thing being exactly the
same as another thing and use complex logic to prove a simple point. In general
philosophers will think more about the ‘sameness’ of things, while IT
professionals are concerned mainly about ‘differences’ in Identity.

I think IT’s obsession with pin pointing unique differences
between identities, stems from the birth age of computers when Random Access
Memory (RAM) was prohibitively expensive. IT practitioners from the ‘old
school’ like me have been educated during a time when ‘computer memory’ was scarce.
This encouraged us to write code that was sparse and efficient, rather than
logical and well laid out. ‘Data redundancy’ (another word for ‘sameness’) was
a dirty word. This type of thinking led us in the sixties and seventies to
leave out the ‘19’ in 1953, my birth year, thinking that our code would never
survive till the end of the century anyway and thus creating the ‘millennium
bug’. When designing the identity Meta System of the future, we should be wary
not to make similar mistakes because of false perceptions of what is important.
Philosophers might help keep our eyes on the ball.

When we get to popular culture we see that Sci-Fi writers
and film directors often have the ability to think even further outside the box
on Identity than philosophers. In films like ‘Face Off’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The
Fly’ and many others they jolt our firmly held believes on identity out of
kilter in a more dramatic way than philosophers ever will.

The problem we have is that while only a Turing type of test
with many interwoven psychological and knowledge questions may lead us to truly
discover a person’s or thing’s identity, in ICT we just don’t have the time or
reason for this deep analytical philosophical probing every time we need to
establish a person’s identity. We need irrefutable proof, preferably in
milliseconds, without compromising security that the user has the identifying
attributes to give him/her certain access rights.

Computer security experts have long advocated a three
pronged approach in establishing a person’s identity: They recommend verifying something
you are, something you know plus something you have.”

‘Something you are’ can be verified by Biometrics,
like a finger print reader or an iris scanner. Face recognition is something
the philosophers already warned against as the way we look is a constantly
changing property and this is borne out by well documented[xx] failures of such systems tested by
police and airport security. Popular films like ‘Minority report’ have illustrated
in graphic detail, the theoretical vulnerability of other biometrics: Fingers
can be removed and moments later used to gain access to a building and even entire
eye balls replaced in the mind of Hollywood script writers at least.

‘Something you know’ (actually lots of things) would
seem to be the safest bet for identifying Human beings. Some banks already use
variants of this called ‘secret phrases’. Time constraints probably would mean
this can only thoroughly be done during an initial enrolment procedure. It is
not practical to do this every time an identity needs to be verified on line or
entering a building.

The ‘something you have’ may well turn out to be some
form of digital representation of ourselves often referred to as a ‘Token’. Digital
Identity and tokens thereof will be the subject of the second chapter.

References chapter 1

Translated by Benjamin Jowett New York, C. Scribner’s Sons [1871]

Full text available on: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/parmeni.htm

Metaphysics By Aristotle Written 350 B.C.E Translated by W. D. Ross http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/mirror/classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.6.vi.html

Samuel Clarke (1675 – 1729) was an English philosopher firmly on the side of Newton
in his quarrels with Leibniz re the development of calculus.

Bertrand Russell page 458-459 History of Western Philosophy first published
1946. Reprinted 1993 by Routledge London.

Translation by Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra as published in Australasian Journal
of Philosophy, vol. 77, December 1999, pp. 429-438.

Note on the text: This document was originally downloaded from Leibniz
. The format was subsequently modified by Carl Mickelsen,
“Contents” and bookmarks added, and minor corrections made. The
translation is by Dr. George R. Montgomery and was first published in Leibniz
by the Open Court Publishing Company in 1902.

Smart, J. J. C. 1959. ‘Sensations and Brain Processes.’ The Philosophical
68: 141-156.

Place, U.T., Identity Theories in A Field Guide to the Philosophy of Mind.
Società italiana per la filosofia analitica. Marco Nanni (ed.).

(1967). “The ‘Mental’ and the ‘Physical’.” The Essay and a
Postscript. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Putnam, Hilary. 1967. The nature of mental states. In The Nature of Mind,
edited by Rosenthal, pp. 197-203

Arie de Geus The Living Company,(London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1997

Piers Anthony’s Cluster Series: Volume I, Vicinity Cluster 1979 Panther books
ISBN 0 586 04837 5

According to data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
following a request under Florida’s open-records laws

See http://www.aclu.org/privacy/spying/15129prs20020514.html


About lasancmt

Passionate about Identity Management
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