What the pandemic tells us about personal identity

Kieran Setiya writes in The New Statesman: "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?" 

Kieran Setiya, Professor of Philosophy; photo by Jon Sachs, MIT SHASS Communications

"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."

— Kieran Setiya, MIT Professor of Philosophy

Research and Perspectives for the Pandemic
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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." 

Full commentary at The New Statesman


Suggested links

Kieran Setiya's MIT webpage

MIT Philosophy

Book: Midlife: A Philosophical Guide