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Melissa R.
Bi-lingual entrepreneur and Oxford grad who is passionate about learning
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Philosophy
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Question:

What does personal identity consist of?

Melissa R.
Answer:

The problem of personal identity is wrapped up in a number of secondary issues: the tenability of mind-body dualism, our understanding of time, a particular definition of sameness, and what we believe to be the inextricable ‘essence’ of any one thing. A reasonable account of personal identity needs to answer to these different conundrums and assess their individual impact on the definition of the self. Since identity appears to be a special problem of change, I will address how much a specific entity can be altered and if it can lose its essence through change (if such a thing exists for humans). Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, I will address change as it relates to a particular time interval. First, Leibniz’s Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles will be discussed, followed by Locke’s theorems on personal identity. After addressing the revisionism invoked by these two philosophers, I will move on to Snowdon’s invocation of animalist theory and show its implications on William’s claims on the future self. Supported by the insurmountable problems to identity expounded by these philosophers, I will show that our previous attempts at defining personal identity have been far more nuanced than identity requires and that personal identity is an extremely tenuous concept that requires only a look at the self in the present. Let us begin with Leibniz’s foundational work on identity. Because coherence of a theorem to his principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles is an indicator of success for many personal identity theorists, it is important to understand exactly what his principle suggests. Leibniz argues that a thing may be identical to exactly one thing at any given time, that is, itself. No item can be said to be identical to two things, for it is nonsense to argue A could be identical to a separate item B, in the same way, that identical twins are not actually the same people. This introduces the particular problem of personal identity, or indeed identity of any object that ever changes. Genuine identicals cannot change and contiguously remain identical to what they were previously. In this way, Leibniz calls into question our most basic assumptions of the persistence of identity because his principle declaims the notion that I am who I was at age 5, or even who I was 5 minutes ago. Perhaps Leibniz’s principle suggests that the only way to proceed with personal identity is to adopt some kind of mereological essentialism; that the self-relies on all of its parts and the moment anything changes, the identity of the self is necessarily discernible from its previous state. An essentialist of this kind argues that once an object or person undergoes any change, it ceases to exist in its previous state. This would imply that I am only myself₁ in a singular instant. I will return to this concept later because I think it holds the key to this debate. But many are not satisfied with complete denial of any persistence of personal identity, and in order to overcome this problem of change, philosophers have denied this stringently necessitarian argument and searched elsewhere for signs of the self that transcend change. Many philosophers have tried to identify a certain integral piece of the self, perhaps figuring that if we could find the self-encapsulated in one separable substance, we would have a definitional necessity for personal identity that could be looked for across time intervals. Locke illustrated this logic when he mused that “upon separation of this little finger, should the consciousness go along with the little finger and leave the rest of the body, ‘tis evident the little finger would be the Person.”[1] Some assert that the mind is the center of our identity, but this seems problematic for many reasons. The dualist problem, too intricate to expand on fully here, cannot accurately describe personhood for the following reasons. First, if we take a reductionist approach to dualism, the mind in almost all cases seems to be simply a derivative of the body, and so a singular pure mind-predicate is nearly impossible. Second, asserting the separation of the mind from the body is an error of categorization; that is, it makes an absurd distinction that casts the mind into an elusive and insubstantial role. Thirdly, it would be impossible to assert the numerical identity of a singular mind without referencing the singular body in which it is said to operate. Lastly, the medical-physical definition of the brain demonstrates the inextricable correlation between the physical manifestation of the mind and the concept of an abstract mind. If then, we are convinced of the possibility of identifying the self in a particular part of a person, it must not be in the separation of mind from body, but in a separate concept or not at all. Locke understood these difficulties of mind and body dualism and subsequently conceptualized identity as consciousness. In denying a soul-substance, he made a progressive proposition that our identity exists not in the mind or body, but in the constant identification of ourselves. Locke first makes an important distinction between the identity of plants and animals contrasted with the identity of humans. For the former set, he writes that its “fit organization or construction of parts to a certain end”[2] matter, but not mentality, while for the latter, solely consciousness matters. When addressing personal identity, Locke declaims the notion that identity can have anything to do with a “fitly organized body” (6) and so concludes “it is not, therefore, the unity of substance that comprehends…identity.” (7) We must then wonder what Locke’s definition of the consciousness consists in and if it is just not another word for the unsound conception of a mental substance. Indeed Locke’s view of the self-does not seem to be wrapped up in dualism, but in placing a very weighty reliance on memory; for he writes that a man’s personality “extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness… whereby it owns and imputes itself to past actions” (26). He concludes that the continuous state of being able to remember past perceptions grants us the ability to be in the contiguous consciousness of our identity. But this is problematic because it implies that in times when memory fails – in a bad case of amnesia, with the elderly and Alzheimer’s – our identity is lost. Or even in sleep, when we cannot be conscious of ourselves in any significant way, (for we certainly know that we are often led to believe in completely different self-identities in dream worlds) does Locke then conclude that for eight hours a day our identities cease to exist? Locke makes a bold claim on consciousness though, but the problems of his laying claims to memory and separation of human from the animal will be discussed below. P.F. Snowdon in his essay “Persons, Animals, and Ourselves” challenges Locke’s notion that the tenets of human identity are of a distinctly different nature from those of animal identity. In questioning Locke’s claim, he effectively challenges Locke’s reasoning for asserting the necessary and sufficient identity of a person embodied in the consciousness. Snowdon testifies to the fact that humans are animals of the species Homo sapiens which has certain “distinctive criteria of identity.”[3] He constructs a certain antimony within his reasoning, applying justifications to both the affirmation and denial of this claim, though concludes that the animalist argument is more convincing because it reveals our tenuous justifications for preferring the mental, and not animalistic (by Lockean standards of identity), standards of selfhood. This then leads us to Bernard Williams article ‘The Self and the Future,’ that discusses and contends the preference of the brain in the brain transplant thought experiment. This common thought experiment, which involves asking A and B to decide which body, after the two have swapped brains, they would like to have tortured and to which body they would like to give a reward. While most will identify themselves as the body now containing their brain, (so A will choose the reward for the B-body, while B will choose the reward for the A-body) Williams questions if this is a valid distinction to make. This harkens back to Snowdon’s support of the animalist argument. In order to prove his point, Williams breaks down the transition of a brain transplant into six steps, arguing that from steps one to five,[4] A would still identify with the future A-body person. In the last step, when A and B swap brains, the only thing that has changed in the scenario from the previous step (v.) is that A’s memories now have an outlet. But if A was previously willing to identify herself as the future A-body person, (notably by being able to fear pain to it in the future) why should this new outlet for A’s memories erase A’s identification with the A-body person of step five? Surely, this would stretch A’s concern over both the A-body and the B-body person in step six and A would not be able to rightly choose who should receive the torture and who the reward in this situation. Williams effectively illustrates the fault in our initial reaction to immediately identify ourselves with the body in which our consciousness seems to reside, but he does not provide an answer as to where to look for our identity. Williams’ thought experiment presents us with the last conflicting piece of personal identity rhetoric. The problem with Williams’ thought experiment is that it does not show us that A should always identify with the future A-body person, but that A seems to choose to identify with the best option in any given scenario. Indeed, A might not openly embrace and accept its identity after it has been erased of all memory and imbued with new illusory memories. If anything, this seems allegorical to how identity generally is. That is: we often just identify with the best option for ourselves despite the inconstancy and ever-changing nature of the self. Obviously, for reasons of pragmatism, we can identify the collection of cells that I was at age 5 with the same person I am today, though I don’t have a single cell of that person I was long ago. But to appeal to the common usage of identity proves only how insubstantial our reasons are for identifying our present selves with an instant in the past. If we take Leibniz’s principle seriously, which I think we must, then we cannot definitionally be the same from any instant to another. Surely, the one thing we can accept is that we are identical unto ourselves in any given instant of the present moment. Some argue that if we accept this presentist proposition, the present seems to shrink evanescently into the past. This assertion is faulty though because the present does not exist as a time interval like the past does, so the instant of the present must be of a distinctly different nature from past intervals of time. Moreover, it seems unnecessary and flawed to appeal to something like consciousness or mind that might transcend temporal change, for certainly in doing this we are just identifying with the best option of self when in the present instance we know a perfectly and flawlessly identifiable self.

Political Science
TutorMe
Question:

Are democratic transitions in Latin America better explained by international or domestic factors?

Melissa R.
Answer:

For the past two centuries, history has witnessed democratization and re-democratization in Latin America; what seems to be constant struggle across the region to reach stable, consolidated, and liberal democracies. The objective is still not fully in sight, however examining the factors which have influenced transitions can help explain the quality of Latin American democracies today and help predict the prospects of stability that existing regimes have. In the past two years, we have begun to witness transitions in the Middle East that bear striking similarities to those that occurred in Latin America in the 1970s. This gives us a good platform to compare domestic and international factors in explaining transitions: the moment that the regime actually changes. How powerful are these factors? How do they affect the future quality of democracy? I will begin the essay by defining our key term and follow by explaining domestic and international factors separately. I will relate these factors to their “textbook” examples and counter-examples, i.e. those cases which are the clearest and attempt to compare the region to the Middle East throughout. The first thing that we should be concerned with is defining what we mean by “democratic transition”. The process of a country going from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime, i.e. democratization, consists of three different stages. The first is transformation: the preparing of the ground for democracy under the old authoritarian regime by changing civil society. This involves the crucial components of mass mobilization, the gradual liberation of the economy and sometimes the extending of certain rights to citizens. In this way the necessary conditions for the second stage, transition, to occur are created. Foweraker describes transition as the moment that an old regime is replaced with a new one or the instant that authority is transferred from one power to another. In Latin American cases, this often involves a controlled handover from the old regime to the new, in contrast with for example cases of democratization by “conquests” that we can identify in Europe. The third stage and the final objective of democratization is consolidation: where democracy is engrained into political and civic life and thus all political actors take for granted that democracy is the only way to obtain governmental power. The domestic factors involved in democratic transition can be summarized as follows: economy and resources, previous regimes, education and culture, and the dominant classes. There is an observed correlation between higher GDP per capita and democracy: this may suggest that wealth may help a country transit into democracy or even consolidate. This is compatible with modernization theory, which explains the tendency for rich countries to become democratic and poor countries to stay in authoritarian regimes. However when a country’s wealth is tied to natural resources, as is the case for some Latin American countries, scholars have thought that wealth is a factor that can discourage transitions into democracy rather than fuel them as states can keep citizens happy by taxing very little (if at all) and subsidizing public goods. This means that the traditional “contracts” that are formed in democratization are interrupted. Citizens are less likely to speak in the language of rights and demand political freedom and participation if they have not first been asked to pay for public services. So if this is the case, why have Latin American countries enjoyed a higher quality of democracy and a better transition to democracy than other countries with similar characteristics in terms of economic development? Some scholars such as Michael Coppedge have drawn the comparison between Mexico and Egypt: much like Egypt under Mubarak, Mexico was ruled by an authoritarian regime up until 2000 and shared comparable levels of academic freedom and levels of corruption. However, in other indicators of democracy (civil liberties and free and fair elections), Mexico has consistently scored higher than Egypt. This difference can help us highlight other domestic factors that carry much weight; starting with the history of the region of democracy; Valenzuela argues that democratizing countries can be placed along a spectrum according to the extent to which they have had democratic experiences in the past. At one extreme are countries that have never had democracy and at the other extreme those with longstanding democracies that have failed. The closer a country is to the latter end of the spectrum, the easier the transition to democracy. This can be explained because the organizational and institutional infrastructure already exists, and the public is already culturally prepared for the fundamental concept of democracy is the only proper basis for governmental legitimacy. In Latin America, a case of a long-established regime that failed is the case of Chile; the democratic legacy of the past caused the authoritarian military regime to lose the plebiscites necessary to legitimate their rule, resulting in their re-democratization. By contrast, Arab countries in the Middle East have had low levels of democratic experience and their legitimacy has rarely rested on democratic principles. This takes us back to the question of political culture and the role that actors such as the church and the dominant classes played. Hispanic Catholicism, although an important influence, has clearly evolved around and within different political paradigms. Throughout the 19th century, the Church was hostile to democracy and was part of important conflicts in the intense liberal/conservative divides in countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Colombia. However, in the 20th century, the Church evolved into a champion for democracy and for human rights (with the exceptions of Argentina and Guatemala, where the Church was still wedded to authoritarian states). This is an interesting contrast to these countries’ motherland, Spain, and Franco’s relationship with the Catholic Church. Such examples can reasonably imply that the Church is a very flexible actor and adapts to survive within the country and maintain its power in the most convenient way according to the circumstances. Another actor, or actors, that domestically influence the moment of transition is the elite- the dominant classes. In Latin America, the elites have often led and acted transitions into new regimes, and in those countries where this has blatantly been the case (Venezuela’s “Punto Fijismo”, Colombia’s “Frente Nacional”) democracy has been less likely to collapse, but also more restrictive in its policies. Social and economic inequality deepened, until recently. Under Chavez’s rule, inequality has decreased in Venezuela, funded by the increase in oil prices. This allows Chavez a huge populist support amongst the poor that can ignore the huge increase in crime rates and the collapse of the independence that democratic institutions should hold. In other countries, the elite did not have such an obvious role, but together with the military, gradually ceded to the demands of the middle and working classes, who in their growth and expansions increasingly demanded more civic freedom and rights. This brings us back to our first factor, the economy and modernization, illustrating that rather than separate forces these were all a combined set of conditions, the variations of which are evident in that Latin American nations have had varying democratization processes. As for international factors, it is widely accepted changes in political regimes cannot only be explained by what happens within countries. Evidence shows that countries tend to become or remain like their neighbors (whether democratic or authoritarian). Scott Mainwaring argues with statistical analysis that regional political factors are a powerful explanatory factor in the rise and fall of regimes, more so than global political factors, although US Foreign Policy also played a role. US influence has been deeply felt both in support of authoritarian regimes and in the promotion of transitions to democracy. At one extreme, the United States sponsored authoritarian regimes, often fighting to keep them in power such as in the 1954 Guatemalan coup. During the cold war, the “export of democracy” was dimmed, yet there was a sharp turn under Jimmy Carter’s presidency where the US began to push for a number of transitions, such as in El Salvador, pushing for competitive elections in 1982. However, their role was more indirect in countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, for example by disseminating national security ideology in the 1960s and by supporting democracy after transitions in 1983 and 85 respectively. There’s also the influence of international parties and organizations. After the late 1970s, the decline of revolutionary socialists movements in the region was an important factor for avoiding transitions to socialist dictatorships. The Organization of American States also became an important factor in preventing overt coups from the 1980s onwards. In 1993 it helped avoid a democratic breakdown in Guatemala and in 1996 it helped prevent the breakdown of democracy in Paraguay. The international political environment transformed from being mostly hostile to democratization from 1948 to the late 1950s, to being encouraging by 1990. Interestingly, international factors probably played a bigger role in the recent Middle Eastern transitions. Technology and social media have allowed international communication to be much simpler, accessible and faster today than it was 30 years ago, and as democracy increasingly becomes the accepted best form of government, pressure increases on authoritarian governments to begin transformation and transition. In fact, social media was fundamental to the recent Arab Spring. US foreign policy, on one hand, joined NATO’s campaign to oust Gaddafi and on the other failed to pressure allies Bahrain and Yemen, seemingly favoring stability over democratization. In conclusion, democratic transitions are better explained by domestic factors than by international factors, although the latter can provoke the going over a tipping point if the former conditions are favorable. Theory of modernization explains transition sufficiently well by explaining the effects of economic growth on the middle and working classes and the pressure that these in turn place on elites for a transition into democracy. When this chain of dominos isn’t perfectly aligned, international pressure and intervention can either finalize transition or completely hinder it.

Entrepreneurship
TutorMe
Question:

How do you know if you have a good business idea?

Melissa R.
Answer:

A good business idea is an idea that can be executed well and will be received well in the market. To know if it will perform well in the market, we first need to ask ourselves if the product or service solves a problem. A good business idea needs to make sense logically and in principle - the foundation of this is that it must create value for its potential customers. Secondly, are you passionate enough about it to execute well? Running a business is difficult, and the entrepreneur will no doubt run into challenges. They must be prepared for this, and have a bigger driving force to motivate them through tough times. If the answers to both of these questions are yes, then the entrepreneur should run real market tests. Making a landing page explaining the product or service and it's benefits and sending it out to the target market via advertising (with a small budget) or to existing contacts, and seeing the sales conversion rate, is the best way. Market tests, if done right, can validate an idea and produce your first customers without fully committing to large investments or productions.

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