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Imperfect Identity

Author(s): Eric T. Olson


Source: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 106 (2006), pp. 249-266
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The Aristotelian Society
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X*4IMPERFECT IDENTITY

by EricT. Olson
Questionsof identity
overtimeare oftenhardto answer.A long
traditionhas it thatsuch.questionsare somehowsoft:theyhave no unique,
determinateanswer,and disagreementsabout themare merelyverbal. I
argue thatthisclaim is not thetruismit is takento be. Dependingon how
it is understood,it turnsout eitherto be false or to presupposea highly
contentiousmetaphysicalclaim.

ABSTRACT

hat grassis green,thatpigsdon'tfly,and thatyou are

now awake are all hardfacts.But thereis oftensaid to be


somethingsoftabout mattersof identityover time.Is today's
villagechurchtheverychurchthatwas firstbuilthere,despite
centuriesof repairsand alterations?How manyparts of my
bicycledo I need to replacebeforeI geta numerically
different
bike?If a club disbandsand yearslatersome of the original
membersstarta similarclub withthe same name, have we
got two clubs,or one club witha discontinuous
It is
history?
tempting
to saythatthereareno hardanswersto thesequestions
laid up in heaven.Thereis no determinate
factof the matter.
Those who disagreeabout suchthingsare arguingaboutwords,
not facts.We are freeto say whatwe like.
Two hundredyearsago Reid expressedthisthoughtbysaying
thatidentity
overtimecan be 'imperfect':
The identityof objectsof senseis neverperfect.... The identity
whichwe ascribe to bodies, whethernaturalor artificial,
is not
it is rathersomethingwhich,fortheconveniency
perfectidentity;
of speech,we call identity.It admits of a greatchange of the
subject,providingthe changes be gradual; sometimes,even of
total change. And the changes whichin common language are
made consistentwithidentitydiffer
fromthosethatare thought
to destroyit, not in kind,but in numberand degree.It has no
fixednaturewhen applied to bodies; and questions about the
oftheAristotelian
*Meeting
heldin Stewart
Society,
House,University
ofLondon,

on Monday, 20 March,2006 at 4.15 p.m.

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ERIC T. OLSON

250

identity
of a bodyareveryoftenquestionsaboutwords.(1785,
p. 112)

Reid was not the firstto have thisidea, but I will adopt his
as a nameforit.
phrase'imperfect
identity'
Whetherthereare cases where identityover time is not
like this, but is fullydeterminateand robustlyfactual,is
A long traditionhas it thatour own identity
is
controversial.
Reid said,'The identity
of a personis a perfect
perfect:
identity:
it is real,it admitsof no degrees;it is impossiblethat
wherever
a personshouldbe in partthesame,and in partdifferent'
(ibid.,
p. 111).

Philosophers
nowadaysaremoreinclinedto say(as Humedid)
thatour own identity
is no moreperfectthanthatof anything
else. But theclaimthatthe identity
overtimeof at least some
thingsin somecircumstances
is imperfect-callit theimperfectthesis appears to be widelyregardedas a truism.It
identity
is assertedwithoutargument
as if it wereobvious.Everyoneis
supposedto agree.
I findthenotionofimperfect
identity
Hereis what
mysterious.
I will argue.First,it is hard to see how the imperfect-identity
thesiscould be true.If it is a claim about numericalidentity,
anyway,it faces grave objections.Though theremay appear
to be ways of defendingthe thesisagainst these objections,
these defencesdon't supportthe claim that identityitselfis
imperfect;
at mosttheysuggestthatsome otherrelation-one
that we sometimesexpressusingthe languageof identityis
imperfect.
Moreover,thesewaysof defending
imperfect
identity
all appeal to contentious
metaphysical
claims.So theviewthat
identityitselfis imperfect
looks false,and whethersomething
elsethatwe maylooselycall identity
is imperfect
is an interesting
question.No versionoftheimperfect-identity
thesisis a harmless
truism.
II
What does it mean to say thatidentity
overtimeis imperfect?
Thereare severalpossibilities.
Here are fiveof them.
One is that whetherthingsexistingat different
timesare
identicalcan be indeterminate.
Today's villagechurchmaynot

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IMPERFECT
IDENTITY

251

be the churchthat was built on the same site 600


definitely
yearsago, but it may not definitely
be a different
one either.
The currentchurchand the ancientchurchmightbe 'sort of
one and 'sortof two. Theymightbe borderline-identical,
just
as Florian, who has some hair on his head but not much,
No plausibleaccountof what sorts
mightbe borderline-bald.
of alterations
a churchcould survivewilleverbe preciseenough
to delivera definite
verdictin all possiblecases. Call thisthe
indeterminacy
thesis.A relatedclaim is thatidentity
over time
comesin degrees:thingscan be moreor less identical.Today's
churchmay be identicalwiththe villagechurchof 1750 to a
greaterdegreethanit is identicalwiththevillagechurchof 1500,
nor definite
noneven thoughthereis neitherdefinite
identity
in eithercase-just as Ali can be morebald thanFlorian
identity
bald.'
withoutbeingdefinitely
A secondclaimis thatquestionsofidentity
overtimemayhave
If
know
factsabouthow
answer.
we
all
the
no right
'underlying'
thestoneshave beenarrangedand rearranged,
whatthevarious
havesaid and done overtheages,and so
vicarsand worshippers
thesamechurch
on,we knowall thereis to knowaboutwhether
has persistedthroughout.
Thereis no further
factto be learned.
Ifthereweresucha fact,we couldneverdiscoverit.Butitis hard
is hiddenhere.Thereare no doubtgreat
to believethatanything
we
thatwillalwaysremainopaque to us, butwhether
mysteries
halfthestonesand thevicar
havethesamechurchafterreplacing
is surelynotone of them.Call thistheno-answer
thesis.2
A thirdclaimis thatquestionsof identity
overtimecan have
more than one rightanswer.We can say thattoday'schurch
is the originalchurch,and we can say thatit isn't,but rather
a newerchurchbuilt on the same site. Despite appearances,
both claims are equallycorrect,and describethe situationin
but compatibleways.Arguingabout whetherit's the
different
same churchor a different
one is like arguingabout whether
1. 'Survivalforinanimatethingsis a matterof degree.As we graduallyreplacebits
of the desk withnew bits,the resultingdesk is only more or less the same as the
originaldesk' (Swinburne1984,p. 17); see also Parfit1984,p. 213.
2. Swinburneagain: 'Are the two armies the same? Our criteriaof "same army"
give no definiteanswer-you can say that the armiesare the same or you can say
thattheyare different.
Thereis no rightanswer'(1974, p. 235). Parfitsays thatsuch
questionshave no answerand are therefore
'empty'(1984, p. 213).

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252

ERIC T. OLSON

thenumberof cows in thefieldis six or halfa dozen. Call this


the many-answersthesis.3

over
Then thereis the thoughtthatquestionsabout identity
timeare, as Reid put it, 'veryoftenquestionsabout words'.
They are verbalor semanticquestionsin the pejorativesense
of the term.They are not about whatis the case, but merely
about how best to describeit. Suppose we agree about the
distribution
of hair on Florian's head (and on otherheads,
if that is relevant)but disagreeabout whetherhe is bald. It
is hard to believethat this is a substantivedispute.We are
merelyquarrellingabout a word: about whetherthe stateof
Florian's head warrantsthe use of the term'bald'. Likewise,
if we know all the underlying
factsabout the arrangement
of
stones and the behaviourof worshippersover the centuries,
to ask whetherthe same churchhas persistedthroughoutis
not to ask about any further
fact,but onlyto ask whetherthe
facts
the
'samechurch'.Call this
underlying warrant description
theverbal-question
thesis(see,e.g.,Parfit1995,p. 25).
Finally,thereis theidea thatmattersofidentity
overtimeare
sometimes
matters
notfordiscovery
butfordecision.Ifwedecide
thattoday'sclub or bicycleor churchis thesameas yesterday's,
thenit is; if we decidethatit isn't,it's not. Or at least thisis
so in cases wheretheotherfactsleavethequestionopen: where
naturedrawsno boundaries,
we arefreeto drawthemourselves.
(Who 'we' are and whatwe have to do to decidesuchmatters
are up forgrabs.)Call thisthedecisionthesis.4
No friendof imperfect
identityis likelyto accept all five
of these claims. If nothingelse, the no-answerthesislooks
withthe many-answers
incompatible
thesis:a questioncan no
morehave both no answerand manyanswers,it seems,than
someonecan have both no childrenand manychildren.Still,
thosewhoholdone oftheclaimstendto holdmostoftheothers
3. Accordingto Parfit,claims like this 'do not describedifferent
possibilities,any
of whichmightbe true.These claims are merelydifferent
descriptionsof the same
outcome' (1984, p. 259).
4. Wigginssays that the identityof artefacts(but not thatof organismsor people)
'may be a matterof convention,or even caprice' (1976, p. 163). Accordingto Ayer,
numericalidentitycan be 'a matterfordecisionand not a questionof fact' (1964,
p. 127). See also Nozick 1981, p. 34. For criticismof the decisionthesissee Olson
1997 and Merricks2001.

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IMPERFECTIDENTITY

253

over
as well.Andtheyusuallytakethesamequestionsofidentity
in each of theseways:it isn'tthatsomeare
timeto be imperfect
indeterminate
and othersaremereverbalquestions,forinstance;
and theverbalstatusare supposedto
rather,theindeterminacy
be connected.The fiveclaimsare supposedto forma unified
syndrome.

III
What,then,are thesupposedgraveobjectionsto theimperfectidentity
thesis?
thesis.For one thing,it appears
Startwiththeindeterminacy
to conflictwithmostof the otherclaims.Those who say that
overtimehave no answer,or many
some questionsof identity
answers,typicallysay thatthisis so in just thosecases where
But if it is indeterminate
whether
identityis indeterminate.
certainthingsare identical,doesn'tthatanswerthequestionof
theiridentity?
definitely
Supposetoday'svillagechurchis neither
not the same.
the same as the ancientchurchnor definitely
itis thesamechurchhas an answer,
Thenthequestionofwhether
is nordefinitely
isn't:thepresent
definitely
namelythatitneither
churchand the ancientone are borderline-identical.
Not only
does thatanswerthe question,but it is the onlyrightanswer.
Anyotheranswerwillbe at mostpartlyright:ifwe saythatit is
thesamechurch,or thatit isn't,whatwe saywillhaveat besta
truth-value
intermediate
betweentruthand falsity.Compare:if
Florianis a borderline
case ofbaldness,thentheone trueanswer
to thequestionofwhether
he is bald is thathe is borderline-bald.
And if a questionhas a uniqueanswer,it can hardlyhave no
answer,or manyanswers.
Perhapsthosewho say thatquestionsof identityover time
answer.But
haveno answermeanonlythattheyhaveno definite
whatis a definite
answer?Not an answerthatis definitely
true,
foraccordingto theindeterminacy
thesistheclaimthattoday's
churchis borderline-identical
withtheancientchurchmaywell
be definitely
true.Maybe the no-answerthesismeansnothing
morethan thatthe answerto certainquestionsabout identity
overtimeis neitherdefinitely
yesnor definitely
no. That would
it
a
make
mererestatement
oftheindeterminacy
thesis.If thatis

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254

ERICT. OLSON

thesisare trying
of theno-answer
to say,theyhave
whatfriends
expressedthemselves
badly.
The indeterminacy
thesisalso sitsuneasilywiththe decision
churchare borderlinethesis.If today'schurchand yesterday's
ofourdecisionsaboutthe
and ifthisis so independent
identical,
matter,thenhow can it be up to us to decidewhether
theyare
If theyare borderline-identical
and we declarethemto
identical?
be identicalwe shall be at mosthalfright,and no amountof
decidingwillalterthatfact.On theotherhand,ifwe decidethat
thechurchesare thesame and our decidingreallydoes makeit
not
thesamenordefinitely
so, howcan theybe neither
definitely
thesame?

IV
Now considerthe indeterminacy
thesisapart fromits relation
to the otherclaims.It seemsto say thatidentity
itselfcan be
indeterminate
or vague:thatthereare pairsofobjects(ifwe can
one thingnordefinitely
call thempairs)thatareneither
definitely
two. Today's churchand thechurchthatstood here600 years
ago mightrelateto one anotherin a waythatliesbetweentheir
beingone thingand theirbeingtwothings.
Thisis a notoriously
contentious
claim.Indeed,thedominant
view is that it is incoherent.
There doesn't seem to be room
for a statusthat lies betweenbeingone thingand beingtwo
thingsin theway thatthereis a statusthatlies betweenbeing
bald and beingnon-bald.The usual argument
forthisis easily
summarized
(Evans 1978;Salmon 1981,pp. 243-5). Suppose it
is indefinite
whetherx is y. Then x has the propertyof being
identicalwithy. But y does not have the property
indefinitely
of beingindefinitely
identicalwithy. Thus, x has a property
thaty lacks,in whichcase x is not identicalwithy. And since
the argument's
premissesare all definitely
true(or would be if
vague identity
werepossible),the conclusionis also definitely
true:x and y are definitely
notidentical,
contrary
to theoriginal
In otherwords,thingsthatwereborderline-identical
supposition.
would definitely
differin some way, makingthemdefinitely
distinct;so thingscannotbe borderline-identical.
This argument
has beenchallenged(van Inwagen1988;Lowe
1998,Ch. 3). But it takesa good deal of ingenuity
to comeup

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IDENTITY
IMPERFECT

255

withan account of vague identitythat rendersthe argument


in its
unsound,and anysuchaccountis boundto be contentious
own right.
The claimthatidentity
can be indeterminate
is controversial
foranotherreasontoo: it contradicts
theattractive
viewthatthe
sourceofall vaguenessliesin language(Lewis 1986,pp. 212-13).
The statementthat Florian is bald, forinstance,would seem
to be neitherdefinitely
truenor definitely
falsesimplybecause
no one has botheredto give the predicate'bald' a meaning
preciseenoughto determine
in exactlywhichpossiblecases it
of
applies.The linguistic
theory vaguenesssaysthatall cases of
indeterminacy
owe to thefactthatwe haven'tmade our terms
entirely
precise.But thisseemsto implythatlogicalterms,such
as unrestricted
and theidentity
quantifiers
sign,cannotbe vague,
fortheyare alreadyas preciseas theycan be. Therearen'ta lot
of preciserelationsthatare candidatesforbeingthe intension
of theidentity
are
signin theway thatmanypreciseproperties
candidatesforbeingtheintension
of thepredicate'bald'.
I don't wantto defendthe linguistic
theoryof vaguenessor
ofidentity.
I wantonlyto pointout
challengetheindeterminacy
thattheindeterminacy
of identity
is no harmlesstruism.
Perhapsthosewho findit obviousthatstatements
of identity
overtimecan be indeterminate
don'tmeanto implythatidentity
itselfis indeterminate.
We will considersome of the things
theymightmeanin sectionssix and seven.But thosethingsare
no lesscontroversial
thanthevaguenessof identity.

V
Turn now to the decisionthesis:the idea that it is somehow
up to us to decide,at least in some cases, whethera thing
existingat one timeis identicalwitha thingexistingat another
time.If anything,this looks even more mysterious
than the
indeterminacy
thesis.It is hard to see how our decisions,by
could createfactsabout whichthingsare identical
themselves,
and whichare distinct.That sounds like magic. We can, of
factsin moremundaneways.We might
course,createidentity
be able to bringit about thattoday'schurchis identicalwith
thechurchthatstoodherecenturies
ago by gathering
up all the

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256

ERIC T. OLSON

originalstonesand layingthemjust as theywerelaid then.We


can certainly
bringit aboutthattoday'schurchis nottheancient
one by knockingdownthe stonechurchand puttingup a new
factsbyrollingup
one madeofplywood.We can createidentity
oursleevesand movingthingsabout.Butwe can'tdo itsimplyby
and speakingin a certainway.
makinga decision,or bythinking
Not onlycan you and I notdo this,butneither
can Parliament,
or the courts,or even the Queen. We can imaginethe Queen
saying,'We herebydeclarethechurchbeforeus now to be the
churchfirstbuilton thissite.'But thestoneswillnotlisten.The
ofthingsthan
Queen'swordhas no morepowerovertheidentity
it has overtheweather.
If you are not convinced,considerthis (Chisholm 1976,
p. 111). Suppose you are worriedabout a surgicaloperation
thatyouhaveto undergowithoutanaesthetic.
Now imaginethat
thatwhenthe operation
the Queen offersto declareofficially
takesplace, the one who suffers
the pain will not be you, but
someoneelse perhapssomeonenewlycreatedwho takesyour
place temporarily
and insensibly,
perhapssomeonewho already
existsand insensibly
swapsplaceswithyou. If theQueen'sword
is effective,
your attitudetowardsthe operationoughtto be
no different
fromyour attitudetowardsanyoneelse's painful
operation.Would her offerset your mind at ease? I don't
thinkso.
(You mightsuggestthatthe veryexistenceof certainthings
somehowconsists,at least in part,in our decisions.Not that
our decisionscause themto exist;rather,the relationbetween
our decisionsand theirexistenceis logical. Call such things
'conventionalconstructs':
politicaland social entitiesmightbe
examples.Whethersuch thingssurviveor perishmightthen
be a matterfor decision ratherthan discovery.I lack the
space to explorethisdark thoughthere.But I doubt whether
thinkthatonlyconventional
manyphilosophers
constructs
have
In anycase,thisclaimis at leastas contentious
imperfect
identity.
as thosediscussedin thenexttwo sections.)
It is hard to see how the decisionthesiscould be trueif it
meanswhatit seemsto mean,namelythatfactsabout identity
are answerableto our decisions.I suspectthatadvocatesof the
decisionthesismean somethingelse. I thinktheymean that
certainlinguistic
facts,about howit is rightto describethefacts

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IDENTITY
IMPERFECT

257

are up to us. If thisis not whattheymean,thenI


of identity,
them.
don'tunderstand
thesisis
facts?Well,supposethemany-answers
Whatlinguistic
conflicting
and seemingly
true:somehowtherearemanydifferent
answersto certainquestionsabout identityover time.Even
thoughtheseanswersmayall be true,notall willbe appropriate
in all contexts;and whichones are appropriatemay be up to
us. Here is a partialanalogy:supposeyou pointto an object
on my desk and ask, 'What is that?'I mightreplythatit is a
or something
interest,
materialobject,or an objectof scientific
otherthanWinston
or something
smallerthana breadbasket,
Churchill.All of theseanswerswouldbe true.But none would
theydon'ttellyou whatyou wantto know.An
be appropriate:
like'It's a fossilI picked
answerwouldbe something
appropriate
up last summer.'Whatmakesthisanswerappropriateand the
and is at leastto some
othersnot has to do withour interests,
degreeup to us. Perhapswhatmakesan answerto a question
not whetherit is
overtimeappropriate-though
about identity
true is up to us to decidein a similarway.
So farso good,perhaps.Butthisonlymakesvividhowstrange
thesisis. SupposeI say thattoday'schurchis
themany-answers
theone thatstood herecenturiesago and you say it isn't.The
thesissays thattheseclaimsmightbothbe true.
many-answers
thenegationofwhatI am saying.
Yet youappearto be asserting
itisn't.If we're
If I'm right,it is thesamechurch;ifyou'reright,
thesisappears
both right,it is and it isn't.The many-answers
And mostfriendsof
contradiction.
to entaila straightforward
enoughto believe
are probablyold-fashioned
identity
imperfect
can neverbe true.
thatcontradictions
How can myclaimthatthisthingand thatone are identical
withyourclaimthattheyare not identical?Only
be consistent
In thatcase it oughtto be
if thereis some sortof ambiguity.
theclaimsand restatethemin a more
possibleto disambiguate
go away.
perspicuouswaythatmakestheappearanceofconflict
we mean
is
that
here.
One
possibilities
two
obvious
Thereare
I
be
saying
'are
identical':
might
different
thingsby the words
of
while
word,
thatthe objectsare 'identical'in one sense the
you denythattheyare 'identical'in anothersense.The other
objects:I might
is thatwe are talkingabout different
possibility
meanone objectby thewords'today'schurch'whileyou mean

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258

ERICT. OLSON

another.We will take up these suggestionsin the next two


sections.
VI
The indeterminacy
thesis looks incompatiblewith the no
themany-answers
answer-thesis,
thesis,and thedecisionthesis.
claimabout
contentious
It also appearsto implya notoriously
the natureof identity,and to conflictwith a popular view
and the
about vagueness.The decisionthesislooks incredible,
I could
many-answers
thesisappearsto lead to a contradiction.
but thatwilldo. So hereis a mystery:
make morecomplaints,
how could the imperfect-identity
thesisbe true?And here is
another:how can so manyable philosophersnot only accept
the thesis,but see it as a harmlesstruism?My objectionsto
imperfect
identityare hardlysubtleor ingenious.They might
have occurredto anyone.Why,then,has no one used them
to attacktheimperfect-identity
thesis?Whyhave no friendsof
imperfect
identity
botheredto addressthem?
It is clearenoughwhatReid was thinking
whenhe said that
He deniedthat
the identityof objectsof sensewas imperfect.
could persistthroughanychangeof parts:necessarily,
anything
he thought,if x is a part of y at any time,thenx is a part
of y at everytime when y exists.Call this the doctrineof
mereologicalconstancy.(It is a close cousin of the stronger
doctrineof mereologicalessentialism,
that objects have their
It impliesthatnearlyall statements
partsessentially.)
asserting
the identityover time of ordinaryphysicalobjectsare false,
forphysicalobjectsare constantly
sheddingatoms:no ordinary
thingcontinuesto be composedofthesameatomsformorethan
a moment.Whathappensto a materialthingwhenit shedsan
atom?It mightcease to exist,and be instantly
replacedbya very
similarbutnumerically
different
objectthatlacksthatatomas a
part.Or it mightcontinueto exist,composedofthesameatoms
as before.In thatcase it simplybeginsto disperse,changing
froma connectedobjectto a scatteredone. Eitherway,what
appearsto be a persisting
churchor dog or bicycleis in reality
a seriesof numerically
different
beingssucceedingone another
imperceptibly
at a rate of trillionsper second.No composite
objectpersistsand remainsan ordinarythingformorethana

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IMPERFECTIDENTITY

259

Reid thought,
is perfect,
becausewe
moment.Our own identity
are notcomposite,and have no partsto lose.5
Whathas thisgot to do withimperfect
identity?
Well,evenif
mereological
constancyis trueand ordinarythingsdon'tpersist
in the way we thinktheydo, it may stillbe usefulto speak
as iftheydid: to 'feigna continu'dobject',as Hume putit. For
ordinary
purposesitis betterto say'Thatchurchhas stoodthere
forcenturies'
thanto say'Thatchurchis brandnew'.We haven't
one to everychurchthat
got enoughnamesto givea different
has stoodon thesiteduringthelastsecond,letalone overmany
So we pretendthattheyare thesame:whenwe speak
centuries.
overtimein what
of churches,we use thelanguageof identity
Butlercalleda 'loose and popularsense',ratherthanin the'strict
Thislooseand
philosophical
sense'ofgenuinenumerical
identity.
popularsenseis whatReid meantbyimperfect
identitythough
at all, but merely'something
it is of coursenot reallyidentity
of speech,we call identity'.
which,fortheconveniency
Now it is up to us to decidewhento pretendthatmomentary
timesare identical.If a church's
objectsexistingat different
stonesare all graduallyreplaced,we coulddecideto call thenew
churchby thesame nameas theold one, and say,'The church
has been repaired.'Or we could adopt a different
criterion
for
of churches,
and say in thiscase, 'The original
feigning
identity
churchis no more;a new one standsin itsplace.' Of course,it
is not up to us to decidewhetherany objectsare numerically
identicalor distinct;but we're not talkingabout real identity
here.We can see how someonemightdescribethisby saying
thatquestionsofidentity
overtimeare oftenmatters
fordecision
ratherthan for discovery,misleadingthoughthat description
wouldbe.
Whatabout therestof theimperfect-identity
thesis?Well,on
Reid's storythe questionof whetherthe currentchurchis the
same as an earlierone mayhave severalapparently
conflicting
but equallyappropriate(or eventrue)answers,in thatdifferent
speakersmightadoptdifferent
criteriafortheimperfect
identity
ofchurches.
Someofus mightrequiremostofthesamematterto
remain,whileotherstolerateany amountof materialturnover
5. Butler(1736) and Chisholm(1976, ch. 3) held the same combinationof views. I
discussmereologicalconstancyat greaterlengthin Olson 2006.

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ERIC T. OLSON

as long as the formremains.We ourselvesmay use different


criteriaat different
timesor in different
circumstances.
This will
lead us sometimesto describea case by saying'It is the same
church'and othertimesto describethesame case by saying'It
is not the same church'.These statements
will be compatible
because the firstwill mean simplythatthe currentchurchhas
the same formas the earlierone whilethe secondmeansthat
theydon'tsharemostof thesamematter bothof whichcould
wellbe true.None of thisimpliesthatquestionsabout identity
so called,everadmitofmorethanone answer.
overtime,strictly
This wouldmakethemany-answers
likeit,
thesis,or something
freefromcontradiction.
We could say thatit is indeterminate
whethera churchhas
fortheimperfect
ifourcriterion
ofchurchesis
persisted
identity
metto an intermediate
degree.Supposewe call churchesexisting
at different
times'the same' if theyhave the same form,or
near enough(and if certaincausal linksalso hold). How near
is nearenough?Sincewe'renot goingto specifythisprecisely,
thereare bound to be borderlinecases: cases wherethe later
church'sformis not definitely
enoughlike theearlierchurch's,
but not definitely
not enoughlikeit either.In suchcases it will
not be definitely
to call it thesamechurch,butalso
appropriate
not definitely
appropriateto call it a different
church.And this
will be so even if identity
itselfis alwaysdeterminate:
even if
one or definitely
any objectsare alwayseitherdefinitely
more
thanone.
If Reid is right,mostquestionsof theform'Is thethingthat
is F at t the thingthatis G at t*?' are about identityin the
loose and popular sense and not about real identity.(If they
were about real identitythe answerwould almostalways be
no.) And thereis no greatmystery
about how such questions
can sometimesbe questionsabout words.Suppose you and I
disagreeabout whetherit's thesame churchor a newone even
thoughwe agreeaboutall theunderlying
facts.Thenwe seemto
be disagreeing
onlyabout whetherthe expression'same' when
appliedto churchesexistingat different
timesmeanshavingthe
sameformor havingthesamematter,or thelike.
This is of coursenot a storyabout how questionsof genuine
numericalidentityover timecould be soft,but a storyabout
the softnessof a relationotherthan identity.But maybethe

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IMPERFECT
IDENTITY

261

thesiswas nevermeantto be a claimabout


imperfect-identity
identityover time,despiteappearancesto the contrary.If so,
then we have a solutionto the firstmystery:
an account of
how theimperfect-identity
thesis,or something
likeit,could be
true.
But we haven'tyetsolvedthesecondmystery:
whyso many
philosophersfindthe imperfect-identity
thesisinnocuous.The
principleof mereologicalconstancyis out of fashion,and few
friendsof imperfect
identity
would acceptit. And even if they
did,theycould hardlyexpecttheirreadersto agreewiththem.

VII
Hereis a morepopularviewthatmightunderpintheimperfectthesis.Consideragain thevillagechurchthathas been
identity
thatwe don'tknowwhether
so muchalteredoverthecenturies
to say thattherehas beenjust one churchthereor a succession
of different
churches.
If thephrase'today'schurch'referred
uniquelyto one object,
it is hardto see how therecould failto be a uniqueanswerto
thequestionof whetherthatobjectexistedin 1500.But maybe
thereis no such unique object.Perhapsmanydifferent
objects
withdifferent
historiesare equally good candidatesfor being
thereferent
of thephrase'today'schurch'.Theremightbe one
thathas existedsincea churchwas firstbuilton thesite.There
mightbe anotherthatcameintobeingin thecourseofextensive
renovationsin 1689. Theremighteven be an object thathas
alwaysbeen composedof theverymaterialsthatmake up the
churchnow,thehistoryof which(as a church,anyway)is still
Call theseobjectsC], C2, and C3. Theyare presumably
briefer.
not set-theoretic
constructions
or thelike,but concreteobjects
made of matter,capable of offering
shelterfromthe elements.
We maynotwantto call themall churches;or perhapstheyare
all churchesin different
sensesof the word. In any case they
are all church-like
objects.
Suppose we thenask whethertoday'schurchstood herein
1500.Our suggestion
is thatthisquestionis ambiguous,because
'today's church'doesn't referuniquely.Because some of the
thingsit mightreferto stood herein 1500 and othersdidn't,

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ERIC T. OLSON

ourquestionhas no straightforward
answer(justas thequestion
whethertheplanetbetweentheearthand thesun is cloudyhas
no straightforward
answer).We could describethislack of a
answerin severaldifferent
straightforward
ways.We could say
whether
thatitis indeterminate
today'schurchstoodherein 1500
because Cl did and C2 and C3 didn't,and it is indeterminate
whichof themthephrase'today'schurch'denotes.Or we could
say thatthe questionhas no answerbecauseit is based on the
falsepresupposition
that'today'schurch'refers
uniquely.Or we
couldsaythatin so faras thesentence'Did today'schurchstand
herein 1500?'ambiguously
expressesseveraldifferent
questions,
answers
each about a different
object,it has as manydifferent
as thosequestionshave. In thatcase, thosewho disagreeabout
whenthechurchcameintobeingmaybe disagreeing
onlyabout
words:about whichthingthe words'today'schurch'referto.
We could even say thatthe answerto thequestionis up to us
to decide,in so faras it is up to us whichobject-Cl, C2, or
C3-we use thephrase'today'schurch'to denote.
Call thisstorythe multiple-referents
view.It would seem to
justifythe idea thatquestionsabout the identityover timeof
such thingsas churches-or at least questionsphrasedin the
overtime-are soft.Anditwouldanswerthe
languageofidentity
thesiswouldotherwise
objectionsthattheimperfect-identity
face.
It doesn'trequireidentity
itselfto be indeterminate.
It doesn't
implythatquestionsabout theidentity
of anyparticularobject
lack answers,but onlythatquestionsmaylack answersbecause
thereis no one objectthattheyare definitely
about. For the
same reasonit doesn'timplythatquestionsabout the identity
of any particularobjecteverhave morethanone rightanswer.
Nor does it implythatwhether
anyparticularobjectis identical
withsomethingexistingat anothertimeis ever up to us to
decide.
Like the principleof mereologicalconstancy,the multiplereferents
viewprovidesan accountofhowtheimperfect-identity
thesis,or something
likeit,could be true.Mighttoday'sfriends
ofimperfect
be presupposing
it?Theydon'tsaythatthey
identity
are. Ofcourse,somepresuppositions
don'tbearstating.It would
be tiresome
formeto tellpeopleofmybeliefthat5 is prime,and
moretiresomestillto givearguments
forit. No one disagrees.
But themultiple-referents
viewis not thatsortof claim.

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Thinkabouthowmanyconcreteobjectsitrequiresthereto be.
Considera case wherewe wantto say thatan objectgradually
goes out of existence:a dog, Gerald,whoseorgansshutdown
one by one overa periodof severalhours,say.At noon Gerald
no longerexists;in
still exists;at six he definitely
definitely
over
betweenit is unclear.This looks likea case whereidentity
if it ever is. Imaginepeople debatingabout
timeis imperfect
whenin the courseof his declineGeraldmakeshis exit:some
sayat two,somesayhalfpastthree,somesayfiveto six.Anyone
withanysympathy
fortheimperfect-identity
thesiswillwantto
say thatthisdisputeis pointless not because we can't know
exactlywhenthecreatureperished,butbecausethereis no such
precisetime.Each answeris as good as theothers.None ofthem
is wrong.More generally,
any timebetweennoon and six is an
acceptableanswerto thequestionof whentheanimalcomesto
an end.
Accordingto the multiple-referents
view, this is possible
because thereis a being-a referent,
or candidate-referent,
of
thename'Gerald'-that ceasesto be at each ofthesetimes.One
perishesat two,anotherat halfpast three,and a thirdat five
to six. But of coursethereare infinitely
manysuch times,and
noneis supposedto be definitely
a wronganswerto thequestion
of whenGeraldperishes.So themultiple-referents
viewrequires
thereto be an infinite
numberof dyingdogs,or beingsverylike
dogs,whicharecandidatesforthereference
ofthename'Gerald'.
These beingsdiffer
fromone anotheronlyin the timeof their
demise.Presumably
thereare dog-likeobjectsgoingout of existenceat everymomentbeforeGeraldbeganto dieas well.(Surely
theseobjectsdon'tbeginappearing,likevultures,
onlyas death
approaches.)For everymomentduringGerald'scareer,thereis
a dog-likeobjectcoincidingwithhimthatceases to existthen.
And thiswillbe truenotjust fordogs,butforall objectswhose
identity
overtimecan be imperfect.
Wherever
we wouldsaythat
thereis just one concreteobject,thereare reallyan infinity
of
superimposed
objectsdiffering
onlyin thelengthoftheircareers.
This picturesoundsverylike 'four-dimensionalism',
theview
that for an object to existat different
timesis forit to have
different
temporalpartsthatexistat thosetimesand onlythen.
What could the manyreferents
of thename 'Gerald' be if not
temporalpartsof dogs?(Theremaybe non-four-dimensionalist

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264

ERIC T. OLSON

versionsof themultiple-referents
view,but theyare likelyto be
troublesome.)
Now, four-dimensionalism
is a fashionableview (at least in
some parts),and thereis muchto be said in its favour.But it
also has manyarticulateopponents.It is a claimon a par with
act utilitarianism
in ethicsor instrumentalism
in thephilosophy
of science.It is hardlythe sortof assumptionone can expect
readersto share.

VIII
Theremaybe viewsotherthanmereological
and fourconstancy
dimensionalism
that would make the imperfect-identity
thesis
intelligible.
(The view that identityis never'absolute',but is
alwaysrelativeto something,
would be an example:see Olson
1997fordetails.)But theseotherviewsare likelyto be at least
as contentious
as thosewe have discussed.
I concludethatthe friendsof imperfect
identity-inso far
as theyare talkingsense,anyway are not talkingabout strict
numerical
at all, butabout someotherrelation.Whatis
identity
more,theyare presupposing
mereologicalconstancy,or fouror some other metaphysicalview of equal
dimensionalism,
moment.(Or if theyare not presupposing
any of theseviews
in particular,theyare assumingthat some one of them,they
knownot which,is true.)In any case, theyare not entitledto
asserttheimperfect-identity
thesisas ifit wereobvious.
Not, anyway,unless its denial presupposessomethingfar
worse.Is therean attractive
alternative
to imperfect
identity?
There at least appears to be. Suppose it is possiblefor a
thingto have different
parts at different
times:mereological
is false.Better,supposethatordinary
constancy
objectscan have
the sortsof careerswe take themto have. And supposethat
persisting
thingsare not made up of arbitrary
temporalparts:
four-dimensionalism
is false.Suppose thatwhenwe pointto a
churchor a dog or a humanbeingwe are not pointingto a
vast numberof ecclesiasticalor canineor humanobjectswith
different
pastsand different
futures,
but to onlyone thing.This
is, of course,nothingmorethanthe barestoutlineof a view.I
don't say thatit is unproblematic,
or even true.But it doesn't
seemcrazy.Many philosophers
acceptit. It lookslikea worthy

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IMPERFECTIDENTITY

265

alternative
to mereological
constancyand four-dimensionalism.
view.
Call it theordinary
The ordinaryview appears to be incompatiblewith the
imperfect-identity
thesis(for the most part, anyway).When
we ask whethera churchor dog or human being existing
now is identicalwithsomethingexistingat anothertime,the
or
ordinaryviewsuggeststhatwe are askingabout theidentity
in the strictphilosophicalsenseof the term,of a
distinctness,
singleobjectexistingat one timeand a singleobjectexistingat
another.And it seemsthatthatquestionmusthave a unique
answer:yesor no. Or ifidentity
can be vague,theanswermight
be thatit is indeterminate;
but thenthatwouldbe theone right
answer.The questionis inno waymerely
verbal.It has an answer
thatwe can be wrongabout or ignorantof,evenifwe knowall
theunderlying
facts.It is no moreup to us to decidethanit is
up to us to decidewhether
grassis green.On theordinary
view,
questionsabout identity
overtimeappearto be just as solid as
anyother.
Thosewhoassumethatidentity
overtimeis softare assuming
by implicationthatthe ordinaryview is false.That, surely,is
unwarranted.
Someversionoftheimperfect-identity
thesismight
be true;and thenagain it mightnot be. Whichit is dependson
theanswerto hardmetaphysical
questions.6
Department
ofPhilosophy
University
of Sheffield
ArtsTower
Western
Bank
Sheffield
S1O 2TN
UK
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