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Alzheimer's and Identity



An age seems to take a particular disease as a sort of emblem. One disease serves as greatest fear and most intensely over-used metaphor.

I think of consumption for much of the 19th century, polio for the early part of the 20th, AIDS for later in  the 20th. Now, perhaps ... Alzheimer's.

One point you may have gleaned from my short list is that the emblematic disease ceases to be emblematic when it becomes curable. It can't be a metaphysical bugaboo any longer once it begins the fade into a lesser status as a manageable health concern. Alzheimer's certainly qualifies on this account. 

It also qualifies by virtue of the way it attacks an individual's identity, taking it away piece by piece -- in a century that seems intent on attacking personal identity from all directions even without literal organic assistance.

It attacks our identity because as humans our identity is one with certain sorts of continuity within this stream of consciousness. Knowing your name, the names of your children, the name of the street on which you grew up, the core vocabulary of your native language: these aren't just data that you've happened to pick up. These are the continuities that make you, you. and all of that comes under attack.

This line of thought brings me back to some thoughts of the fellow for whom this blog is named, William James. In his essay on immortality, James observed how the fact that A is a function of B NEVER justifies the conclusion that B is "nothing but" A, or even that one of the two causes the other. He would say, I'm sure, that the fact that physical structures (in the brain or in a computer) store knowledge doesn't justify us in treating knowledge, including knowledge of this self-defining sort, as a physical fact.

He might ask us (in accord with his further examples of non-reductive functional relationships) to consider the light streaming through a window. The window is the medium through which the light reaches me. The cleanliness of the window has a functional relationship with the steam of light that does reach me. As the window becomes dirty, my life becomes dark. That is, indeed, a decent metaphor for the condition of an Alzheimer's patient: someone who relies on the light that gets through a window that can no longer clean itself. But the light does not equal the material fact, the window.

Just following my own stream of consciousness through a familiar stretch of bed there....

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