Alpha Chi Student Explores the Strengths of a “Weak” Identity Theory

Alpha Chi students often wrestle with questions other students might not think to ask. Just scan the list of presentation topics at any national convention and that will become clear.

Many times, though, Alpha Chi students explore the same universal questions most all college students face. But they’re asking those questions—and seeking to answer them—in interesting, multidisciplinary ways. Take, for example, the question of personal identity.

Who am I? What makes me “me”?

In one sense, the college experience itself is fundamentally about that question. In college, students tend to try new things, engage in new friendships, explore new cultures and perspectives, study new disciplines, even indulge in a few misadventures, all in the name of finding out who they are.

Cho Fai Wong, a philosophy and applied mathematics graduate of Fresno Pacific University and a 2018 recipient of Alpha Chi’s prestigious H.Y. Benedict Fellowship for full-time graduate study, is thinking about that question, too, but in a deeper, more interdisciplinary way. And it’s a question his most recent Alpha Chi thesis paper might help him answer.  

An Interdisciplinary Pursuit

Originally from Hong Kong but with family in Fresno, Cho came to California five years ago as an international student to attend college at Fresno Pacific, a choice he felt might “open up more possibilities for my future.” While learning English, he chose mathematics as his first major, gravitating toward applied math as opposed to pure math because he liked the practical aspects of “applying math to reality.”

At first glance, it may seem surprising that a non-native English speaker with a bent toward practical application—Cho aspires to be an engineer—would double-major in philosophy. As a sophomore, though, Cho took an Introduction to Philosophy course where he discovered Nietzsche and other existentialist philosophers.

“I was interested in their explorations of the self and the reasons why we exist here as human beings,” Cho says.

Cho’s faculty mentor, Dr. Nathan Carson, chair of the Philosophy Department at Fresno Pacific University and a faculty sponsor for the university’s Alpha Chi chapter, says that as with so many Alpha Chi students, Cho immediately distinguished himself by his brilliance. But what particularly impressed Carson was Cho’s interdisciplinary creativity.

“It quickly became apparent,” Carson says, “that Cho is extremely creative and clever. He has the ability to draw very different areas of philosophy together in ways I would have never expected, noticing things I’ve just never quite connected before. It’s taken me years to realize how valuable and how rare that skill really is.”

Take, for example, Cho’s paper presentation at the 2018 Alpha Chi National Convention in Portland: “Divine Simplicity: A ‘Weak’ Identity Thesis.” The paper—which draws on aspects of virtue ethics, philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and mathematics—grapples with the question of how to define God’s identity relative to a model of unified human virtues.

The traditional, orthodox theistic view of God is that God is “simple,” in the sense that God is not made of parts, that His being is identical to his attributes. Cho posits, though, that such a theory runs into philosophical problems. If God’s identity cannot be extracted from God’s properties—and if properties or attributes are inherently abstract—then God is abstract and therefore no longer an active, personal God.

Cho’s paper points out those problems and then modifies the thesis on divine simplicity (with the help of a mathematical schema) by using what philosophers would term a “weak” identity theory. Rather than positing that God is his properties, Cho explores whether God’s identity is best conceived as the center point of a circle, where God’s properties exist along the circumference, connected but yet distinct from one another and from God himself.

It’s an original, creative, interdisciplinary exploration that Carson says represents the best of what Alpha Chi promotes and something our world needs.

“I think interdisciplinary thinking like this is powerful beyond academia,” Carson says. “Every privileged or specialized form of knowledge is also a form of blindness. We all have our blind spots. The power of interdisciplinary thinking is that it pushes against those blind spots by reaching to see things from different perspectives.”

“In our world, we need people like Cho to be orchestrators and leaders, people in our communities who can see ways to bring all the parts of a reality together.”

The Problem of Personal Identity

It was only after delivering his paper at the Portland Convention that Cho mentioned to Carson, almost in passing, his curiosity about whether his “weak identity thesis” might help him address the problem of personal identity, a question Western philosophers have wrestled with for centuries and a question with which Cho has openly wrestled in several of Carson’s classes. Who am I? What makes me “me”?

Carson explains the problem this way.

“This is playing it a little fast and loose with a complex set of questions,” Carson says, “but in the simplest terms, the question is this: What is it that’s essential to you that determines your identity as a person?”  

“Is it your physical parts or features that make you you?” Carson continues. “No, those can change over time and yet you still seem to be you. Is it your name? Well, names can change. Is it some combination of traits or characteristics? Is it a personality? Is it something like a soul? And what happens if you consider immortality, life after death, where there is a significant discontinuity like death to consider? What makes us think you will still be “you” in the life to come?”

“So you can see,” Carson sums up, “when you consider your identity at any given moment, or when you consider it extended over time, there are significant philosophical problems with almost any way of defining your identity.”

So what’s a college student to do?

Meaning in the “Maybes”

Connecting the interdisciplinary dots, Cho wonders if maybe there’s strength in his “weak identity thesis” for helping him address the personal identity problem, if not for all of Western philosophy then at least for himself. “Maybe,” he says.

Carson says Cho’s willingness to wrestle with questions about his identity, openly and with humility, has impressed him deeply. “I’ve seen Cho critique a lot of the ideals we tend to take for granted about how we define ourselves. The ideal of self-sufficiency, for example. I’ve seen him explore, in his own life and thinking, whether there is a need for openness and maybe even dependence, a vulnerability to others and even something like God, in how he defines himself.”

“Especially for intellectually gifted people like Cho,” Carson says, “I think the illusion of self-sufficiency can be a particularly strong temptation. It’s refreshing to see Cho question those things openly as he journeys to discover who he wants to become.”

Maybe we’re more than the sum total of our abstract personal attributes. Maybe who we are has more to do with how we act at the intersection of our unique set of characteristics, good and bad. Maybe our relationship to others, even to God, has more to do with who we are than most by-the-bootstraps American idealists might be inclined to think.

Maybe, in Cho’s case, the philosophy major’s asking the question is more important, in this case, than the applied mathematics major’s finding the solution.

“Maybe,” he says. “I’m skeptical. But maybe.”