Personal Identity and Lifetime Movies

My last post dealt with the Ship of Theseus. It was a kind of primer about personal identity. What you think about the ship, whether it was the same ship or not at the end of the journey, might reflect what you think about identity when it comes to individuals. If you thought the ship was different at the end of the journey, perhaps what matters to you are the physical parts of the body. If you thought that the ship was the same at the end of the journey, perhaps identity lies in something a bit more ephemeral. But what? Well, let’s see. And then let’s see why you’re wrong. (Alec is all about showing you what different people think; I am all about trying to get you to see what you think and why you are wrong for thinking so. That is why Alec gets more fan mail and I get more slashed tires.)

Personal identity has to do with what makes you who you are over time. There are three big common-sense solutions to the question of personal identity:

  1. The soul
  2. Memories/experiences
  3. The physical body

Let’s get rid of the soul right away. Whatever the hell you use to figure out who you are, it is a pretty safe bet that it is not the soul. That is not to say there is no such thing as a soul; maybe there is, and maybe there is not. You do not sense your soul in any sort of direct fashion, and so it is probably not what you use to determine your identity. Most of you who believe in a soul do so because of faith, not because of direct evidence. Is who you are based on faith as well? What if your soul left your body and another soul came in? Would you notice? How? I suspect that most of what believe the soul to be responsible for can be explained by the issues with the other two solutions, and since neither of them really work either, you shouldn’t sweat this one too much.

How about memories/experiences (that slash is going to be important in a later post, so don’t forget it)? If memories are what makes you who you are, what happens when you lose those memories? Suppose you get amnesia. Are you the same person you were before? Let’s just go right to a Lifetime Movie example to test intuitions (your intuitions, of course; mine are forged in the surly steel of philosophic uncertainty).

A woman is driving through, uh, let’s say northern Canada…

Driving through Canada

…and she loses control of her car, crashing into the Canadian forest.

Car Crash

In a dazed state, with a broken arm and minor head trauma, she wanders a bit until she comes upon a small town. She is quickly noticed and taken to the local medical clinic where they see to her wounds. Upon asking her who she is, where she is from, and if there is anyone they can call, the staff realize the woman has amnesia. Furthermore, she has no ID on her. Despite looking for many days, the townspeople have no luck finding out who she is or where she came from. Still, these are very nice, Canadian people, and so they ‘adopt’ her. She picks a new name, gets a job at the very hospital that helped patch her up, and then gets an apartment. She works there for a year or two, meets and then dates and then marries (awwwww…) a doctor. She is happy. This is Lifetime, though, so the good times only last about forty minutes or so into the tale.

She has been married, as the story goes, for five years, when one day she hears a knock on her door. Opening it, as she is now a trusting Canadian, she sees a man she does not recognize, and yet he seems to recognize her. “I’ve found you,” he says. “I’ve finally found you?”

“Who are you?” our plucky heroine asks.

“I’m your husband,” he says. And he has pictures to back this up: pictures of their wedding, her parents, her childhood, and so forth. She, of course, has no memory of him, her parents, or her childhood.

Now: philosophy!

Not to imply that marriage implies or entails (or anything else like those two) ownership, but this is just the easiest way to ask this question: Whose wife is she? The first guy or the second (current amnesiac state) guy? Keep in mind that we are not writing some sort of Lifetime Slash fiction here. She is probably not going to want to be with both. In fact, if asked, she expresses a clear preference for the second guy (since, you should recall, unless you are being ironic, she has no memory of the first guy).

I’ll have Alec set up some sort of poll for this question, but I am going to go ahead and forecast/predict that the majority of people are going to choose the second guy as the winner. But why, you might wonder, even those of you who agree but who have come to philosophy as a means to better elucidate your thoughts and opinions. Here is why: you believe that memories are what makes a person who she is. You are you because you remember doing the stuff you did. You do not remember all of it, but you think, and perhaps rightly, that you don’t need to. You do remember starting this article (it’s not that long yet, is it?); you remember eating dinner last night; you remember graduating from high school or junior high school or grade school (you preciously precocious bastard); and so on. What you do not remember doing, you common sensically believe you didn’t do. Maybe you are not always right (hey — that is a good topic for a later post! Thanks for that suggestion), but you still have that intuition. Our lovely Canadian is in the same memory leak of a boat. She recalls her current husband, but no other. Hence, she is only the woman she remembers being.

What happened, then, to the first husband’s wife? I suspect many of you are not comfortable with stating that she is dead, but then, where is she if she is not married to the second guy? Gone? Away? Buried deep in the mind of this new woman? Some of you are sure and some of you are not. Note that the answer here becomes murkier when we talk about her parents: did they lose their daughter as their son-in-law lost his wife? Physically no, but mentally yes? Are you comfortable with that? Would alcohol help?

Let’s change the example a bit, and then end this entry, giving you something to think on a bit or two. Suppose instead of a woman driving a car through the Canadian forest, it is me and I am at a liquor store. And instead of a car crash, I am buying a bottle of Maddog 20/20 (they all taste like gas, so let’s get the blue one because it is the prettiest). And instead of being found by benevolent Canadian townsfolk, I am shooting to death the liquor store operator, writing my name and social security number on the wall in his blood, leaving my driver’s license and hair and nail clippings in bag labeled “DNA” on the counter, and then walking outside yelling, “Hey, everyone! I just killed the liquor store operator of my own, sane volition!”

Liquor Store Robbery

And then, instead of being given a job at a Canadian hospital, and falling in love with a lovely Canadian man, I am hit by a car (maybe driven by a Canadian), given severe head trauma, and awake in a hospital with permanent amnesia, having been arrested by the police who, given all the evidence I left behind, tracked me down in about five weeks.

With those slight and subtle changes in place, we can ask basically the same question we asked above: Is the person in the hospital bed the same as the the person who killed the liquor store operator? If you thought the woman was not the same as the one who had married the first guy in the first story, you should also think that the person in the bed is not the same guy as the one who killed the liquor store operator. And yet… And yet… You do. Why? Do you hate me? Are you sexist? Do you think that justice is more important than metaphysics (it isn’t)? Let’s end here and we will take this up and more in the next installment of: Do you know who I am? Who the hell are you?

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