Whooooooooooooooo Are You?

Suppose you had an identical twin who was exactly like you in absolutely every way, including personality. Your twin is exactly like you, but is not you. The philosophical way of putting this is to say that you and your twin has the same personality, but have a different personal identity.

Folklore and science fiction are stuffed with examples of beings taking the form of other beings, and beings transformed into different forms. From changelings and doppelgängers to clones, cyborgs, duplicates, corpsicles, reconstructions and personalities loaded into computers, the is a bewildering array of different ways to mess with the concept of personal identity. These all raise the question of what it is that makes you you? What makes the person you are today identical with the person who was given your name shortly after birth? What are the practical problems of establishing personal identity? And what does it really mean to say that you are the same person as the being who occupied your place of residence yesterday?

Before I get into the prompt, I want to emphasize that this topic has absolutely nothing to do with character or cultural identity. If you find yourself starting your paper by saying how your parents made you into the person you are, or how you were formed by your backgound, you should tear up your paper, burn the bits, and then stomp on the ashes of the burned bits. Then start thinking about personal identity, as explained below. Essays that spend more than a few words discussing family or culture will not be worth very much. Essays that do nothing but discuss family or culture will be worth no more than zero points. (And essays that end with phrases like "and these things are what made me the person I am today" will be worth negative 50 points.)

One thing I want you to do is explicitly discuss the possibility that physical continuity is the basis of personal identity. "Physical continuity" is the property of being the same coherent discrete object over time. Human bodies are physically continuous because although they grow and change over time, this is always because of small quantities of material, contained in food, drink, and air being added to the body, and other bits of material leaving the body as exhalations, discarded skin and hair, and other ways. Thus the body you have now is physically continuous with the body you had when you were born, and indeed, with the fertilized ovum you were just after you were conceived, even though the vast majority of atoms now in your body were not there at that time. 

Another way to illustrate physical continuity is to consider two houses sitting side by side in a subdivision in 1950. Being recently made by very precise and conscientious builders, they are exactly similar to each other. They are so similar at this point that the only way to tell which one is which is by seeing (or remembering) where the other one is. While the houses are still indistinguishable from each other, they are purchased by Connor Tinuity and Samantha Form. Sam Form thinks that her new house is perfect. To her, everything about her new house, the facade, the floor plan, the colors, the doors, the windows, everything, is just exactly as she wants it. Con Tinuity looks at his new house and thinks, "it's a good start."  Over the following years, a little bit at a time, Con makes many alterations to the house, moving windows, tearing out whole rooms, adding extra rooms, making a courtyard in the middle of the hourse, adding a porches, adding a whole extra story, and a tower, and an observatory. This all takes a very long time, since Con only makes one change every year or so, but eventually, Con's house looks nothing like it's original form. In contrast, Sam works hard to keep her house exactly the same. Putting preservatives on its surfaces, fixing small problems immediately they arise, and so on. finally, in the year 2000, Con's house is a wild extravaganza that looks nothing like the original structure, and Sam's looks exactly the same as when she first bought it.  Now, at this point, Con's house attracts tourist who come to gape at the strange house, and Sam haaaaaates the tourists, and haaaaates even looking at Con's house, and so she gladly agrees to sell her house to Con when he offers to buy it so he can put in a giant Tesla coil. Sam is especially happy to sell because she has found out that the builder who made her house also built several more exactly like it on the other side of town. Sam buys one of these, and moves all her stuff other there, setting up her new house exactly the way she had the old one. Meanwhile, Con has completely demolished Sam's old house, burning all the wooden bits and grinding everything else up for landill. Now, the point of this story is to point out that Con's present house has physical continuity with his original house, even though it now looks nothing like his original house, and Sam's present house does not have physical continuity with her original house, even though it looks exactly.the same. This is what the term "physical continuity" means! If you have a house and you alter it in some way, say by moving a bit, adding a bit, or taking a bit away, the house after the alteration has physical continuity with the house before the alteration, even though the house is no longer the same.

Your Assignment

As an integral and essential part of this assignment, you must figure out whether physical continuity is or isn't the basis of personal identity, and write a paper explaining your thinking. If you think physical continuity is not the basis of personal identity, explicitly say it isn't, and explain why it isn't. If you think physical continuity is the basis of personal identity, say that it is, say why it is, and explain why the other theories are wrong.

Finally, make sure you remember that this is about identity, and not identification. I'm not asking how you tell if someone is the same person. I'm asking what makes someone the same person.

What makes the guy in this cartoon the same person as his 18-year-old self? Remember, his personality is completely different, so if you think personality is what makes personal identity, you are forced to conclude that the 18-year-old is not the same person as the other guy. Since there's nobody else back in the past who could be the older guy, the equating of personal identity with personality means that he did not exist back then. Do you really want to say stuff like that? 

Theories of Personal Identity

  1. Physical identicality: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because your body (brain)  is completely the same as the body that that person was born with.
  2. Physical continuity: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because your body (brain) is physically continuous with the body that that person was born with.
  3. Memories: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because you have exactly the same memories as that person did when they were born.
  4. Pyschological identicality: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because your personality is the exact same personality that that person was born with.
  5. Pyschological continuity: You are the same person as the baby of your name born to your parents because your personality is psychologically continuous with personality that that person was born with.
  6. Appearance: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because you look exactly the same as that person did when they were born.
  7. Memories: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because you have exactly the same memories as that person did when they were born.
  8. Soul: You are the same person as the baby of your name who was born to your parents because you provably have exactly the same soul as that person did when they were born.
You might notice that some of these theories are stronger than others. (In fact, at least two of them are downright ridiculous.) There may be other theories of personal identity, and you can discuss those if you like, but these are the theories I want you start off thinking about.

An interesting way to get into this topic is to consider Hank and Dean Venture from the animated series The Venture Bros During later episodes of the series, the personal identities of Hank and Dean periodically change, as the boys are occasionally killed and replaced by clone-bodies which are then conditioned with the memories of the previous Hank and Dean. (Their father, Rusty Venture, refers to his sons as "death prone.") Thus the "Hank" you see in in one episode is not necessarily the same "Hank" you saw in any other episode. After a clone is killed, it is replaced with a new clone with almost exactly the same memories as the previous version. It's not the same body. It's a new, different, body. And, although it has (mostly) the same memories, those memories were just copied from the previous clone-body before its death. So, you can imagine that when the present "Dean" goes to college, he writes a paper on personal identity that includes details of "his" family background, "his" upbringing, "his" adventures with Rusty, Hank and Brock . . . . all the time unaware that these things actually happened to a series of completely different people, and unaware that he is not the "Dean Venture" who these things happened to, but instead he was an unconscious, mindless clone body floating in a tank under the Venture Compound while all this stuff was happening.

So you should clearly understand that personal identity has nothing to do with having the same or different features as somebody else. Consider two absolutely identical twins, Jack and Desmond. Jack is sitting on the sofa while Desmond is sitting in the armchair. Their personalities are absolutely identical. (To avoid confusion, we say they have “exactly similar” personalities, meaning that the personality of Jack is exactly the same as the personality of Desmond.) They look exactly alike. The only way to tell which is which is to ask them. Their personalities are the same, their characters are the same, their appearances are the same, down to the tiniest detail, but they have different personal identities because Jack is not Desmond, and Desmond is not Jack. Now, what, if anything, is it that makes Jack the same person as the “Jack” who used to complain that Desmond had gotten a bigger piece of pie for dessert twenty years ago?

Or you could consider the case of little Jimmy and his hamster Fangclaw. One day while Jimmy is at school, Fanglclaw escapes from his cage, enters a nearby military base and is accidentally crushed by a M1 Abrams battle tank. Hearing of the tragedy, Jimmy's parents rush out and, after an exhaustive search, obtain a new hamster with exactly the same characteristics as Fangclaw had before his military adventure. Then the put the new hamster in Fangclaw's cage, and let Jimmy think that it's his old Fangclaw. Let's call the original, now deceased, Fanglaw "Fangclaw 1,"and the new, substitute hamster, "Fangclaw 2." Just before Fangclaw's unfortunate demise, he and Jimmy posed for a photograph together. Just after the event, Jimmy posed for another photo with what he thought was his original beloved hamster. Nowadays, no-one can remember which photo was taken first. It seems clear that the Jimmy in on photo is identical with the Jimmy in the second photo, while the Fangclaw in the second photo is not identical with the Fangclaw in the first photo, even though no-one can tell the difference. What it is that makes the Jimmy of before the accident identical with the Jimmy of after the accident. (Please do not say anything about what makes the two Jimmys have the same personality. This has nothing to do with personal identity.)

Next consider Jack Straussman, Jill Kressler, Jill Straussman and Jack Kressler. Both Jack Straussman and Jill Kressler grew up in exactly similar small towns but have very different personalities, including that Jack Straussman grows up in a male body but at just over 18 starts to feel herself female, whereas Jill Kressler grows up in a female body and at just over 18 starts to feel himself male. At 20, each has a sex-change operation and a legal name change so that the physical body that was Jack Straussman comes to be called Jill Straussman and the physical body that was Jill Kressler comes to be called Jack Kressler. Because of advances in nanotechnology and some strange coincidences, Jill Straussman ends up with a body and personality that is exactly the same as the body and personality that Jill Kressler had at age 18, except a bit older, and Jack Kressler ends up with a body and personality that is exactly the same as the body and personality that Jack Straussman had at age 18, except a bit older. Leroy Straussman, father of Jack, whose physical body is now called Jill Straussman, dies unexpectedly, before he can change his will, leaving ten million dollars to "my son Jack Straussman." Jill Straussman is under the impression that she is the same person as Jack Straussman, and attempts to claim the inheritance. However, Jack Kessler, who has absolutely no physical relationship to the Straussmans, sues on the grounds that he is identical in terms of appearance and personality to the Jack Straussman mentioned in the will, and therefore has Jack Straussman's personal identity, and thus should inherit. Can you come up a definition of personal identity such that Jill Straussman has the same identity as Jack Straussman, and Jack Kessler has a different identity than Jack Straussman? Alternatively, can you come up with a reason to think that Leroy Straussman wanted to leave his money to Jack Kessler?

Remember, you can't just come up with an arbitrary reason to give the money to Jill Straussman. Whatever reason you give to decide which of the new Jack and Jill is the old Jack Straussman, YOU HAVE TO EXPRESS THIS REASON AS A RULE THAT CAN BE APPLIED TO SETTLE ALL QUESTIONS OF PERSON IDENTITY

If your rule is that personal identity depends on personality, then Jack Kressler is the same person as Jack Straussman.

If your rule is that personal identity depends on appearance, then Jack Kressler is the same person as Jack Straussman.

If you don't think that Jack Kressler is the same person as Jack Straussman, then as far as you're concerned, neither personality nor appearance is the basis of personal identity.

If you think that Jill Straussman is the same person as Jack Straussman, "because" Jill "is" the original Jack, you have to explain what you mean by "Jill is the original Jack" here. If you mean they are the same person, you need to write a complete philosophy paper proving that Jill Straussman is the original Jack Straussman before you can say they're the same person. If you mean something else, you have to say what you mean.

If you think that continuity of consciousnes is what makes personal identity, you have to accept that, if your present body was ever unconscious, you are not the person your body was before that period of unconsciousness.

If you think that Jack Kressler is not Jack Straussman "because" Kreesler does not have Straussman's memories, imagine that Lucifer DeMorte, mad scientist and handsome villain, is testing his memory-swap machine in the courtroom, and accidentally swaps all of the Jack Straussman and Jill Kressler memories, so that Jack Kressler now fully remembers being Jack Straussman, and Jill Straussman now only remembers being Jill Kressler. The judge confiscates the memoryswapper, and says he will make DeMorte swap the memories back if Jill Straussman proves that she is the same person as Jack Straussman.  Jack Kressler's lawyer immediately enters a motion that Jack Kressler is in fact Jack Straussman, because he has all of Jack Straussman's memories. If you think that memory is what makes identity, you have to agree. If you don't agree, then you don't really think that memory is what makes identity.

If you think that Jill Straussman is the same person as Jack Straussman, you have to do it on the basis of physical continuity, (more specifically, brain continuity) because physical continuity is the only thing that reliably connects Jack Straussman with Jill Straussman.

If you think that personal identity depends on having the same experiences, the fact that you are having different experiences from your 10-year-old self means that you are not that person.

If you want to say that you are the person who had those experiences, you have to prove that you are the same person as your 10-year-old self before you can say that.

If you think that Jack Kressler is not Jack Straussman "because" Kressler didn't have Straussman's experiences, you have to explain why you think Kressler didn't have Straussman's experiences. Kressler says he is Straussman, and that therefore he did have those experiences. He makes the following arguments:

  1. His appearance is the same as Jack Straussman's, and appearance is the basis of personal identity, so he is the person who had those experiences.
  2. His personality is the same as Jack Straussman's, and personality is the basis of personal identity, so he is the person who had those experiences.
  3. His memories are (now) the same as Jack Straussman's, and memory is the basis of personal identity, so he is the person who had those experiences.

The only thing he doesn't have is physical continuity with Jack Straussman (Jill Straussman has that), but he doesn't mention this issue.

If you think that physical continuity doesn't count because Jack Kressler physically resembles Jack Straussman, you are making a fool of yourself because "continuity" is a different word than "resemblence," and so continuity and resemblence are different things.

I had a student claim in her paper that this prompt somehow instructed her to ignore the issue of physical continuity. This is wrong. The prompt does not tell you to ignore anything. Do not ignore any relevant issues. Do not ignore physical continuity. In fact, I reserve the right to deduct 50 points from your score if you ignore the issue of physical continuity.

If you are still having trouble with the concept of personal identity, you could read: The Ship of Theseus and the Question of Identity

Or you could watch Futurama Season 9, Episode 7: The Six Million Dollar Mon, ($1.99) and answer the following questions.

  1. When the body of Hermes gets a harpoon gun installed in it's chest, does it cease to be Hermes Conrad?
  2. When the Hermes body gets an extendo-arm (with attachments), does it cease to be Hermes Conrad?
  3. When the body Zoidberg is building gets Hermes's old arm and giblets, does it become the real Hermes Conrad?
  4. When the Hermes body gets Cylon eyes, does it cease to be Hermes Conrad?
  5. When Hermes replaces everything except his brain, and becomes Mecha-Hermes, does he cease to be Hermes Conrad?
  6. When Zoidberg reassembles Conrad's old bits (without his brain) into "Little Conrad," does Little Conrad become the real Hermes Conrad?
  7. When they replace Mecha-Conrad's brain with stab-bot Roberto's brain-card, does Mecha-Conrad cease to be Hermes Conrad?
  8. When Zoidberg puts Hermes's old brain into "Little Conrad," does Little Conrad become the real Hermes Conrad?
  9. In your opinion, which body part is most involved in determining which body is really Hermes Conrad?
             If you said that possession of the physical brain that started out in the body that was originally called "Hermes Conrad" is what made first Mecha-Hermes and then Little Hermes the same person as the original Hermes Conrad, then you must subscribe to a theory of the mind I call "mind physicalism."

If you want more discussion of this concept, read What Is Personal Identity?

Another way to get started is to read John Perry's A dialogue on personal identity and immortality, and see which of the three characters you think is right about some important point. You can probably find the book in the school library, or you can follow the Google Books link below for selections from the book.

Here are some philosophers who've written about this, with links to pages that hopefully explain and discuss their views

More reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_identity

John_Perry (Wikipedia Biography)
Google Books: A dialogue on personal identity and immortality (Only contains selected parts of the book.)
Summary of the book by Martin Curd
Summary of the book by Meg Wallace

Bernard Williams (Wikipedia Biography)

John Locke (Wikipedia Biography)

Derek Parfit (Wikipedia Biography)

A reconstruction of one of the main arguments

The Ship of Theseus Problem
http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/courses/intro/notes/personal-id.html
http://able2know.org/topic/151051-1
http://www.productiveflourishing.com/the-ship-of-theseus-and-personal-identity/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_and_change
http://books.google.com/books

Links to various discussions of this issue, some of which are pretty stupid
http://books.google.com/books
https://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=aeZ8e77NeTo&page=1
http://idcontrol.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-problems-with-the-physical-criterion/
http://www.helium.com/items/334842-figuring-out-ones-personal-identity?page=1
http://www.ilovephilosophy.com/viewtopic.php?t=138671&p=1570859
http://www.longecity.org/forum/topic/80-what-constitutes-me/page__st__151
http://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/l2798/arguments_for_the_self_and_continuity_of_persons/
http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=499678
http://jmp.oxfordjournals.org/content/6/3/323.abstract

To me, the amazing thing about this question is that pretty much every student who has tackled this issue in my class has vehemently contradicted himself in his paper. Every student assumed from the get-go that the pair who were physically continuous with each other were the same person, and almost every student insisted that physical continuity was not the basis of personal identity. None of them saw the contradiction inherent in saying that the two with physical continuity were the same person while insisting that physical continuity was not the basis of personal identity.

The lesson I draw from this is that the study of philosophy is at least partially the study of why we personally beliueve what we personally believe, and that a lot of people need a lot of help with that.


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