Who are you?Posted: April 19, 2017
Who are you, really?
This is a picture of me at age fifteen. I’m thirty-two now. I feel very little connection to the teenager holding that guitar. Imagine it for yourself, and go younger if you need to. When you look at a picture of yourself at ten, what do you feel? Is that ten-year-old you?
Mentally, developmentally, socially – I’m a very different person than the teen in that fairly embarrassing picture. I don’t know if that’s me, except in the sense that we share the same timeline. We came from the same parents – the teen is bodily the same as myself, at least to a degree. Philosophers Eric Olson and Paul Snowdon define this as the “somatic criterion” for personhood, but we’ll just call it “body identity.”
So, I do share a body identity with the kid in that photograph. I mean, our bodies regenerate, and over the course of seven years we are basically rebuilt from scratch, but that’s just a technicality. I share a continuum of body with that person; over time, we’ve shared the same cells. Case closed, right?
Maybe not. Let’s draw on the sort of high-brow literary reference you’ve come to expect if you’ve read a few of these blogs. The movie poster for Freaky Friday.
Let’s use the premise of this movie (a remake, I know, but I needed this tagline to make my point) as a philosophical thought experiment. These thought experiments are generally impossible fantasy, but they allow us to test our intuitions to determine if a concept still makes sense.
Read the tagline – it’s clear, and obvious to the audience, that the bodies are not the person. It’s also kinda sexually suggestive, but we’ll ignore that. The movie would only confuse and annoy the audience if we believed the body was the person. If that were the case, there would be no “swap” in Freaky Friday. Lohan would just act like her mom, and Curtis would act like her daughter, but they wouldn’t have changed places. So, the movie plays on intuitions that seem obvious to us – Lohan inhabits her mom’s body, and vice versa.
But let’s bring this higher up the intellectual ladder. One of the most important philosophers of the past five-hundred years, John Locke, defines identity in a form that fits what our intuition tells us when we observe the Freaky Friday premise. He defines our person by its psychological continuity. Meaning that when Lohan’s psychological continuity – her experiences, memories, personality, etc – jumps into a new body, that new body serves as a host for Lohan. The body itself is only a husk.
Okay, fair enough – maybe we’re our psychological continuity.
Except, what is that? Is it real?
To what degree are our psychologies shaped by our circumstances, by those who surround us, by our culture and society? If Scott Kelly had grown up in Pakistan, he would be unrecognizable from the Scott Kelly that exists today. The language, the culture, the society – it would all be so completely different that only the most basic and generic traits would be shared between us.
It could even be simpler than that. We all play multiple roles. When you’re a parent, are you the same person as when you’re a romantic partner? I hope not. Likewise for when you’re at work being a professional, rather than at home Netflix binging.
Let’s take these ideas of personhood to some extremes and see what we get. What if I faked my death? What if I abandoned the name “Scott Kelly” to such a degree that I could never answer to it again? My status, my various roles, my friends, my achievements, and those habits that might be used to identify me – all of those would be banished forever. I’ve already established that psychological continuity is far from concrete, so what happens when it’s severed completely?
The majority of my psychological identity would be stripped away. The memories would exist, but my ability to be the person who created those memories would not. That person is now “dead.” I would be my own ghost, in a sense.
So, we’re back where we started. Who are you? Take a person and start stripping away what defines them. Body, name, memories, experiences, ideals, social identity, personality. They’re all quite mercurial; none of these are solid foundations. So if you can only keep one piece, that cornerstone to a person’s identity, which is it?
Or does it exist at all?
This is the philosophical backbone of my Keep the Ghost trilogy, the line of questioning that led me to create the plot and characters and write the series. I think I put it more succinctly in Shadow Box. Below, find a brief, spoiler-free scene in which Sean – the narrator, who was forced to fake his death and become a fugitive – is quizzed by Morgan, his guide, about who he is now that he’s become his own ghost.
The world shifts on a boat; there is no stable point of reference. At all times rocking, sliding, floating. By focusing on Morgan, I can forget this—she sits at the opposite end of a twin bed from me, legs folded under her.
“This is my revolver,” Morgan says, holding up a snub-nosed thirty-eight. “That one is yours.” She points to my identical gun, which is tucked into a leather holster on the floor next to the bed. “Give it to me.”
I lean across the bed, stretching past the circle of light shining through the little porthole window of our cabin. The gun is lifted to the sunbeam; Morgan’s hand enters its glow as she takes the weapon.
Our two pistols are laid out on the sheets between us. Morgan opens the cylinder of each and shakes the bullets into a waiting hand before depositing them in her lap.
“This gun is mine, and that one is yours,” she says. “I always recognize which one is mine by checking here.” She holds up the revolver she’s identified as her own—a pink smear of nail polish stretches across the grip. “I didn’t wait until my nails were dry, once, and so it’s got this little mark on it.”
She begins to disassemble each gun, using a small screwdriver to remove the cylinder and grips, placing the parts on the bed in two separate collections.
“Let’s say I do this,” Morgan says, and picks up each gun’s cylinder in her hands. She swaps the two, taking the gleaming, machined metal parts from one pile to the other. “Which one is my gun now?”
“That’s still your gun,” I tell her, pointing to her pile. “It’s just got my cylinder in it.”
This time she picks up the grips of the guns, and her nail-polish stained grip is traded for mine. “What about now?”
“Well, that’s tricky,” I say. “If I swapped these two while you weren’t looking, you would think this was your gun.”
“Except I’d be wrong?”
“Well, yeah. The frame hasn’t changed, and that’s the biggest piece.”
“Okay, so it’s in the frame.” Morgan swaps the grips and cylinders so that each are in the piles from which they began. Then she picks up the steel frames—barrel, trigger and base—and swaps them. “Now?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I guess the frame is the gun, so we swapped. Even though you’ve still got your grip with the mark on it, and the old cylinder.”
“And what if I sat here and switched every screw, spring, and pin in the guns, but kept the original frame?
“I have no idea.”
“That’s a good place to start,” Morgan instructs. “So, how much of you needs to be swapped before you’re no longer Sean Reilly?” She points to my head. “Everything about you is constantly changing, always rebuilding and adapting. Where is your frame?”