Category Archives: Personal Identity

Is Batman Batman?: Continuity of Identity for Fictional Characters, Part 1

Something I’ve thought about for years is the “continuity of identity” for fictional characters, especially those that have persisted across long periods of time, have handled by different creators, and/or have moved across media. In the medieval world, for example, legends of King Arthur occur in disparate, often contradictory forms, but we still have a basic idea of who the character is and what the important events in the Camelot story are.

In the 20th century, with the proliferation of printed sources, movies, radio dramas, television, comic books, and mass culture generally, we can watch characters undergo more rapid change, accretion of canon, trying out and jettisoning of variants, etc.

Interestingly, in many cases, some kind of cohesion and continuity of identity persists. Of course, this needn’t be the case, or at least not strongly. For example, the very first, pre-Action Comics “Superman” story by Siegel and Schuster was about a bald telepath, and not an alien with super-strength. They then tried out a several more variants before getting the Action Comics version out. It’s not clear what sort of continuity exists between the bald telepath and the comic book version, other than that Siegel and Schuster had a name they kept playing with.

I want to claim that some of these characters, like King Arthur and  Batman, while perhaps loosely defined at the start, have some kernel that either coheres or fails to cohere with additional elements, and that, in part, what determines which elements become canonical is the extent to which they cohere with the central concept of the character, and with the other elements that, perhaps because they cohered so well with the central concept, had become canonical. (I think this is somewhat comparable to Daniel Dennet’s “center of narrative gravity,” and I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.)

In Batman’s case, you begin with the origin story: a young boy sees his parent murdered by a criminal, then moves into a cave and begins dressing as a bat and fighting crime. In short, you have a fairly dark story, beginning as it does with a child witnessing the murder of his mother and father.

I think that’s (in part) why the “light-hearted” Batman didn’t stick very well. It wasn’t cohesive with the character (I also think that comic book fans as a group probably weren’t the sort of readers who appreciated goofball comedy).  And I think that that’s why the 1980s reimagining of Batman as even darker, grimmer, etc, stuck so well. If a central element of the character is that he watched his parents die when he was little and he blames this on criminals,  and then he spends the next ten years doing nothing but training to fight crime, it’s going to make the most sense for him to be an obsessive, overly focused, somewhat grim individual.

Ultimately, there’s a narrative for these characters, and narratives are ways of editing from the infinite possibilities inherent in what happened. Narrative writers look for stories that hang together. The Batman narrative hangs together better if we edit out the campy version. We ourselves narrativize our experience; we also edit for cohesion. “That wasn’t me,” “that’s so like me.” Are these judgments sound? Or do we think in terms of a cohesive character for ourselves and exclude “out-of-character” moments (research in “attribution theory,” notably such effects as actor-observer asymmetry and the fundamental attribution error, point to ways in which we edit personal narratives for cohesion.)

It’s important to note that in the case of a fictional character, the success, aesthetic or commercial or in critical reception, probably fuels the keeping of some elements and the jettisoning of others. But we still have to ask why the critics and fans disliked some elements, and I think lack of cohesion with the central character elements is important for the readers as much as it is for the creators. The “but Batman wouldn’t do that!” response comes from this source, I think. There’s an idea that some of the versions of Batman just aren’t Batman.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the continuity of identity of the character. Is the new Sherlock Holmes on the British “Sherlock” series, or the one on the upcoming American “Elementary” series, continuous with, in some way identical to, the same as, etc., as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes? Are they less or more the same character as the one who appeared in the Basil Rathbone films? Is the movie Batman the same as the comic book Batman? At all? The same questions can be raised with legendary figures: Is Jupiter really Zeus? Are Wotan and Odin the same god? Is the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost the same character as the ha-Satan of the Bible? We can break this down into elements: the name is the same, some characteristic is the different, this story element is the same, etc., but we still need to ask why do we make judgments of sameness here?

Part of the answer, with Batman, involves the fact that this is a character that is owned by Warner Bros; any Batman that is not licensed is not, according to Warner Bros, the same Batman. But obviously this doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes, Zeus, or Satan, and I’m not sure it really works for Batman. If there was no chance that a consumer wouldn’t identify an illegal Batman product as the real thing, then Warner Bros wouldn’t have a case, so they have to claim that there’s at least a sense in which unofficial Batmans can be identified with the official Batman.

So I think the connection to the character’s defining concepts, attributes, elements, etc., may be more important for identity than something like copyright, since that’s going to be some of the basis for even making a copyright claim. Sometimes, the name is a key defining element, but not always: Jupiter and Zeus may well be “the same god” (in some sense) in spite of the name change. And if I tell a story about a man who’s parents are shot in front of him and who then dresses up like a bat and fights crime, I don’t need to call him “Batman” for the audience to know who I’m talking about.

I’ll pick up on this in a future post, along with some discussion of  theory of descriptions, rigid designators, and the ways in which knock-off, alternate universe, and unofficial versions of characters are and are not identical with the original. Look for special guest appearances by The Midnighter, Owlman, Nighthawk, and all those pictures of Batman and Robin making out that can be found in gay bars, on the internet, and in your mom’s bathroom.

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Personal Identity, Personal Change

Obviously, the continuity of personal identity is not the same thing as absolute identicalness. No person is purely identical with his or her past self, neither physically nor psychologically. So it’s clear that “identity” here doesn’t have a mathematical sense.

It also doesn’t have the sense it has in claims that two words have the identical meaning, or that water and H2O are identical, etc.

Rather, we’ve got a slight conflation of identity as sameness, and identity in the sense of who I am, how I and others identify me. My identity is, among other things, the parts of myself, including my moral outlook, that I would think of as essential to who I am, and, alternately, the parts of a person that others think of as essential to who that person is. The question of personal identity then is somewhat complex, and somewhat confused in bringing together identicalness with who or what I identify with, or what others identify me with.

Since we can’t have absolute identicalness of a person across days or weeks or years, what we’re usually asking is about the degree of identicalness of a personal identity. That is, when a person changes, as we all do, we sometimes need to ask“how much sameness is enough?” And that question, because of its vagueness, is not something that there’s a pre-made answer for. Rather, we have to decide it on a case by case (or category-by-category) basis, and we have to know “enough for what?”

For legal purposes, a complete change in the material component of the body is not necessarily a hindrance to sameness, assuming the old saw about changing all the parts of one’s body after seven or twelve or some number of years is true. Rather, an organismic continuity and some degree of psychological continuity are what count.

But the forensic has perhaps been overused as the paradigm for the “enough for what?” question in continuity of identity. Recently, Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols did some survey research showing that people have less identity with continuity of memory or continuity of body than with continuity of moral principles and personality (unpublished as yet; this matches a claim I made in “You Are Not the Person I Knew” in Appraisal, vol. 9 no. 1) This would be a somewhat surprising result, since most of the philosophical literature points to memory or body as the basis for continuity. But, if this research and my guesses hold true, people don’t want to identify with an entity that carries on their memory and bodies but does not carry on their moral values and personality.

This change is almost certainly not relevant for legal culpability or forensic purposes in general. So when people said these changes were not “identity preserving,” they clearly had something else in mind.

Further, some change in moral perspective will not be identity destroying, whereas some changes will be. So this brings up the “enough” question. How much is enough?

Let’s take a case:

Myra and Enid are married. At the time, both are supporters of the rights of gay women to marry each other, both are strong libertarians, both attend a Baptist church regularly, and both believe that a loving adoration of Jesus Christ is the surest path to heaven, though, contrary to some church teachings, they hold that good works can be sufficient. Further, both do charitable work every weekend, and both are huge fans of the Star Trek franchise, attending Star Trek conventions at least twice a year.

Now suppose that Myra, in her exploration of libertarian ideals, begins to believe that Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness are proper. This contrasts with Enid, who thinks that libertarians should take responsibility for the poor by doing and giving to charity, even though she thinks the government should not be involved in this enterprise. We could imagine this causing a rift between Myra and Enid, but would it be enough for Enid to claim that Myra has changed beyond recognition, or has lost the identity that Enid fell in love with?

Maybe. Maybe they still go to Star Trek conventions, even though Myra no longer attends church (as a Randian atheist, she is opposed), no longer does charitable work, and no longer believes that loving Jesus or good works are paths to salvation. Clearly, a great deal of their shared identity has been severed. There were causes and goals and ideals that they identified with that Myra no longer identifies with.

And maybe Enid will say that that’s enough, that she can’t be with Myra anymore. If so, it’s because the Myra she fell in love with has changed so much that Enid no longer sees her in the Myra she is currently married to. She might well say, “It’s like I don’t know you anymore.” And in a sense that’s true: Enid used to know Myra’s moral landscape as though it were her own. Now it’s a puzzle, and a frustrating one. It really is true, in an important sense of “same person” (though obviously not in a forensic sense) that Myra is not the person that Enid married.

So in this case, my point is, “enough” comes down to the participants. It’s not for a philosopher to tell Enid that Myra is still the same person, or is not the same person. That’s up to Enid.

But imagine that Myra and Enid both became Ayn Rand advocates. They might change together. Then this question might not arise. However, they might look back on their charitable, church-going former selves and say, “I hardly recognize the people we were.” They may indeed have trouble identifying with their former selves, feeling embarrassment at their old moral code, and no longer understanding how they could have believed such things. Again, if they make this claim about themselves, that’s up to them.

Or, they might think of their journey to Randian “objectivism” as continuous with their early exploration of libertarianism, and may think of their earlier selves as continuous with their current selves, though a bit naïve. Or they may have trouble identifying with some of their beliefs, but not others, seeing themselves partially reflected in, and partially alien to, their former selves.

Sometimes, we are asked to identify ourselves, and sometimes we can rightly say, “I don’t even know that person anymore,” when referring to a past iteration of ourselves. And sometimes we are asked to identify a friend or lover, and we can rightly say, “I don’t even know that person anymore,” when she is standing right in front of us.

One last note on change: a parent recently told me that she missed her infant daughter and mourned her loss, as her daughter was now 5 years old. It’s not that she didn’t love the five-year-old. She did! But she missed the baby that, in a very real sense, had ceased to exist. There was no great connection between the five year old and the baby. They form part of the continuous history of an organism, but there was nothing in particular about the personality, appearance, or even the physical make-up (as I understand it, children move through the matter of their bodies fairly quickly) that necessarily linked them.

So I don’t think the mother was wrong in thinking that the infant was gone. I could, distantly I guess, not being a parent, understand that one would mourn the loss of the completely needy, sweet-smelling, bald, non-linguistic creature of 6 to 10 pounds weight and less than two feet length that always wants to be held, while still appreciating the more independent, 45-inch tall child with long hair that sometimes pushes away from a hug or tries to explore on her own, shutting out the mother.

What I’d like to get at here is a sense of the “enough” and “enough for what” that reflect what we value, and how people, in daily life, divide up the world. I’d like to say more, too, about the prospect of changing together, and the way in which we do identify ourselves across change. I think Parfit’s example of the Russian Nobleman (Reasons and Persons, 327-328) is a good starting point for this: Schechtman’s discussion of this in “Personality and Persistence” (American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Apr., 2004, pp. 87-105) and Christine Korsgaard’s discussion in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (p. 207-208; Cambridge, 1996) form interesting commentaries. I’ll try to tackle these in a later post, and expand on the question of how we maintain identity across change, while also losing identity across change.

Identity After You Die, Identifying Beyond the Organism

Recently, Bill Cosby proposed an “identity law” which deals with the ways a person’s identity can be used after he or she dies.

It’s clear that there’s a literal sense in which identity persists after death. Our identities, in the sense of the public record of who we are, can in fact suffer misfortune after death (as Aristotle notes in the Nichomachean Ethics in the case of a man whose family comes into terrible disrepute), or a rise in fortune (Van Gogh, for example, did better after death in his identity as a painter.) Of course, none of this affects us subjectively, but the subjective experience of identity is only one aspect of identity.*

And here we see a divergence between persistence of identity and persistence of personhood (or persistence of a human being.) An identity is not simply something we control: it’s partly public. That public identity can undergo interesting changes in our absence or without our consent.

This is part of what Parfit is after in Reasons and Persons, and why he thinks a certain kind of identity is not “what matters” (ch. 12). For Parfit, we should be more concerned that in the future our current interests are protected and nurtured. Another way to say this is that we can identify with a cause or purpose (or maybe with another person, or a family) just as much as with a physical body.

This is obviously true: certainly people die for causes (or for family members), identifying so strongly with the cause that they think its continuation is more important than their bodily continuation. Similarly, people identify so strongly with family or loved ones that they’ll sacrifice their lives to allow that family or the loved one to continue on. And many people derive an identity from some larger entity, such as a nation, a religion or a political cause. Others identify with, or are identified with, something, such as their art works or their reputation, that exists outside of them. Thus, Bill Cosby’s interest in protecting his identity (his reputation, his image, the legacy of his works) after his death.

Notoriously, John Galt, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, declaims “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” This is an interestingly impoverished view of self and identity. (Note that Galt swears by his life…he has nothing else to swear by since he holds no other ideals.) I think if we reduce identity to identity with the course of life of a human animal, or some such, we risk impoverishing the concept the in the same way. Not that that’s not an important area for investigation of identity!

But  we identify well beyond our bodies, as Parfit (and Erik Erikson and many others) notes. Further, our identities as such are always tied in to social milieux (or what Marya Schechtman calls “person space.”)

Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, in “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation,” (Psychological Review, vol 98, no 2, 1991, pp 224-253) make an empirical case, by survey method, that in the United States, identity is more closely tied to the individual, whereas in Japan it’s more closely tied to the group (though not necessarily to the whole…the group from which identity is derived tends to be fairly exclusive.) Looking beyond our cultural borders is one way to expand the possibilities of identity, and helps to show that there’s no absolute reason that the unit of identity should be the single organism. Any unit of identity has to be constructed to some extent. Where and how we construct them shows something about what we hold as important, what impinges upon us as an obvious unity, and as a source of identity.

Of course, we can imagine other possibilities here and I think fiction and historical narrative can serve this purpose, reminding us of lives lived in identity with something or someone beyond the simple individual organism.

———

*It seems that psychological literature, especially social psychology starting with Erikson, has been good on analyzing the different meanings of  “identity” whereas at times philosophical literature has focused overly narrowly on one sense. Markus and Kitayama’s work is an interesting empirical extension of this social psychological tradition

Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes

In my metaphysics class today we were discussing Aristotle and I was explaining the idea of accidental and essential changes. One student asked, “what if something has two distinct functions, could the same change be accidental with regard to one function and essential with regard to the other?”

First, I applauded the student for creative thinking (see this post.) Then, taking off from this I gave the example of a wheeled office chair that was used by children as a continuing prop in a game of monster: the chair played the role of the monster, and they would run from it, sneak up on it, roll it towards each other and scream, etc.

A cigarette is accidentally dropped on the seat of the chair, and the seat burns away, but the rest of the chair is largely unharmed. It can no longer be used as a chair, so there’s been an essential change: in a sense, it’s no longer a chair. But it’s only an accidental change in its role as monster. It still rolls and it looks enough the same that it can still serve its role

So it’s had an accidental change on one interpretation of the object, and an essential change on another. It’d be easy enough to think of other cases like this. There’s a kitchen knife that I use as a screwdriver. It’s tip breaks off so that it will no longer fit into a screw slot, but it’s still a perfectly good kitchen knife. I have a TV/radio. The screen burns out, so it’s essentially not a TV anymore, but the speakers still work so it’s a perfectly good radio (note to young people: there used to be these objects that were combination TV/radios). Or, it’s still a perfectly good TV for my blind roommate, but I no longer get much pleasure out of it as a tv. So it’s essentially not a sighted person’s TV, but it has undergone no essential change for a blind person.

I was thinking this is similar to the question of continuity of identity. Sometimes we need to know the specific function for which the continuity question is being asked.

The example that came to me was a sex change operation. Joe is married to Keisha. Joe gets a sex change and becomes Josephine. Josephine is still liable for Joe’s crimes and debts, but Keisha could quite rightly say “Josephine is not the man I married!” This is doubly true: Josephine is not in fact a man. For Keisha’s purposes, Joe has undergone an essential change and ceased to be, because it was essential for Keisha that Joe be a man. Joe the man is gone. And as a result, Keisha is within her rights to say, “I am not married to that person! [actually, in some parts of the U.S., the sex change does nullify the marriage, though Keisha could say this anywhere, and could probably get the marriage annulled] That person is not Joe!” There some elision here between “man” and “person,” but from Keisha’s perspective, part of the essence of the person she married was that he was a man. In changing that, Joe/Josephine changed an essential characteristic of the person Keisha loved.

Of course, from Josephine’s perspective, it’s probably the case that she now better embodies an internal essence that she always felt. I think there’s a lot to be said about that: that Josephine’s new bodily form is a better expression of her self than her old form.

So this may require some teasing apart of  “person,” “self,” and “man.” But at the same time, I think it’s not unfair to say, without providing technical and stipulative definitions of these terms, that Keisha is not wrong when she says, “that’s not the person I married,” and Josephine is not wrong when she says, “I’m the same person I always was,” they’re just interested in different senses of continuity of identity. For Keisha, Joe’s identity included being a man. For Joe, it did not. And we can’t simply say that Joe is right because it’s his identity; sometimes we have to accept, as in criminal law, that our sense of ourselves is not the key to who we are. I might think myself a hero for having shot someone, but if the law finds that I’m a criminal, my point of view may not matter (I can be delusional, or have a very different ethical perspective than the law, etc.).

Again, this comes back to first- and third-person accounts of identity, and I want to give some weight to social identity, or identity-in-relation to others. And I definitely want to give weight to the spouse who says, “that’s not the person I married,” in this case and in many other cases not involving anything like a sex-change, but rather strong shifts in values or personality, because someone’s personhood can change in ways so radical that we cease to accept them as the same, and this can be a justified move.

Some good work by women writing on the identity question

In an independent study last year, a student asked that we work on personal identity, and that we read work by women. I thought that was a good idea; philosophy, as is well known, is the most male-heavy of the humanities, and that can cause writings by women to get overlooked, especially women working outside of feminism.

So here’s a list of some of the more interesting work we read, in case anyone’s interested. Notably this is NOT meant to be an exhaustive list on the topic, or even a reasonable overview! It’s just a selection of the best works we read during the course of the prior semester. I excluded a lot of stuff  from our readings that I just didn’t think was that great, and we only had time to cover so much material. I’m working now on a general bibliography on the topic, and hope to put that up at a later date.

There are a lot of pieces by Marya Schechtman here, partly because she’s  very good, and partly because, among the leading discussants of personal identity in contemporary philosophy, she is one of the few women. I’ve put a star next to works I think are particularly valuable or interesting, or which add significantly to the topic.

Finally, I’ll note that focusing the reading on women’s writing was not just an exercise in equality;  good ideas that were not prominent or were largely absent in the leading male thinkers on the topic were well represented here (for example, the ways in which personhood and identity are limited by social forces and can be externally determined are much better covered here than in the mainstream writings by men), and of course,  any exploration of this kind calls for as many good perspectives as possible.

—————————-The List————————————————-

*Simone de Beauvoir, “Introduction to The Second Sex.” Probably everyone has already read this, but applying it to personhood and identity studies is extremely helpful. Goes very well with the Joanna Russ piece below.

*Marilyn Friedman, “Autonomy and the Split-Level Self” Southern Journal of Philosophy, Spring 1986, 24, p.31 I can’t recommend this piece enough. It’s  a wonderful response to Frankfurt’s “Concept of the Person” and adds an important emotional component to personhood while also complexifying the Frankfurtian notion of first- and second-order desires.

* Carol Gilligan, “Remapping the Moral Domain: New Images of the Self in Relationship” in Reconstructing Individualism ed. Heller, Sosna, Wellbery, Davidson, Swidler and Watt, Stanford Univ. Press, 1986 I’ll note that this piece has received a lot of strong criticism in the years since it’s release, and much of that criticism is very helpful. It is nonetheless an essential piece in the history of thought on ethical topics, and I think it’s a great piece for reading in relation to questions of identity and personhood, in that it helps establish the normalcy of forms of identity that are socially situated, as opposed to the traditional view that the self or person is self-contained.

Christine Korsgaard, “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency,” in Personal Identity, ed. Raymond Martin and John Barresi, Blackwell, 2003 I find myself in pretty strong disagreement with Korsgaard, who takes a strong body-criteria approach, but Korsgaard is a great philosopher and always worth reading, and her approach is nicely complex in the way it focuses on agency and time.

Kristen Renwick Monroe, “Morality and the Sense of Self,’ American Journal of Political Science, vol 45, no. 3, July 2001, pp. 491-507

*Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation,” Psychological Review, vol 98, no 2, 1991, pp 224-253 Interesting attempt at cross-cultural study of the concept of selfhood and identity. It’s a sketchy overview, and it’s hard to be sure if the conclusions drawn are well-supported by the evidence, but there’s some extremely thought provoking models in here.

*Amelie Rorty: Introduction to The Identities of Persons, University of California Press, 1984

*Joanna Russ, “What Can A Heroine Do, or Why Women Can’t Write” in Images of Women in Fiction, ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillion, Bowling Green Univ. 1973 Great, sadly under-read piece about how forms of life and identity are limited when stories are limited. Excellent for narrativist theories of selfhood, and really well written.

*Marya Schechtman: “Empathic Access: The Missing Ingredient in Personal Identity” In Personal Identity, ed. Martin and Barresi, Blackwell, 2007 While I have strong criticisms of this piece, it’s absolutely groundbreaking and essential for future studies of personal identity.

*Marya Schechtman, “Self Expression and Self Control” in The Self? ed. Galen Strawson, Blackwell, 2005

Marya Schechtman, “Stories, Lives and Basic Survival”

Marya Schechtman, “Diversity in Unity”

Marya Schectman, “Personality and Persistence”

Marya Schechtman, “Memory and Identity,” Philosophical Studies 153:65-79, 2011

Marya Schechtman, “Personhood and the Practical,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 31:271-283, 2010 This piece is a little sketchy and some of the arguments highly unsatisfying but it points the way to a radically new conception of personhood based on the idea of “person-space,” that is, the area we reserve for certain entites in our social practice that admits them to a socially-sanctioned realm of personhood. 

A Note on the Physical Criterion

One thing that’s interesting about the physical criterion for continuity of identity (the claim that it’s the continuation of the body that counts, not the continuation of any mental content–cf. Olson, Wiggins) is that most of those supporting this position would hold that a person is the same person even if he or she loses a leg, an arm, or really, almost any part of the body except the functioning brain. (I’ve had students claim that loss of limbs would involve loss of continuity of identity, which I think is an interesting idea which requires a greater exploration of what they mean in that case by “continuity of identity.”)

This is discussed by Parfit in ch.10 of Reasons and Persons, and it’s a fair assessment of the general consensus. So what counts isn’t the body, as such, but rather the part of the body that produces psychological content. Further, if the brain is rearranged enough, even some physicalists would accept that the person (if not the human animal) has ceased to be.

What all this points to, I think, is that for many purposes the physicalists have a psychological criterion or critera:  that is, they’re just focusing on the physical area where psychological effects are produced. This is a reasonable strategy, especially if you want to hold an eliminativist position in regard to psychological terms. Still, the claim of the physicalists who make this move is that the body part that produces psychological effects is what must continue to exist for continuity of identity (and probably it has to continue without certain changes, like those that would cause the death of the organism…there’s an interesting set of end-of-life problems here, and some questions about total loss of brain function, or loss of all higher function/all function other than brain-stem function, etc.)

Some physicalists would probably accept that a person remains the same person even in the event of massive brain injury if the body survives…this is what Marya Schechtman was getting at in “Personhood and the Practical,” for example. Schechtman, though, accepts that sometimes the physical criterion is the relevant one, and sometimes it’s not. I think this is a fairer approach than picking one criterion and assuming it’s relevant in all cases or for all questions and concerns.

On the diversity and vagueness in the question of continuity of identity

Suppose you are 40-something years old. You remember growing up, getting married, having children, etc. Basically, a standard life with standard memories. Then it’s shown to you, incontrovertibly, that all of your memories from before you were 25 are false; they were implanted. The body you inhabit had been inhabited by a serial killer. Doctors took the serial killer, placed her in a coma state, and fed dreams into her head electronically. Over the course of a year these dreams replaced her prior memories. No surgery was involved, just the process by which all our memories are altered over time: we remember something, a detail is added, another subtracted, and slowly our memories are altered. (This is well-established in psychological studies of memory, by the way, and it’s possible to create false memories using this method–not the coma, just making suggestions to people as they are asked to remember things–, though I doubt anyone’s ever tried it on this scale.)

When you learn that about the serial killer, do you think that she was (A) you, (B) sort of you and sort of not you or (C) not you at all? Or maybe a better question is: do you feel yourself to be identical to the serial killer? Do you share her identity?

I think what’s interesting here is that many of us (maybe most) don’t have a clear sense of how to answer this (or we take the B answer). Ultimately, I think a lot of these cases point to problems with our overly rigid notion of continuity of identity: we want there to be answers in all cases (that’s why we get “it’s body,” “it’s psychological continuity,” etc, put forward as the criteria), but I think the fact that there aren’t clear-cut answers (and even if one person has a strong sense of what’s the right answer in all cases, repeated studies have shown a tremendous amount of disagreement in many such cases, so there’s no consensus here, and no clear standards to appeal to–I’ll return to this claim) is helpful in showing us the complexity of the concept of self/person/identity/continuity.

From a forensic perspective, here are some interesting real-world cases that show, even for legal purposes, bodily continuity is not sufficient for identity: the courts have ruled that a person with split personalities was not responsible for what her other personality did:

(There have been a few other cases like this too, and cases where a person was found guilty because it was thought that he/she was faking the split personality.) I should note I’m a bit of a skeptic on the actual existence of split-personality, at least of the sort where one personality has no access to the memories of the other. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that in such a case, a court would rule (rightly, I think, if the claims of split-personality were true) that one personality is not responsible for the doings of the other.

This is because, in general, bodily identity is not enough for guilt; the law demands that there be a degree of psychological connection to the criminal action, which is why mens rea is a necessary element of a crime. In R. v Parks, in Canada, the supreme court upheld the acquittal of a man who committed murder while sleepwalking; in fact, the point of contention was not whether a sleepwalker was responsible for murder; it was agreed that a sleepwalker was not; it was whether he was lying about sleepwalking. So again, bodily identity is not sufficient for forensic purposes.

But it seems obvious that in a will or property case, bodily identity may well be sufficient. If someone leaves person X some money, I doubt total memory loss for person X would negate the will (barring some specific language in the will to that effect.) So in _some_ legal contexts, the body is what’s relevant. In some, it’s not condition.

Again, this goes back to the claim that the question of continuity of identity is several questions that have to answered in specific contexts.

I’ll also note, briefly, that the method of pumping intuitions and looking at cases is helpful here not because it points us to the “true person” or “real self” or whatever the target of a personal identity inquiry is, but because the multiplicity of answers shows that we don’t have a single, consistent answer to that question. Further, it’s not just popular confusion that could be cleared up by an expert inquiry into the real self, or real person, or what have you. Instead, I think what we’re seeing is that a number of different senses of continuity of identity are at play in our social practices. It’s not that these practices can’t be mistaken, but that there’s no fundamental reason, no raw data, that’s entirely separate from social practices, that we can point to in all cases as the final word on how we should act. Sometimes a physical criteria is best. Sometimes a psychological criteria. And sometimes one physical criteria makes more sense than another (“the functioning brain” might be our physical criteria, but if the brain ceases to function the bodily entity probably still has plenty of ownership rights, for example, but no longer has (I’m guessing) voting rights or parental rights.) Marya Schechtman’s discussion of the mother in the late stages of dementia does a nice job of noting when we accept a pure bodily criteria, and how much is lost in making this the sole criteria (see “Personhood and the Practical” in Theoretical Medical Bioethics, 31:271–283, 2010)

Exploring these multiplicities, again, tells us something about what people hold as important in identity.