Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philosophy from the mouths of babes: Identity

A couple of months ago, I was walking home the four year old I babysit from school.  We were chatting about nothing in particular, and after a lull in the conversation she said "Do you sometimes wish that you were me and I was you?"

After over 8 years of working closely with children, I have a pretty good sense of when they're asking a genuine question and when they're rambling nonsense.  This was the former, so I answered her seriously - "No - I would miss being me."

"But why?" she asked.  "There would still be an Ana in this country."  (Translation:  The "I" that is "Ana" would still exist "in the world" - I would still "be" even if I wasn't actually the one being me.  Why should I miss "being Ana" if "Ana" still existed?)

*                    *                    *

At the time I had just finished reading "Why does the world exist?  An existential detective story" by Jim Holt.  After a fascinating whirlwind of a journey through different theories about the nature of existence from  all manner of disciplines, he spends a brief chapter towards the very end exploring the nature of the existence of the self.

Consider the following thoughts from that chapter:

"The coming-into-being of my genetic identity was indeed a long shot.  But was even that enough to ensure the coming-into-being of me?  Could this genetic identity not just as easily produced not me, but, as it were, my identical twin?  (If you happen to be one of a pair of identical twins, try this thought experiment.  Imagine that the zygote that split apart shortly after fertilization to produce you and your twin had instead remained a single clump of cells.  Would the unique baby born to your parents nine months later have been you?  Your twin?  Neither?)"  (pp.255-256)

"But what happens if I undergo amnesia and lose all my memories?  Or what if a fiendish neurosurgeon manages to erase all my memories and replace them with your memories?  And what if he performed the reverse operation on you?  Would we find ourselves waking up in each other's body?" (p.258)

"But if psychological factors don't determine my self-identity, what could?  The obvious alternative - endorsed by [Bernard] Williams and later, more tentatively, by Thomas Nagel - is the physical criterion.  My identity as a self is determined by my body; or, more specifically, by my brain, the physical object that is causally responsible for the existence and continuity of my consciousness.  On the "I am my brain" view, the actual contents of your stream of consciousness don't matter to your identity.  What is all-important is the particular blob of gray meat that is lodged in you skull.  You cannot survive the destruction of this blob.... Nagel has gone so far as to suggest that even if an exact physical replica of your brain were created, and then stocked with your memories and lodged in a clone of your body, the result would still not be you." (p.259)

If me and my little charge switched bodies (i.e. if my brain was implanted into her body and vice versa), it is conceivable to me that "I" would still exist - I would, however, suddenly have the body of a four year old.  There's no shortage of movies based on this idea.

But still... would that really be me?  Is my brain the only source of my identity?  Could identity be transplanted so easily from one physical container to the other?  Are our identities a collection of all our thoughts and memories?  Our repertoires of behaviours?  Is a new born child, armed with only a few fuzzy memories of sound heard from the womb, essentially devoid of identity, of self, until they have amassed enough memories and thoughts in their brains to be called a "self"?

What about the girl I babysit - she is 4.  She definitely has what most of us would call an "identity".  Yet, 20 years from now, she will probably remember very little of what she thought, felt, and experienced as a four year old.  Will her current identity have been annihilated and replaced with a new one?  Most of us, myself included, would instinctively say "no" with a great deal of certainty - what is it that remains, then?  An unconscious recollection of experiences?  A repertoire of intricately "conditioned" behaviours collected through our life time but which we no longer know the source of?  A "soul", some sort of essence outside the physical body that persists and "gives identity" to a particular body in a particular place and time?  How could such an intangible non-substance even exist - what would it be "made" of - how can an idea of an identity, which is essentially what a soul would be, exist without a thinker or perceiver of the soul?  (Why, that would be "God", you say - he/she/it thinks us and knows us and that solves the problem of our existence. 'But then, mummy, who created God?')

*                    *                    *

Flummoxed by the depth of her response and how much it reminded me of Holt's (and my own) ponderings, all I could muster in response was something like "I would still miss being me... it wouldn't be the same", and we both continued the rest of the walk in pensive silence.