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Personal Identity


What makes you the person you are? Is there an "essence" to your identity, such that if that essence were taken away, YOU would cease to be? Suppose, for instance, that you awoke one morning, only to discover that all of your memories and consciousness had been transplanted into the body of movie actor/ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarznegger. You still remember your first bicycle ride without training wheels, the time you scored the winning goal, your first passionate kiss, etc., but now all of that is housed inside Arnold's body. What's more, you now speak with an Austrian accent, and Maria Shriver (Arnold's wife) keeps calling and asking when you'll be home for dinner.

How should we describe this conglomeration of your brain with Arnold's body?

(1) You are trapped in Arnold's body.

(2) Arnold has, through some catastrophic event, had your memories and consciousness implanted within him.  So it's Arnold, not you.

(3) This freak of nature is neither you nor Arnold, but something (someone?) altogether new.

Most people are tempted to accept (1), that it is "you" trapped in Arnold's body. But why think that? You are assuming that your memories and consciousness are more definitive of who you are than your body. But what justifies that assumption?  Consider someone who, when you first met him/her as a freshman in high school, was a total jerk.  By your senior year, however, s/he had completely changed, and was now your best friend.  Isn't it natural to describe this situation as follows:  "Pat has really changed."   If so, then despite Pat's radical inner transformation, it is still Pat (albeit a kinder, gentler Pat). This suggests that Pat's body (the only thing that hasn't really changed) is the true indice of his/her identity.   What do you think?

Philosopher Meredith Michaels (in a later reading) offers another challenge to (1).  Suppose it is true that despite being housed in Arnold's body, you still retain all your memories.  But remember, those memories are of events that happened to a body that you no longer possess. So in what sense are those memories genuine anymore? Put differently, your memory of your first kiss was STORED in your brain, but the experience of that kiss (the actual kiss itself) didn't happen to your brain (at least I hope it didn't!). That memory is of an experience that happened to your body, a body which you no longer possess. So why think the memory alone carries any significance?

In this unit we will examine the question of personal identity...what is it about you that is defines who you are?

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John Perry
John Locke
Meredith Michaels
Alasdair MacIntyre
Group Project #1