‘I see now that the circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.’ — Mewtwo, Pokémon: The First Movie (1998). (Toho)

This week we focus on personal identity. And today we discuss the sameness of clones.

Let’s go.

Personal identity

Philosopher John Locke argued that a person goes where their consciousness goes; their personhood consists in things like memories. Therefore, a person must be able to extend their consciousness backwards to past events to be the person presently who experienced them.

Some absurdities arise, however. Why trust memories to solidly define us? I might have a genuine belief that I am Ash Ketchum but, alas, I am not ☹ And what if I was asleep or drunk, beyond memory collection: was I really not there? Still, there is something interesting going on here, for where a person is apparently situated is in their consciousness.

In one of Locke’s examples a prince, via his consciousness, is able to enter a cobbler’s body. He takes his ‘princely thoughts’ with him.


Let’s apply Locke’s view to clones by asking: if a person is cloned, are there two of the same person?

No. Locke would have denied this claim. One’s point of consciousness can move between bodies but ‘the soul’ cannot be in more than one place at once.

This is bad news for a clone: the original soul stays with the host. The clone may faithfully recollect past events and share personality traits. They can live indistinguishably in ignorance. But their life can be deflated with one prick of the truth, with which they will realise that their life is a lie: that there is no organic connection to their memories; that they did not experience those events.

These are truly gutting thoughts to consider. But there is hope in life anew—that is, if we follow Mewtwo in Pokémon: The First Movie (1998):

‘I see now that the circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.’

Cloning imprisons a copy of the soul. However, a unique vantage point is created from which a clone becomes increasingly autonomous. They gather new experiences, forging new memories. Their soul is new. They are original. Their life belongs to them.

Nice one, Mewtwo.

Some afterthoughts are due.

What is it to be somebody connected through time? After all, our cells die and are recycled, our personalities change, and our memories falter. On what grounds do we persist?

For Locke, bodies are less important for personal identity than psychological states (cf. bodily vs. psychological criteria). Sidestepping accounts of bodily criteria, Lockeans think our identities are born in memories and other features of psychology. Schechtman (2005) argues that self-narratives and elements of unconsciousness play a part too.

In memory we are often misguided. Memories alone, as objects of thought, are residuals of imperfectly recorded events—events which occur infinitesimally in the present and are forever being replaced. Our connections to those memories are loose. They are flimsy. The memories lose their vivaciousness over time.

But perhaps beneath memory we are still made. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson:

'I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.'