‘She’s not your mum anymore!’ In Shaun of the Dead (2004) Shaun (Simon Pegg) must decide whether to shoot and kill his own mother—or, rather, the zombie occupying her body. Shaun initially acts like the person is his mother by virtue of the body; he attaches her to it. But he reverses his position, thus accepting that his mother died when her body was zombified and lost her mind. (Universal Pictures)

In virtue of what are you the person who lacked control of their bowel movements and who cried for cuddles with Mummy? This is an important question—well, sort of.

Politics, law, love, friendship—they all assume singular, persisting entities. But upon what basis are you an entity and how do you persist?

Here are two conflicting options: the self either has a psychological or a biological status. One person can’t have both. Previously, we ran through John Locke’s argument that a person goes where their consciousness goes. Now let’s consider the importance of the body.

A thought experiment

If Locke is right, it is theoretically possible to ‘download’ a person and ‘upload’ them into another body. To quote Marya Schechtman (2005): ‘Why should it matter to us that the memory experiences in question be in one substance rather than another if it does not change the character of consciousness?’

But one philosopher, by the name of Bernard Williams, created a thought experiment which undermines this position. Imagine you are about to switch from body A to body B (a stranger goes in the reverse direction). You are told that, afterwards, one of you will receive $100,000; the other will be tortured. Now answer this: would you rather be A or B? Rationally, B is the answer.

However, Williams asserts your fear of torture won’t be shaken off, for you identify with your body, expressing fear qua being ‘in’ that body—a fear which isn’t subdued by your thoughts.

Imagine further you’ll be tortured tomorrow but your memories will be wiped before the torture takes place. You shouldn’t be terrified—psychologically, the person won’t be you since your mental states won’t be retained—but you are scared, right?

Therefore, psychological accounts fail to strip minds from bodies. We are concerned for our bodies regardless of our psychological states. So body-switching cases don’t work.

Owning one’s body

To this effect, dying philosophy teacher Gretchen Weirob argued to a friend that even if there is somebody exactly similar to her in another body, it could never be her. Only this body—‘overweight, injured, and lying in bed’—could house her. There might be a Gretchen copy somewhere, indiscernible to others, but that Gretchen won’t possess the original identity.

How about you: can you imagine ever being anchored to another body?

We take strong ownership over psychological aspects of our lives, too.

Numerous works of fiction explore personal identity in accessible yet exciting ways, asking us to consider the extent to which we are defined by our bodily or mental properties.

  • In The Lion King (1994) eventually Simba reaches a fork in the road: he must choose between his past life, rooted in family legacy, or his newfound independence. Will his choice define him?
  • In Futurama S5E8 Fry faces a similar dilemma to Simba’s: year 2000 or year 3000?
  • In Total Recall (1990) Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) wrestles with the contents of his memory to determine whether he is a miner or a secret agent. Memory and reality are blurred over the course of the story. We are encourage to distrust psychological criteria of identity less, particularly those premised on memory.
  • In Westworld Dolores, as a transplanted consciousness, is able to occupy different bodies to take revenge on humans—something which defines her life, given her past enslavement. Will it ever be possible to construct a being whose identity is transferrable like this? Or is the body too important for identity?
  • In Black Mirror S2E2 we watch on as a bewildered woman, who has had her memories wiped, be hounded by members of the public for a prior crime she obviously doesn’t remember. Can there be justice without memory?

Hallucinogenic drugs apparently break up the unified structures of an embodied self. Is the self really that flimsy a concept?