It’s a Friday night, and you are leaving one of those crazy Brandeis parties. Extremely intoxicated and unable to think “rationally,” you decide that the best thing to do is get in your car and drive to your house in Waltham. About ten minutes into the trip you are face down on the pavement with a broken spine. For the rest of your life you have lost all ability to move your body from the neck down. Now I’m sure all you readers are thinking, “What a gloomy way to begin an article!” However, this scenario raises a very interesting question: Are you the same person after this car accident as you were before?
The question of personal identity is something that has puzzled philosophers for centuries. When pondering this issue, it is very hard to identity what exactly makes you you. Is it your mind’s ability to remember past experiences, the body in which you live, a combination of both, or perhaps something physically unidentifiable such as your soul? Although there is no “correct” answer to what consists of personal identity, I believe that this concept is the unique way in which a human’s consciousness develops over time through the thoughts and experiences within the human’s original body.
At first this definition may seem to be a little vague and confusing. However, it is easiest to explain through a question relating to this theory: At what point do you draw the line? In other words, how much does a human’s body have to change in order for the physical change to result in a change in personal identity? Even if we were to agree that a humans body is part of an individual’s personal identity, can this definition be used given the subjectivity of the degree to which an individuals body needs to change in order to change personal identity? Although it is true that this definition of personal identity is subjective, it can make some sense if you try to define the different types of physical changes that a human undergoes. Upon observation of my own life and the lives of others, I have recognized two types of physical changes that a person can undergo: changes that reflect personal identity, and changes that alter personal identity.
Let’s start with changes that reflect a person’s identity. These changes occur when the person makes a conscious decision to alter his or her physical appearance. Examples of these changes can include things that many individuals do to their bodies to maintain hygiene, such as clipping toenails, brushing teeth, and cutting hair. These physical changes do not change, but reflect personal identity because there is something about this person that desires or has the intuition to make this physical change. Other examples of such change can include a person’s decision to have dyed blue hair, or have piercings in twenty-five different places on his or her body. Although these changes may seem more severe than changes that involve personal hygiene, both types of actions involve a person’s conscious decision to express their personal identity.
In contrast to the changes that reflect a person’s identity, the changes that alter a person’s identity are those that occur without intent. This in turn is forces a person to act in a way that results in a change of their personal identity. A good example of this is the Frank & Ernest comic that I received in my philosophy class. In this comic Frank and Ernie have their heads put on the wrong bodies. Since Frank’s head is on Ernie’s body, and is carrying Ernie’s wallet, the brain inside Frank’s head decides that he is going to buy lunch. However, Frank may not have been so eager to purchase lunch if Frank had to pay with the money in the pocket of his original body. Since Frank’s head is on Ernie’s body he has developed a character trait of generosity, which was a trait that he did not previously have. We can also look at a more practical example, such as a person being diagnosed with cancer. In this instance a person may be forced to act in ways that a person did not previously act. Effects of this physical change can include the inability to work and the necessity to sleep for many more hours each day. In both cases, it is clear that the physical changes that alter personal identity are those that occur unwillingly. This causes a person to act in ways that a person would not have previously acted, which results in acquiring different memories than the person would have previously acquired.
Now let’s go back to the tragic scene in Waltham. Presumably you did not intend to be involved in a car accident, or become paralyzed from the neck down. However, despite your intent, this accident results in a drastic change of your future experiences and memories. Yes, it is true that the driver will be called by the same name by family and friends. However, based on this theory of personal identity, you are no longer the same person. Now the question arises: If you aren’t the same person as you were before, who are you? This my friends, is a question for an entirely different article.