Posts Tagged Identity

Who am I, who are you and who the hell is the guy I was?


We all use it, we all have a name and we all identify ourselves by some means. The question of “who am I” is multifaceted. Am “I” the meaty object standing in front of you? Am “I” the emergent property of a squidgy organ in the head of that meaty object? Am “I” the sum of all of the perceptions of me?

We tend to use all three (with an emphasis on the first two) but I propose that we can’t really pinpoint what is “us”. I’ve always been really fascinated with identity, practically it’s very useful. You can call me Ryan and point to somebody else and call them Brian and we would know who you were talking about, the interesting thing for me is that you can point to a picture I have from five years ago and call that “Ryan”. You could do it to a ten year old picture; you could even do it to a picture of my mother holding a baby that’s just been named “Ryan”. Therein lies the dilemma for me, I accept that “I” am this body in front of you (a body whose physical functions result in the expression of a mind) but am “I” the boy in those pictures?

To show why this is an issue I’m going to borrow an old question in philosophy called the Ship of Theseus (I may not relay the story faithfully but the premise is the same). Theseus goes off sailing in his ship; his ship is made from a set number of wooden components. Over time these wooden parts rot one by one. Every time they rot they are removed and replaced with a new peace made from fresh wood. Let’s posit that there are one thousand parts that make up the ship and by the time he comes home every component of the ship has had to have been replaced. In other words there is no part of that ship that was technically there the day the ship left. The big question is “is it still the same ship?”

Repaired piece by piece is this still Theseus's ship?

This is a hard question. Often the first response is that it isn’t the exact same ship, that the act of replacing bits of it over time has made the ship different. I have another version of this thought experiment, what happens if every time a wooden component is replaced it is replaced with a completely different part? Imagine a ship made from one thousand wooden planks and every time they rot they are replaced with metal, when the sail tears and the mast rots they are replaced with a propeller and when the navigator drinks too much and falls overboard he’s replaced with GPS. Is that the same ship? In this example I imagine most people would say it is not and there are justifiable reasons for believing that. But this is more than just a fun thought game.

Every second of every day we are dying, tens of thousands of cells die and are recycled or shed from our skin (a lot of house dust is dead skin). This is no big problem because we replace all these dying parts. We do this by eating food, digesting it and using it to rebuild parts of us. Over a large enough span of time all things in our body are replaced, cells die and are replaced and importantly every component in those cells are replaced too. I’ve heard various numbers of how long this takes but it doesn’t really matter exactly how long it is merely that at some point in your life there are no atoms in your body that were there at the start of your life. This is the Ship of Theseus acting in real life and it’s a very interesting thing to think about, the body that people identified as “Ryan” at the beginning of this identity has nothing left in the body that is now identified as “Ryan”.

This phenomenon applies to our personality too, over time we develop new behaviours and loose old ones to the point where if we were to place Ryan at ten years next to Ryan at twenty years next to Ryan at one hundred years and you will struggle to see that they used to be the same person. Am I really the same “Ryan” if I share no matter nor mind with this past Ryan? Are we not strangers? And am I accountable for this strangers actions? The point I am trying to press is what is “I”?

An Evil Genius stealing your atoms, one by one

Lastly there is one more thought experiment I would like to propose; imagine there are three identical hotel rooms next to each other (left, middle and right). You go to bed in the middle room and at some point in the night some Evil Genius sneaks in and freezes your body. Then he or she takes you apart atom by atom. They start by taking one atom from the bottom of your foot and take it from the middle room to the room on the left. In this identical room they place this atom in the corresponding place in the bed that it was in the middle room. This Evil Genius then does this again but this time places the second atom in the room on the right. This act continues with you being dismantled atom by atom with each atom going to the left or the right room until finally there are no atoms left in the middle room and exactly 50% in both the left and right. Where there is a gap between atoms in the left room there is an atom to be found in the right room and vice versa. As one last act the Evil Genius fills in the gaps of both these two bodies with atoms from stock and warms both bodies up before fleeing the scene.

As the alarm clock goes off in both rooms the two bodies wake up and stumble out of the room only to see another them down the corridor. Which one is you?

I’ve asked a lot of questions here and not provided any answers but I hope they are all questions that have got you thinking.

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