In one way or another, humans are searching to both attain and understand their personal identities. There are many ways to come arrive at the realization of one’s identity, hence the reason for the abundance of religion and schools of thought in the world. Personal identity helps an individual to properly assess their actions, make choices that adhere to the identity he/she has discovered, and avoid making decisions that do not fit into the individual’s perception of him/herself.
The mind/soul view is one way to comprehend identity. Through this train of thought, the soul, which is seen as an eternal entity, is a reliable source for determining the feelings, thoughts and actions that are second nature to a particular individual. The things that one feels in his soul are also likely to turn into thoughts, which turn into actions. However, according to the mind/soul view, the soul continues to live after the body is deceased, which supports the theory of life after death. This belief system also asserts that the soul is perfect, even though the mind and body are not. Therefore, the soul is constantly seeking to be released from the body in the form of ideas and dreams. For this reason, many people believe that they can discover their identity through the ideas that come naturally to them, or by dreams that reveal a part of an individual’s character that is not obvious while the person is awake. Since it is believed that an individual can’t control the activity of their soul, the mind/soul view can provide an accurate depiction of whether a person is inherently good, naturally evil, compassionate, caring, hard-working, loving or selfish.
However, the illusion theory counters the mind/soul view. The illusion view states that humans are constantly changing from one moment to the next, and that there is no permanent self that continues forever (the soul). This school of thought is supported by the fact that the human body undergoes slight atomic and molecular changes from one minute to the next, and that every seven years, a human’s entire physical makeup is “updated” (Williams 4). The illusion theory also asserts that the principle of personal identity is a façade that the human mind has created, and that there is no real way for a person to have an identity if the body never stays the same. David Hume stated in The Treatise on Human Nature that “The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successfully make appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in a variety of postures and situations.” This is also known as Hume’s Bundle Theory (Williams 5).
Those who are searching for a way to explain their personal identity may also subscribe to the body view. This point of view requires the most human intuition, which increases its reliability to many philosophers. Those who prefer to use common sense or concrete evidence as opposed to abstract theories to explain personal identity may also be able to relate to the body view. This theory suggests that as long as a person is in the same body, they are the same person. The body represents all the individual’s personal traits, strengths, weaknesses, and character details. The body view also supports the fact that the physical form does undergo changes. However, the body does not totally transform into a different body, and therefore the person inhabiting the body does not gain a new identity each time there is some form of physical transformation. Most people, at least on a fundamental level, believe in the body view of personal identity. After all, if police are searching for a person who committed a crime, they will look for that person’s DNA at the scene of the crime or on a murder weapon. The person whose DNA matches the samples found at the crime scene or on the weapon is the person who is guilty of the crime. The body is the person, and the two can’t be separated from one another, particularly in cases that require concrete evidence. The main counter-argument to this theory is that it is possible for a person to suffer from amnesia. In this case, the person has no idea what he/she has done, even though they were “living” in the same body when the previous actions were completed.
This introduces the memory view of personal identity, which opposes the logical “body” view. The memory view asserts that people are defined by what they remember. Thoughts have immense power, and the way that an individual recalls an event or stage in life will determine their behavior in the present. John Locke was the first to develop a theory concerning the memory view. Locke stated: “For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that, that makes everyone to be, what he calls ‘self’; and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity” (Williams 16). So, as long as humans have a mental connection to something that happened on the past, this will connect the person to the past and shape his/her identity. For instance, if an individual had a childhood that was filled with love and the encouragement to think freely, this person will likely carry these ideals into adulthood and extend love to others while not being easily swayed by societal opinions. This could be perceived as the person’s identity.
However, if the person creates false memories by recalling an incident in which he/she was punished for being opinionated or free-thinking, this memory will conduct the individual’s actions in adulthood as well—even if the punishment was a method used by the individual’s parents to save him/her from danger. The person may create the scenario of his/her creativity being stifled, and associate the memory with fear and conformity. This could stop the individual from pursuing goals in life or becoming vulnerable in any way. This further explains the theory that a person’s thoughts are that individual’s reality, and could have very little to do with the actual events that took place. The memory view is somewhat in keeping with the mind/soul view, in that a person’s memory usually endures for as long as the person is alive, unless a condition such as amnesia or Alzheimer’s is present. However, memory, unlike the soul, is temporary, as a person’s memory is no longer working once the individual is deceased.
There is also the notion of the brain transplant. Given the array of theories that can explain personal identity, can a person still be themselves if they’ve been given the brain of someone else? And, is it possible for both parties in the brain transplant to survive? This is a theory medical professionals are currently exploring. In a PBS article, Doris Taylor the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute asserts: “Certainly there are situations where people have tumors and have to have areas resected or situations where people are brain-dead… there are situations where somebody has an accident that leaves their brain stem injured. Would it be nice to be able to regrow the appropriate regions? Absolutely. Talk to any paraplegic or quadriplegic out there. They would love to have new cervical neurons or brain-stem regions” (2012). So, a brain transplant could prove to be beneficial for one party, and while it won’t change the rest of the body’s physical appearance, it could change the recipient’s behaviors or habits. Currently, the risks of a complete brain transplant are still inconclusive.
In John Perry’s A Dialouge on Personal Identity and Immortality, the connection between a person’s alleged ability to live forever and an individual’s identity are explored. The text follows the story of Gretchen Weirob, who has three more days to live after suffering a motorcycle accident. Weirob is a philosophy teacher, and is visited by Dave Cohen, one of her former students, as well as Sam Miller, a longtime friend and chaplain, in her hospital room in the days before her passing.
Weirob’s brain is not injured during the accident, but her other internal organs are beyond medical repair, and she has come to the realization that she will die. Cohen is surprised at her seemingly smug reaction to this news, while Miller explains that he may not be much help to her. After all, Chaplain Miller is accustomed to working with those who also believe in God—those who have faith that God will heal them, even in the worst of situations. Sam Miller doesn’t quite know how to comfort Gretchen, since she doesn’t believe in life after death, or the view some Christians embrace of a person gong to heaven after death.
Miller can be seen as a representation of the mind/soul view, while Cohen, who speaks very little in the work, seems to support the memory view. Weirob, who is practical and rational, is a believer in the body theory and asserts that “surviving is surviving, no more, no less” (2). The prospect of an operation that could increase Gretchen’s chances for survival is offered, but she decides not to take it, believing that the surgery will make her someone else, and this would not constitute her survival.
As with most life philosophies, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the quest for personal identity. Perhaps, as is the case with many schools of thought, it would be best for individuals to learn for all theories that could possibly explain personal identity. A human being is made up of physical matter, memories, emotions and a soul—and all of these viewpoints can serve as effective tools to reveal the answer to the question “Who are you?”