Who am I?

Our minds are very full at the moment. We are in a process of election, and I publish this just a few hours before we know the answers. We also face the issue of the security of our society, following two serious terrorist attacks which, for various reasons were hard to foresee.

So let’s turn to a completely different subject – and give your brain a rest.

What is your identity? By that I mean what constitutes identity? For example, in what way do you share identity with the child in the womb so many years ago? Here are some possibilities.

The first solution springs to mind: I know I am the same person because I have a memory. It is true that I can’t recall my time in the womb but the first memory I have occurred when I was two years old. That’s good enough, surely. But is it? Let’s imagine that Hitler did not succeed in dying in his bunker, he survived but he was left with very serious brain damage which has destroyed his memory. He can recall nothing beyond the age of 10. He is put on trial at Nuremberg and is condemned to death. He goes to the scaffold without any recall of his career. Is this just? If it is memory which preserves identity then he no longer has the identity which carried out all the crimes.

So let’s look at the body. Of course my body nowadays is very different from the baby. But it is possible to watch bodies grow, develop and change gradually – creating a linear identity. And that can be supported by particular features. Got any birthmarks? But there’s a problem there too. We are told that all the cells in our body change over time. I don’t know whether the idea that we have changed every cell over seven years is true, but over seventy years there can be no doubt. It reminds me of the poser the Ancient Greeks used to enjoy. Over its lifetime every plank on your rowing boat has been replaced as it rotted. Today not a single plank of the old boat is left. Is it the same boat? And, if it isn’t, at what stage did it change?

But of course the Ancient Greeks didn’t know about genes. Now we know that our genetic code is with us from conception. And it’s so reliable that we can even use it to deduce our relationship to others. I am told that we once bred with the Neanderthals because some of their native genes remain in our systems. And they have not altered over tens of thousands of years. True that may be, but the actual biological genes are also gradually replaced by similar ones. And what about my (imagined) identical twin? Do we share the same identity?

There are some scientists currently and confidently working at transplanting brains to new bodies. They claim to be very close to achieving this with some mammals. Perhaps the day will come when this can be done with humans. Were that so would the resulting creature have the identity of the brain or the identity of the body which it now operates? And we may have an extra problem which the scientists have probably not considered: on the Day of Judgment who will get the resurrected body?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Neuroscience, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Who am I?

  1. John Thomas says:

    If we believe that we in some sense exist in eternity (outside time) then our identity exists there. Eternity explains how God “knew us from the beginning”, and has foreknowledge of our choices (despite us having free will), and that, in some sense, our salvation can be fore-known by God.
    Sure, a physical resurrection – while this can co-exist with eternity, I consider – does indeed raise (your) question of “which body?”.
    “… terrorist attacks which, for various reasons were hard to foresee.” – I’m tempted to do a John McEnroe: “You Can NOT be serious!” – that we would suffer terrorist attacks, sooner or later, was a dead cert. What’s amazing is that they were so long delayed, and have so far (thankfully!) been so few. How long before a church, with worshippers, is attacked, like in Egypt, Africa, Phillipines, etc.

  2. Brendan says:

    For me the essence of ‘ who I am ‘ – me, is my immortal soul. Made in the ” image and likeness of God ” invested within me , this unique individuality from conception . While science is silent on this matter ; from the Cartesian perspective the, ‘ modus vivendi ‘ of the soul is centred in the
    human brain . While the ‘ body ‘ may have some innate properties which may form a ‘ knowing ‘ attachment to the brain in its primary attachment, and the brain even reject a ‘ foreign ‘ body ( if that were possible in time ) ; it is still the pneuma/spirit embodied in the brain which survives as the ‘ soul ‘ of the person.
    Christ Redemptor , risen from the dead ; appeared first ( and the to over 500 others ) to Mary Magdalen . The same Jesus Christ they knew/the ‘ soul ‘ of Him before his death, but somehow appearing differently, as judged by his own words … ” Nolo me tangere ” ( John: 20,17 )… now in a ‘ glorified ‘ state after death.
    On the famous Road to Emmaus sequence ; again the Risen Christ is not recognised by the two despondent disciples , only slowly revealed by discourse …”how our hearts burned within us ”… until final recognition .. ”the breaking of Bread ”.. the very soul laid bare of the ‘person’ of Christ face to face with them.
    No, our bodies while essential to our state , and hopefully changed/glorified in heaven after death, is not the seat of who ‘ I am ‘….it is ones ‘ soul ‘ which holds that primacy.


  3. Quentin says:

    Brendan, I have no difficulty in agreeing with your fine explanation but it is a fideist one: it rests on belief in God and his revelation rather than on demonstration. The philosopher is in a similar situation: he believes in identity in practice but he cannot demonstrate it.

    I remain uneasy when we start talking about the soul on its own. We can have no concept of this because its nature is to be the life (anima) of the body. The only way I begin to understand this is to accept literally that there is no time in the after-world. That means no time passes between death and resurrection. Thus our souls move immediately from being the life of our current bodies to being the life of our resurrected bodies. I don’t think that being ‘loosed from our sins’ in Purgatory is a difficulty here. All concepts of time in relation to Purgatory are metaphorical.

    Do come back on this.

  4. G.D. says:

    Who am I? – The Consciousness i had before the experiences in this ‘fallen existence’; before ‘hiding’ from my true essence & the Divine ……… (as it was in the beginning).
    What i Think/Feel/Intuit/sense i am, is not what i am; in essence. ……….. (is now).
    i am, as all creation is, being Graced with Conscious of my Essance. ………..(and ever shall be).

    Or at least i hope it ever shall be!!

  5. G.D. says:

    Our perceptions, as they are now (of/in time?) are only a partial (fragmented/broken/dualistic) seeing of reality.
    How we perceive of ourselves, and creation from within time, presents a false concept of the unity of all creation that is the reality, as God created and redeemed it out side of time.
    Our true identity (who i am) is the essence created & redeemed outside of time.

    According to some we can get glimpses of this reality in certain higher states of meditation/contemplation, and by ‘acts’ of God according to certain mystics some within the catholic tradition.

    At the end of time (presuming there is one) the second resurrection will be the Grace of all who have become ‘conscious’ as it was in the beginning. My becoming conscious now, through Grace will determine if it ever shall be.

    That’s why i desire to imitate Jesus who showed how to do it. (As do others?).

    ‘Christ Consciousness’ has to be universally applicable for all creation (no matter how it is ‘perceived’) or there couldn’t be a creating & redeeming ‘through him with him & in Him’ out side of time.

    Personally i can not comprehend of a God who will not redeem all creation as it was in the beginning.

    I believe the above …… but only conjecture it as one more broken take on reality, not assert it as ‘right dogma’.

  6. galerimo says:

    “Give your brain a rest,” Quentin? I don’t think so. Just about as exhausting a question as there is.
    No easier than asking “Who is God?” than asking “Who am I?”

    For starters your demented Hitler would be the same person but would have a different identity altogether – no longer capable of acting out of the identity he created for himself as Adolf.

    And the boat would still be Aristotle’s old boat with all its new planks and just as incapable of changing any identity for itself even with all those shiny and new boards.

    Unlike the boat I create my own identity from life – and never finally.

    My identity is always something that I both find in my living and make anew.

    And for the Christian that I am I can add, without any diminishment of my autonomous creator role, that I also co-create with God’s Holy Spirit – I both transform through my own agency as a person and evolve in union with God’s Holy Spirit into being who I am; continuously.

    A truly polymorphic subject.

    Defining my identity (which is what I really think is the question here) will depend on all the categories of culture that I have taken as my own.

    Just as with God, as soon as I define my identity I misrepresent who I am because I can change in an unlimited range of ways. And just like God the creation of identity is a process of kenosis. Emptying and filling. exitus and reditus. Tidal.

    So, who am I? is an enquiry into a process without boundaries with which the person is always engaging.

    In the end the resurrected body can go to both the first owner of the brain and the new recipient of the brain as they continue their unique, ongoing creative resurrected lives. Just like having the same government after an election as before!!!

  7. ignatius says:


    “..In the end the resurrected body can go to both the first owner of the brain and the new recipient of the brain as they continue their unique, ongoing creative resurrected lives. Just like having the same government after an election as before!!!..”

    Not too sure about this, care to expand a little?

    As to the boat, it would still be Aristotle’s boat but only if he were the owner…different material, same owner. Also the boat remains a boat only as long as it functions as such.

    • galerimo says:

      Thank you ignatius.

      My offering here is that while my body helps to identify me, my identity is not just my body; my identity is the meaning and purpose I continuously give to myself.

      In the resurrected state my physical reality, I would suggest, is no longer impeded in any material sense. Therefore I see no reason why my creating (and co-creating) agency by which I continue to establish identity should not continue; whether I am the giver or the receiver of the hypothetical brain Quentin mentions. Creating our own identity is what makes us real human beings (boats can’t do this!), and real human beings are, we hope, what will be resurrected.

      It works just the same at the social level as it does on the personal. When a government goes to an election – usually it will still be a government after the election but its identity has changed (and hopefully evolved or progressed in some way!) through the agency of the expressed will of the people freely exercising their franchise.

  8. Iona says:

    A person might have a big gap in their sequence of memories, but still maintain the same personality, preferences, habits of thought.

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