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?