Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Who Are You?

One of philosophy's most fascinating puzzles is the question of personal identity. What is it about me that makes me me? Is it my body? Is it my brain? If the body is constantly changing then in what sense does my self perdure through time? If my identity is just the contents of my brain how do I remain the same self over time as those contents change? What about me remains the same over time that keeps me the same person?

Suppose we say that it's our brains and their contents that make us who we are. Imagine that your body is dying but your mind is working well. Doctors have, through amazing leaps in technology, developed the ability to transplant brains into different bodies. Suppose your brain is transplanted, at your request, into the body of a person named John who suffered a catastrophic brain injury. When you awaken from the surgery, who would you be, you or John?

Brain scientists know that if they cut the corpus callosum, the band of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, two different centers of consciousness can be created. If either hemisphere is destroyed it's possible that a person could live on as a conscious being. Suppose your brain is transplanted in such a way that one hemisphere is placed in the body of John and the other hemisphere is placed in the body of Mary.

Have you survived the operation? If so, are you now two people? If you're only one, which one are you? Is it possible to be more than one person simultaneously? If so, if you committed a crime before the operation, should both John and Mary go to jail for it?

If we adopt a skeptical view and say that there is no personal identity but rather that the self evolves over time and we're not the same person today that we were ten years ago, then how can anyone be held responsible for promises they made or crimes they committed ten years ago? If we are not the same person who committed the crime then to punish us would be to punish an innocent person, would it not?

A theist might partially resolve this problem by claiming that our identity resides in our soul, and that our soul is independent of whatever body or bodies it possesses. But how would a materialist or naturalist who has no belief in any non-material constituents to the self, who has no belief in souls, resolve it?

No Good Explanation

There are basically two schools of thought about President Obama's leadership of the American economy currently in circulation. One is that our economic doldrums are due to the fact that though the president really wants the U.S. to have a thriving economy, he just doesn't know how to bring that about. This school of thought entails that Mr. Obama is totally unqualified for the position he's in, incompetent, and/or not very smart.

The second school of thought is that President Obama is actually very bright and very competent and our economy is on precisely the trajectory he wants it to be on. His ambition is to "fundamentally transform" this country, eradicate the capitalist system that has created so much prosperity, and replace it with a big government socialist state similar to those which are failing so spectacularly in Europe. Economic stagnation prepares the ground for that change by making it appear that capitalism is a failed system, and Mr. Obama is masterfully leading us to that denouement.

Either the President wants to fix the economy but can't, or he can fix it but won't. Of the two possibilities I don't know which is the more likely. Certainly neither is attractive. To deny that he can't fix it is to imply that he's malevolent. To deny that he won't fix it implies that he's not up to the office to which he was elected.

There is a third possibility, of course, one toward which I incline. Perhaps Mr. Obama really does want to dismantle American capitalism and replace it with big government euro-socialism, not because he's malevolent but because he really believes socialism is the more just economic arrangement. He sincerely believes that it is unjust for some people to have more of the world's goods than others. If this is the correct explanation, then questions arise, at least in the minds of those not on the fringe left, about his wisdom and judgment.

In any case, none of the alternatives are pleasant to contemplate. Maybe there's a fourth possibility that I'm just not seeing.