What is Identity? 

    What is identity?  It seems we always ask this question.  Identity is who you are and what is important to you.  Your identity can change.  What sets you apart from everyone else in the world?  The answers to these question make up your identity.  
    A common theme for retaining an identity is continuity and sameness.  In order to be the same person as in previous years, some things must remain the same; one must be consistent.  What connection do we have to the children we used to be?  What connecion will we have to the people we will become in future years?  Hillel said, ""If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?" He meant that valuing your identity is an important personal trait but equally important is recognizing your role in society.


    Reincarnation is another question.  Can people exist multiple times, in different time periods?  Can one person have the same identity as a person who existed thousands of years ago?  These are questions people have pondered for years and will continue to ponder because there is no way to prove any answer to these questions.  What about the Caste system?   If people can be reincarnated, they may be able to change their position in society.  

Somatic Approach/Physical Identity

    Some people support the idea of physical identity.  This means that one is the same person one was when one was a child because one stayed in the same body.  This supports the idea of physical continuity.  Even though one’s body ages, if someone watched this person for his/her whole life, one would not move into another body.  One could then argue that that person has retained the same identity.  What about identifying oneself with one’s soul?  When does this begin?  Before the baby is born, if you believe in physical identity, the person in the womb is the same person that will enter the outside world.  However, if you support the psychological identity theory, the baby in the womb, if it has a soul, can be different than the person in the outside world.  There is also the questions of whether or not, in the early stages of life, the baby does have a soul.  If the baby in the womb has a soul, are abortions moral?  What about if it does not?  Do vegetative state patients have the same problem?  Babies in early stages of development and vegetative state patients do not think.  If we define a person as someone who thinks, then these people would not be persons.  If that is so, then they do not have an identity.  Then who is that person one used to know who lays in the hospital bed in a vegetative state?  It is not Aunt Mary anymore because her identity disappeared when she stopped being a person after losing her identity.  All of these questions arise when we begin to question when identity begins.

Psychological Approach

Auguste Rodin's The Thinker
    Those who believe in the psychological theory support the memory criterion.  This states that one is the same person one was when one was a child if one can remember events that occurred when one was that age.  This could be first-person evidence.  To prove that one person has remained the same throughout his/her whole life, if one person can remember completing an action, then the person in the time of the completed action and the person in the present time are the same; therefore, they share an identity.  In this sense, identity travels with the mind.  Because the mind stays in the same body, that same person will have the same identity.  (The child named Jamie has the same identity as the adult named Jamie will have.)  However, there is a problem:  If a girl named Lucy won a soccer game as a child, she may remember this when she grows up to be a lawyer.  The lawyer, Lucy, remembers her childhood and the soccer game.  Over time, Lucy grows older and retires from her job.  At this time, she remembers some of her cases as a lawyer, but she cannot remember winning that soccer game or any of her other childhood memories.  Is this Lucy the same person as the girl who won the soccer game all those years ago?  If one believes in the physical identity, then, those who had known Lucy for her whole life could say yes.  However, if one believes in the psychological theory, then it does not follow the memory criterion.  However, she can remember a time when she remembered the soccer game.  (She remembers being a lawyer, and when she was a lawyer, she remembered the soccer game; therefore, Lucy the retired lawyer is the same Lucy as the winner of the soccer game.)  

Problems with this theory

    What about the times when there is no indirect memory?  If one cannot remember one’s dream from the previous night now, there will most likely be no time in one’s life when one will remember that dream.  There is no connection of memories to remember that dream.  By the rules of the memory criterion, one did not exist last night.  The person in one’s bed had a different identity than the person who is awake now.  
    Another question that arises is that if a brain is split in half (along the two hemispheres), does identity travel with the both of the two hemispheres?  Can there be two people at the same time who share an identity?  If one keeps one hemisphere, and the other hemisphere goes to someone who had to remove his/her brain, which one is the original person?  This calls into question qualitative and quantitative identity.  The two people with the two different hemispheres can be qualitatively identical, meaning they are similar/exactly the same (like identical twins).  However, they are quantitatively, or numerically, different because there is more than one of them. If the brain is divided and separated, then the two halves must be different in some way.  If that is so, then the original person, to whom both hemispheres belonged, would be killed.  This is strange because most people would believe that they would survive if as most of their original form is preserved.  Who would think that a person going into brain surgery and a transplant would want one of their hemispheres to be destroyed?  This calls into question the importance self-preservation and/or self-interest.  


Existentialism symbol
    According to Modern European History by Birdsall Viault, existentialism is "a complex movement that focused its attention on the helpless and alienated individual seeking his identity and salvation in an unreasonable and apparently meaningless universe." Friedrich Nietzsche, a forerunner of the movement, stressed the idea of the hero who was exempt from the rules of society and who lived at a more extreme pace. This superman had a passion to dominate. All existentialists viewed Western Society as absurd. Jean-Paul Sartre went as far as to say that human existence has no significance. However, he said that because of the absurdity of society, humans can establish their own identities by making choices. Through these choices, meaning and purpose can be established in people's lives. Albert Camus praised spiritual rebellion as a means to give peoples' lives significance. He had great confidence in the human spirit and believed that humans can break the bonds of the absurd, meaningless world by creating his or her own identity.

Animal vs. Person

    If the brain is transplanted to another head, then identity would follow the brain (if we believe in the psychological approach), and the body would remain behind with an empty head.  Without the transplant, even, there are two people who live in one person.  The mind and the body live in every person.  In that case, there are two beings that exist and are intelligent within every person.  This calls into question which is the animal and which is the human?  Cloning creates this problem.  If two or more of every person could be created, then how would the clone know that it is not the original?  It may have all of the memories of the original person, so it would not have a reason to believe it is the clone.  
    Perhaps the organism (animal) that resides in every person when thinking it is the “I” is not lying.  It speaks of the person that lives in the person.  This means that if we are dividing each living being into a person that can think and an organism/animal that is the body, then the person would be the “I” because it can think.  However, if the organism says anything, it is speaking for the person; therefore, it would not be lying if it said “I”.  
    Reincarnation is the opposite.  One’s soul can exist only one at a time, so even though one’s soul is transported, there is only one of a person existing at once.  One can be very different from one’s past people, which makes one qualitatively non-identical.  However, one would be quantitatively identical because the two people would be the same person.  There is no conflict with having two of the same person at the same time with reincarnation.  All in all, there are many different theories on this.  

What if?  Questions

    There are always questions that are “What if” questions.  What if my mother had not met my father?  What if she met someone else?  I am different than the child she would have had with another husband.  Or would I be qualitatively identical in some ways with her child because she is still the same person?  This brings up the questions of fate and destiny.  


    A human being is sitting and reading a book.  To outsiders, there appears to be a thinking animal reading the book.  The person who is reading the book and understanding what it means is the only thinking thing sitting in that place.   If all of this is true, then the thinking person who isreading the book is the same as the animal sitting and holding the book.  This theory is called Animalism.  Animalism accepts babies in early stages of development (before their birth) and beings in vegetative states, even though these are not persons.  All people are not animals; if one believes in supernatural begins and/or conscious robots, then these are people but not animals under the Animalism theory.  In order to have an identity, under the theory of animalism, one must be in the same human body to preserve sameness and continuity.  

Can people change over time?

    Can identity change over time?  How drastically?  If something happens to a person, such as a traumatic event, people say the person has changed.  What about the person has changed?  Identity?  People are then faced with the questions of whether or not a person’s identity can change.  If identity is based on continuity and sameness, then it cannot change.  However, this does not mean that we cannot change from the time we were born.  Aspects of our personality and values can change, but the fundamental ideas that make up who we are remain the same.  These ideas form our identities.  

Works Cited