Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"The Good Ship NEWF"

[This essay first appeared at Eternity Road, on July 1, 2006. I claim that one cannot have a defensible position on either abortion or cloning until he has satisfactorily answered the questions here.]

Who are you? I mean, really? And how do you know?

That phrase "identity theft:" what does it mean? Is the thief really stealing his victim's identity? Perhaps one could assert that in a small number of cases -- Jack Nicholson's old movie The Passenger comes to mind -- but far more often, he's stealing some group of the rights or privileges associated with that identity, isn't he? He doesn't want to be you; he simply wants to be able to do a few of the things you're entitled to do.

But let's get back to basics. Who are you? How do you know? And how do others know you for who you claim to be?

Most of us, thank God, never have to grapple with the question to any serious degree. That doesn't mean it isn't a serious question. Just ask Jeff Medcalf.

The question is hard to answer even when applied to inanimate objects. For example, let's imagine that I own a sailboat -- I don't, having no interest in water recreations -- and that I've named it the NEWF, after my late, beloved, exceedingly moist Newfoundland Bruno. The good ship NEWF can be viewed:

  • Holistically, as a unitary entity with a clearly designed-in function and an associated identity, or:
  • Reductionistically, as an assemblage of anonymous (I hope) wooden, steel, rope, and canvas parts.

When its function as a sailboat is being exercised, its holistic, functional identity is clearly the one of immediate interest. Yet if I were to shipwreck myself upon some lonely island -- perhaps Staten, with its forbidding landfills, or Fire, with its natives'...disturbing fleshly practices -- NEWF's reductionistic characteristics would come to the fore, as I made use of its planks for firewood and its sails for blankets. Many would claim that in that second case, there no longer is a good ship NEWF, merely a pile of useful, unnamed items.

Here's the ultimate poser about identity: Imagine that, in the quite ordinary course of maintenance, I were to remove one of NEWF's deck planks and replace it with another -- but instead of discarding the removed plank, I laid it aside. Imagine further that, over the years, I pulled up and replaced (but did not discard) still more planks, until a decade hence, I had replaced every component built into the original boat with an identical substitute. Would it still be the good ship NEWF?

I'll take you a step further: Imagine that I'd saved all the replaced components, and out of sheer philosophical whimsy built a boat from them that was identical to the original. The replaced components, torn one by one from the original structure, have now been reassembled into...the original structure! But...but...the "original" -- the one that now contains no component built into the NEWF at its moment of christening -- is sitting over there, at that dock! Which one is the good ship NEWF?

In practical terms, the problem is unimportant, as anyone who were to do such a thing would swiftly be certified and packed off to some pleasant institution with soft walls. But metaphysically, it spotlights the nature of identity as men understand it.

The undefined abstraction we call identity is inseparable from continuity.

The boat with "all new" components would have been continuously the NEWF, in service as the NEWF gives service, from the moment of its christening to the moment of the question, regardless of how many of its parts had been replaced. Its identity as a holistically, functionally viewed item was never interrupted. The components torn from it had no identity of their own; their "participation" in the NEWF's identity was strictly as "supporting cast." Their removal could not undermine the NEWF's "NEWFness," any more than the receipt of a transplanted kidney from Smith could lessen Jones's identity as Jones.

So who are you? Don't you owe your identity as yourself to having been continuously "in residence" in your body and mind from the moment of your birth? How much of that assemblage could be replaced without undermining your claim to your identity? What about the possibility of an "interruption in service?" That is, if you were to die tomorrow, and some time later were revived exactly as you are today, would you still be legitimately the person you are today? Would the length of the interruption matter to the argument? And what about the regular, refreshing interruptions of consciousness we call sleep?

For the really strong of stomach: were you who you are today -- in essence, not in acquired capabilities nor extrinsic possessions -- before you were released from your mother's womb? If so, what intervening events or changes, had they occurred, would have negated your fetus's claim to be you? If not, why not?


1 comment:

  1. I seem to recall from some schooltime lesson or other that our entire body replaces itself through cellular mitosis every [fill in some period of time].

    Which strikes me as analogous to both your reproduction of the good ship NEWF^1 and NEWF^2 and to the old "ma gran's broom" (Had five haids and sivven hannels; best broom ever ownt).

    Apropos of what I do not know.



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