Who are you? Or, rather, to put it differently, what is “you”?
Let’s play a game.
The conditions are simple. If you win, then you get to keep your current belief systems and I have to admit, not only to being wrong, but to being detached from reality. Delusional, even. And that’s a tough pill to swallow. If I win, on the other hand, then your beliefs systems and your sense of self will crumble, and you will also risk going as mad as a hatter. (Sound appealing yet?) BUT, as a consolation, you will have the chance to become happier and to feel like you see the world with more clarity (whatever that means). All I ask is that you take time to seriously consider each of the points that I make. If you plan to read through the articles in this series going, “Blah, blah, blah, this bunny’s obviously ignorant, dumb, and evil” or adopt the same attitude that you would towards a piece of fiction, then they will not be of any benefit.
So, are you willing to play this game? If you are not, then you should probably find a different article. If, however, you are, then read on…
Does the word, “you” refer to a physical structure?
If this is your view and you have a capitalistic value system, then maybe you believe that you are the things that you own. If you come from an interdependence culture—a culture like Japan or Mexico, where groups are the central focus instead of individuals—you might think that you are your family. If you pride yourself for being a chameleon, a personality shapeshifter, you probably feel that you are your surroundings. Alternately, if you come from an independence culture—a place like the United States, where individuals are the main focal point—you might see yourself as the physical body who is sitting on a chair and reading this article. Of course, there are always countercultural individuals: people who have developed value systems that are radically different from the ones in their cultures. If you are one of them, then you might not fit very cleanly into this mold. However, most people still believe that what they are is physical.
But what happens to people who lose all of their possessions, get locked up in solitary confinement, or have large portions of their bodies amputated? Furthermore, what if someone was to have their brain moved to a different body in a Freaky Friday makeover? Do people like these disappear? (Really click through to those links and take some time to think about this question. I’ll be here when you’re finished.)
I will assume that you answered “no” to the previous question. (If your answer was “yes,” then I’m very interested in hearing why.) If people who are placed in each of those four conditions can, in fact, continue to exist, then you must not be the things you own, your family, your surroundings, or your physical body. Those things might be important for defining who you are or for protecting you, but they are not the same thing as you. Similarly, while the Declaration of Independence defines and protects the U.S.A., the declaration is not the country.
“Okay,” you might say, “I am not those physical things; however, I am still something physical. I am a particular part of my body: my brain. After all, the people from each of those examples, whether they lost their belongings, their surroundings, their limbs, or even large amounts of their bodies still had their entire brains.”
Touché. I wasn’t expecting that one. Well, it looks like you might have just won.
But wait just a second! What exactly does it mean to be your brain? I think that this question can be used to reveal an error in the way in which we think about brains and personal identity. Maybe I still have a fighting chance. In the next article in this series, I will divide the view that you are your brain into three sub-views. I will subsequently try my hardest to address each of them.
The Philosophical Bunny