Amnesia, Personal Identity, and the Many Lives of Wolverine

So, the next essay in “X-Men and Philosophy” is by Jason Southworth and actually has the same title as the title of this blog post, and is an examination of personal identity and more particularly how we know that we are the same person today that we were yesterday, or five years ago, or the day we were born. Southworth relies on two main theories to do his work, and relates them back to Wolverine specifically, since his healing factor and constant states of amnesia provide excellent foils for these two theories.

The first is that of John Locke, who takes a mental approach to identity. But the problem he runs into is that for every mental property that we have it looks like they are in flux, and constantly changing. The only thing that doesn’t really change is our memories. Except that, well, we forget things all the time, and might even develop false memories. So Locke has to quite quickly talk about some kind of core memories, and connection of memories, by which we can say that we have the same basic set of memories even though the full set of memories fluctuates a lot. Of course, we can immediately see that we could easily do something similar for our character and personality traits, and therefore avoid the problem that Wolverine becomes a completely different person every time his memory is erased, which happens fairly frequently, and more importantly the problem that if someone lose their memory and then regains it that they were a completely different person for a while but when they get them back are now the same person they were before they lost their memory, and only have a bunch of extra memories about the time when they had lost their memory attached to them again … when they were someone else, presumably. Or would it be the other way around, where they have become a new person and their “regained” memories are just new memories attached to the new person? Who can say?

The other alternative presented is that of Derek Parfit, who goes for a physical approach, insisting that it is sameness of brain that matters, and not sameness of anything specifically mental. However, since the brain is changing all the time, with old cells dying out and being replaced, this means that we actually change into a different person quite frequently, about seven years. The problem with this, though, is that it isn’t clear when we should start counting. Why is it that we should say that we have a completely different brain and so are a different person based on some fairly arbitrary starting point of when we think we had all the same brain cells, and when all of those special brain cells go away we’re suddenly a different person? Just like Locke, Parfit — at least as presented by Southworth — ignores continuity and looks for an absolute measure, but we can quite easily claim that the normal brain process of cells replacing themselves is a continuous process that happens in the same brain, and so as long as that process is proceeding we have the same brain no matter how much of that has been replaced, which would mean that brain damage in Wolverine wouldn’t in any way make him a new person any faster than the rest of us, because all it would mean is that his processes can repair his damaged brain faster than ours can. Getting the brain mostly wiped out — like what happened when he went after Nitro in Civil War — might still count.

Which leads to the two other big issues with Parfit’s physical approach. The first big issue is that his theory means that we change in a different person in a way that has no mental impact on us at all. We have all of the same mental properties, act the same way, think the same way, and don’t even notice that we’ve become a different person, and yet we have. This doesn’t seem to like to anything like what it means to be a person, which then even casts doubt on privileging the brain as opposed to the entire body. The second big issue is that when, say, Doctor Doom eliminates Captain America in Secret Wars and the Beyonder keeps using Klaw to recreate him, since that would probably be a different brain that means that we had a completely different person every time … despite the power and purpose being to recreate the precise same person that had been destroyed, which then leads to a logical contradiction (actually, Star Trek transporters would thus do the same thing, by definition). This seems odd.

Both Locke and Parfit ignore the fact that it seems like continuity of traits is what defines us as being the same person, not the precise states themselves. Locke does realize this, but tries to hack it into his memory model when it would work so much better to solve the problems with the character/personality model, especially for self-caused character changes. Parfit also ignores it in creating his brain-based model, leading to his claim that we become a different person about every seven years, whether we know it or not. Both would have much stronger theories utilizing continuity to its utmost, instead of using it as a quick patch or ignoring it entirely.

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