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The Repossession of Genie Magee
The Repossession
of Genie Magee
can you take your
with you?

The International Writers Magazine
Memory Intact?

On Personal Identity and Other Minds
Kimberly Pfeifer

Here is a hypothetical situation: I am a healthy prosperous person who enjoys life. However, upon contemplating the prospect of aging and dying, I become distressed and realize I would prefer to continue living in a youthful body. To my delight, I find that there is a company—"New You Services" which offers a solution to my problem.

They inform me that through a simple medical procedure, my brain, including all of my memories, experiences, and personality traits, can be transplanted into a new "donor" body, there-by extending my life and consciousness. I assume that this is true, and that my "mind" or "soul" is indistinguishable from my brain and I am quite eager to undergo the process. I am cautioned however that to ensure the success of the procedure, my brain will in fact be split between two "donor" bodies—not unlike in vitro fertilization where multiple fertilized eggs are implanted to insure a successful pregnancy. Likewise there exists the possibility that one, both or none of the transplant recipients will survive the procedure. I am further informed that, in any case, "New You Services" employs a crack team of lawyers.

The preceding scenario may seem far-fetched, but the issues it calls to attention are some of the very same issues discussed in Chapter five of Philosophy and Contemporary Issues by John Burr and Milton Goldinger. In "Brain Transplants and Personal Identity: A Dialogue" a similar hypothetical situation is supposed and Philosophy professors Derek Parfit and Godfrey Vesey discuss the nature of what we call personal identity, the concept of ‘psychological continuity’ and the resulting paradox.

Parfit’s argument is built upon the idea that the memories, experiences and resulting memory beliefs together make up what he calls "psychological continuity." He further submits the definition of what he calls "quasi-memory" or "q-memory" – a belief about an experience which seems like a first hand memory or memory belief which results from an experience that some person did in fact have. Vesey states, "The significance of the definition of q-memory is that two people can, in theory, q-remember what only one person did. So two people can, in theory, be psychologically continuous with one person." (Burr / Goldinger 424) Parfit concludes that identity can be thought of as psychological continuity in a one–to-one relationship (one person only with the same psychological continuity) and that since identity is merely psychological continuity, and not some secondary thing, it becomes a matter of degree.

Take for example the hypothetical case in the opening of this essay. In that case there are three possible outcomes:
1: both brain transplant bodies survive creating two people who are both psychologically continuous with me.
2: only one body survives who is psychologically continuous with me and 3: neither body survives and my existence ends. Through his dialogue with Vesey, Parfit unfolds his argument such that the idea of personal identity as an all or nothing condition is rendered, in his opinion, paradoxical, implausible or absurd.

In the case of the first, if both survive and we assume that both resulting people have my identity, it leads to the inevitable contradiction that, while psychologically continuous at the time of the transplant, from that point on they will be two separate people with different lives. The second alternative if both survive is to assume that only one of them has my identity and the other one does not. This seems implausible because both people would have an exactly similar relationship to me. The third alternative is that neither person has my identity, in which case the operation is equivalent to my death because I would therefore cease to exist. If, however, only one operation is successful and only one transplant recipient survives, the question as to identity seems to diminish. At a one-to one ratio identity seems apparent. In a scenario where both operations are successful it would seem absurd to assume that it is equivalent to my death. The point to which these ruminations ultimately lead is that although neither person can be said to be me—that is have my identity—after the operations, survival of one or both of the resulting people is just as good as my survival, because their relationship to me is not different than my relationship to myself at some future time.
(Burr, 425-427)

Another scenario to which this theory might be applied is within the field of artificial intelligence. "Suppose we scan someone's brain and reinstate the resulting 'mind file' into a suitable computing medium," asks Raymond Kurzweil. "Will the entity that emerges from such an operation be conscious?" One can continue this line of thinking and ask: If the resulting entity is in fact conscious, will it have an identity?

While the example of the brain transplants and mind uploading is still science fiction at this time, the acceptance of identity as psychological continuity and as being a matter of degree rather than absolute would have an impact on issues of current relevance. One such issue which Parfit and Vesey discuss is the ramifications such a view would have on criminal justice.

Parfit states: On the view which I’m sketching it seems to me much more plausible to claim that people deserve much less punishment, or perhaps even no punishment, for what they did many years ago as compared with what they did very recently. Plausible because the relations between them now and them many years ago when they committed the crime are so much weaker. (Burr / Goldinger, 429)

The problem with Parfit’s argument is that it is an argument from analogy based on the theoretical. Parfit asserts that if scientists are able to replicate psychological continuity in new organic matter that is exactly similar, they have duplicated what we traditionally call identity in a relationship that is "just as good" as the original personal identity relationship. In other words, a person who is exactly similar to me is just as good as me. But, what if this hypothetical proves to be impossible? What if it is not in fact possible to replicate psychological continuity simply by replicating the organic material of one’s brain? Would it not be logical to assume that identity is, after all, a further fact? If a different hypothetical is used, a different conclusion may be reached. If we accept Parfit’s hypothesis and conclusion, we then must make the analogy that because my identity is a matter of degree based on my relationship with myself, that it is also a matter of degree for other people (and perhaps for machines as well.) The problem that we are left with is "the problem of other minds."
John Hospers explores the problem of other minds by using the example of pain sensation:
When my finger is cut and bleeding, I know that I have pain in the most direct way possible: I feel it. I do not infer from my behavior or anything else that I feel pain, I am directly aware of it… But when your finger is cut and bleeding, I do not know in the same way that you are feeling pain. I infer it from the fact that I see blood and hear you saying that it hurts, and so on….It seems impossible for me to feel your pain and for you to feel mine.

This is not merely a case of semantics. It is easy enough to say that since all people learn to define pain by associating the word with a series of observations, another person’s definition of pain may be different than mine. But suppose, instead that scientists produce a way to measure the pain response in a person’s brain, (as in fact they have to some extent) and that in some cases the resulting data conflicts with a person’s report of feeling pain. To eliminate the possibility of a mistaken definition of pain, assume also that this machine was used to teach the person from childhood the appropriate use of the word "pain". The question remains, can we override first-person reports of inner experience with external physical evidence? Of course we can, as a rule, state that a first-person account which conflicts with the physical data is false, but can we ever truly know?

According to Dr. Albert Ray, MD.: Pain cannot be palpated, touched, or imaged. Physicians must believe their patients when they say that they hurt. It has been stated that "pain is whatever the patient says it is."

Although this may sound simplistic, it is a very useful working definition of pain that incorporates the concept that each person’s painful experience is unique and based on his or her own perceptions.

The issue that remains to be solved is what the nature of a person’s inner experience is. Is it purely physical, as the materialist would assert? Is the mind, where our inner-experiences occur, a separate entity from the physical body and material world? Or is consciousness and perception an interaction between the physical and some other phenomena—a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts? While the materialist would undoubtedly insist that the burden of proof is on the dualist to produce evidence of an immaterial mind, the inability of physical science to adequately explain conscious thought is often used as an argument against materialism. In "Sense Without Matter" A. A. Luce goes so far as to require proof that matter exists at all.
Luce Writes: "See yonder mahogany table. Its colour is brown…Its touch is hard and smooth. It has a smell and a taste… Now the theory of matter …it asks me to believe that all these sense-data…do not constitute the real table…that beneath the table I see and touch stands another table… that cannot be seen or touched or sensed in any other way." (Burr / Goldinger, 408)

While, in this author’s opinion, idealism in its purest form (that nothing exists outside of the mind) can never be conclusively disproved, this particular argument brings up an interesting aspect of the material vs. immaterial debate. Newtonian physics, with its Laws of Causation, is very effective at describing and explaining large systems and organisms, but it breaks down at the sub-atomic level. In what scientists call the "classical world" objects and events are orderly and predictable, but at the sub-atomic level there is unpredictability and chance. Traditionally neurobiology has been undertaken with a Newtonian approach, but currently the introduction of Quantum Theory is producing new ideas in the areas of physiology, neurobiology, memory and consciousness. If one views consciousness as occurring on a subatomic level, scientists may be greatly underestimating the quantity and nature of consciousness in the universe. ("Quantum Consciousness".

These issues and debates are likely to go on, as the answers we are seeking continue to increasingly affect our everyday lives. As the science fiction of today gives way to the reality of tomorrow, thinking machines, genetic engineering, immortality and shared identity may well permeate our headline news…or be as mundane the internet or penicillin. In any case the questions we ask now will shape our future.

© Kimberly Pfeifer 2007
Kim Pfeifer <tuffgrrl99 at

Works Cited
Burr, John R. and Milton Goldinger. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996
Kurzweil, Raymond. "Will Machines Become Conscious?".
Ray, Albert. "Pain Perception".
Scaruffi, Piero. "Quantum Consciousness".

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