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Personal Identity 101: The Body Theory


Personal identity 101 was designed as an independent series of articles around the topic of identity and self. It joins various philosophical, psychological, and sociological theories to explain the importance of personal identity and inspire discussion on different existential questions. Articles will be saturated with diverse ideas and concepts, anticipated or scientifically proven theories to encourage readers to dive deeper into the topic and identify their position in this dilemma.

Personal identity 101 consists of 8 articles. After completing the course, readers will be able to see the correlation between society and the self and vice versa.

  1. The Body Theory

  2. The Mind and Consciousness Theory

  3. The Soul Theory

  4. How Identity is Socially Constructed

  5. History, culture, and myself

  6. Contemporary world and its influence on personal identity

  7. Identity problems and solutions: Am I good enough?

  8. Future of Personal Identity: Flying cars and smiling Android

The Body Theory

An integral part of being human is trying to understand the surrounding world and the part that humanity plays in it. To orient in a current of thoughts and ideas, people ask questions to themselves and one of these essential questions is - Who am I? Personal identity has occupied philosophers' minds since ancient times, forming various historical beliefs and trends. Some consider that identity lies within our minds, others think about more spiritual matters, and some even believe that it is more complex and can not be defined by a single key concept. This article will review one of the most famous personal identity theories - the Body Theory.

Tanni Koens. (2007, November 13). Can I hide my Identity Can I Play a Role
Figure 1: Can I hide my Identity, Can I Play a Role

First of all, we can talk about links between our identity and the body. At first glance, it is undeniable that I am me as long as I remain in the very same body and have the same DNA and the same fingerprints. This means that personal identity is constituted by bodily identity - people often identify themselves with their physical appearance, plus the appearance of the body plays a big role in other people's perception of oneself. Such a materialistic view assumes no difference between the human body and any other physical object, such as a tree or a stone. Eric Olson, a molecular biologist, is an adherent to the idea that a person's behavior is conditioned by biology only and there is no spiritual nature. (The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology, 1997).

However, our body is not as reliable as it seems if we consider all the biological changes a single human body goes through every second. But if the body keeps changing, how can we state that the identity remains the same? Personal identity is rooted in the continuity of the physical body over time. This means that our personal identity is determined by the fact that we have the same body from birth to death and that our body changes gradually over time. Considering little changes, such as the renovation of the epithelium, or bigger changes, such as ageing or loss of a limb, people still identify one personality with their body even if it is not identical anymore. But not all parts of the body are equally important in this scenario. There is one special organ that doubts the idea above - the brain. The classical body theory can account for cases where memory and consciousness are disrupted, such as amnesia or brain damage, by appealing to the continuity of the physical body as the basis of personal identity. However, there is another point of view suggesting that the brain is itself a house of a person's identity.

 Tony Luciani, MAMMA, In the Meantime ​ a series of 100 images over four years
Figure 2: A Life Divided

Cognitive neuroscience is a field that studies the physiological basis of mental processes by measuring the activity of the cells in the brain. Researchers conduct behavioral experiments to show that recorded brain activity is correlated with cognitive processes, decision-making, and bursts of emotions. For example, a group of scientists examined brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging while the participating people were performing cognitive tasks. The study suggests that there are four distinguishing thinking styles involving the activation of the different parts of the brain. (Ciorciari, 2019) Therefore, the brain seems to play a crucial role in a person's behavior or performance. But does it define their personality?

What happens if the brain of person A is transferred to person B? This may sound like science fiction but in 2017 a group of medical doctors announced a new technology that will soon enable head transplantation. This announcement caused a huge discussion not only due to technical challenges but also due to ethical questions it raised. How should the person with a transplanted head be identified - as a person that owned the head or as one that owned the rest of the body? A common view is that a personality exists in the continuity of one's mind, meaning that the new combined person has the personality of the one whose brain was transferred.

A similar problem was described in the book of Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (1987). One enters the Teletransporter on Earth. The machine scans the person, copies all the information, and breaks them down atom by atom. Afterwards, the data is transported to Mars at the speed of light. Once the machine on Earth is done working, another device on Mars rebuilds the person atom by atom. One might say that the person who entered the machine on Earth, and the one on Mars are the same, but are thay? Or is it a new human who was just created? The old and the new share the same consciousness, memories, desires, and experiences, but the only variable that has changed is the body. In his book, Parfit argues that our intuitive beliefs about personal identity are flawed and that our sense of self is not as continuous and stable as we tend to think. Instead, he proposes that personal identity is constructed through psychological continuity and connectedness rather than through the persistence of an unchanging self. "Reasons and Persons" is a complex and influential work that challenges many traditional assumptions about personal identity and ethics and offers a new perspective on how we should think about these important philosophical concepts.

A female figure projection in a dark environment, teleportation by Piranka.
Figure 3: A female figure projection in a dark environment

Another important aspect explaining the ties between body and identity is culture. Humankind has always created theories about the afterlife, trying to answer the question: "Do I survive my own death?". "No" may seem like the most suitable answer, but there is an idea that changed this point of view - the idea of resurrection. The concept that a person may be brought back to life after their death has been a part of many cultures and religions throughout history. The origins of the belief in the resurrection are not entirely clear, as it is likely to have developed independently in various cultures. One of the earliest recorded instances of belief in resurrection comes from ancient Egypt, where the god Osiris was believed to have been resurrected after being killed by his brother Set. The myth of Osiris became a central part of Egyptian religion, and the pharaohs were believed to be able to achieve resurrection after death through their association with Osiris. In Judaism, the belief in the resurrection is tied to the concept of the afterlife and is mentioned in various texts. The Book of Ezekiel, for example, describes the resurrection of the dry bones, and the Book of Daniel speaks of the resurrection of the dead to face judgment. In Christianity, the belief in the resurrection is central to the faith and is tied to the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament describes the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, and the belief in his resurrection is a cornerstone of Christian theology. Christians also believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, when all people will be judged, and some will be resurrected to eternal life. (Collins, 2004).

"It is when the graves open and the people come out of them for the judgment. The bodies that have decayed will be recreated” (The Day of Judgment, Resurrection, n.d.)

It clearly suggests that personal identity is closely related to the body in those religions, as humans will never be the same again without the body. Still, the body is not the key element, as a human is only complete with its soul. Conversely, in some other religions, such as Hinduism and Sikhism, the theory of reincarnation has been believed for centuries. While religions mentioned earlier consider the body as an integral part of identity, reincarnation implies that the person remains essentially the same while occupying a new body (The Mystery of Reincarnation, 2013). Also, some critics of the body theory argue that it fails to account for the possibility of disembodied existence. For instance, it is conceivable that a person's consciousness could be uploaded into a computer or transferred to a new body, in which case the body theory would be unable to explain their personal identity. Furthermore, the body theory does not provide a satisfactory explanation of how consciousness arises from physical matter, which is one of the most fundamental questions in the philosophy of mind.

There is no way to determine which one of those ideas is true, and it is the subject of personal decisions and beliefs. However, we can conclude that the body is important for some, but for others is wholly insignificant and only a temporary property.

reincarnation and identity. Eternal soul, temporary body
Figure 4: Reincarnation

In conclusion, personal identity has been a topic of debate for philosophers throughout history, and the Body Theory is one of the most well-known theories on the subject. While the materialistic view of personal identity asserts that the body is the basis for personal identity, it may face challenges due to changes that occur to the body over time, such as illness, injury, or aging. Moreover, the unique and constantly evolving nature of the brain raises questions about the extent to which physical continuity is necessary for personal identity. Additionally, cultural beliefs, such as the idea of resurrection, have also influenced the perception of personal identity throughout history. Overall, the concept of personal identity remains complex and subject to various interpretations.The Body Theoryis only a drop in the ocean in regard to personal identity theories. There are various ideas and approaches that we will be exploring in the following parts of the series.

Bibliographical References

Ciorciari J, et al. (2019) A Neuroimaging Study of Personality Traits and Self-Reflection. Behavioral Sciences.

Collins, J. J. (2004). Resurrection: Immortality and the resurrection of the dead in the ancient world. Doubleday.

McGinn, B. (2008). Body and soul in the Christian tradition. In The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church (pp. 145-158). Routledge.

Olson, E (1997). The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology. Parfit, D. (1987). Reasons and Persons. Oxford Paperbacks. The Day of Judgment, Resurrection. (2021). Islam. Ms. Retrieved. The mystery of reincarnation. (2013, ). PubMed Central.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Tanni Koens. (2007, November 13). Can I hide my Identity Can I Play a Role [Painting]. Figure 2: T.L. (n.d.). A Life Divided [Photograph]. Figure 3: Piranka. (2017, August 7). A female figure projection in a dark environment [Graphic design]. Figure 4: Reincarnation. (2016, December 19). [Illustration].


The notion of posthumous rebirth has been a prevalent belief in several cultures and faiths over the ages. geometry dash online

Author Photo

Polina Merbaum

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