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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 with the aim of explaining the importance of personal identity and inspiring discussion on different existential questions. Articles will be saturated with diverse ideas and concepts, anticipated or scientifically proven theories with the purpose of encouraging readers to dive deep 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 to question our own identity and to ask questions beyond our understanding and imagination. Especially in the era of rising Artificial Intelligence, people have been talking about how identity can be transferred to an Android body, promising eternal life. We don’t know the limits of the technologies. One marvelous day we may wake up to the opportunity of all this mentioned above. But before we reach the level of this technological advancement, we need the answer to the question that humankind has been trying to figure out for centuries. The answer, without which, this mesmerizing idea of eternal life stays just as an idea. Where is the identity?

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

Some consider that identity lies within our mind, 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.

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. Fingerprints are the most reliable proof of one’s identity in the face of law and government institutions. Human DNA creates unique individuals with a set of physical, mental, and emotional features. 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. Physical changes happen constantly, yet they are not visible in a short time. Day by day, one looks and feels like the same person, but the change reveals itself over a year. Another powerful argument proposing non-stop transformation of the body is the way our organism functions. For example, it is scientifically proven that red blood cells have a life span of 4 months, the skeleton is constantly reshaping, and the skin cells change every 27 days (WebMD, 2003). Given the above, we encounter a question, If the body keeps changing, how can we state the identity remains the same? It suggests that the body theory of personal identity is flowed and is not as reliable as it seems at first glance.

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

Furthermore, to better understand the dilemma, we can review Derek Parfit’s thought experiment described in his book, Reasons and Persons (1987). Based on his experiment, one enters the Teletransporter on Earth. The machine scans the person, copies all the information, and breaks him down atom-by-atom. Afterward, 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 person who entered the machine on Earth and the one on Mars is the same, but are they? Or is it a new human who was just created?

Additionally, Parfit asks, what if the machine on Earth was designed only to transmit the data but not break down the human atom-by-atom? They share the same consciousness, memories, desires, experiences, etc. The only variable that has changed is the body. In this case, we would end up having two different bodies at two different locations, thinking, “I am the real me.”

‘Wait a minute’, I reply, ‘if I’m here I can’t also be on Mars’. (Parfit, 1987)

Based on this theory we can make the assumption that the body plays a relatively insignificant role in regards to personal identity and understanding of self.

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

Apart from this, we can dive deeper into the culture to understand body-identity ties. As mentioned above, humankind has always been troubled by the fleeting nature of life. Therefore different societies have been thinking about life and the afterlife. Even though they are not directly preaching about personal identity as we understand it today, exploring them can be helpful to discover the links ancient people were putting between a person and body. For instance, some religions such as Christianity and Islam suggest the theory of resurrection.

"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 Sikhs, 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). We encounter huge dilemmas while comparing those beliefs. 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 not important for some, but not the key, and for others, wholly insignificant and only a temporary property.

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

In conclusion, the body theory suggests the most reasonable and simple explanation to the complex question of personal identity at one glance. It states that as long as one remains as oneself as long as remaining in the same body. However, biological facts suggest constant changes in the human body, which results in the question, “Is one’s body the same as it was a few days ago?”. Based on this, the body theory seems inaccurate. Furthermore, a similar conclusion can be drawn from Parfit's thought experiment on teletransportation, which connects personal identity more to consciousness than the body.

Apart from this, exploring personal identity in ancient religions also seems controversial. While some faiths emphasize the body and consider it an integral part of the person and identity, other religions suggest that one can obtain a new body or a form. However, still, the sense of identity will not be removed. The Body theory is only a drop in the ocean in regards to personal identity theories. There are various ideas and approaches that we will be exploring in the following parts of the series.


Image References:

Author Photo

Irina Berdzenishvili

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