I had a bit of an existential personal identity crisis a while back. It was one of those neverending “Who am I?” and “What does it all mean?” numbers. You know. A real head scratcher. It predominantly consisted of me staying up late, laying in my bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to Queen on infinite shuffle, and asking myself too many philosophical questions.
Having no clue how to get myself out of the recursive line of existential questioning I was subjecting myself to, I decided to direct my energy towards a more productive means.
I typically use writing as an outlet to process the complex thoughts and emotions that bounce around my head, so I felt that even though this problem was far more substantial than any other one I may have faced, I should go about solving it the same way I always do: by writing about it. The first product of this line of thinking amounted to this article.
But that article only scratched the surface. I may have answered one of my existential questions, but I prompted a million more in the process.
I know I can’t tackle all of my questions at once (or maybe ever), so today I am here to simply question what it means to have an identity over the course of time. Are you the same person from the time you are born until the time you die? Can people really change? Does our identity change when we make choices? What about me makes me me?
These questions together present The Continuity Problem.
The Continuity Problem
Greek essayist Plutarch once wrote about the Ship of Theseus, a great ship that sailed around the then-known ancient world. (Which in all honesty was probably just the Mediterranean Sea. The Greek always made it sound like their travelers actually went far away.)
The ship had seen many different lands and had traversed many different obstacles during its time at sea.
Eventually, the ship began to deteriorate. The sails grew thin and the planks began to rot. Piece by piece the ship was eventually replaced by new materials. Over time, the original crew of the ship died or were replaced by younger workers.
By the time Theseus’s ship returned to Greece, no vestige of the original ship remained except for its title of Theseus’s ship.
The question posed to us is this: Did the same ship of Theseus return as the one that originally departed?
Moreover, do things maintain any sort of continuity over time if their component parts are constantly being replaced?
Formal Identity Vs. Numerical Identity
Greek philosopher Heraclitus responded to the Ship of Theseus Paradox by likening the ship to a river, in that you can never step into the same river twice due to the constant flow of water.
So Heraclitus would argue that the ship that eventually returned to Greece was not Theseus’s ship; its component parts, which are used in this circumstance to define the ship’s identity, are no longer present, and therefore do not represent the ship’s original identity.
Heraclitus isn’t necessarily wrong here, but we should first define what we mean by the word “same,” when we ask if the same ship returned.
The problem is that objects have multiple types of identities. The first is a Formal Identity, also known as a Qualitative Identity, which represents the physical qualities of an object.
If we look at the formal identity of the ship, such as the way in which it is constructed, the materials it is made up of, and the number of crew members it has, then yes, the returning ship is identical to the ship that originally left. Physically, the two ships are indiscernible.
In the same fashion, rivers are geographically named and marked based on the paths by which they flow regardless of the waters within them. The Mississippi River is still the Mississippi River even if its contents are perpetually replenished.
But the type of identity that Heraclitus was much more concerned with was Numerical Identity, or Quantitative Identity, which represents an object’s numerical relationship to itself, such as the unique circumstance of a single object’s existence. This is also referred to as the Identity of Indiscernibles put forth by 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz.
So if we believe the word “same” to refer to an object’s numerical identity, then Heraclitus is correct and the returning ship is not the same as the one that departed.
Regarding the river analogy, Heraclitus would argue that rivers themselves consist of constantly moving particles of water and thus the substances of any river between any two moments of time are never identical.
The same can be likened to any other object that possesses an identity over time.
Let’s look at twins for example.
A mother gives birth to two fraternal twin boys named Tommy and Timmy. Not only do they look alike in every way, they also have the same personalities. They eat the same foods, they like the same toys, and they both possess an eternal hatred for Guns ‘N Roses. They are identical people.
Except for one thing: They are not each other.
Tommy may share all of the same qualities as Timmy, and Timmy may share all of the same qualities as Tommy, and they both might agree that Welcome To The Jungle is the single worst song in the history of music, but Tommy isn’t Timmy and Timmy isn’t Tommy.
The boys may share a formal identity with one another, but if a thing’s numerical identity is defined as its relationship to itself, then Tommy and Timmy cannot be numerically identical because each person is not the other.
They each possess an identity that the other cannot possess.
So it is the numerical identity of something, not the formal identity, that delineates an object’s unique existence.
It is safe to say that humans, like rivers or ships, also experience perpetual change. The person you were born is not the same person that will eventually die, in that you will at least experience physical changes, or changes to your formal structure.
Your cells are constantly being replaced within your body. Eventually, you develop wrinkles and your hair turns gray. You get a little more cranky and you become incontinent. Much like the river, you are always flowing. Teehee.
Your formal identity is certainly not fixed, but you are able to maintain enough of the same physical qualities on a day to day basis to be recognized by others as who you are.
But what about your numerical identity? Specifically your consciousness? Is that fluid?
Let’s first look at what qualities allow objects to possess a numerical identity.
If we look at Theseus’s ship, we can argue that the monetary ownership of the ship is what intrinsically made it Theseus’s ship. That’s what gave it its numerical identity. Or perhaps we can say it was the relationship between each of the crew members and the camaraderie that developed. Or maybe it was a sentimental connection Theseus or other shipmates had to specific physical attributes of the ship.
Either way, there was some intangible or inexplicable feature of the ship that made it Theseus’s ship, and at some point in its many adventures, it arguably lost that quality. It lost its numerical identity.
Maybe it was after Theseus left the ship. Maybe it was after the final original piece of the ship had been replaced. Maybe it’s still Theseus’s ship after all, and we are simply unable to explain why.
For humans, it is much easier to pinpoint what makes individuals who they are: their unique consciousnesses.
I could get in a horrible road accident tomorrow. I could have my arms and legs amputated, I could suffer terrible third-degree burns all over my body, and perhaps lose all of my hair. I could even have my brain removed from my body and implanted in a robot like some crazy Darth Vader cyborg shit.
These changes to the formal structure of my body would certainly cause me to look differently, but most people would argue that I did not lose my identity, because, as long as this accident didn’t kill me, I would still possess my consciousness. I would still have my personality and memories and emotions. I would still be me.
But would I be?
This accident may only appear to cause physical changes, but it would cause emotional changes as well. My opinions and philosophies about life would certainly be affected by my new physical state, and I think it would be hard to argue that my consciousness, the essence of who I am as a person, would also be able to escape that accident unscathed.
In the same regard, Darth Vader is not numerically identical to Anakin Skywalker. The physical and emotional changes Anakin went through yielded a new identity, one so different, a new title was given to the fallen Jedi.
Beyond accidents though, take a second and think of all of the defining moments of your life. The events and actions that you experienced that help to define you as a person. The death of a loved one. The beginning of a new relationship. A great shit you took that made you feel five pounds lighter.
We are defined by the things that happen to us. Around us. Both our bodies and our minds are constantly flowing. Teeheehee.
Like our physical selves, our metaphysical selves also experience perpetual change.
We are constantly growing (or shrinking) as people. We have experiences and then we change. Sometimes in a profound way, but often in unnoticeably small ways that are not able to be perceived on a day to day basis.
We are not the same people forever. We are not bound by our personalities or our perceived identities. We are ever-changing, ever-growing beings that are just as fluid as Heraclitus’s river.
Accepting that our fluidity is freeing in its own right, but it brings with it some further questions. How fluid are we? How much control do we have over our numerical fluidity? How are we supposed to figure out who we should be tomorrow when we aren’t even the same people we were yesterday?
Core Identity Vs. Peripheral Identity
I am currently defined as Mark Gazica by other people based on the qualities I possess. People tell me I’m funny, that I’m hard working. That I’m dry and sarcastic and charming and intelligent and honest and sincere all at the same time.
It is the constant exhibition of these qualities that formulates my personality that the world perceives on a day to day basis.
I know that as I continue to live my life, I will lose some of those qualities. Maybe not completely, but at least marginally. I am also sure that further life experiences will allow me to garner new qualities that I currently do not possess.
If you had the ability to watch the rest of your life unfold before you and examine who you would become until your last dying day, you would be able to observe a series of similar qualities that would persist within you over time.
These qualities, which would remain unaffected by the experiences you had over the course of your life would make up your Core Identity. The parts of you that would never change are the very definition of what it means to be you.
The problem arises in the fact that we are unable to observe the rest of our lives. We are unable to determine to any degree of certainty what those qualities are.
I’d like to think I have some idea of who I am at my Core, but if I’ve learned anything thus far as a dysfunctional human being, it’s that I don’t know much. And often, when I feel certain that I know something, it turns out to be wrong.
At best, I have some 20 odd years of experience being me, the majority of which I spent developing the qualities that have been anything but consistent, the qualities that have made my identity oh so fluid this whole time.
These fluid qualities, which are the majority of the qualities you possess, make up your Peripheral Identity. These are the qualities that define who you are over a span of a few months or years, or maybe even decades. They are the qualities that are exposed to Perpetual Change and define you only insofar as you allow them to be a part of your identity.
Some qualities also pervade both parts of our identities. A quality may emanate from the Core Identity as a solid piece of foundational makeup and begin to fade into ambiguousness as it reaches one’s Peripheral Identity to be molded and shaped by further life experiences.
Or, a quality may formulate in one’s Peripheral Identity and work its way to the Core, becoming a cornerstone of one’s overall identity.
But What Does This All Mean?
In my effort to discover who exactly I am, I once found it incredibly important to be able to separate my Core Identity from my Peripheral Identity, for me to be able to distil who I am in a few simple adjectives that describe me. I wanted to know which qualities I was inherently born with versus the qualities I adopted or was taught to embody.
But because we are unable to see the rest of our lives play out, we can’t rightly determine which of our qualities make up our Core or Peripheral Identities. We cannot ever come to understand who exactly we are to any degree of certainty.
The best understanding of our identities that we can ever hope to achieve is an average summation of all of the people that we were over the course of our lives as we exhale our last dying breaths into the ether of what’s left of the physical world around us, because it is only on our deathbeds that we can ever be certain that we will cease to grow as people.
The fear that seems to come with a personal identity crisis, then, is a bit misguided. It is not the ignorance of who we are that scares us; it is not the inability to discover the qualities that make us intrinsically unique that is most frightening.
It is instead the ignorance of who we could be with the knowledge that our Peripheral Identities make up much more of who we are than our Core Identities do at any given time. It is the insight that we possess the ability to change and that we have the potential to forge our own identities.
It is the knowledge that we have the freedom to potentially become any type of person during our time here on Earth that scares us the most. We may not realize it, but on some level, we all spend the majority of our lives going through our own personal existential identity crises.
The question is never “Who am I?” but “Who should I be?”
This freedom takes away much of the blame that is often imposed on the universe for our creation and instead morphs it into a responsibility that is placed upon our shoulders. It is up to us to become the people we want to become, and we have only ourselves to blame if we are not satisfied with the ways in which we change (or don’t).
Whether or not we maintain any continuity over time is irrelevant. We are creatures of change, and the semantics of human identity in the grand scheme of life is nothing more than a ploy for attention from our oversized human egos.
We can take pride in our individual possessions of numerical identities only so long as we simultaneously accept the responsibilities we have to ourselves to become the people we set out to be.
So the constant questioning of “Who am I?” or “Who should I be?” is completely unnecessary.
You are who you are until you are not. You should be who you want to be within the confines of the ethics and morals of your culture or society.
Don’t fear freedom; embrace it. Revel in it. Allow it to embody you and marvel at its potential.
You might be the only “you” in the universe, but there are 7 billion other people that have to deal with being unique, too, you know.
Take some time to map out who you were, who you are, and who you will be. Read books. Watch films. Travel places. Love people. Smile more. Take the time to experience the world around you.
Stop looking for yourself and just be yourself.