Some time ago, I walking through a park with a friend and his roommate, when the conversation fell to a dead end. Breaking the silence, my friend’s roommate asked if I had any questions. “I have one” I replied, “which is the same one I asked before and the same one that was not answered – what do you believe concerning personal identity?”
He replied, “Identity is like a book, and our actions are like turning it into a journal. I can write whatever I desire. I can write the truth, I can write lies. I can write what I would want someone to read and I hide what I would not want anyone to read. But,” as he continued, “so is the defect of every journal: you will never know, truly, who I am no matter what I write.”
“Of course,” I said, “but I am not concerned with what you have written, I am concerned with the book itself – that which is enduring through your journaling.” Before I could manage a complete explanation, he retorted, “Yes, but to each person is their own perception of the book. The book itself, like personal identity, is subjected to the same limitations of the writing in the journal. I could throw away the book, like one could throw away their identity.”
We continued walking down the path in silence while I contemplated a way to craft my explanation into my example. I noticed we were approaching lamppost and so offered to explain of my concern by way of the lamppost. Eagerly they agreed.
“I think it is safe to suppose,” exaggerating my hand gestures over the contours of the lamppost, “ that here stands the lamppost. And, furthermore, allow us to grant that each of us has a distinct perception of this lamppost. Allow us to suppose that this lamppost inspires in us different associations: the lamppost Lucy found on the other side of the wardrobe in Narnia, or the lamppost under which the child was maimed to death by Mr. Hyde. Allow us to suppose we had the potential to gather around the entirety of the earth’s population around this lamppost. And allow us to suppose that all of them had differing inspirations: that they wrote plays, and sang songs, and dedicated their poem, ‘The Weary Lamppost’, to this very lamppost. Could we really remove this lamppost, this one in this park, and still agree that there is meaning in all of their perceptions? Despite all the differences in perceptions, the irregularities and regularities, is there not something fixed by which both “the truth” and “lies” may be crafted “about”? Could we really argue that identity, separated from any essential feature, is identity at all?”
We continued for some time in silence, breaking it now and again to reminisce some cruel event or witty comment. But what endured then, and will continue to endure well beyond this moment, writing from a Pennsylvania hotel lobby, is the question chewing at the heels of modern man: does the identity of anything, a painting or a child or the image of God, bear within it the absolute limits of what we can change, and what can be changed and still call it the same thing? Does “being a human” necessarily preclude “being” in a certain way?