Zombies and Personal Identity

The question of what makes me “me” is one that I’ve been wrestling with personally for years, long before I recognized it as a philosophical question. I’ve had many conversations and debates about it, and I’m no closer to a definitive answer now than I was when the question first crossed my mind.  The readings this week prompted a lot of thoughts and posited some interesting ideas, but I’m not sure any of the ideas presented there are definitive either.  What makes something human, however, is a bit different than what makes us “us”.  The prompt brought up the thought experiment about zombies, and although the answer may seem simple, I find it to be more complex than it seems on the surface.  A human being is a known genetic composition, which utilizes DNA.  It’s uncertain whether the DNA of a zombie has significant differences from that of a living human being, but then again a human being is more than just a specific sequence of DNA strung together in a particular way.  That being said, I don’t think that self-awareness defines what it means to be human either.  A person who is in a coma or who is on life support does not have known self-awareness, but they’re still classified as a human being – they don’t genetically become a different kind of life form just because they are unconscious.  While they may be referred to as in a “vegetative state” being supported solely by machines, they do not actually become vegetables.  In addition, human beings are not the only creatures that have or display self-awareness, including great apes (which include human beings, but also gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos), a few individual examples of elephants, dolphins, orcas and one magpie have all shown to exhibit self-awareness via the Mirror test.[1]

Although the concept of a soul in various forms has been posited for several thousand years, it cannot be demonstrated to exist.  No one can point to an area on the body and say that it is the soul.  It cannot be tested or examined.  Ultimately the concept of the soul seems to be the concept most typically brought up when we try to explain the part of ourselves that makes us unique, thinking individuals – something that sets us apart from everyone else – something that makes us “us” or our individualism.  I think it can be sufficiently be ascribed to a function of our brains.  While it is comforting to some to think that some part of ourselves lives on after the rest of us is gone, I find no sufficient reason to believe that it is actually true.  If I, as an individual, am nothing more than a combination of my brain and my body, I also have to be prepared to accept some difficult truths.  We know from the field of medicine that I could get into an accident and suffer from brain damage – and that brain damage could cause me to become a completely different person after the accident than I was before.  I still have the same physical body (perhaps with some injuries) but I could lose my memory, or wake up with a completely different personality or sense of humor than I had before the accident occurred.  I would still be “me” physically, but everything I recognize as “myself” could change, like the example of the Prince and the Cobbler from the text.[2]  It’s difficult to recognize, but it is something that I would have to adapt to, and so would everyone who is a part of my life.  I could even die and become a zombie, but there is insufficient information available to determine whether or not my zombie self would still be a human being, or if I would be something else entirely.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test

[2] Rachels and Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, Third Edition pg 59.

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