I was standing in our kitchen eating lunch with my 6 year old on a Saturday. I was eating chips and salsa while she was carefully pulling the crust off of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
- Me: Audrey, what is it that makes you…you?
- Audrey: [Shrugs] I don’t know. Maybe my voice.
- Me: Your voice must be part of it because I always know it’s you when I hear it. What else inside you makes you unique?
- Audrey: My mind and [silly smile] probably this pb&j.
This is a hard thing for a kid or an adult to think about. When you refer to yourself as “me” what exactly does that mean? Does “me” refer to my body that you can see? Does it refer to my mind–the part that thinks and gives me my personality? Is it both? Or is there even more to it? Spoiler: this article doesn’t have an answer, but there are some interesting theories for your kids to read and think about.
Here are some classical philosophical theories for the issue of mind and body:
The Mind & Body Are Like Roommates (Dualism)
René Descartes (1596-1650) believed that the mind and the body are very different things. They hang out together–like the Odd Couple or Bert & Ernie but they really aren’t much alike. Descartes believed that the body is made of matter (something that you can detect with the senses: see, touch, hear or smell) but the mind is not. Despite being so different, the mind can cause physical events in the body and the body can trigger events in the mind. This is called dualism.
- What do you think about the mind and body being completely separate? Do you think the mind is the same thing that people sometimes call the soul?
- How do you think an immaterial mind can control a material body? Even if you can’t explain it, do you think he’s right?
- What other questions would you ask Descartes? Or what criticisms would you have for him?
There Is No Difference (Materialist)
Other philosophers, known as Materialists, believe that our mind is made of matter just as our body. So there is really no separation of our mind from our brain. It is our brain that does all the thinking and interacts with our body. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) called this interaction “matter in motion.” He thought of it like the game Mouse Trap. When a person has a thought, it triggers another physical response like turning the Mouse Trap crank which sets off a chain of events that drops marbles from buckets, down ramps and eventually ends with the cage being dropped.
- Do you think the mind and body are the same?
- What would the materialists say about a soul?
How Important Is Your Body?
When my kids look at me, they see me as their 6’1″ prematurely graying dad. They recognize my facial features, my klutzy movements and the sound of my voice telling dad jokes. It’s unlikely that they would mix me up for someone else. When they see me, it’s their dad–end of story. It kind of seems obvious that your body has a lot to do with who you are. But here are some questions to ask about how much your body is you.
- What happens when you cut your hair? You get rid of some cells from your body, right? After all, your body is made up of cells. Does this mean you aren’t the same person anymore? (of course not)
- What if you get a blood transfusion or a kidney transplant? These are someone else’s cells. Is it still you? (yep)
- What if you get in a bad accident that requires multiple transplants such as liver, kidneys, facial tissue, prosthetic arms and legs. Would it stop being you yet? (I don’t think so)
- So if it’s not all these body parts, is it your DNA? The genetic instructions for your body to grow and develop in the first place? Have you ever known identical twins? They share the exact DNA. Are they the same person? (I have a set of twins for brothers–they are oddly similar in a lot of ways but they are definitely different people).
- Then is it your brain? Is that the one unique part of your body that make you who you are?
Is It You Or Justin Bieber?
So maybe it’s the brain then that makes you who you are? Here is a thought experiment that is influenced by John Locke and Sydney Shoemaker (and maybe the movie Freaky Friday). Let’s pretend that you and Justin Bieber are both in the same hospital getting brain surgery. Both you and the Biebs are receiving the same new surgical technology which requires that the brain be removed from your body. With perfect precision, both brains are operated on and placed back in their bodies. But there has been a clerical mistake and your brain has been placed into Justin Bieber’s body and your body gets his brain.
Nobody realizes what has happened until you both wake up. You are surrounded by unfamiliar family members, don’t recognize your own hands and are super confused about how you got all these tattoos. Running out into the hall, you find your family members asking for selfies because they don’t recognize you–it’s Justin Bieber. Then everyone starts freaking out. You are desperately trying to convince them that it’s you which freaks them out because you know things about them that Bieber couldn’t know.
Unfortunately, your old body that has Justin Bieber’s brain in it dies.
- So who dies? Is it you? Or Justin Bieber? Which family do you think would go to the funeral?
- If all your other organs could be transplanted from other people without changing you, what’s different about the brain?
Let’s change the outcome of the brain surgery and say it was successful: each brain put back into the correct body. Instead an evil scientist enters the rooms while you and Justin Bieber are recovering. He has a machine that is able to copy the contents of your brain onto a computer memory stick. All of your memories, thoughts, likes and dislikes can be saved off perfectly. He saves the information from your brain and Justin Bieber’s brain. Next, he erases both of your brains and then proceeds to copy Justin’s brain data to your brain and vise versa.
So now, you wake up like you did before–in Justin Bieber’s body, BUT with his brain and all your memories, thoughts, etc.
- In this variation, it is Justin Bieber’s body and brain but all your thoughts, memories and personality is inside. Is it still your brain that makes it you?
- To get really mind-bending, what if the contents of your brain were copied to another person’s brain at the same time? Could there be two of you walking around? Would they be different people with the same memories? Or would you be conscious of two bodies and two lives at the same time?
It seems that what makes us our unique selves is more than just our bodies and more than just our brains. Find a picture of a parent at the age of 2 and then another picture at the age of 30. Put them side by side and it seems ridiculous that both are the same person. There might be subtle hints that the 30 year old was once the 2 year old but physically there is hardly anything in common. Most of the cells from the 2 year old have died off long ago. Their personalities would also be virtually unrecognizable with one throwing a tantrum about getting candy and the other crying in front of a TV watching a romantic comedy.
Here are a few final things for your kids to discuss:
- How have you changed since you were a new baby to the present time (both in regards to your body and your personality)? Are you ever reminded of things you did when you were younger and thought “I can’t believe I did that.” Was that the same you?
- In what ways are you still the same? Why do you (and others) consider you to be the same person as that new baby?
- Consider a house that was built 100 years ago. Over the years it has had new windows installed, a roof torn off and rebuilt, walls and doors updated, a room added and the floors in the entire house pulled up and replaced. Slowly over the years, each piece of the house has been replaced. Is it still the same house? Explain why it is or is not the same. How does this relate to you as you grow up?
Maybe who you are isn’t about being physically the same or even your mind (whatever that means to you) being the same as it was. Perhaps what makes you you has more to do with a continual history. You might be a collection of the slow evolution of traits that grow, change, learn and adapt. One thing is true, it is the present you and only the present you that shares this common, continual and unbroken string of existence.
The philosopher Heraclitus said: “Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Like a stream that continually flows bringing with it new water, you are continuously changing and growing. You are that person in your baby pictures yet you are not the same person. Getting a true sense of self might be one of the great challenges in life…the key is to never stop asking great questions.