Monday, 11 June 2012

Philosophy in Film: The Problem with Personal Identity

What makes me who I am? Is it my body or my brain that makes me unique? John Woo’s Face/Off raises these questions of personal identity.

If my memories, thoughts and experiences were implanted into a different body, would I still be me?  Or is it my body, the identifying thing about me, which defines me? Or could it be my behaviour is what shapes my personal identity?

Many of us think there is something more to us than our looks and behaviour. Plato agrees that our true self is immaterial. This almost spiritual self that distinguishes us from the person next to us. He argued that it can be considered different or separate from our physical bodies, whilst still inhabiting our body and controlling it at the same time (Falzon, 2007). This is the idea of the soul; determining who we really are. But how do we know, can we feel our soul? Is it more than just a combination of our thoughts, acquired knowledge and past memories? Is this the reason we all have different dreams and goals, allowing us to take different paths on the same journey?

Archer vs. Troy
Face/Off tests this theory, by following Sean Archer, a FBI agent obsessed with bringing the terrorist, Castor Troy to justice. In order to do this, Archer agrees to assume Troy’s identity, through a radical medical procedure. The procedure allows Archer to switch faces with the terrorist and become Caster Troy. In typical Hollywood fashion, the real Troy is able to steal Archer’s face, and take his revenge. The undercover FBI agent is forced to become a different person, and become exactly what he has spent his life hunting. Archer has to live and breathe through his enemy’s face, but does that change who he is?

The film allows the viewer to think about their own personal identity. How have we changed in ten years? Am I the same person I was ten years ago? Physically, we will have aged significantly and mentally, we would have more knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Rowlands (2005) states that is because we are all constantly changing. Not only physically and mentally, but emotionally and physiologically we are continuously growing, and shaping our own identities.

On the other hand, Aristotle believed that there are some changes that are more important than others. Those essential changes which are big enough to stop that thing from changing any further, almost like it has reached a certain level and stopped (Rowlands, 2005).

Memories are also a big part of what shapes our personal identity. Whilst I might be able to remember things that happened last year, with crystal clear clarity; in ten years, will those memories have faded? How does that affect my own identity and does that change who I am? This memory theory allows us to be unique (Rowlands, 2005). Two people may be at the same event, but remember it differently or from their point of view. Is this what makes us different from the person next to us? But what if my memories were wiped? Would you still be the same person as you used to be if you could not recall any of your memories?

If that is the case, then appearance should have nothing to do with our own identity. Although, throughout the film, the characters both struggled with maintaining their personal identity. They had the same thoughts, memories and knowledge, but could not maintain themselves within a different body or persona. The whole film relied on the fact that viewers were able to use these physical identities to determine their identity. How would we feel if our partner, with the same thoughts, personality and memories, was suddenly in a different body? Would we be able to feel the same way about them? Litch (2002) argues that we rely on this physical continuity theory to identify with someone. Like in Face/Off, Archer’s wife accepts the terrorist as her husband, despite his changes in personality and behaviour, because of his physical appearance. In effect, Archer’s physical identity was the defining factor, not his immaterial.

The film allows the viewer to challenge this physical continuity, as we automatically accept that Archer is still the ‘good guy’, his identity is on the inside, even if it’s in a bad guy’s body. We are tested by watching this movie to think about what changes can affect a person, and we construct a meaning of identity within ourselves.

Reference List
Falzon, C. (2007). Philosophy Goes to the Movies : An Introduction to Philosophy. Chapter 2. (pp.99-140). New York: Routledge.

Fumerton, R. A., & Jeske, D. (Eds.). (2010). Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections. Part III: Philosophy of Mind. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Litch, M.M. (2002). Philosophy through Film. Chapter 3: Personal Identity. New York: Routledge.

Rowlands, M. (2005).The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained through Science Fiction Films. Chapter 4. ‘The problem of personal identity’ London: Elbury Press.

Woo, J. (Director). (1997). Face/Off [Motion picture]. Paramount Pictures.

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