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The Shattered Identity

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  • vaksam
    Appeared in The Compulsive Reader : http://www.compulsivereader.com/article1190.html Additional film reviews here: http://samvak.tripod.com/film.html 1.
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8 3:15 AM
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      Appeared in "The Compulsive Reader":

      http://www.compulsivereader.com/article1190.html


      Additional film reviews here:

      http://samvak.tripod.com/film.html

      1. Exposition

      In the movie "Shattered" (1991), Dan Merrick survives an accident and
      develops total amnesia regarding his past. His battered face is
      reconstructed by plastic surgeons and, with the help of his loving
      wife, he gradually recovers his will to live. But he never develops a
      proper sense of identity. It is as though he is constantly ill at
      ease in his own body. As the plot unravels, Dan is led to believe
      that he may have murdered his wife's lover, Jack. This thriller
      offers additional twists and turns but, throughout it all, we face
      this question:

      Dan has no recollection of being Dan. Dan does not remember murdering
      Jack. It seems as though Dan's very identity has been erased. Yet,
      Dan is in sound mind and can tell right from wrong. Should Dan be
      held (morally and, as a result, perhaps legally as well) accountable
      for Jack's murder?

      Would the answer to this question still be the same had Dan erased
      from his memory ONLY the crime -but recalled everything else (in an
      act of selective dissociation)? Do our moral and legal accountability
      and responsibility spring from the integrity of our memories? If Dan
      were to be punished for a crime he doesn't have the faintest
      recollection of committing - wouldn't he feel horribly wronged?
      Wouldn't he be justified in feeling so?

      There are many states of consciousness that involve dissociation and
      selective amnesia: hypnosis, trance and possession, hallucination,
      illusion, memory disorders (like organic, or functional amnesia),
      depersonalization disorder, dissociative fugue, dreaming, psychosis,
      post traumatic stress disorder, and drug-induced psychotomimetic
      states.

      Consider this, for instance:

      What if Dan were the victim of a Multiple Personality Disorder (now
      known as "Dissociative Identity Disorder")? What if one of
      his "alters" (i.e., one of the multitude of "identities" sharing
      Dan's mind and body) committed the crime? Should Dan still be held
      responsible? What if the alter "John" committed the crime and
      then "vanished", leaving behind another alter (let us say, "Joseph")
      in control? Should "Joseph" be held responsible for the crime "John"
      committed? What if "John" were to reappear 10 years after
      he "vanished"? What if he were to reappear 50 years after
      he "vanished"? What if he were to reappear for a period of 90 days -
      only to "vanish" again? And what is Dan's role in all this? Who,
      exactly, then, is Dan?

      II. Who is Dan?

      Buddhism compares Man to a river. Both retain their identity despite
      the fact that their individual composition is different at different
      moments. The possession of a body as the foundation of a self-
      identity is a dubious proposition. Bodies change drastically in time
      (consider a baby compared to an adult). Almost all the cells in a
      human body are replaced every few years. Changing one's brain (by
      transplantation) - also changes one's identity, even if the rest of
      the body remains the same.

      Thus, the only thing that binds a "person" together (i.e., gives him
      a self and an identity) is time, or, more precisely, memory.
      By "memory" I also mean: personality, skills, habits, retrospected
      emotions - in short: all long term imprints and behavioural patterns.
      The body is not an accidental and insignificant container, of course.
      It constitutes an important part of one's self-image, self-esteem,
      sense of self-worth, and sense of existence (spatial, temporal, and
      social). But one can easily imagine a brain in vitro as having the
      same identity as when it resided in a body. One cannot imagine a body
      without a brain (or with a different brain) as having the same
      identity it had before the brain was removed or replaced.

      What if the brain in vitro (in the above example) could not
      communicate with us at all? Would we still think it is possessed of a
      self? The biological functions of people in coma are maintained. But
      do they have an identity, a self? If yes, why do we "pull the plug"
      on them so often?

      It would seem (as it did to Locke) that we accept that someone has a
      self-identity if: (a) He has the same hardware as we do (notably, a
      brain) and (b) He communicates his humanly recognizable and
      comprehensible inner world to us and manipulates his environment. We
      accept that he has a given (i.e., the same continuous) self-identity
      if (c) He shows consistent intentional (i.e., willed) patterns
      ("memory") in doing (b) for a long period of time.

      It seems that we accept that we have a self-identity (i.e., we are
      self-conscious) if (a) We discern (usually through introspection)
      long term consistent intentional (i.e., willed) patterns ("memory")
      in our manipulation ("relating to") of our environment and (b) Others
      accept that we have a self-identity (Herbert Mead, Feuerbach).

      Dan (probably) has the same hardware as we do (a brain). He
      communicates his (humanly recognizable and comprehensible) inner
      world to us (which is how he manipulates us and his environment).
      Thus, Dan clearly has a self-identity. But he is inconsistent. His
      intentional (willed) patterns, his memory, are incompatible with
      those demonstrated by Dan before the accident. Though he clearly is
      possessed of a self-identity, we cannot say that he has the SAME self-
      identity he possessed before the crash. In other words, we cannot say
      that he, indeed, is Dan.

      Dan himself does not feel that he has a self-identity at all. He
      discerns intentional (willed) patterns in his manipulation of his
      environment but, due to his amnesia, he cannot tell if these are
      consistent, or long term. In other words, Dan has no memory.
      Moreover, others do not accept him as Dan (or have their doubts)
      because they have no memory of Dan as he is now.

      Interim conclusion:

      Having a memory is a necessary and sufficient condition for
      possessing a self-identity.

      III. Repression

      Yet, resorting to memory to define identity may appear to be a
      circular (even tautological) argument. When we postulate memory -
      don't we already presuppose the existence of a "remembering agent"
      with an established self-identity?

      Moreover, we keep talking about "discerning", "intentional",
      or "willed" patterns. But isn't a big part of our self (in the form
      of the unconscious, full of repressed memories) unavailable to us?
      Don't we develop defence mechanisms against repressed memories and
      fantasies, against unconscious content incongruent with our self-
      image? Even worse, this hidden, inaccessible, dynamically active part
      of our self is thought responsible for our recurrent discernible
      patterns of behaviour. The phenomenon of posthypnotic suggestion
      seems to indicate that this may be the case. The existence of a self-
      identity is, therefore, determined through introspection (by oneself)
      and observation (by others) of merely the conscious part of the self.

      But the unconscious is as much a part of one's self-identity as one's
      conscious. What if, due to a mishap, the roles were reversed? What if
      Dan's conscious part were to become his unconscious and his
      unconscious part - his conscious? What if all his conscious memories,
      drives, fears, wishes, fantasies, and hopes - were to become
      unconscious while his repressed memories, drives, etc. - were to
      become conscious? Would we still say that it is "the same" Dan and
      that he retains his self-identity? Not very likely. And yet, one's
      (unremembered) unconscious - for instance, the conflict between id
      and ego - determines one's personality and self-identity.

      The main contribution of psychoanalysis and later psychodynamic
      schools is the understanding that self-identity is a dynamic,
      evolving, ever-changing construct - and not a static, inertial, and
      passive entity. It casts doubt over the meaningfulness of the
      question with which we ended the exposition: "Who, exactly, then, is
      Dan?" Dan is different at different stages of his life (Erikson) and
      he constantly evolves in accordance with his innate nature (Jung),
      past history (Adler), drives (Freud), cultural milieu (Horney),
      upbringing (Klein, Winnicott), needs (Murray), or the interplay with
      his genetic makeup. Dan is not a thing - he is a process. Even Dan's
      personality traits and cognitive style, which may well be stable, are
      often influenced by Dan's social setting and by his social
      interactions.

      It would seem that having a memory is a necessary but insufficient
      condition for possessing a self-identity. One cannot remember one's
      unconscious states (though one can remember their outcomes). One
      often forgets events, names, and other information even if it was
      conscious at a given time in one's past. Yet, one's (unremembered)
      unconscious is an integral and important part of one's identity and
      one's self. The remembered as well as the unremembered constitute
      one's self-identity.

      IV. The Memory Link

      Hume said that to be considered in possession of a mind, a creature
      needs to have a few states of consciousness linked by memory in a
      kind of narrative or personal mythology. Can this conjecture be
      equally applied to unconscious mental states (e.g. subliminal
      perceptions, beliefs, drives, emotions, desires, etc.)?

      In other words, can we rephrase Hume and say that to be considered in
      possession of a mind, a creature needs to have a few states of
      consciousness and a few states of the unconscious - all linked by
      memory into a personal narrative? Isn't it a contradiction in terms
      to remember the unconscious?

      The unconscious and the subliminal are instance of the general
      category of mental phenomena which are not states of consciousness
      (i.e., are not conscious). Sleep and hypnosis are two others. But so
      are "background mental phenomena" - e.g., one holds onto one's
      beliefs and knowledge even when one is not aware (conscious) of them
      at every given moment. We know that an apple will fall towards the
      earth, we know how to drive a car ("automatically"), and we believe
      that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though we do not spend every
      second of our waking life consciously thinking about falling apples,
      driving cars, or the position of the sun.

      Yet, the fact that knowledge and beliefs and other background mental
      phenomena are not constantly conscious - does not mean that they
      cannot be remembered. They can be remembered either by an act of
      will, or in (sometimes an involuntary) response to changes in the
      environment. The same applies to all other unconscious content.
      Unconscious content can be recalled. Psychoanalysis, for instance, is
      about re-introducing repressed unconscious content to the patient's
      conscious memory and thus making it "remembered".

      In fact, one's self-identity may be such a background mental
      phenomenon (always there, not always conscious, not always
      remembered). The acts of will which bring it to the surface are what
      we call "memory" and "introspection".

      This would seem to imply that having a self-identity is independent
      of having a memory (or the ability to introspect). Memory is just the
      mechanism by which one becomes aware of one's background, "always-
      on", and omnipresent (all-pervasive) self-identity. Self-identity is
      the object and predicate of memory and introspection. It is as though
      self-identity were an emergent extensive parameter of the complex
      human system - measurable by the dual techniques of memory and
      introspection.

      We, therefore, have to modify our previous conclusions:

      Having a memory is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition for
      possessing a self-identity.

      We are back to square one. The poor souls in Oliver Sacks' tome, "The
      Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" are unable to create and retain
      memories. They occupy an eternal present, with no past. They are thus
      unable to access (or invoke) their self-identity by remembering it.
      Their self-identity is unavailable to them (though it is available to
      those who observe them over many years) - but it exists for sure.
      Therapy often succeeds in restoring pre-amnesiac memories and self-
      identity.

      V. The Incorrigible Self

      Self-identity is not only always-on and all-pervasive - but also
      incorrigible. In other words, no one - neither an observer, nor the
      person himself - can "disprove" the existence of his self-identity.
      No one can prove that a report about the existence of his (or
      another's) self-identity is mistaken.

      Is it equally safe to say that no one - neither an observer, nor the
      person himself - can prove (or disprove) the non-existence of his
      self-identity? Would it be correct to say that no one can prove that
      a report about the non-existence of his (or another's) self-identity
      is true or false?

      Dan's criminal responsibility crucially depends on the answers to
      these questions. Dan cannot be held responsible for Jack's murder if
      he can prove that he is ignorant of the facts of his action (i.e., if
      he can prove the non-existence of his self-identity). If he has no
      access to his (former) self-identity - he can hardly be expected to
      be aware and cognizant of these facts.

      What is in question is not Dan's mens rea, nor the application of the
      McNaghten tests (did Dan know the nature and quality of his act or
      could he tell right from wrong) to determine whether Dan was insane
      when he committed the crime. A much broader issue is at stake: is it
      the same person? Is the murderous Dan the same person as the current
      Dan? Even though Dan seems to own the same body and brain and is
      manifestly sane - he patently has no access to his (former) self-
      identity. He has changed so drastically that it is arguable whether
      he is still the same person - he has been "replaced".

      Finally, we can try to unite all the strands of our discourse into
      this double definition:

      It would seem that we accept that someone has a self-identity if: (a)
      He has the same hardware as we do (notably, a brain) and, by
      implication, the same software as we do (an all-pervasive,
      omnipresent self-identity) and (b) He communicates his humanly
      recognizable and comprehensible inner world to us and manipulates his
      environment. We accept that he has a specific (i.e., the same
      continuous) self-identity if (c) He shows consistent intentional
      (i.e., willed) patterns ("memory") in doing (b) for a long period of
      time.

      It seems that we accept that we have a specific self-identity (i.e.,
      we are self-conscious of a specific identity) if (a) We discern
      (usually through memory and introspection) long term consistent
      intentional (i.e., willed) patterns ("memory") in our manipulation
      ("relating to") of our environment and (b) Others accept that we have
      a specific self-identity.

      In conclusion: Dan undoubtedly has a self-identity (being human and,
      thus, endowed with a brain). Equally undoubtedly, this self-identity
      is not Dan's (but a new, unfamiliar, one).

      Such is the stuff of our nightmares - body snatching, demonic
      possession, waking up in a strange place, not knowing who we are.
      Without a continuous personal history - we are not. It is what binds
      our various bodies, states of mind, memories, skills, emotions, and
      cognitions - into a coherent bundle of identity. Dan speaks, drinks,
      dances, talks, and makes love - but throughout that time, he is not
      present because he does not remember Dan and how it is to be Dan. He
      may have murdered Jake - but, by all philosophical and ethical
      criteria, it was most definitely not his fault.
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