You might have seen the 2016 anime film Your Name (君の名は). Maybe your head got as entwined with the story-line as the lives of the two main characters got with each other. And as if soul-swapping wasn’t complicated enough, there is a heavy overlay of time travel to really cross your wires. No wonder Your Name would’ve been English philosopher John Locke’s pick for best animated picture. In particular, I’m sure Locke would’ve included a section about main characters Mitsuha and Taki in his famous work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, particularly the section about personal identity. But before delving into the philosophical details, let’s just give an abridged version of the plot of Your Name and mention, briefly, why it demonstrates Locke’s ideas about personal identity so well.
High-schoolers Mitsuha and Taki live lives on opposite sides of Japan. Longing for a break from tradition, Mistuha bemoans her position as miko of the Itomori shrine, especially as it makes her a target of scorn in the eyes of some of her peers. She wants to move to Tokyo and leave the past in its place. Taki, on the other hand, lives in Tokyo. He attends a very metropolitan high-school while working part-time as a waiter for a high-end restaurant where he nurses a crush on one of his older co-workers.
The action of the plot kicks into gear quite early into the film. One day, Taki and Mitsuha wake up and find they’ve switched bodies. One might say, they’ve become each other. But is that true? Here is where John Locke would jump out of his chair and spill popcorn all over his well-to-do 17th century study. Here is his Prince and Cobbler thought experiment in the form of teenage anime characters.
John Locke’s version of Your Name is not nearly as romantic, not to mention the dismal animation budget (non-existent). But what it lacks in style it makes up for in substance. Locke has us imagine a wealthy Prince and a poor Cobbler go to bed at the same time (not together, though I do welcome saucy philosophical fan-fiction). Come morning, the Prince opens his eyes and finds himself in the squalid and cramped room of the Cobbler. Conversely, the Cobbler wakes up in a king-sized bed, a fresh bowl of grapes already ready for his consumption.
Now, what exactly just happened? Did the Cobbler and the Prince actually swap bodies? It depends on what constitutes the identity of personhood. One idea is that a person is their body, and so long as that body persists, the person does as well. Sounds reasonable, one might think. When somebody slaps me across the face, I don’t say, “Ow! That really hurt my body”. I say: “Ow! That really hurt me!” But the thing Locke is getting at is that when the Cobbler wakes up with the Prince’s memories and consciousness, that is what makes the Prince, the Prince, despite being in the Cobbler’s body.
This intuition seems just as strong as the ‘I am my body’ view. At several points in the movie, both Mitsuha and Taki are accused of being ‘like a different person’ when their psychologies are switched around. The characters in the movie seem to track personal identity according to psychological continuity, not bodily continuity. But why? Well, consider this debacle. The Prince gets tried for stealing (which he is, in fact, guilty of) and is sentenced to flogging. He goes to bed knowing tomorrow he will be in a world of hurt. The sunrises, the fog of sleep dissipates, yet the person lying there has no memory whatsoever of stealing anything (let alone an entire life of royalty). All he remembers is how to make shoes. To add to his distress, he is informed that he is due to receive a good whipping in the public square for stealing. Most people would take pity on the poor Cobbler and fume at the Prince, who is now lying in a hammock somewhere smoking hookah scot-free. Most people would say they have the right body, but the wrong person.
That’s what John Locke would want us to conclude about personal identity. It’s also what the writer and director of Your Name, Makoto Shinkai, assumes most people already believe. Fair enough, so long as you’re willing to live with these strange consequences:
- If psychological continuity is the necessary condition for personhood, then every time that continuity is interrupted, that person ceases to exist. Every time you fall unconscious, you die. Every time you sleep, you stop existing. And, without continuity, who’s to say the next time you wake up, you are you?
- It is possible to have two or more persons in the same body. You don’t need multiple personality disorder for this to be a problem. As studies on split brain patients have shown, there is a constant struggle for control between the hemispheres of the brain when connections between them are severed. In normal brains, the two halves cooperate quite nicely, but that doesn’t mean they don’t each have a ‘mind’ of their own. If you think you’re alone in there, you might find you have unexpected company (and they’re there to stay).
- What happens if two bodies have identical memories? Are they the same person? Say, in the far future, you upload yourself (memories + consciousness) onto a floppy disk. Oops! Due to a hardware malfunction, two copies of your memories were uploaded. Which one is you? Can’t be both because 1 doesn’t equal 2. It would be entirely arbitrary to say you are one or the other since they are identical. Welp, I guess you died. Even though there are two persons with identical memories, neither of them are you. You are dead. How strange.
At several points in the film, Mitsuha and Taki leave notes for each asking, “Who are you?”
Maybe they should first ask, “Who am I?”