Is "who are you?" the ultimate sci-fi question?

You find yourself at the bottom of a shocking number of remarkable science fiction stories

Is "who are you?" the ultimate sci-fi question?
Photo by Mathieu Stern / Unsplash

Many an excellent sci-fi story was told by asking the question of you

No, not you personally.

It's like this.

When you say "I am going to the store"...

What is the "I" in that sentence?

Does "I" refer to your body? Your mind? Your soul, if you believe in such? Something else?

That's problem of personal identity. And like many a sticky philosophical problem, the question "Who am I?" looks so simple on the surface. Just don't ask too many questions, or you'll find yourself lost down a rabbit hole full of rattlesnakes.

The prompt for this article came from a twitter thread I read the other day. While I'm not a frequent visitor to the blue bird site, there's occasionally good stuff there if you dip your toe in.

This thread was about an episode of the original Shatner Trek titled "Dagger of the Mind".

One of several Old-Trek episodes that deals with technologically-induced identity crisis. And, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the better episodes of the whole franchise.

Turns out that this question is a riff on a persistent theme around these parts.

What truths do machines show us about ourselves?

What do the prospects for manned spaceflight mean for our concepts of the self?

If we meet aliens, will they even be "persons" the way we think of ourselves?

Who are you? Who am I?

This question hits on some of the most important philosophical and personally relevant motivations for picking up (or writing) a science fiction story.


That time when Arnold when buck-wild on Mars

Total Recall -- Paul Verhoeven's 1990 version, to be crystal clear -- remains one of the best sci-fi action films ever made.

Those might be small shoes to fill and I don't even care.

That film couldn't even exist without taking a hard look at the question "Who am I?"

In between Arnold snapping mook necks, there's a serious philosophical depth driving this film.

Who is Doug Quaid?

He can't be the physical body. We learn that Quaid's body used to be a secret agent named Hauser, working for the Big Bad Boss. If Quaid is identical with his body, he's also identical with Hauser. Now we've got two distinct people living in one body, and that just won't do.

He can't be the memories in his head. Quaid doesn't have any real memories. The "Quaid" personality and everything he remembers were all put into that brain by the geniuses at Recall.

That brain. Not Quaid's brain or Hauser's brain. We can't say that the body or its parts belong to anyone until we've established that there's someone to take ownership.

Wild stuff.

Total Recall came from a Philip K. Dick short story called "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale". PKD's short isn't quite as fun as the filmed version, what with lacking the fight scenes and Arnold's flawless comebacks.

But, like many a PKD story, it does offer the reader a literal and figurative mindblowing experience. The question of identity segues into the question of mental health and the many skeptical problems about reality itself.

If we don't know who we are, do we know anything at all? Can we trust anything we think or experience?

PKD's not the only one to pick up on this.


Babylon 5 practically built itself around the question of identity

It's not obvious, what with all the space battles and political intrigues, but the theme of personal identity is not just recurrent throughout the show. It is the main thematic motivation of the whole series.

Identity is front and center when we learn of a novel form of judicial punishment. Officially, it's a sentence to "death of personality". Unofficially it's called a "mind wipe". The victim's put into some kind of machine which erases all memories of their past life.

Then, with that now-blank slate, a new personality, complete with new memories, replaces the old.

It's chilling to think about. Way creepier than just hanging the perp.

One episode, "Passing Through Gethesemane", shows us a serious flaw with assuming that the person is nothing but a set of memories and behavior patterns.

We don't recognize people just by their memories and behaviors. We recognize people through their faces, their bodies.

This particular episode shows us how a total death and rebirth of mind still doesn't entirely absolve a person of his past sins, at least not in the minds of some.

And there are real life examples. Could you imagine a hypothetical war criminal subject to a traumatic brain injury that leaves him an invalid with no memory of his former life?

Would that person be legally or morally liable for his past actions, even though he doesn't remember them and no longer has the faculties to comprehend what was done?

We're already wading into serious questions about our institutions and moral beliefs, all of which depend on this one question:

Who am I?

And that's just scratching the surface. Talia Winters, the part-time telepath during the early seasons, was set up for a mind-wipe arc big time.

Anna Sheridan's fate attests to this. Garibaldi got a taste in season 4.

And then there's the Vorlon Question, which (in my mind at least) sets up the whole flavor of the series:

Who are you?

For all B5 played with this questions, its major theme is identity standing against chaos.

Not bad for a simple question.


Asking "Who am I?" gives you a lot of ground to play with

All these cases are about one body with "different minds". I keep putting it that way because it's not at all clear that an individual's psychological attributes do the important work.

We make a big deal out of memories and personality traits. Our language and our institutions practically build themselves around the mental characteristics of persons.

But then, we look at it from the outside. When Hauser becomes Quaid, what do you have? You've got one muscular body, and two sets of psychological attributes.

The person Hauser doesn't become the person Quaid. That one guy, the living breathing animal body, is the same person with different mental characteristics.

So which is it? Is Hauser/Quaid one person with different mental attributes, or two different persons in one physical body?

I have no answer because I don't think anybody has an answer.

The point is not to solve the problem. The point is to dramatize the conflict between the two viewpoints.

Like I said: wild stuff.

I haven't even gotten around to more exotic cases. What happens when you take one person and then, through Act of Transporter, make two people or ten people?

Which one is real?

Is there even an answer to that question?

If you're knee-deep in science fiction storytelling, the question of the self is one of the most pressing and fascinating issues you can tackle

Paired up with imaginative technological possibilities -- AI, virtual reality, the wilder side of cognitive science and neuroscience -- you can tell crazy stories by asking that simple question:

"Who are you?"


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