Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Personal Identity and the Continuity of Consciousness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that one Babylon 5 Episode

We use these two fragments of popular culture (decade-old popular culture, at that) to explore and illuminate our intuitions, or lack thereof, about personal identity, consciousness, and moral responsibility (that last bit didn’t fit into the title, or really it would have fit, but then the title would have been really really long).

The theory of vampirism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as laid out by the title character in the Season Two episode “Lie to me“, is that when a vampire does whatever it is to a human to make the human into a vampire, the human dies, and a demon comes to inhabit and animate the human’s (former) body.

This simple theory is complicated by the vampire Angel, or Angelus. After he does terrible things to a stereotypical tribe of gypsies, the gypsies cast a curse on him in revenge. The curse, intended to make the vampire suffer, “restores his soul”.

There are (at least) two ways we could imagine this soul-restoration occurring: either the original human soul (including subjectivity and memory) is brought back from some afterlife to inhabit its former body (although, as textual evidence from other episodes strongly suggests, with the demon also still in residence in a usually-subservient position), or some generic soul (consisting really of just a “conscience” or a sense of right and wrong (whose?)) is injected into the body along with the demon.

The first of these possibilities is supported by most of the evidence; on first having his soul restored, Angel is confused at first, not knowing where he is or why. This is consistent with the consciousness having just returned from some afterlife, and not having been caught up with what the demon in its (former) body has been up to. But then the memories do arrive, and Angel is horrified to realize all of the things that he (the demon? his body?) has done, and begins to suffer as the gypsies intended him to.

Note the bizarre moral theory here, however. In this reading, in order to punish the demon for his evil acts, the gypsies have summoned up someone else entirely who will feel bad about these acts, and arranged for that someone else to suffer. (The demon, presumably, is not really suffering, except to the extent of being annoyed by this human soul having taken over the body; an annoyance that is attested to in later episodes when the human soul goes away again, and we hear from the demon; although the body of utterances there is not completely unambiguous.)

But why would the gypsies consider that to be justice, and why would anyone sane go along with that consideration? The demon has done terrible things, so we will arrange for someone else, who in the past inhabited this same body, to suffer. How could that be just?

The other possible reading is that the original Angel is still dead and gone, and some more generic feelings of guilt have been imposed upon the demon inhabiting the body. This seems a little more plausible as a kind of justice, but the theory of moral feelings that it requires is odd; in this view moral feelings must be something independent of one’s nature, of who one actually is, so that they can be sort of grafted on after the fact to any personality and consciousness at all, including that of the most depraved demon. And while Angel-with-no-soul is the vilest creature imaginable, Angel-with-soul is such a great guy that Buffy falls in love with him, the viewer is clearly supposed to identify strongly with him as a Good Guy, and so on. (Also, later on when the soul is removed again, the now-evil Angel says of the human one “your boyfriend is dead”, which is more evidence for the first theory, although it could possibly be a figurative way of saying “because I no longer have a conscience, I am evil and nasty again, so that goodness you saw in me before is dead”; but that seems a bit of a stretch perhaps.)

So neither of these theories is really satisfying, and this suggests that our ideas about continuity of consciousness, personal identity, and moral responsibility aren’t sufficiently well-formed to handle these counterfactual edge-cases in any consistent way. If a demon takes over my body, surely I shouldn’t be responsible for its depraved acts, and made to suffer in the name of justice. On the other hand, surely just adding a generic conscience to a vile monster would not convert that personality into something virtuous and admirable.

Then there’s that one Babylon 5 episode. Which one was it, let’s see… Ah, yes: Divided Loyalties (also in the second season, albeit of a different series).

The setup at one point here is that it’s known that someone on the station innocently and unknowingly has a bomb hidden in their brain, and in order to find who it is they have people line up to sit in a booth where, if they are the one with the bomb, it will go off and kill them, while not hurting anyone else. So everyone lines up more or less calmly, except for a bit of grousing about interfering with personal privacy, to sit in the booth and be examined and possibly die.

Ha ha, no, of course that isn’t actually it! That would be ridiculous. It’s actually that someone has an evil Psi Corps artificial personality implant, which will activate when a telepath thinks a certain code-word into their brain, so everyone lines up, with only a bit of grousing about not liking telepaths, to have the code-word thought at them. Which, if they are the one, will awaken the artificial personality implant. Effectively killing their real personality.

And that is actually it! And the people line up anyway! Is that bizarre, or what? It’s again hard to imagine the theory of personal identity and continuity of consciousness here, that would either cause the people to be willing to be tested with only a little grumbling, or that would cause the supposedly virtuous station staff to attack the problem that way (rather than, as they presumably would have done in the brain-bomb case, looking for a way to find and defuse the bomb without killing the person that happened to be carrying it).

It seems as though the writers, and the commentators who have written about this episode without noting the bizarreness of the whole test thing, are working from some theory where people only care that their bodies continue to exist, with some consciousness in them, even if it’s not the one that’s in charge right now. Echoes here of the gypsies, who only care that some consciousness in Angel’s body suffers, even if it’s not the one that was in charge when the actual atrocities were committed.

We might speculate, for instance, that we are so used to seeing a single body always associated with a single personality and a single consciousness, that we don’t really think very hard, at least in these examples, about what happens to identity, moral culpability, or personal survival when that is no longer the case, and we don’t always get a sensible answer when although there’s still someone in there, it’s now someone else.

Readers are warmly invited to submit other ways to read either or both of these fragments of popular culture, in ways that simplify or otherwise cast different lights on the issues.

Other things I might weblogify about in future issues: how Apple is becoming less evil, and iTunes-U and this thing I’m listening to. Also bread, and other stuff!

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5 Responses to “Tuesday, October 25, 2011”

  1. When I saw the headline I thought the B5 episode you were going to be talking about would be “Passing through Gethsemane” which also touches on issues of continuity of identity.

    • Yeah, that one’s interesting, too, and for some of the same reasons. The main premise is that they want to basically restore the bad personality into the original body so that they can punish it for what it did, or at least restore the memories of having done the bad stuff. And then at the end there’s the odd notion that it’s difficult and noble to “forgive” someone for having done a bad thing, even if it was really a former personality in the same body that did it. Although those descriptions may not be entirely correct, because it’s not really clear to me whether the process replaces the old personality with a new one, or just removes the memories of having done the evil stuff and adjusts the personality so that it (probably?) won’t do evil stuff again.

      And then one comes to wonder if there is really a difference between those two things. :)

  2. Pretty much it’s the first theory. There was an episode in Angel that followed the demon Angelus’ reaction to being a passenger watching Angel screw things up. It was frustrating for him but nothing compared to the torture Angel was put through.

    • Yeah! But then one has to ask oneself why the Gypsies (including Jenny Calendar, who’s supposed to be sane) think that it makes any kind of sense to mildly annoy the demon that did the bad thing, through a process that involves causing terrible suffering to the innocent soul that previously owned the body. I mean, wtf an’ all!

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