My Own Creation Over Time
Returning to our example of Eliza and Beth, suppose the meticulous Adult Fan of LEGO (“AFOL”) doesn’t want any identical minifigs in a particular MOC. He therefore chooses to swap out Eliza’s black- colored ponytail hairpiece for a spare Egyptian headdress he has available nearby. Eliza no longer looks the same as Beth, but, given that her hairpiece was her distinguishing characteristic, what exactly has happened to the character of Eliza? If one takes away or swaps out the feature that makes a certain minifig unique, does that same LEGO character persist, or is it replaced by an entirely new one?
Taking the problem further, suppose that Eliza’s new headdress makes her identical to yet another minifig in the display. To correct for this, our diligent AFOL replaces her torso (an attractive red dress top) with a generic astronaut uniform torso, a move which, in turn, matches her up with yet another figure in the MOC. The same process is repeated again and again, with our seemingly unimaginative AFOL switching out piece after piece until Eliza is again a singularly unique minifig among her companions. If this process leads to every one of her pieces being replaced (perhaps several times), can we really say that it is the exact same character we started out with? If nothing of the original Eliza is present in the minifig currently bearing that name, what links the two constructions into the same character?
These examples draw attention to the problem of identity, particularly identity over time. More so than any other philosophical conundrum, this issue served as the catalyst for the philosophy of the human person. Put simply, identity deals with the person’s existence as one, unified whole despite the changes that occur both within and outside that person over the course of their existence.
The question of personal identity was made famous by the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who speculated that memory was the glue that tied together the discrete bits of experience that go into every human life. This claim caused quite the controversy, spawning a lively exchange with the philosophers Joseph Butler (1692-1752) and Thomas Reid (1710-1796) that developed into a centuries-spanning debate. The lines of this battle would eventually coalesce into a conflict between those (like Locke) who believed that personal identity was maintained by some aspect of the human mind and those who claimed that a material continuation of our physical selves was necessary for the persistence of one’s identity through time.4
Our second example described above, wherein Eliza sees all of her pieces replaced again and again, is lifted directly out of this grand tradition of personal identity. Her story recreates a famous thought experiment concerning the “Ship of Theseus” that began as an investigation into the nature of objects existing over time and has since developed into one of the major points of debate in the arguments concerning personal identity.5 Indeed, LEGO minifigures seem particularly apt for discussions about this topic, as their ability to be easily put together and quickly taken apart can be readily equated to the questions concerning death and rebirth that first spawned discussions about personal identity. Locke’s initial work on the subject, and much of the literature that has followed since then, struggled to come to terms with the Christian notion of death and the afterlife, especially the “Resurrection of the Body” that stands as such a central concept within this tradition. Again relying on our faithful LEGO minifigs, if we pull apart Eliza, throw her pieces into a pile of spare bricks, then come back several hours later and attempt to recreate her “block- for-block,” what are the chances of successfully putting the original pieces of our minifigure back together again?
As you can see, the issue of personal identity is as problematic as it is important for understanding our nature as human individuals in an ever-changing world. This has led some contemporary philosophers, most notably Derek Parfit, to despair of ever solving such problems and, instead, to focus on the lasting impact we leave behind us.6 Under such a view, Eliza’s existence or non-existence is a moot point, relatively unimportant so long as the bricks which constituted her continue to be used to build new minifig characters. As we shall see in the next section, however, such a bleak response is hardly the definitive conclusion to the argument.