This post will consider the subject of body swapping. Assuming that such a procedure was technically possible – which of course it currently isn’t – can a person survive a complete change of body? I will attempt to answer this question by referring to the identity theories of Locke and Williams. In summary, Locke would agree that a body swap was possible, however Williams would be more equivocal towards the idea.
Firstly, Locke proposed a theory of identity based around a distinct concept of a ‘person’. For Locke, a ‘person’ was a ‘thinking thing’ capable of consciousness and of making rational decisions. This should be contrasted with the ‘body’, which is merely a container of matter that changes over the time. Since the matter in the body is constantly in flux, Locke does not believe that this should form the basis of personal identity. We must look at the essence of an object to determine the source of its identity. In the case of human beings, this is the ‘soul’. For Locke – someone who supports a dualistic interpretation of human beings – ‘soul’ and ‘consciousness’ are synonymous terms.
If the body were to become separated – such as losing a little finger – the ‘person’ would continue to survive in whatever part of the body contains the consciousness, even if that happened to be the little finger. This answers one part of the body swap question. Locke would agree that consciousness can survive after the body is split into two or more parts.
However, in terms of ‘body swap’, what is usually meant by philosophers is that you undergo a procedure whereby you swap bodies with another person. Therefore, to make this question specific to Locke, can a person’s soul (‘consciousness’) be moved from one body to another. Again, Locke would argue that yes, this is possible. In a famous example, he notes that the ‘person’ of a prince could enter the body of a cobbler. While an outsider would insist that the same ‘man’ still exists – for the outsider would continue to see the body of the cobbler – the person of the prince within the body would believe that he continues to survive.
As we’ll see, this latter point is important to answering the ‘body swap’ question. It relates to a distinction that Williams makes in his own essay. Whether a person could survive a body swap depends on whether we take an objective or a subjective view.
Therefore, to consider Williams’ point-of-view, we should consider his two examples. In the first example – the more straightforward of two – A swaps bodies with B, resulting in two new ‘entities’: A-body and B-body. By running through a series of thought experiments, Williams argues most observers would agree that a body swap has taken place. For instance, if A-body and B-body were asked to choose between $100,000 and torture, Williams believes they would choose rationally. They would express a desire to keep the $100,000 for themselves while suggesting that the other person should get the torture. This confirms that the persons of A and B have swapped bodies, and relate more to their new bodies.
However, this becomes less clear when we look at Williams’ second example, that of torture. In this example, an individual A is about to be tortured but is offered one of six scenarios in terms of how the torture will take place. In the first scenario, the memories of A will be wiped before the torture takes place. In the sixth scenario, the memories and character of A will be completely replaced by that of B, while A’s memories and character will end up in body B. Williams suggests that in this second example, person A is more likely to be fearful of the upcoming torture, even though the experiment itself is almost identical to that of the ‘body swap’ example. We could argue that in the sixth scenario, A ought not to be afraid as it obvious that A will continue to exist in the body of B. However Williams contends that if A isn’t afraid in the sixth scenario, he shouldn’t be afraid in any of the other scenarios either.
The result of this paradox – A faces an inherently uncertain situation by reacting with fear – is that A remains far from certain whether he can survive a body swap. Since A continues to identify more with his own body as a result of the various stages of torture, this indicates that A would not believe that he has really changed bodies. This seems to contradict the position of the first experiment where it was more clear-cut that the two parties had swapped bodies.
We can offer a tentative conclusion to the ‘body swap’ paradox by presenting a combined theory based on both Locke and Williams. For an outside observer witnessing a body swap experiment taking place, he or she might be convinced that a body swap has taken place and both Person A and Person B continue to survive in their new bodies. However, if we were to ask the actual participants whether a body swap is likely, we are less certain to receive a positive response. These participants may be fearful of their future situation. The question of personal identity therefore impacts the answer of whether a body swap is possible.
How could we resolve this dilemma? In terms of Williams’ two examples, we could note the different use of language. Humans are very susceptible to psychological influences, so the language used could easily convince the participants to see the same situation in different lights. For instance, in the first experiment, this is described as a ‘body swap’. It is made clear that in all cases, A-person will continue to exist in B-body. However, in the torture example, this is far from clear, and A-person still relates more to A-body, even if A-body contains the consciousness of another person. This ties in with what Locke said about the ‘cobbler’ believing in his mind that he really is the prince, despite what an outsider might think. Different results occur depending on whether we take a subjective or objective view.
Therefore, we can conclude that the concept of ‘body swapping’ is not as clear-cut as it might seem. It is not possible to offer a definitive final answer on the subject.