The case of getting a new body is much discussed in philosophy but then in the form of a body or brain switch between two people. For the first time this has been done by John Locke (1632-1704), who analyzed the case of a prince getting the body of a cobbler. Since then the discussion has never stopped. It is mainly about the question: what determines the self? Basically there are two views. One is that it’s the body that makes up the self; the other is that the self is mental, be it in the “hard form” of the brain, be it the mind, or be it the memory. Sergio Canavero, who actually wants to perform a body transplant and whose ideas I have discussed in my last blog, apparently thinks that the self is mental (laid up in the brain or head). My standpoint is that it is mixed: the self is made up of bodily and mental characteristics. However, most philosophers think that the self is only mental.
Now I want to discuss a case that I’ll quote by heart, since I am too lazy to look up who presented it first. Maybe it was Bernard Williams, maybe it was someone else.
Let’s say that a doctor, who is an adherent of the mental self theory but who is also a famous body transplant surgeon, tells you that your body will gradually decay and that finally you’ll feel a lot of pain. You are shocked. But then he says: “I have a solution. I can give you a new body”. You become very happy. You just started to train for the marathon, and it is your great wish to run it within three hours. If your body wouldn’t decay, it would really be possible for you have the right physical constitution. So you agree, and the next week you are successfully operated.
You have a quick and complete recovery and the new body feels like your own. So you start to train for the marathon aagain. You are an experienced runner so in your mind you feel already the suppleness of your legs when running. But when you take up your training again, you are stiff. “Okay”, you think, “that’s normal after having been inactive for so long”. Your legs and body gradually improve but after a year they still do not feel fine and the way you remembered about your first body. Therefore you go to a sports doctor. She does a medical examination and the result is: With your present body you can run a marathon within five hours and four hours will be the absolute limit. You are very disappointed, for you are no longer the long distance runner you thought to be. The body transplant has been to no purpose. An illusion has been broken.
My story looks fantastic but it’s the life story of everybody who becomes older. When time goes on, the body starts to decay. It can happen after you have become thirty years old or after you have become forty or whenever, but sooner or later your body loses its youth. Your performance will go down in an absolute sense. For example, if you are a runner or cyclists, your average speed will go down. But in your mind you still feel young. Many people say so: That they feel young in their minds but that their bodies doen’t cooperate any longer. The body has become older but the mind hasn’t (or so it feels). When you have become sixty years of age, actually you have undergone a body transplant: Your supposed thirty years old mind has (gradually) got a sixty years old body. But since the self is in the mind (or at least it is mental and not physical, even not partially), you are still basically the thirty years old person you once were (of course, plus some thirty years of memories of experiences you passed through). Or rather, this is what follows from the idea that the self is mental.Do you belief it? Being a runner, too, I still feel in my mind the suppleness of my legs from the time I run my personal bests. Really. But the days of my personal bests have gone already long ago and I know it. The feeling is real and it is an illusion. I have changed through the years and everybody will tell me if asked. And my self has changed with it, even if it tells me otherwise. For young people I am “that old man”, for they judge me from my physical appearance. And in fact my thoughts are to a large extent guided by what I can do with my body, which is reflected then in my mind. In other words, who I am – so my self – is more than what I feel, my mind, and – what I haven’t discusses here – my remembrances. It comprises also the features of my body (and actually also features of my social life). But who would have thought otherwise except a philosopher?