What is Identity?

By Steven Romanello

Identity is defined broadly. If one were to look up the definition of the word “Identity”, a single dictionary may contain more than five different definitions for the word. The Mariam-Webster dictionary for example, contains seven! Webster’s first definition defines the word to mean “sameness of essential or generic character”. It elaborates to say that identity is “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing”. Ask the average person what those two sentences really mean, and you’ll probably get a blank face staring back at you. What I am getting at here is that identity (what makes us, US) is not an easy concept to explain or to understand. Human beings struggle to pin down an exact explanation that holistically encompasses the entire concept. More useful iterations of the definition are perhaps “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”, and “the relation established by psychological identification”. These definitions from Webster (while considerably easier to understand) pay a price for their simplicity in the importance of what they omit.

Take for example the first reiteration, “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”. The personality of a person refers to “the combination of qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character”. The character of a person refers to “the mental or moral qualities distinctive to an individual”. Notice therefore, that this definition of identity has omitted from its explanation any mention of the physical. Character and personality both refer to that which occurs on a mental level within an individual. This definition implies that a person’s identity has nothing to do with any of their physical characteristics (such as body type, facial structure, or internal organ composition). This implication (however troubling) makes sense. Certainly if you underwent plastic surgery and changed the appearance of your face, you would still consider yourself to be the same person. How you look to others would be different, but certainly you know that you are still the same entity. You do not now have a different essence or are now a different object of existence simply because your face has been
altered in appearance.

Your identity, who you are in relation to those around you is preserved. If you underwent surgery to remove an infected appendix and now awoke from the procedure without the afflicted organ, you certainly would still consider yourself to be you. You are not now a different entity or a different object of existence because you have had an organ removed. Your identity, who you are and who you identity yourself to be is not now different because an organ has been removed. Following through this line of thought; It seems as though we can change physically (both internally and externally) without changing our identity. Our physical nature can change without harming the essence of who we are.

Lets examine the second reiteration of the definition of identity, “the relation established by psychological identification”. This definition seems to propel outwards the question of identity. My identity is not something internal to me, but is instead dependent upon how I am perceived externally by both myself and others. Here Identity is dependent on psychological relation. In other words, I am what I am perceived to be. This suggests that we do not determine our own identity. Who we are comes to be defined by the perceptions of those around us, including our own perception of ourselves. While we may control the actions and decisions that others are observing us make, we do not control how they are perceived or what they are perceived to mean about us. These perceptions quite literally form the basis of who we are to those around us. This line of thinking simply goes a step further to say that the combined perceptions of all those who perceive us is in fact who we are.

Moving away from a linguistic examination of the word “identity”, let us examine how we recognize the identity of those around us. The simplest illustration of this concept is perhaps a circumstance we all find ourselves in quite frequently. When walking down the street, we bump into someone we know. We recognize this person as someone we know most commonly through the features of their face. We see the details of the person’s facial structure and say to ourselves “Hey, there’s John!” When we are searching for someone in a crowd, how do we search and how do we know when we have found the right person? We often visually scan the heads of everyone in the crowd, looking for a familiar hairstyle and facial appearance. When know we have found the right person when our mind recognizes the features of the person we are seeking. This seems to suggest on the surface that identity (or at least how we recognize the identity of others) is partially grounded in something physical. I say that it may only be partially grounded in something physical because as I have shown above, it is certainly possible for someone to completely alter their physical appearance without ceasing to have the same Identity.
This line of thinking poses an interesting question. Is it possible for us to identify someone we have come to know quite well if their physical appearance has been completely altered; and if so, how?

Let us take the following scenario: Suppose that your mother along with three other women of the same height and build all had their physical appearance altered in such a way that made them look exactly the same. To the naked eye each of the four women look like exact duplicates, making it impossible to distinguish between them physically. Let us also suppose for the purpose of our thought experiment that the technology exists for us to alter the voice of each woman so that it sounds exactly identical to that of the others when spoken aloud. If given the chance to observe the behavior of each of these women (who are living together in an isolated apartment) for one weeks time, could you identify which of these women is actually your mother? You would not be permitted to speak to or interact with the women in anyway and must make your judgement strictly based on observation.

Whether or not such a task would actually be possible to accomplish is a matter of debate. Most people’s intuition is to say that it would be possible to identify which of the women is actually their mother given a week to observe. For example, you might choose to focus your observations on what mom is eating. Is she eating foods you have come to know she enjoys? Is the pattern of when she is eating consistent with what you have to know of her habits. You may instead choose to focus on what activities the ladies are engaging in with their free time. Is mom watching her favorite TV shows during the week? Is she spending her time exercising on the treadmill as she usually does? Is she reading newspapers, magazines, or books of a certain genre that you are accustomed to seeing her enjoy? You may yet still choose to focus on what it is she is saying to the other women around her. Is she starting conflict as you are used to seeing her do? Is she representing the same points of view on certain issues that you have come to know she advocates for? Is the diction she is using familiar to what you are used to hearing her use? You may even choose to focus on something as trivial as the way each woman moves. Are the hand gestures you are observing similar to mom’s mannerisms? Is the way in which a particular women walks characteristic of how you have come to know mom moves?

By observing all of these things and others just like them over the course of a week, certainly it should be possibly to identify which of the four ladies is truly your mother. While it seems possible to complete this task because we have come to know mom well; certainly it would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to do this with someone we have just met in class or at work and have known for under a month. While we will certainly have become familiar with their appearance and be able recognize their face as we pass by in the hallway, we will not yet know them well enough to be able to distinguish them from their lookalikes in the task above. This now reveals our central question on identity: What is it that we come to know about a person that enables us to say we know them well? What is that we come to know about a person that enables us to distinguish them from others when we cannot rely on physical appearance to differentiate? The answer to this question is our answer to the question “What is

Our body of work has brought us two distinctive ideas regarding the composition of identity. While we have shown that identity persists far beyond the realm of the physical; we cannot ignore that the primary way through which we recognize the identity of others daily is through recognizing physical facial and hairline features. It is difficult to imagine a time when this practice was not innate to human behavior. Certainly if such a practice is so engrained within our nature, we cannot ignore its implication that identity does have a physical component. At the same time, our thought experiments have revealed to us that physicality alone does not and cannot tell the full story of identity. From our lookalike experiment, we see that in the absence of physical distinction identity is preserved. We can identify mom by her habits, preferences, hobbies, pattern of behavior, tendencies, opinions, actions, and decisions. While we are identifying most of these things by observing her physical presence around the apartment, the distinctive qualities of what that physical presence is doing (that about the presence which enables us to identity that it is distinctly mom) originate in the realm of the mental through her character and personality. Identity then (although it must be partially physical) seems to exist mostly in the realm of the mental. It seems to be a combination of these things that makes us who we are; the physical, the character, the personality and how the three are perceived by the self and those around us.

While it is beyond the objective of this article to provide a complete examination of identity within the context of advances in biotechnology, let us address this subject for a moment as food for thought. Consider the following scenario: John loves to ski. John has been skiing ever since his father taught him how as a young boy. Throughout his life, skiing has played a central role. John’s family would go at least three times a year to various resorts to enjoy the activity together as a family. When he became old enough, John would go alone with friends. When John was 27, he met his future wife while on a skiing trip. The two would marry and eventually John would teach his children how to ski. Using the criteria for describing identity that we discussed above, we notice that skiing qualifies as a habit, preference, and hobby for John. It has also greatly influenced his actions and decisions in life as far as what he spends his time thinking about, where he plans his vacations, what brings his family together, and who he would ultimately choose to spend his life with. Skiing certainly seems to be an essential part of John’s character and personality and seems to have played a role shaping his life.

Around age 45, John becomes ill and his doctor tells him he will need a heart transplant. Modern advancements in biotechnology have made it possible for doctors to surgically remove his afflicted organ and implant an artificial, mechanically operated heart until a donor organ suitable for John can be found. John will need to wear a battery pack to power the heart in order to keep blood flowing to his body. If John becomes disconnected from the pack, blood flow will cease and he will die. As a result, John must give up skiing while the artificial heart is supporting him. The risks of accidentally falling and
becoming disconnected from his pack are too great. Advances in biotechnology have allowed John to survive his illness, but an essential piece of who John is (his ability to ski) has been lost. While the physical life and body of John have been saved, has his complete identity (the whole of who he is) been preserved?

About the Guest Author:
Steven Romanello a student at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University, and in May 2018 he graduated with a degree in Global Business and a minor in Natural Science. Steven has held leadership positions in the school’s mock trial program and the Gabelli School’s first investment organization. He has earned an All-Region Attorney Award from the American Mock Trial Association and an Outstanding Advocate award from Cornell University. 

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