The Hunger Games and Philosophy provides an excellent springboard from which to dive into some key themes in this incredibly popular trilogy. In “Who is Peeta Mellark? The Problem of Identity in Panem,” Nicolas Michaud uses Peeta’s post-torture persona to look at the problem of personal identity. I will do my best to adequately represent her argument, as well as provide a response of my own.
Consider Katniss’s dilemma. Peeta returns from the torture of the Capitol a different man than she knew previously. In a physical sense, he is clearly still himself. In terms of character, attitude, and beliefs, he is quite different. So is Katniss reaching out to the Peeta she knew or is she creating a relationship with someone new? It may sound like an odd question, but consider some scenarios Mr. Michaud offers to help us think through this identity crisis.
If Peeta is simply his body, then as long as his body doesn’t change, Peeta remains. Whatever is true of Peeta is true of his body and vice versa. But if Peeta had come back from the Capitol dead, Katniss would not have rejoiced that Peeta had returned. Clearly, Peeta is more than simply a body. His body may be necessary for him to exist as a human, but it is not sufficient to explain who he is as a person.
Perhaps one could argue that Katniss can determine who Peeta is because of his DNA. That, surely, would establish his identity. But Peeta’s DNA is not Peeta; it’s just instructions about how to build the person with that name. The blueprint for the Hunger Games arena is not the same as the arena itself. Dilemmas like this seem to indicate that DNA and biology are not sufficient to explain who Peeta is. Mr. Michaud notes:
“The body may be necessary for the self, but it isn’t the same thing as the self, just as an arena may be necessary for the Hunger Games but an arena itself is no guarantee that the Hunger Games are actually taking place within it at any given time.”
The concept of a psychological continuity providing identity can reinvigorate the discussion, but even this alternative provides its own set of challenging scenarios. Consider this one: President Snow captures Peeta and manages to translate all his memories and personality into a clone. Then he tortures and brainwashes Peeta. Finally, he offers Katniss a choice of one or the other. Which one is Peeta? When the Capitol so radically altered Peeta’s mind, memories and emotions, did they effectively change who he was?
John Locke said a person was (among other things) “the same thinking thing in different times and places” in whom the past and present intersect in memory and emotions. It is consistent, conscious experiences that give us our identity. If that’s true, the post-Capitol Peeta is not the same man who was captured.
However, the theoretical dilemma does not translate well into the real world. We don’t think people become entirely new if circumstances rob or distort their mind’s capacity. Memento was the story of one person’s tragic life, not a montage of different people. My Grandpa did not stop being himself when dementia robbed him of his memory.
So “I” am not interchangeable with my body, but “I” am not interchangeable with my persistent psychological experience either. No wonder many philosophers have abandoned the concept of ongoing identity. Hume said there was no self that endures through time, just a bundle of perceptions. Judith Butler says there is no “I” to refer to when speaking of ourselves. Mr. Michaud’s conclusion is similar:
“Maybe there never was an ‘I’ in the first place, just a being who constantly passes away and is replaced by a new being, carrying with it recollections – some fairly accurate, others way off the mark – of what all the previous, now dead persons thought and felt.”
Mr. Michaud clearly shows the inadequacy of a biological or psychological explanation to give a serious account of individual identity. However, he is not as clear about why we must conclude that the “I” disappears in the dust of collapsing materialist theories.
- When I drive my car to the gym, both it and the gym change in many ways even during that brief trip – and yet it sure seems to be true that the same “I” arrives at the same gym in the same car.
- If I run a red light, I can’t use the excuse that it was a different car – or that I was not the driver.
- My Social Security number, my college loans, and my marriage license always apply to me.
- When my wife and I recently celebrated our twenty-third anniversary, it was because we – the same people then and now – took vows and kept them, not because we wanted to honor what our dead selves thought and felt.
Hunter Baker, writing in Salvo ( “A Grave New World”) notes that “the experience of being human points to a reality behind the reality we acknowledge scientifically. If science can’t explain the conscience of most of the variety of fundamental values by which we order our lives and decisions, then there must be some other way of seeing and perceiving.”
This “other way” of understanding our sense of identity invokes a dual nature comprised of an immaterial soul and a material body. Proponents of this type of substance dualism note that we are not just body, and we are not just soul – we have a dual nature in which our essential and accidental properties combine to allow for a unity of identity amidst the diversity of incidental characteristics. In The Screwtape Lettters, C.S. Lewis poetically described us as “amphibians — half spirit and half animal,” whose spirits belong to the eternal world while our bodies inhabit this one. J.P Moreland summarizes the same idea in a bit more philosophical way:
Substance dualists assert that… a human…consists of an immaterial substantial soul with a physical body that is not identical to the soul….substance dualists believe that the brain is a physical thing with physical properties and the mind or soul is a mental substance that has mental properties.”
“Who is Peeta?” is far too complex of a question to be answered by referring merely to biology or memory. The Peeta captured by the Capital is the same Peeta who returned irregardless of the damage. That’s why Katniss doesn’t give up on him. Theories may swirl around the philosophers of the Capital, but she knows. Peeta is persistent, and he has returned.
(This article was originally posted at http://empiresandmangers.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-problem-of-peeta-hunger-games-and.html)
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