Join us as we ponder a philosophical problem: If you were born from different parents, would you still be you?
Probably a few of you sighed and thought, “Of course I would be different. I would have had a happier childhood and thus become a happier adult.”
But we’re not asking whether you would be a better or worse version of yourself with different parents. We’re asking whether you would actually be a different person. In other words, can you (Scott, Sarah, or whatever your name is) exist in a different body produced by different parents and still be you?
Here are some things to think about before answering this question.
A human person is a composite of soul and body.
For St. Thomas Aquinas and most Catholic thinkers, we are both soul and body. We are not a soul trapped in a body. Nor are we a soulless body, the way many atheists see us.
This means we are incomplete without one or the other. It is only when soul and body are joined that we can claim to be completely human.
In light of this, it seems you would not be the same you if you were born of different parents in a different body. Your body is part of your identity.
The human person transcends that composite of soul and body.
We are not merely the sum of those parts. Being a person is a more fundamental principle. God creates the soul out of nothing. There’s some act of God that’s individualized — an individual essence is created within your soul, one could say.
There’s the kind of thing we are — human — but then there’s the individual essence of the soul. With this understanding of personhood, it’s easier to imagine yourself inhabiting another body and yet still being you.
The problem of death.
When we die, our souls leave our bodies until they are reunited at the end of time. But is that bodiless soul a person?
In one sense, no. At least, it seems not to be a full person. But it also doesn’t make sense to call it half a person either. Whatever it is, it bears the individuality that we associate with “person.” When you die, the “you” is still present in your soul, but it’s limited since it doesn’t have a union with the body.
You probably noticed we didn’t give a straight answer to our initial question: Would you still be you if born of different parents? The reason the question is so difficult to answer is because of the ambiguity of the word “person.” Different understandings of that word lead to different answers.
Hopefully, we gave you some food for thought. It’s a fun philosophical question to ponder with friends and drinks by a warm winter fire.