Daniel Dennett’s article “Where Am I?” highlights a key issue that philosophers have grappled with for centuries. Despite the fact that debates on the subject of personal identity have taken place in both ancient and modern philosophical circles, defining it has proven difficult (Nimbalkar 268). On the subject, various points of view have emerged. Some believe that one’s self is made up of the thoughts that dominate one’s mind. Others believe the self is merely a projection of the physical body. Furthermore, some believe that invoking a sense of self is impossible (Nimbalkar 268). Dennett believed and supported the theory developed by John Locke which was based on the assumption that personal identity is tethered to one’s consciousness (Santos and Sia 23). However, Daniel Dennett underwent an experience that debunked his beliefs and leads him to a new realization that altered his stance on personal identity.
In the article, Dennett is required to retrieve a nuclear weapon that the government accidentally buried in Tulsa while conducting an experiment on the latest military invention, the STUD. As the missile was highly radioactive, Dennett was required to leave his brain behind, or else its sensitive tissues would be mutated. It would be kept in a safe place, and radio links would act as synapses between the body and the brain. He goes through an operation that takes out his brain and replaces it with a radio transceiver that is paired to another that is attached to the brain. Dennett is assured by the team of behaviorists, hematologists, neurologists, biophysicists and electrical engineers that he would not lose any information or brain function. The operation would simply stretch out the nerves that link his brain to his body.
After Dennett regains consciousness and he is reliably informed that the surgery was a resounding success, he naturally asks to visit his brain. Attached to the vat in which his brain is floating is a switch. When Dennett switches it off, he becomes disoriented and falls into the arms of the nearest technician. When the technician switches it on, Dennett immediately recovers his composure. He concludes that the switch transmits the impulses between the radio transmitters attached to the brain in the vat and the nerve endings in Dennett’s head.
Dennett has a curious reaction when he looks at his brain. His first thought is surprise and wonder as he ponders that he is sitting on a folding chair across where his brain is placed, looking it at it float in a vat of liquid. As soon as the thought materializes he wonders if his first thought should have been ‘here I am, floating in this fluid, while my body stares at me’ (Dennett 58). This idea raises the same philosophical question that has been debated on for years. After numerous attempts to project the thought that Dennett supposed he should be having, he challenges his belief that his self-identity is attached to his mind and not his body. As a staunch believer of the physicalist school of thought, Dennett believed that the thoughts occur and materialize in the brain, but instead of projecting the idea from the vat, it seems to occur in his body.
In the attempt to properly process his thoughts, Dennett names his personal identity after himself, he dubs his old brain ‘Yorick’, his old body ‘Hamlet’, his new body ’Fortinbras’ and his prosthetic brain ‘Hubert’ (Dennett 59). The first notion that he considers is that his body, Hamlet, goes wherever his personal identity, Dennett goes. He dismisses the claim on the suspicion that the brain carries all the confidential information about a person, as proven by the Tom and Dick conundrum. As such, his identity is attached to the body and while the brain and the body could be parted, the brain and personal identity could not. The second notion he considers is that Dennett (personal identity) follows Yorick (the brain). He is suspicious of the statement as he could so clearly see that Yorick was stuck in a vat, unable to move and go anywhere while Dennett had a body with which he could travel to whichever location he preferred. He dismisses the thought on that ground and ponders on his third notion, that Dennett’s location or situation, is determined by thought. He suspects that the idea might be wrong due to the existence of physical location. He considers that people frequently get lost from a geographic perspective, but they have the comfort of knowing that they are in their body, a luxury that he could not afford due to his present circumstance.
The consideration that a person’s location is tethered to their personal point of view considerably complicated Dennett’s situation. Not only was it infallible in regards to direction, but it was also high stake, in that a point of view could either be completely right or completely wrong (Dennett 60). Dennett considered the many times he had been unsure of where he was, as well as the fact that the point of view is constituted of a person’s beliefs and thoughts whether they were based on facts or illusion.
During his mission, the radio transmitters that had been installed in Dennett’s mind failed, and he gradually lost all control of his body. As soon as it happened, his thoughts were no longer tethered to his body in Tulsa, but his brain, located in a liquid-filled vat in Houston (Dennett 64). As a result of this occurrence, Dennett stumbles upon the philosophical revelation that the self is anchored in the mind and that it is the center of one’s personal identity and the origin of consciousness. The practical issue with this revelation is that he could not express his recent discoveries as his body was currently severed from himself.
In the end, Dennett lost his old body, and his brain remained suspended in a vat, but his self remained intact. His self was transplanted into a new body although he found that he retained all his memories, mannerisms, personality and facial expressions. Yorick’s copy had a new physical home in Fortinbras. Yorick’s old information existed in Hubert, which became the new brain of Fortinbras. The old switch did not affect Dennett in any way, but the new switch could swap Dennett’s self from Hubert to Yorick. In the end, Dennett could exist in two different bodies and the possibility of not knowing exactly where his self is located no longer affected him.
Dennett, Daniel C. “Where Am I?” Science Fiction and Philosophy, 2016, pp. 55-68.
Nimbalkar, Namita. “John locke on personal identity.” Mens Sana Monographs, vol. 9, no. 1, 2011, p. 268.
Santos, Ferdinand, and Santiago Sia. “The Lockean Account of Person and Personal Identity.” Personal Identity, the Self, and Ethics, 2007, pp. 17-45.