Friday, November 8, 2013

The Problem of Peeta (The Hunger Games and Philosophy)

In a previous series of posts, I used The Walking Dead and Philosophy to look at the worldview issues in AMC’s hit series. Since the release of Catching Fire is not too far away, I am using The Hunger Games and Philosophy as a springboard to dive into some key themes in the 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.

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"), believes 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."

Peeta is still Peeta, no matter how damaged. That's why Katniss doesn't give up on him. Theories may swirl around the philosophers of the Capital as to whom they have returned to her, but she knows. Peeta is persistent, and he has returned.

*If you are intrigued by the subjects in The Hunger Games and Philosophy, I have written several other posts based on the book. The first discussed the role of entertainment in the Capital; the second looked at the intersection of luck and choice when discussing morality; the third highlighted Abigail Mann's “Competition and Kindness: The Darwinian World of the Hunger Games.


  1. Hi Anthony,

    Are you familiar with the "problem of reference"? There's a nice overview here: I tend to see questions like the one's you raise in this post as boiling down to reference problems; it's easy to say, "That is Peeta," but when you start introducing unusual complications it becomes apparent that our everyday heuristics for resolving references are not robust enough to handle the possible nuances.

    My point is that apparent problems with explaining persistence of identity may point not to the existence of some transcendent identity-substance, but rather to the fact that our thinking about what comprises an identity may have been imprecise in the first place. In fact, our intuitions about what comprises an identity may not be formalizable - it may not be possible to devise a concise and consistent definition of "identity" which comports with our intuitions about identity in every conceivable situation, or in every conceivable dimension. For example, what if five exact copies of Peeta are created using a broken Star Trek transporter, but one is switched with a Peeta in a parellel universe who has greener eyes, one is in a persistent vegetative state, one has all the positive traits Peeta ever wished he could have, one is aging backwards, and God moved the original Peeta's soul into the another copy, and the last copy is exactly like the original in every respect. Which is the real Peeta now? I think it's fair to say that our intuitive concepts of identity are not able to easily cope with this situation, but that doesn't really let us draw many conclusions about "identity" as a general concept.

  2. It sounds like your saying that the trouble lies in the shortcomings of language as it attempts to explain or identify things (the problem of reference). Language may well fail us every time we use it, and yet I think we would agree that what it does offer enables us to navigate our way pretty successfully through life. Assuming that's true, what do you think is the best way to talk about identity?

  3. Language is *undeniably* useful, and the way we use language in everyday life usually works. However, there are exceptional situations where everyday language doesn't work very well. We humans are so good at resolving ambiguities in language that we don't even notice them. This is something that I run into all the time as a programmer: what appears to be a precise specification turns out to have significant ambiguities when you try to explain it to a computer which takes everything literally. This is the reason that programming languages look so arcane and verbose - every little thing must be made explicit.

    I think the best way to talk about the concept of identity is to be very careful about building up a well-defined foundation of explicit concepts and definitions before trying to draw large conclusions about the world outside of language. The problem with "identity" is that while it appears to describe an objective quality of a thing in the world, it is actually a purely subjective demarcation of an object of perception. Identity, as a concept, is pretty clearly a deep function of our minds, not easy to describe or articulate, and we are likely to run into problems when we try unreflectively to use that concept in contexts for which it was not adapted.