In this paper, I will describe the psychological continuity theory of personal identity and I will show how it is assumed in the film Being John Malkovich. Then I will explain the problems of the theory.

The problem for personal identity is about what makes a personal numerically identical from one time to the next. Before going into further discussion, I will first clarify the definition of “numerical identity”, which is useful in describing the theory of personal identity. The sufficient and necessary condition for numerical identity is the sharing of all the properties including the spatial-temporal ones. Therefore, if a is numerically identical to b, then there is only one thing which it can be called either “a” or “b”. For example, Clark Kent is numerically identical with Superman in the sense that there is only one person. Alternatively, a and b are qualitatively identical if and only if a and b have all the properties in common except the spatial-temporal ones. For example, two qualitatively identical chairs are made in the same furniture factory on the same production line such that they look exactly the same, but they are two distinct chairs which occupy different spaces at the same time.

The psychological continuity theory of personal identity is that a person at one time is the same the person at another time if and only if the person has continuous psychological states including memory, consciousness and personality. In other words, self is numerically identical to the psychological states. Therefore, by definition of numerical identity, when we are referring to the self of a person, we are actually referring to his or her psychological states. Since psychological states persist through time and have a casual influence on future psychological states, one’s psychological continuity is essential in identifying a person over different periods of time. One representative feature of psychological states is memory. If person A can remember the earlier thoughts and perceptions of person B, then person A is identical to person B. My following discussions are mainly focused on this memory aspect of psychological states.

The film Being John Malkovich implies psychological continuity theory of personal identity. For example, as Craig Schwartz enters the portal, he experiences the sensory stream of John Malkovich and later gradually learns how to puppeteer John Malkovich’s body, but several scenes of the film suggest Craig remains to exist as Craig after he enters the portal, and never succeeds in being John Malkovich, even when he can completely control John’s body. For example, after Craig enters the portal, he has prior memories of being Craig, but not memories of being John Malkovich. Furthermore, the film shows clear discontinuities in the psychological characteristics that separate the John Malkovich prior to Craig’s entry from the John Malkovich after Craig’s entry. In addition, after Craig goes out of the portal, he is the same person as before because he remembers being Craig. The film also shows Dr. Lester and his friends can prolong their lives by staying in John Malkovich’s body, so Dr. Lester continues to exist because he consciously remembers being Dr. Lester. This is consistent with the psychological continuity theory as the change or cease of body is assumed to be independent from personal identity.

However, there are several problems in the psychological continuity theory. One of the philosophical problems is the paradox when dealing with breaks in the psychological states, which can be escalated into more serious moral issues. For example, suppose at time period t person A commits a crime, and at time t’ he gets amnesia such that he cannot remember anything he did before and his personality is totally changed. Because there exists obvious discontinuity in his memory, the theory implies the A in t’ and the A in t are not identical, which may contradicts with someone’s intuition. Furthermore, suppose later he is accused and has to go to court, it is unclear whether he should be responsible and get punishment for the crime he commits at time t, because it is controversial whether we still have the same person, as A now behaves completely differently as he is in t, and he could not remember the crime he committed.

The second problem is that memory is not perfectly reliable as it can be altered over time, and we cannot distinguish between the genuine and non-genuine memories. In order to correctly identify a person by his continuity of memory, that person’s memory should be genuine, reflecting his true psychological states. The genuineness of memory requires a casual mechanism such that previous perception must have occurred and is causally responsible for the current memory, and the current memory must also accurately represent the previous perception. However, the criterion is sometimes hard to achieve as the perception and memory can be easily swayed by suggestions or other interventions. Moreover, since one has privileged access to his mind, we cannot reliably tell whether someone’s memory is genuine. In this sense, memory based psychology continuity cannot server as a perfect link for personal identity. One possible solution to this might be to identify the casual link between the different pieces of memory across time, but it is still difficult to implement as it requires dividing the time periods into very small pieces in order to closely track the casual events that cause memory change alone the time period.

Furthermore, the fading memory can cause paradox of the identities for different periods of time. That is, we cannot remember everything we have done, and what we can remember also changes over time, so using the time-varying memory to identify a person would contradict with the transitivity of identity. For example, suppose an old man has forgotten the time when he was a child when he was spanked for knocking over the milk, but he can remember when he was a college student and awarded a scholarship for academic excellence, so by the psychological continuity theory the old man is the same person as the college student. But now suppose that when the man received the scholarship, he could remember being spanked for knocking over the milk as a boy. This means that the person who received the scholarship is the same person who was spanked. Transitivity of identity tells us if A is identical to B, B is identical to C, then A is identical to C. Therefore, by transitivity, the old man is the same person who was spanked, contradicting to the theory due to fact that the old man does not remember being the boy who was spanked.

To conclude, the film Being John Malkovich assumes the psychological continuity theory of personal identity, which uses long-standing psychological characteristics to identify person. However, this theory has several problems, and they mainly result from the time-varying property of psychological states and their presence of discontinuities, as well as the lack of effective method to detect the genuineness of memory.