Monday, February 27, 2017

Caleb Kincaid: Rick and Morty on Personal Identity (ENG 102)

Rick and Morty is, in my opinion, one of the best shows on television today. In its most
basic sense the show is about a young, slightly below average, foolishly good-hearted boy named
Morty and his callous, genius, and alcoholic grandfather Rick as they go on adventures through
space, time and dimensions. Though from the offset this seems like a fairly straightforward and
normal cartoon, it has proven itself capable of asking some serious and occasionally unsettling
questions about reality, morality, and personal identity in a way that can keep one thinking long
after the credits roll. What Rick and Morty says about personal identity and memory is
fascinating in that Rick and Morty seems to go against what many would think, and in that way
makes you think. In this in this paper, I will argue that the show illustrates that one's identity
doesn't come from memory or life experience, but rather from physical form.

To continue down the show’s line of reasoning to this conclusion, we must first discuss
the branch of philosophy that deals with the subject of identity, the Philosophy of Personal
Identity. This philosophy seeks to answer a seemingly simple but deceptively difficult question:
What is “you”? What does being the person that “you” are, from one day to the next, necessarily
consist of? ( Olson) Two of the most prevalent ways to answer this question are the psychological
and physiological. In the psychological approach, a person’s identity is based on their memories
and mind. The physiological approach, in contrast, states a person's identity is tied directly to
their physical form. “Rick and Morty” concurs with the physiological approach by illustrating
the fallibility of memories and reliability of one's physical form.

The show challenges one’s trust in memory in the form of thought experiments. One
small, seemingly inconsequential example occurs in the episode “Mortynight Run”. In the show,
Rick had just sold a gun to an assassin. He does this so that he and Morty could spend an entire
afternoon at “Blips and Chitz”, an inter-dimensional Dave and Busters. In this scene, Rick forces
Morty to play a game called “Roy.” Morty, knowing nothing about the game, agrees to play. To
start the game, Morty puts on a helmet. The helmet takes over the mind and senses to convince
the wearer that they are within the life of a young boy named Roy, living his entire life until he
dies. The game speeds up time however, so what feels like a lifetime to the player is, in reality,
only a few minutes.. When Morty puts on the helmet, he wakes up in Roy’s bed complaining of a
nightmare he had about Morty’s own life, which Roy’s virtual mother assures him was only a
nightmare. He wakes up, goes to school, becomes a star athlete and marries his college
sweetheart. He then falls into financial trouble, forcing him to work for his wife’s father at a
carpet store. His luck takes another turn for the worse when he gets cancer. Fortunately, he beats
cancer only to die by falling off a ladder. At this point Morty wakes up from the game, and out of
his life as Roy, visibly confused about where and who he is. Even after he’s recovered and Rick
explains what happened, he mutters about memories and experiences Morty felt he had
experienced in Roy’s life for the rest of the episode.

Now the question the scene raises to the inquisitive mind is, was Morty still Morty
throughout the entire game playing as Roy, even though he thought he was Roy? Or was he Roy?
And in either case how can one be sure? One philosopher, John Locke, would argue that the
answer to these questions lies in the psychological approach and in psychological continuity.
Locke defines the concept of psychological continuity in "An Essay Concerning Human

...and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past
action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now
that it was then; and this present self that now reflects on it is the one by which
that action was performed.(Locke)

In somewhat simpler terms, this states a past person and a future person are one if they
have continuous memories that connect them. But Morty stops having memories of his life for
the length of the game, instead having memories as the fictional Roy. As a consequence, Morty
ceases to exist, because his memories as Morty cease to exist, while the game is played. His
identity picks back up when those memories continue after the game is over. This begs the
question, what happened while he played the game? Was he Roy? This seems implausible or at
the very least problematic because he is a fictional character within the confines of a game. Roy
cannot truly be a person or have his own identity in the same way Morty can. Multiple people
cannot share the same ‘identity’ of Roy because then that identity could no longer represent one
person, thus not truly an identity at all. Locke supports this assertion by stating:

We never find—and can’t even conceive of—two things of the same kind
existing in the same place at the same time, so we rightly conclude that whatever
exists in a certain place at a certain time excludes all of the same kind, and is there
itself alone.

Since he does not exist outside of any player and is only a part of a repeatable process controlled
by a game many people partake in, Roy cannot be an acceptable stand-in for the identity of
Morty. But Morty also cannot exist during the time of the game because of the break in his
memories as ‘Morty.’ Locke’s psychological approach indicates that since Morty’s memories
disappeared for the duration of the game, and since Roy cannot be an acceptable identity, then
during the time the game was played Morty became nothing.

In the situation proposed by the show, a psychological approach to defining one’s identity
is flawed. It is unreasonable to assume Morty became nothing when he played the game because
when viewed from the perspective of Rick, Morty clearly still exists because Morty is sitting in
front of Rick playing the game. To resolve this issue, one should look to the physiological
perspective. From this approach, even though Morty has no memories during the duration of the
game, he continues to exist because his body continues to exist. It does not matter what he
remembers while in his life as Morty or in the game playing as Roy, because since he still
inhabits his physical body in a sort of physical continuity, as proposed by A.J. Ayers, his identity
endures. Ayers describes this physical continuity in Language Truth and Logic:

And, accordingly, if we ask what is the nature of the self, we are asking
what is the relationship that must obtain between sense-experiences for them to
belong to the sense-history of the same self. And the answer to this question is
that for any two sense-experiences to belong to the sense-history of the same self
it is necessary and sufficient that they should contain organic sense-contents
which are elements of the same body. (Ayer 81-82)
In other words, Ayers says that a body in the past and a body in the future belongs to one “self”
if they have physical experiences connecting them. Morty’s physical continuity preserved his
identity throughout the game of Roy. As stated earlier, Rick could always look over and see
Morty as Morty, even while Morty was convinced he was Roy, illustrating that Morty never
stopped existing in a physical way. From this, it is reasonable to conclude the show believes the
physical body is the only reliable way to discern an identity when memories are easily
susceptible to manipulation, failure, and breaks. But, as long as you're alive and thus capable of
having an identity, the body and the physical form will always be there to preserve it.

The idea of the fragility of memories and the psychological approach to identity comes
up again in another episode called “Total Rickall”. In this episode, Rick and Morty’s family is
infested with space parasites that have the ability to give you false memories of fictional family
and friends and take the place of them in real life, convincing you that you have know these
non-existent people, aka parasites, you're entire life. They’re eventually able to get rid of them,
thanks to the fact that they can only make happy memories, but not before the parasites
multiplied until they filled their house and had the entire family believing in a life they never
had. Once again, Rick and Morty toys with the idea of even the possibility of a psychological
continuity. In this case, the characters believe these memories to be there own, even though
many of them are false, with no way to distinguish between the real and the falsified. The Morty
before the parasites came and the Morty after the parasites came are, in the sense of memory,
two completely different people with few of the same experiences and a completely different
psychological continuity. Yet when the episode is over and all the parasites are dead, the
characters are still the same person they were at the begin of the episode, with the show making a
point to make it seem as though nothing had happened between the beginning of the episode and
the end. The characters sit down and eat at the same table exactly like they were at the beginning
of the episode. Though the show is explicitly preaching nihilism in this scene, it also raises
interesting questions about identity. Rick and Morty is clearly telling you that everything is the
same, regardless of the events of the episode, and that this extends to even the personal identities
of the characters. In this way, the viability of using psychological continuity to derive personal
identity is questioned. For although the scenario portrayed in the show is comically over the top,
the premise of false memories are all too real in human existence. People constantly
misremember, make up, and lie to themselves about the past. They constantly rewrite their own
memories and thus constantly changing their psychological continuities. And if you agree with
Locke and use this continuity to derive identity, then whenever continuity changes so does
identity. Meaning that most people would have nearly constantly changing identities, which is
the equivalent of having no identity at all. This applies to the characters as well, with their
memories manipulated so many times, their identity as defined by Locke was ever changing and
thus non-existent. Once again, the psychological approach has brought us to the impossible
conclusion that the characters, and in this case most people, are nothing. But this is illogical of
course, because the characters continue to act and generally live within the show, indicating their
existence and some sort of identity. Where Locke and the psychological approach to deriving
personal identity fail us, the physiological approach and the concept of physical continuity have
a solution. In the same manner as in the Roy example, the characters all had a physical
continuity that preserved their identity in a way their manipulated memories could not. No matter
the changes to their memory, their bodies continued to exist throughout the experience, keeping
their identities intact. Because of this, when the characters had all come back to the table with
their original bodies, they also came back with their identities. Through the episode “Total
Rickall”, “Rick and Morty” tears at the concept of deriving identity through a psychological
continuity and instead points to a physical continuity as the better theory of personal identity.

Through the scenarios of the game of “Roy” and the memory implanting parasites of
“Total Rickall”, “Rick and Morty” shows that personal identity cannot truly come from memory
or the mind, but that it can only come from the physical body. These examples exhibit the
unreliability of human memory, how easily it can be manipulated by others and even yourself,
and the impossibility of deriving any sort of true personal identity from such an untrustworthy
source. They also exhibit the consistency of the physical form, and how a physical continuity is
the reliable way to derive personal identity. Through this, it has become clear that “Rick and
Morty” illustrates that one's identity doesn't come from memory or life experience, but rather
from physical form.

Works Cited

Ayer, A.J.. “Language, Truth and Logic”, Dover Publications, 2012. 81-82

Korfmader, Carsten. “Personal Identity”, Internet Encyclopedia of Phyilosophy:

Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II: Ideas”, Early Modern Texts

Olson, Eric T., "Personal Identity", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016
Edition): <>.

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