When I’m feeling existential I often think about Zoe, the main character from the Battlestar Galactica spin-off, Caprica. It was supposed to be a prequel to the original series, one that would explain how cylon technology came to be, but it was cancelled within half a season due to low ratings.
By the end of the pilot Zoe was already technically dead, but her digital clone had all of her memories up to the minute that she died. Like a hardrive, the doppelgänger knew everything there was to know about Zoe. But did that make her Zoe or was Zoe really the essence that died with the physical body?
Cylon technology from the original show gave the cylons the ability to download into new flesh when their original bodies died. Unlike the humans, they couldn’t be truly destroyed in the usual ways, but they weren’t just machines either; they had feelings and emotions as real as any human’s. Whether or not Zoe’s doppelgänger was really Zoe after her death was therefore central to the show’s entire philosophy. Basically, it posed the following question:
Are our identities tied to the sum of our experiences, our physical bodies, or both?
(Pretty deep for a SyFy show, huh?)
Genetically speaking, I am unique. I don’t have an identical twin with whom I share my sequence of genes, and that random arrangement of DNA is supposedly part of who I am. The hands I’m writing with, the brain I’m thinking with, the heart I’m using to move my blood, and the genetic predisposition to asthma are all as much mine as anything really can be because they were built by my unique gene sequence. But would I really be who I am without the exact experiences that I’ve had, too? I don’t think so.
Some people say that it is our choices that define us and make us who we are. The phrasing is a little philosophical for my taste, but I believe that the message is essentially correct. When you think about paradoxes and alternative universes you have to believe and understand that time diverges every time you make a decision. Turn left or turn right: you can’t know what’s waiting for you at the end of either road, but both of them are valid and possible paths. Whichever one you take will make an impression on you. Were you to go back and try the other instead, it would change the course of your life and by extension yourself, too.
At the same time though, I made choices in my life sometimes based on my physical being. For example, I’m too short to have ever seriously played basketball and I don’t have the rhythm to become a drummer. So I pursued other things instead, never really considering either as a possibility. I can’t help but wonder though: would I have still been a writer if I had been tall enough to play ball? Would I have been so invested in reading if I was occupied in drumming lessons? There’s no way to know. My genetics and my experiences are intertwined.
In the end, I think it’s a little bit of both. Zoe was who she was because of her physical body and because of her memories. But the moment she died the old Zoe also ceased to exist and her digital doppelgänger simply began making new experiences on her own, separate and apart from Zoe. She became someone entirely new, only using Zoe’s past as a foundation for her own future.