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Is the Hulk the Same Person as Bruce Banner? by Kevin Kinghorn

In addressing the question of identity, Kinghorn cites several prominent philosophers who contemplated it, such as Thomas Reid, John Locke, and others. The title of his comics Is the Hulk the Same Person as Bruce Banner? carries its main idea, that is, are we the same person now as we were several days or years ago? And this appears a troublesome question for us to answer. Besides the Hulk and Bruce acting clearly differently, the former does not remember anything from what the latter does. It makes sense to wonder then whether they could be considered two different people.

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Getting to the particulars of the story, Bruce Banner was standing in the courtroom defending himself against charges on multiple counts of destruction of city buildings and power lines. His attorney would not enter a plea by saying it was not his client who wreaked havoc on the city, but that it was someone else looking totally different who did it. Although it was apparent to the observers that the Hulk and Bruce Banner were two transformations of one and the same person, the judge was supposed to rule over whether Banner was liable for the massive destruction, or that it was the Hulk who was the main perpetrator. In the latter case, following the attorney’s claim, the police were to capture the Hulk and bring him to the courtroom.

In such a manner, this comic presents a philosophical idea about identity continuity and the responsibility in case of a change in identity. Kinghorn brings up one of those cases where it is hard to untangle the cause-and-effect relationships between the past action and the present consequence of one and the same individual. He challenges Locke’s arguments about the more or less steady nature of identity by saying that the personality can respond to shifting circumstances by changing herself.

My concern here is: how profound should be the change in identity to affect the responsibility for a certain action committed? Part of the answer may lie in certain concessions that the law makes to people who murdered someone in a state of extreme emotional distress, such that they could not control their actions. In that case, their penalties would be less severe than otherwise as they had been “taken out of themselves” by the incident.

The Unimportance of Identity by Derek Parfit

To introduce his stand on identity, Derek Parfit makes a retreat to science fiction and its sentiments on travel in space. When the person gets on the Teletransporter, it decomposes his body but records the precise information about his cells and bodily organization. That record is then transmitted to Mars, the destination, where another Teletransporter assembles the body using the information supplied. The new person would be in all ways the same as the original person, including all memories of his life until he pressed the button. On the one hand, Parfit argues, Teletransporting can simply be treated as the quickest way of travel in space. On the other hand, this method is a fatal mistake as it deprives the person of identity by producing a simple replica of himself.

As there is no clear indicator of identity, Parfit tends to succumb to the second view that people cannot exist separately from their memories or bodily parts. Thereby, he is of the opinion that reality lies apart from a person’s experiences, and so there is no need to answer the question of survival and continued existence. He infers that what really matters is the psychological links spanning personal experiences and the continuity of such links in our memory. Parfit rebuts other philosopher’s extreme emotional appeals to examples where identity, being a determinate formation, made people stick out from the crowd or awarded them otherwise. He says that in most everyday incidents, the person’s transient identity easily compares to that of a nation or club. Thereby, Parfit declares the awareness of this fact as a liberating experience, which brings people closer together.

The common criticism of Parfit’s way, which appeals to me the most, is Mark Johnston’s “Argument from Above”, where the philosopher turns Parfit’s attention to the higher-level facts that stress personhood in contrast to the lower-level facts (physiological functions) that may not comprise identity.

The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Wall, a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, entertains several ideas peculiar to Sartre’s views on human existence. In the story, he touches on such existential issues as responsibility, self-deception, and despair, especially in the face of imminent death. It is only when life nears its end that the true nature of human living will manifest itself, according to Sartre.

The grim story takes place during the Spanish Civil War and relates to the moment when the Nationalist troops of General Francisco Franco defeated the army of the Spanish Republic and captured Madrid. The title actually stands for the wall used as a place for executing prisoners by firing squads. Moreover, the wall signifies the inevitable end of one’s life, tangled up in mystery of the unknown. The main character Pablo Ibbietta and two other people in their cell are on the death row. Pablo is offered a chance to live if he gives away the location of his comrade Gris. Feeling uneasy, he decides to die for the cause and refuses to cooperate. Yet, just before being executed, he decides to give the false information about his comrade’s location and spare himself from imminent death. By virtue of coincidence, his friend Gris moves just in the place indicated by Pablo, and so he is uncovered and shot. As a result, Pablo’s life was saved for the time being.

We should admit that, of course, that ironic coincidence may have never happened for real, but it illustrates the point that the certain means we use to deceive someone else may came back haunting us. In addition, and more importantly, in the face of death, people are more likely to compromise on their values out of despair. Sartre’s message possibly was: when we reach the wall and hit the unknown, our reassessment of our life may push us to do something we would never have done otherwise.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

Albert Camus, complementing and expanding on the popular Greek myth of Sisyphus, touches on a philosophical problem of suicide as a means to end all human suffering. At the same time, Camus relates to the problems of consciousness and happiness in searching for the sense of life.

In the original myth, Sisyphus was the wisest man in the world, who founded Corinth and was good at trickery. He decided to stay on earth and cherish its beauty, which was against the will of gods. So Zeus sent him down to the underworld and condemned him to futile labor with a heavy rock, which Sisyphus had to roll up to the summit over and over again. Once he reaches the summit, the final destination, his rock falls back of its excruciating weight and Sisyphus has to start all over. This theme, according to Camus, is reminiscent of the endless toil that people have to go through in their lives. At first glance, there seems nothing enlightening about this daily torture. However, in such a way Camus turns the reader’s attention to the overarching importance of existence in that it rises beyond gods and the tortures of life. In a way, the expectation of the torture and the suffering it causes may comprise immortality of human existence, according to Camus. Indeed, humans are immortal in their lifetime experiences, as they have never seen death. In addition, the absurd character of Sisyphus symbolizes rebellion and the pursuit of happiness.

Camus makes great emphasis on those brief spells of consciousness that Sisyphus experiences when coming down the hill to start anew with his rock. At such times, he hates death, loves life, readily accepts his torture, and rises to immortality. Sisyphus assumes that all is well in that absurd situation and he is then able to carry on. To my mind, Camus thus invites the reader to NOT reflect upon the futility of his life in order to love it and stay happy, no matter how hard it may seem to be.

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The Meaning of Life by Richard Taylor

Picking up on Camus’ ideas in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, University of Rochester’s Professor Richard Taylor adds one more dimension to the ancient myth. He puts in a stark contrast the problems of futility and meaningfulness of human existence. Taylor attempts to break away from the endless, day-to-day menial toil surrounding the image of Sisyphus and suggest a meaningful alternative thereto, that is, a life full of creation.

Taylor proposes that a meaningful life can only be a creative one. He claims that no matter how grandiose the punishing labor of Sisyphus may seem to be, it lacks one defining characteristic – worth. Man can set very absurd goals for himself and dedicate his life to attaining them, yet his labors may be to no avail for the present or future generation. After man departs the earth, he leaves his rock for generations to come, who is tangled up in the same vicious circle for years to come. Taylor assumes then, in contrast to Camus, that one cannot really make himself happy unless he sees the graspable result of his efforts. Even in a drug-induced state, the person of Sisyphus’ kind may only come to the contentment with “a meaningless existence”. However, Taylor says, if Sisyphus could pile up his rocks in a creative way to erect a temple or something else beautiful, it might make his life truly more fulfilling.  

Therefore, a perfect example of meaningful existence, according to Taylor, is offered by great artists, writers, or philosophers who brought in the world their creative ideas. Just on the contrary, kings and militaries, in all their glory, do not contribute anything useful for humanity. Perhaps, I would respond to Taylor from Camus’s standpoint: no matter how hard we exercise our creativity, sooner or later, we will become aware of the futility of ALL of our efforts under the sun. And it is up to us to find contentment in coming back again to the lairs of gods, as we cannot really stay in our new temple forever.

The Absurd by Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel starts out his essay by saying that most people often in their lives experience the sense of absurdity over their ultimate purpose and sense of life. The author is puzzled why such people cannot come up with a plausible explanation for such a feeling of theirs. He states, however, that those mixed feelings about the absurdity of life may carry an underlying reason. People obviously do not know the ultimate purpose of their everyday concerns; and if they did know where they are headed in million years, it would not spare them from feeling useless at present. This reverberates with Nagel’s other remark that humans are just a tiny speck in the infinite time and space confines of the universe. Therefore, the 70 years of a typical lifetime of an average person on earth, as compared to the everlasting eternity, may seem devoid of any sense, indeed.

Nagel proceeds to say that the culprit behind absurdity in our lives is our intriguing capacity as human beings – to transcend the boundaries of ourselves with intellectual insight. In trying to explain “the whips and arrows of outrageous fortune”, we tend to look at ourselves from the outside. Such a perspective, according to Nagel, is likely to uncover many conflicting aspects of our existence, which we will not be able to clarify satisfactorily. As a direct result of this transcendence, people experience the sense of the futility of their intellectual endeavors, with the derived sense of the absurdity of life that passes by. Nagel goes on to say, however, that life does not seem absurd until such outside perception of our limitations comes around.

Nagel prescribes that the best recipe to handle absurd life is to treat it with irony. Where reality and expectations clash, it is hard to avoid epistemological skepticism and the sense of absurdity. Interestingly, skepticism does not result in people forsaking their beliefs, it rather adds a peculiar shade of meaning to them. The central theme of Nagel’s message, to my mind, is that we can ultimately choose not to concentrate on our limitations by refusing to transcend ourselves in thought.

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Kenyon College Commencement Address by David Wallace

David Wallace’s commencement address before the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 clearly went beyond the clichés, parables, or platitudes, which are usually the case for that type of ceremony. Wallace also did not mean to indulge in explaining what the graduates should or should not do in their careers and lives. What he intended to do though was raise awareness of the world around them, the world that is often lived and experienced by default, through the lens of unconscious, unconstructive actions and reactions.

He starts with a little parable about two young fishes swimming along and a third older fish asking them, “How’s the water?” The question caught the two younger fishes in confusion, “What the hell is the water?”, they retorted. The symbol of water is used by Wallace to convey his main point that we live our lives being unaware of our surroundings and of the needs of people who are around us. This is especially dreadful, Wallace submits, when we get stuck in an everyday routine – doing the job we seemingly love, driving home in a rush hour, and waiting in line in a crowded grocery store. The way we react to circumstances or people are not the best examples of free, fulfilling life, says Wallace. The speaker claims that it is totally up to us what and how to think about life. His central point is that our mind is a good servant, but it is an awful master.

Speaking of the value of liberal arts education, Wallace submits that it is not the knowledge that matters but rather the ability to choose what to think and how to think it. He warns graduates of the dangers of living a half-dead rat-race life “with the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”. He admits to the great responsibility attached to the act of living and that this responsibility is extremely difficult. Wallace concludes by saying that true freedom involves staying “conscious and alive, day in and day out”, being well adjusted, and truly caring about others “in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” Wallace’s speech is concise, sharp-focused, and memorable – something indeed quite rare in most examples of the genre I have seen.

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