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Total lack of recall

Arnold Conan had just made an unpleasant discovery: he wasn't Arnold Conan at all. Or rather, he used not to be. It was all rather confusing.

This is the best sense he could make of his unusual auto- biography. He was born Alan E. Wood. Wood was, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant man: egotistical, selfish, cruel and ruthless. Two years ago, Wood had got into deep trouble with the State Bureau of Investigation. He was given a choice: spend the rest of his life in maximum security prison, where they would make sure he was victimised by the other inmates; or have his memory erased and replaced with that of an entirely fictitious creation of the spooks at the SBI. He chose the latter. And so it was that Alan E. Wood was put under a general anaesthetic, and when he woke up, he had forgotten all about his life to date. Instead, he remembered an entirely fictitious past, that of Arnold Conan, the man he now believed he was.

Conan had established that these were the facts. But he still did not know who he was: Wood or Conan?

As identity crises go, Conan/Wood's is about as bad as it gets. It seems he is either someone deeply unpleasant he knows nothing about or the fictitious creation of the security agencies. He is unlikely to want either possibility to be the truth.

Many people's initial intuition is that Conan is really Alan E. Wood. This is understandable. Our identity usually follows that of our brains and bodies. Since the life of the organism named Alan E. Wood at birth has continued uninterrupted, and there is no other person with a claim to his name walking the Earth, it would seem that Conan is Wood. After all, if he isn't Wood, where is Wood? Show us the corpse: no one has been killed.

The case may also be strengthened by the knowledge that Arnold Conan is a creation of agents and neurologists. Whatever he remembers of his childhood, for example, never really happened. Conan seems as unreal as Wood does real. So can there be any doubt that Conan is Wood, albeit mentally altered beyond all recognition?

In Conan/Wood's mind, certainly. For whatever the logic of our reasoning dictates, he feels like Conan, not Wood. He would not, for example, experience any desire to have his old self restored. Indeed, he might be horrified by the idea that he would once again become the amoral man he once was.

Before we say that he is simply in denial about the truth, consider that he has lived as Conan for two years; not all his past is fictitious. Consider also how people can suffer widespread amnesia. If you received a bump on the head and lost all memories of your past up until two years ago, you would certainly be changed by the experience, but you would not be transformed into someone else entirely.

So it is not hard to see how Conan/Wood could be seen as being Wood. It is just that Conan has existed only for a few years, and all his memories of before that time are false. The fact that he started out as an artificial creation does not negate the fact that he has lived for two years as a real human being.

If the case can be made both ways, how are we to decide which is most persuasive? If we ask different questions, we will get different answers. Do Wood's friends recognise him as the man they knew? Who does Conan's new wife think she has married? What would Wood's debtors claim? Who does Conan/Wood think he is? Rather than asking what the facts are, perhaps we should ask which of these questions matters the most, and so which answer is the one we should accept.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 262)

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