In movie "Shattered" (1991), Dan Merrick survives an accident and develops total amnesia regarding his past. His battered face is reconstructed by plastic surgeons and, with help of his loving wife, he gradually recovers his will to live. But he never develops a proper sense of identity. It is as though he is constantly ill at ease in his own body. As plot unravels, Dan is led to believe that he may have murdered his wife's lover, Jack. This thriller offers additional twists and turns but, throughout it all, we face this question:
Dan has no recollection of being Dan. Dan does not remember murdering Jack. It seems as though Dan's very identity has been erased. Yet, Dan is in sound mind and can tell right from wrong. Should Dan be held (morally and, as a result, perhaps legally as well) accountable for Jack's murder?
Would answer to this question still be same had Dan erased from his memory ONLY crime -but recalled everything else (in an act of selective dissociation)? Do our moral and legal accountability and responsibility spring from integrity of our memories? If Dan were to be punished for a crime he doesn't have faintest recollection of committing - wouldn't he feel horribly wronged? Wouldn't he be justified in feeling so?
There are many states of consciousness that involve dissociation and selective amnesia: hypnosis, trance and possession, hallucination, illusion, memory disorders (like organic, or functional amnesia), depersonalization disorder, dissociative fugue, dreaming, psychosis, post traumatic stress disorder, and drug-induced psychotomimetic states.
Consider this, for instance:
What if Dan were victim of a Multiple Personality Disorder (now known as "Dissociative Identity Disorder")? What if one of his "alters" (i.e., one of multitude of "identities" sharing Dan's mind and body) committed crime? Should Dan still be held responsible? What if alter "John" committed crime and then "vanished", leaving behind another alter (let us say, "Joseph") in control? Should "Joseph" be held responsible for crime "John" committed? What if "John" were to reappear 10 years after he "vanished"? What if he were to reappear 50 years after he "vanished"? What if he were to reappear for a period of 90 days - only to "vanish" again? And what is Dan's role in all this? Who, exactly, then, is Dan?
II. Who is Dan?
Buddhism compares Man to a river. Both retain their identity despite fact that their individual composition is different at different moments. The possession of a body as foundation of a self-identity is a dubious proposition. Bodies change drastically in time (consider a baby compared to an adult). Almost all cells in a human body are replaced every few years. Changing one's brain (by transplantation) - also changes one's identity, even if rest of body remains same.
Thus, only thing that binds a "person" together (i.e., gives him a self and an identity) is time, or, more precisely, memory. By "memory" I also mean: personality, skills, habits, retrospected emotions - in short: all long term imprints and behavioural patterns. The body is not an accidental and insignificant container, of course. It constitutes an important part of one's self-image, self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and sense of existence (spatial, temporal, and social). But one can easily imagine a brain in vitro as having same identity as when it resided in a body. One cannot imagine a body without a brain (or with a different brain) as having same identity it had before brain was removed or replaced.