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There is a famous metaphysical puzzle put forth by the comic playwright Epicharmus of Kos in the 5th century BC. The argument, known as “the Debtor’s Paradox” or “the Growing Argument,” deals with the concept of identity. In the play, a man approaches his friend in the hopes of collecting a debt owed to him. Instead, he receives a philosophical argument. The debtor goes on to claim that since a person is identical to the aggregate of particles that they are made up of, any addition of particles will result in a new person since it will create a new aggregate. Therefore, since both friends have undergone many such additions since the debt was contracted, neither of them is the same person they were when they contracted the debt.

The basic line of reasoning is this: Just as adding a given quantity of objects yields a new quantity, adding parts to a person yields a new human being. Under this perspective, you are not the same person you were when you were seven years old because many more particles constitute the you-of-today than they did the you-of-seven. The underlying belief of this argument is that identity is defined by material constitution: You can only be you if you’re made up of exactly the same particles. If you gain or lose some — for example, by gaining or losing weight — you are no longer the same person.

There are many other puzzles that put identity into question. Is identity a conceivable concept? If so, what defines identity? One of the most famous paradoxes that furthers this argument is “the Ship of Theseus,” a ship whose parts were all gradually replaced as they wore down. The result was an identical ship composed of none of the original parts. Is it the same ship? Going further, does complete replacement of original parts yield a new object, even if it looks the same?

Still, despite these seemingly ironclad arguments, we still have and operate with a conception of identity: I am the same Azul I was when I was seven and will be the same when I am 80. Even if I recreate an entirely new life for myself, change my name, the place where I live and the language I speak, I am still me. This sense of permanence makes most people believe that there is something uniquely characteristic about each of us that constitutes our personal identity — whatever form that might take.

John Locke thought so, too. He claimed that “consciousness always accompanies thinking, and ’tis that, that makes every one to be, what he calls self.” To illustrate this, Locke gave an argument where a prince’s soul enters the body of a shoe maker, taking all of his thoughts with it. In this scenario, the prince remains in the man identified as the shoe maker because the prince’s consciousness goes along with his soul. Consciousness, therefore, is the key to identity, not material constitution or physical appearance.

So, if we agree (at least momentarily) that identity is defined by consciousness, what are the metaphysical implications of “Inside Out”?

“Inside Out” is a movie about consciousness and identity. Situated on the inside of 11-year-old Riley’s mind, her five emotions — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness — disagree on how to navigate the new environment she’s been placed in. They argue over what reactions to trigger from her, decide how her memories are remembered and ultimately save her identity.

Even though the movie revolves around Riley’s move to San Francisco and how she’s struggling to adapt, “Inside Out” is about the emotions’ conflicts as much as Riley’s. She is only a reflection of what her consciousness has made her out to be. After all, what do we think of when we think of ourselves? We go back to our memories, both fond and sad; we consider our feelings and how we choose to act on them; we recognize our essential personality pillars (the movie’s islands of personality), as well as the core memories that shaped us at a young age and whose impacts reverberate throughout our lives. For Riley, all of these personality elements are manned by these five emotions.

“‘Inside Out’ shows what mechanistic cognitive science believes,” Dr. Chandra Sripada, professor of psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Michigan, said. “Whereas ordinary people think that there’s a ghost in the machine organizing all this, the whole foundational idea of scientific psychology and cognitive science is that there is no such ghost, it’s just these parts interacting with incoming stimuli producing output.”

Of course, these personifications of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness do act in Riley’s best interest and understand themselves to be a part of her, not something that controls her. However, the metaphysical implications — or, to leave room for debate, let’s say suggestions — of this movie are monumental. It depicts our identity as a consciousness, and our consciousness as a sum of parts which, together, define everything about our personality. Naturally, everything that is in our control. The movie doesn’t account for upbringing and sociocultural context — the famous nature vs. nurture debate — but it does a great job of making the former understandable.

“Pixar’s version of it is not quite right, but it’s not dramatically off, either,” Sripada said. “There are internal structures that are broadly in line with emotional factors and things that attach value representation to the incoming stimuli and select behavioral responses based on how they evaluate incoming stimuli. This is the worldview of me and my scientific colleagues.”

However, not all philosophers interpreted “Inside Out” like I do. Vox published an article in 2015 shortly after the film was released written by two University of California, Berkeley philosophy Ph.D. students. In it, the authors pointed out all the misrepresentations the movie made about our agency: Memories are foggier and messier than they’re made out to be, the control panel is not just made up of our emotions and personality is not really impacted by core memories. 

Of course it doesn’t; it’s a Pixar film made for kids, not a doctoral thesis. But considering its intended audience, it’s a masterpiece that makes one of the most difficult concepts in philosophy (the self) intelligible. Philosopher and author Julian Baggini agrees with this sentiment and outlines in an article for The Guardian all the reasons why “Inside Out” is an incredible feat. It manages to explain incredibly abstract philosophical issues in a clear and entertaining way. For, although the homunculi are not literal, they’re not that far off either.

I immediately recommend this movie to anyone that asks me how they can start to get immersed in philosophy. It’s a philosophy for beginners, except that even advanced students can make this movie something new. I’m typically weary of recent Disney and Pixar movies, as I feel they’re often shadows of their predecessors. But “Inside Out” is a triumph that I would place side by side with “Toy Story,” “The Lion King” and “Ratatouille.”

Azul Blaquier is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at azulcb@umich.edu.

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