What is it that makes us who we are?
Really -- it's an important question. Philosophers have been debating this for milennia... in large part because they've realized just how inportant it is. It's not a simple question. It's not an easy question. It's not a question that we have a definitive answer for.
Tackling this question involves grappling with the deepest aspects of philosophy, to struggle with the essence of humanity, and to seek answers that may not even exist.
It's also not a question that science can answer. Sure, science can inform the debate -- I've long since lost count of the number of studies I've seen on issues related to this -- but it's fundamentally a philosophical question, not a scientific one.
Today we have three major groups exploring this issue, all from different angles and all producing different sorts of results. The first two -- philosophers and scientists -- are pretty obvious. The third category -- science fiction authors (some fantasy authors do this, too, but let's not get too deep into the issue of the blur between the genres) -- are a pretty uniquely modern phenomenon, but have been quietly (or, occasionally, not so quietly) exploring a number of complex philosophical issues in the background of our culture for quite a while now. Many of these explorations have to do with issues of identity and humanity.
They've even been doing it in a manner that's a lot more accessable to the "average joe" than most philosophical treatises.
I'm not saying that a Star Trek episode is as important in the grand scheme of things as a major philosophical treatise, mind. I'm just saying that they often explore the same issues, albeit from different angles.
It's rather akin to how the ancient Greek morality plays explored the philosophy of ethics, really.
I'm also not saying that every science fiction story qualifies. Many don't.
The fundamental question explored by science fiction, however, is "What if?" It is from this angle that science fiction authors address the question of what makes us who we are.
While a philosopher explores issues of what makes us who we are, he does so through careful argument and discourse. When a scientist does so, he seeks factual answers and reasons based on emperical evidence. When a science fiction author does so, he sets up a scenario and shows the (hypothetical) consequences.
The products of this sort of exercise vary from beloved classics to pieces of pop culture. They have been known to lead to some pretty interesting (if obscure) philosophical debates between fans... and have a considerably higher "geek appeal" factor than Descartes.
Sorry, Rene, but your work just doesn't have what it takes to be debated by Vulcan-eared Trekkies at a geek convention. Roddenberry has you beat on that count... and no, I don't use "geek" as an insult. I've earned my geek stripes, thank you very much.
And, of course, all of this begs the question -- why am I bringing this up on an autism blog?
Well, I plan to indulge my inner geek when I write about issues of identity and autism. I can't write purely serious science and philosophy pieces all the time, now can I?