Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Who Is Raistlin Majere?

God, Kevin McCain is a fanboy for Raistlin. Fully the entire first page of this essay is spent squeeing about him like a fourteen year old girl over Sephiroth in 1999. McCain asks who Raistlin Majere is, which I assume is in reference to that one time Raistlin body-jacked rival archmage Fistandantilus and wound up with the memories of both, leaving it completely unclear whether or not Raistlin actually bodyjacked Fistandantilus or if he was obliterated by Fistandantilus and his half-cast bodyjacking spell just transmitted all his memories into Fistandantilus at that moment. In the immediate aftermath of that confrontation, Raistlindantilus even directly confronts the existential horror of having no idea who actually won the fight. He ultimately decides that he’s Raistlin, not Fistandantilus, but that’s a personal decision on his part, not necessarily an accurate perception of reality. There’s a reason why Raistlindantilus is a term that exists in the Dragonlance fandom.

McCain intends to explore the question of “who is Raistlin” as part of answering the more general philosophical question of “what makes you, you?” Considering you’re (hopefully) a significantly different person from who you were ten years ago, what makes you the same person? One possible answer to this question is that you aren’t the same person. McCain refuses to consider this with the following paragraph:

Now one might be tempted to say that there is an easy answer to this question: these Raistlins aren’t the same. It wasn’t one person who performed all of the feats that are attributed to Raistlin. This would give us an easy answer to our question, but it wouldn’t shed much light on what it is that makes you numerically identical to yourself when you were a child. Worse still, this answer would make it so that we shouldn’t consider Raistlin to be such a great character. According to this answer to the question, there is no single person who accomplished everything that is credited to Raistlin. But, this easy answer is false. There is only one Raistlin and he did accomplish all of these feats. Any acceptable answer to our question must respect this truth.

Drink that in for a bit. The philosophical idea that a child and their adult self are literally different people, that the continuity of being provided by memory is an illusion, is discarded because it would make Raistlin less badass. So when Raistlindantilus is sitting in that lab in Istar asking himself what really just happened and who he even is, Kevin McCain’s answer is “you’re definitely Raistlin, and I know you’re Raistlin because Raistlin is awesome and couldn’t ever lose.” I like to imagine Raistlindantilus would’ve disintegrated McCain for interrupting his personal crisis with such a stupid answer. I’m going to point out here that Kevin McCain is an associate professor of philosophy for the University of Alabama. There is no God.

Rather than completely discarding the idea that the continuity provided by memory is an illusion on the basis that it would make Raistlin less badass, I will instead do the sensible thing and hold that as one possible explanation that fits available evidence reasonably well, but let’s also examine some alternative explanations and see if any of them fit better. This is called “enlightenment thinking” and it’s kind of the foundation of all modern philosophy and science, so you don’t think we’d have to establish this for a philosophy professor, but here we are.

The first of three potential answers given in this essay is somatic continuity, which states that a being’s continuity as a physical creature is what makes that creature the same across time. If you cut off someone’s finger, they will continue to not have that finger until it is somehow replaced or reattached. When George Bailey loses his hearing in one ear as a child, he remains deaf in that ear for the rest of his life, and this is what we mean when we say that he’s the same being. Even when George Bailey’s hearing is temporarily restored, we say he’s still the same person because his hearing had to be restored. Likewise, even someone who hasn’t lost their hearing or their appendages or anything else permanent would still be lacking them if they had. The reason they have all their fingers is not because they wake up each day in an unfamiliar body in an unfamiliar location. If that were the case, then according to the somatic continuity theory, we would say that person is actually a series of different beings, each one inheriting the memories of the last. That’s not the reason why our hypothetical unmaimed person is unmaimed, however. He simply has not been maimed, and if he were, the consequences of that maiming would remain until he was somehow restored. Even if he’s Wolverine and regenerates lost limbs, the lost limb still has to be regenerated. Even if he’s Superman and impervious to losing limbs in the first place, he’s still got the same body every day, it’s just a body with unusual resistance to damage that makes the specific example of lost appendages cease to apply to him.

We could imagine some sort of hive mind who assimilates multiple distinct bodies who maintain wireless communication with one another and thus maintain somatic continuity via the wireless link (which, though invisible to the naked eye and intangible to the human sense of touch, does physically exist), in which case the loss of individual bodies would not matter. Ultron has somatic continuity up until Vision finishes him off (if that was indeed the last Ultron body – I wouldn’t put it past Marvel to say that secretly one survived so they can reuse the villain later), because every one of his many bodies is physically linked to one another by wireless signals. An object doesn’t have to be something a human being can feel to be physically real, so these wireless signals do count.

A necessary consequence of the somatic continuity theory is that you are your body. Your consciousness must necessarily be stored in your physical, vulnerable brain, not in an ephemeral, immortal soul. I’m not going to make assumptions about what kind of god or afterlife you believe in (unlike some philosophers I could name), so whether or not that’s an issue is left as an exercise for the reader.

Psychological continuity is the same as physical continuity, but with the consciousness instead of the body. Science does not fully understand consciousness (indeed, science doesn’t really understand consciousness at all), so don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that science has proven that consciousness is located within the body. Certainly it is true that the brain and its chemistry affects traits like intelligence and emotions that are generally considered part of the being, but we have no idea from whence the ability to experience reality emerges. There are related philosophical problems of creating a conscious artificial intelligence. As Descartes said, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Ultimately, the only being whose conscious existence we can really be certain of is our own. Other people behave pretty similarly to me, so it seems reasonable to assume that all of you are probably thinking beings just like me, but I can’t prove it.

What all this (and I realize I’m meandering a bit here) means for the theory of psychological continuity is that it is distinct from somatic continuity. Recall that thought experiment of the series of beings who each awaken with the memories and thoughts of the last, but each is in a completely different body, in a completely different location? They are only a series of beings under the theory of somatic continuity. Under the theory of psychological continuity, the shared thoughts and memories across bodies means that “they” are all one being who jumps into a new body every day.

Where psychological continuity breaks down is when we introduce the idea of copies. Imagine that same scenario where someone wakes up in a new body every day, but now imagine what happens to previous bodies. Imagine that each previous body also wakes up, but they still have the same body as they woke up with yesterday. From their perspective, the constant body-hopping has finally come to an end. In fact, from the very first body’s perspective, there was never any body-hopping in the first place, their thoughts and memories just got randomly injected into some other body one day, and that body’s thoughts and memories were then randomly injected into another body the following day, and so on, for God knows how many iterations. I’m clearly referring to these different bodies as different people, because they have to be different people. The one who just woke up in yet another new body is obviously a different person from the one who’s never once woken up in someone else’s body.

Proponents of the theory of psychological continuity might argue that they become different people because they have the different experience of waking up in a different body or not. Since the one who continued to body-hop has a different experience from the one who didn’t, that makes them different people. So what if instead this body-hopping process kills the old body? The original body goes to sleep and never wakes up, and the new body wakes up in a completely different location, still possessing all the thoughts and memories and psychological continuity of the old body up until the moment that old body went to bed. Is the new body now the same person as the old body? If the new body is the same being as the old body in this scenario, but not in the scenario where both bodies continue to exist and experience things, that means that the new body either is or isn’t the same person as the old body based on something that has nothing to do with the new body at all. The new body’s psychological experience is the same no matter what happens to the old body. If the new body isn’t the same being as the old body in this scenario, then this is really just somatic continuity, with someone’s continuity being determined based on whether or not their body persists, and continuity being broken when someone jumps bodies, whether or not they retain the same thoughts and memories. So, psychological continuity doesn’t really work.

Finally, there is the anticriterialist theory. This states that there are no specific criteria for being the same person, you just are. This is a total non-answer that can’t interact with thought experiments at all, and I’m pretty sure it was only included in the essay to fit the rule of three. Anticriterialism’s answer to “are you the same you as you were ten years ago” is “yes,” but its reasoning is “because.” That’s not a philosophical theory. That’s magical thinking.

As presented in the essay, and from my brief research on the subject, we either go with somatic continuity or accept that there isn’t really any continuity at all, and that you as a person do not continue to exist across your life. Maybe you only exist for a moment at a time, constantly replaced by new incarnations. Maybe you die every time you sleep and your experience of the world is interrupted, replaced by a clone with all your thoughts and memories and inhabiting your body, but a different being nonetheless. Whatever. The point is, if you want to believe in your own continuity, somatic continuity is the only one of the three options presented that makes any kind of sense.

Kevin McCain does not come to this conclusion. First of all, let’s look at his dismissal of anticriterialist theory:

One must sacrifice something for the magic, that’s part of the test – this approach sacrifices nothing and so it gains little power in return. Anticriterialism simply does not tell us what makes you the same person now as you were in the past and as you will be in the future.

Okay, that’s…in the neighborhood of the truth. In fairness, all human thought is only ever closer to the truth, never, it seems, perceiving it directly and exactly. So when we say something is “true,” what we really mean is that it’s close enough for our purposes, and in that sense this is more or less true. Anticriterialism explains nothing, which means as a theory it’s basically worthless. Then there’s this follow-up, though:

Thus, we should acknowledge that anticriterialism can pass the test in a sense, but we should definitely see if one of the other theories can as well because they could potentially tell us more about personal identity.

This only makes sense in light of the fact that McCain has gone into this with the primary objective being to preserve his image of Raistlin as a badass. From that perspective, anticriterialism has the merit of succeeding at that, and McCain is expressing dissatisfaction with a lack of beneficial side effects in helping us explain the real world. Except, the actual point of these essays is supposed to be explaining the real world through the lens of D&D. “Preserve Raistlin’s badassery” is not a valid philosophical objective!

This problem comes up again when he discusses somatic continuity:

When Raistlin travels through time to Istar at the time of the Kingpriest and then to Palanthas right after the Cataclysm, his body is different. He no longer has white hair, gold skin, and hourglass pupils – instead he has pale skin, brown hair, and brown eyes! As he himself exclaims “This face … His face! Not mine!”

After Raistlin jacks into Fistandantilus, according to somatic theory he is actually Fistandantilus and Raistlin has been obliterated. This is true even though Fistandantilus has the memories of both and subsequently decides to identify himself as Raistlin. Alternatively, if the transmission of thoughts and memories from Raistlin to Fistandantilus involved physically placing Raistlin’s soul inside of Fistandantilus’ body, it could actually be that Raistlin still exists and Fistandantilus does not, because the part of Raistlin’s being responsible for consciousness – some kind of soul, presumably – continues to exist, while Fistandantilus’ does not. This interpretation requires that souls be both real and physical objects. Just like wireless signals, souls do not have to be detectable to the human eye to be physically real, nor do they have to be detectable by any tools available to humanity now, just as detecting wireless signals would have been impossible for most of human history even if they were around to detect, and that doesn’t make a wireless signal any less real. So, the “Raistlin killed Fistandantilus by stealing his body” interpretation is possible, although it does require a few assumptions about the nature of reality be made, which makes the “Fistandantilus obliterated Raistlin but got swamped by his memories in the aftermath and lost track of who he really was” simpler and more likely (though not guaranteed) to be correct.

I’ll note here that McCain claims the same thing happens when Raistlin’s body is drastically altered during the Test of High Sorcery, making him frail and withered with significant changes in skin color, hair color, and the shape of his pupils. That doesn’t actually work, though. Raistlin’s body has been significantly altered, but at no point is it annihilated entirely and his thoughts and memories then appear in a new one, as happened when he bodyjacked Fistandantilus.

It gets worse:

To make matters worse there is reason to think that at least sometimes Raistlin exists without a body at all. For example, when Caramon is trying to close the portal to the Abyss at the end of Test of the Twins he is unable to get the Staff of Magius to work – he simply can’t get the portal to close. However, Raistlin’s shadowy form appears next to him and touches the staff closing the Abyss while his body remains in the Abyss. Here it seems that Raistlin exists without being a physical thing at all!

All visible things are physically real at least insofar as they are capable of reflecting some amount of light. What’s happening here is that Raistlin has some magical power to project a non-solid but still physically real image of himself, and can control that image’s actions and possibly also experience things through that image via a wireless link just like Ultron, just with a magical link instead of a physical one. Being magical, that link might even have properties that would be impossible in the real world. It’s still fundamentally just Ultron, though, and Ultron totally passes the somatic continuity test. So, basically everything McCain has to say about the somatic continuity theory regarding Raistlin is wrong. This man is a professor.

Then he goes on to discard the psychological continuity theory even though it applies perfectly well to Raistlin. We’ve already established that it doesn’t work in general because it inevitably leads to the clearly ludicrous conclusion that a brand new being can have an identical psychological continuity to an old one based solely on whether or not there exists another being with similar psychological continuity or not. Nothing like that ever happens to Raistlin, though. I mean, the Fistandantilus bodyjacking is kind of like that, but not so similar that it actually causes the same problem.

According to McCain, psychological continuity doesn’t work for Raistlin because of that one time he bodyjacked Fistandantilus and got all his thoughts and memories. The mental state of Raistlindantilus is a result of the mental state of both Raistlin and Fistandantilus. By psychological continuity, Raistlindantilus is a gestalt creation of both of them. This is no more impossible in principle than the idea that you can weld two a hammer head and a short metal pole together to make a hammer. Neither component is destroyed. They become part of something else, despite having previously been separate. Obviously doing such a thing with a living being is impossible to our current understanding of science, but in terms of thought experiments, it’s easily conceivable and thus the fictitious example of Raistlin and Fistandantilus disproves nothing.

Except in the paradigm whereby the ultimate goal of philosophy is to entrench Raistlin as a badass. I get that McCain is being a hyperbolic nerdy fanboy when he declares Raistlin’s superiority as indisputable fact, except I’m not sure if that’s actually what he’s doing because he’s letting his philosophical conclusions be drastically altered by that “fact.” Starting from the assumption that Raistlin being a badass is an inviolate law of reality has altered the course of McCain’s arguments. That’s not okay. It’s a mortal sin against philosophy. You can go to Philosophy Hell for it.

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