Recent episodes of Fringe have integrated some interesting philosophical ideas about identity into central plot points. Viewers predisposed to introspection will likely watch these shows and come away with questions about what defines them. If you’re not familiar with the series, my condensed description may read like a show where it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief. It is not such a show. Fortunately for science fiction fans, the multiverse described in Fringe has enough integrity and solid story-telling to be one of the best shows on television right now.
Warning: contains spoilers for Fringe, season 3, through episode 9.
Relevant plot summary.
There are two parallel versions of earth. The first version is essentially the world the viewer lives in. The parallel earth is so similar that it has alternate versions of most of the characters. It exists in the same space as our earth, but in a parallel dimension. Because these dimensions were bridged 20 years previous to when the show takes place, the parallel world has some problems. Parts of it seem to be disintegrating. Some of the characters believe the parallel world is under attack from, and at war with, our world. In this parallel world, technology is far more advanced, and there are a number of historical differences. For example, the twin towers are still standing, and they have something closer to fascism as a response to problems they are experiencing.
These differences create believable scenarios where one character plausibly does things that would be considered “evil” from our world’s perspective. Parallel characters in both worlds have backgrounds different enough to justify the decisions they make in similar situations.
One of the main characters, Olivia, and her parallel earth twin, switch places for several episodes. The Olivia from our world gets stuck in the other world and is injected with something that contains the memories of the parallel earth Olivia. She starts to believe she really is the parallel Olivia, that her memories from our world are delusional. Eventually she comes around, but while she is on the other side, her mother and coworkers are completely convinced that she is the same Olivia they have always known.
Meanwhile, the parallel world Olivia has surreptitiously taken Olivia’s place in our world, impersonating her in an effort to carry out a plan that could lead to the destruction of our world. Her motivation is that she believes these actions will help to save her own world. She goes to great lengths to conceal her identity, killing or ordering the deaths of shape-shifting soldiers from her side, and sleeping with a man just for the mission, even though she has a boyfriend in her own world. These are actions that Olivia from our world would almost certainly not take – given her history.
In the most recent episode, the Olivia has returned to find that her love-interest, Peter, has slept with the parallel world Olivia. He had believed the duplicate was her. She feels extremely violated because this imposter had taken her place and no one had noticed. The last episode ends with her suggesting that Peter should have known that the imposter was not her and ends their budding relationship. She believes that he somehow should have sensed whatever is unique about her by looking in her eyes. This accusation is made even though she nearly lost herself and started to believe she was someone else after the other woman’s memories were injected into her.
Questions of Identity
This is the acting out of a philosophical thought experiment illustrating questions around what makes you who you are. It examines these questions from both objective and subjective perspectives.
If someone with a nearly exact duplicate of your body were to take your place, would anyone notice? If you had memories of a doppelgänger implanted in you, would you believe they were memories of your life? Fringe tackles these identity questions deftly in the context of the story.
This is one of the great things about science fiction. It allows for the illustration of ideas in a way that could not happen in the world as we know it, yet the assumptions we have about answers to these questions influence our everyday lives and the laws governing our world. These assumptions dictate what we believe about personal choice and responsibility. This line of thought deserves a more thorough description, but I’ll leave that for another time.
So what defines the identity of a person?
Is it the environment that shapes us? Are there no underlying values that would hold true, regardless of what situation we were in? I think most of us intuitively revolt against this idea, wanting to believe that there is some moral essence of who we are that would remain the same if circumstances were different. Since we don’t have the luxury of shifting between parallel worlds to find out, we can’t really know for sure, but the answer is far from certain.
Is it our genetic makeup that define us? The existence of twins negates the possibility that our individuality is shaped by our genetic code, so that cannot be the sole defining factor.
Discussion and argument continues in the scientific community about what the balance is between nature and nurture relative to the definition of a person. Whatever the balance is, both factors are external. They are aspects of ourselves that we can observe , so to speak, and imagine being different even while the subjective experience if “me-ness” remains the same. Change a few things in either your history or your genetic makeup and it’s likely that you would end up making different decisions in a given situation than you would now. That, for me, gets close to the root of these questions. Is there anything there at all that is unique to you as an individual? What truly defines you?
Fringe is not the first show to present the idea of swapping identities with another person, but it does a better job that most at presenting scenarios where the characters have plausible back-stories that would lead them to make different decisions in similar situations.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas, Fringe is well worth watching. It’s also just plain good science fiction.