Talking Airplanes and the Issue of Identity

by Jason Wisdom

I have a two year old son. We recently watched the Disney/Pixar movie “Planes.” Spoiler alert. There is a point in the film when the main character, Dusty Crophopper, gets into a devaststing accident. In order to continue the race, he needs practically all new parts. Fortunately, and predictably, he manages to get everything he needs in time to rejoin the race. Even better than that, all of the new parts represent a huge upgrade for the humble little plane. He hardly looks like the junky crop-duster that he was when the movie started. After emerging from the shop, he encounters the antagonist of the movie who says, “Bolting on a few new parts doesn’t change who you are.” But why? Why doesn’t it change who he is?

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The answer is that Dusty is not identical to his physical parts. Certain things are true of Dusty Crophopper that are not true of any of his constituent parts. Wings aren’t brave, but Dusty is. An engine isn’t determined to never give up, but Dusty is. There are also things that are true of his physical parts that are not true of his identity. Dusty does not rust, but his parts do. Dusty does not need oil, but his engine does.

Ironically, the intuition of the antagonist plane is not based on something we know to be true of airplanes in real life. In reality, if you replaced all of the physical parts on an airplane–even if you kept the same engine–no one would say that it is still the same plane. So, what is the basis in reality for the antagonist’s claim that identity is not merely a physical property? Just like other Disney movies, which feature talking toys, cars, monsters, and animals, the characters are based on what we know to be true of human beings. We know intuitively that human beings are not identical to their physical parts. When a boy breaks his arm, he doesn’t say, “I am broken.” No. He says, “I broke my arm.” There are things that are true of him that are not true of his arm and vice versa…

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