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Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" and John Locke's Theory of Personal Identity

Updated on March 23, 2017

In the film The Prestige, two rival magicians blinded by ambition use any means necessary to be the greatest. Angier pays Nikola Tesla to build him the ultimate magic machine, little does Angier know, it will cost him. Angier’s machine clones him every time he steps into it, subsequently, one of the Angiers is always killed after using the cloning machine to leave only one standing. It is also revealed that Borden also cloned himself, and though one is killed at the end, it is ambiguous as to whether the original Borden or the copy survived. Through John Locke’s theory of personal identity, a theory which I agree with, we can identify how many magicians/identities there are at the end of the film.

According to Locke, identifying self and being able to determine whether these magicians are the same person over time is not through physical substance nor the substance of the mind, but through conscious perception of current thoughts and past thoughts (memories). So, the key to identity is conscious perception by current perception and memory. According to this information from Locke’s theory, there were over one-hundred Angiers, over time, but never more than two at a single time because he would immediately kill the other. However, this offers an interesting contradiction, Locke’s theory also clearly states that, because existence is based on the past and the present, no two persons/two of the same things can exist at the same time because there can only be one beginning, and neither can have the same beginning. Also, as soon as Angier clones himself, he and his clone immediately begin to develop new memories separate from one another. Though it seems impossible to distinguish between the original and the copy, it is clear that because they are perceiving separate experiences at the same time, they must not come from the same conscious mind, nor do they hold within themselves the same identity.

Though they both hold the physical substance of Angier, physical substance is, as Locke believes, unreliable, which proves to be true here as conscious perception is the only distinguishing factor and not physical body nor physical mind. So, though the copy of Angier holds the same memories, he did not have the same beginning as the original Angier. Instead, the copy of Angier is an altered version with its own conscious mind and separate perceptive self, thus meaning it is a new person with a new beginning. Take Borden and his copy, for example, you can’t tell which is the original, but it is undeniable that they are different conscious beings as one of the Bordens remained obsessed with magic and ambition, and the other Borden turned to a life of family. Borden’s copy was created at an unknown time, however, it is clear that it was before he started his family as one Borden is in love with Sarah, and the other with Olivia. Because of the two Bordens’ differences and ability to have separate lives, though they appeared to share the same life and identity, they are obviously two separate beings with two separate conscious minds with the ability to create memories that the other does not experience. It is even shown that they have separate minds, memories, and perceptions through their personal journal, even Angier is able to distinguish that, in one entry, Borden seems one way, and then suddenly seems like a whole other person in the next entry. The contrast in personalities, choices, and temperaments shows that each Borden is his own person as his own thinking thing. The same goes for the Angier and the Angier copies, though the two Angiers never had the time to develop drastically different personalities and lives like the two Bordens, they still existed concurrently, and thus have already started new memories separate from the other, and thus hold two separate conscious minds with contrasting perceptions. Even if one of the Angiers is simply drowning for a short amount of time, as soon as a copy is made and there are two physical Angiers, even if for a split second, there are still two separate consciousnesses with the capabilities of creating new memories independently without the other. Thus, it can be said that there were over one-hundred separate Angiers in existence which separate conscious minds, beginnings, and perceptions.

Though, only ever two distinct Angiers existed at the same time, and only two discrete Bordens ever existed, at one point in time. So, there are three different magicians towards the climax of the film, one Angier and two Bordens, until one of the Bordens is killed, leaving the one Borden who then kills Angier. At the conclusion of the film, there is one magician, Borden, left standing. Whether he is the original Borden or the copy is unknown, nonetheless, he is the last one left. Therefore, there were over one-hundred distinct Angiers in existence at some point, and only ever two Bordens. In the end, it is only one of the Bordens which is the sole survivor with his daughter, free to live his life, though two separate Borden identities existed and over one-hundred different Angier identities also existed.

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