X-Message-Number: 13699
Date: Wed, 10 May 2000 08:38:53 -0700
From: Peter Merel <>
Subject: Identity: Can I kill the original ...

Identity is the perennial bugbear of this list, and I must apologize to
those who are tired of it. To tell the truth I'm tired myself, but it's
better to post and put an end, or at least lift the conversation, than
to let this thread glacially recapitulate what we've heard so many times.


That someone's "essence" should be merely a character in a story they invent
about themselves seems inconceivable. Myself is plainly a concrete thing,
either dead or alive, here or not here. Though physical science can't
detect them, our identities are surely unique and indivisible, immutable
components of the universe as unchanging as the stars.

Well, no, that seems a little strong. The stars, we know, are far from
unchanging. Plainly human identity is more immutable than stars. It's as
immutable as the universe itself.

Hmm. Well, the universe apparently goes through fundamental changes from
time to time. Identity must be more immutable than the universe, I feel it
in my bones.

Unless - just perhaps - I'm making too much of identity. Or at least
misunderstanding something here. After all I've been mistaken about
things in the past. Even if my identity is more permanent than the
ages, my understanding certainly isn't, and my understanding of my
identity could easily be flawed.

Well then, let me take that first assumption, that my identity isn't just
a character in a story I invent to account for what I sense. Maybe that's
not a very good assumption. If we question that one, then identity might
not be a thing at all. It could be more like an adjective, like right or

What's all this stuff about love and beauty then? What about all
my friends and relations? They don't know me as just an adjective. They
know me as a process, an ongoing dynamic relationship. I've got soul,
dang it!

And if I'm an adjective, or a locus for relationships with others in a
social network, then what about these memories I carry around with me?
They seem mighty important to me. Well, okay, granted they're mostly
memories about people and places I've cherished, relationships I've
enjoyed - but there's still a whole swag of memories that operate at
a more basic level.

Maybe they're my identity and the rest is just memories of externality.

Hmm. That's a pretty fine distinction to draw. It seems like a lot,
maybe most of these basic memories, things like how to put words together,
how to surf, what to eat, how to look at trees, and so on, are things I
learned as I went along. Not all of them, of course, but it's only fair
to say most of them.

I had to be born with some minimal abilities or I couldn't have
learned all these things. Assuming there wasn't anything special about my
gestation, I suppose the identity I didn't learn as I went must be encoded
in my genes. But genes are plainly just information, and what's more it
seems like it's the abilities they enable, rather than the genes
themselves, that are important to my identity.

You can take a hair that's fallen off me, or a skin flake or nail
clipping containing millions of copies of my genes and burn it up, and
that certainly won't affect my identity at all.

But now it seems like there's nothing left. We've stripped away everything
external, and I still have this fundamental sense of identity. I can still
feel it in my bones. What's up with that?

I'm familiar with similar phenomena to this. I've seen optical tricks
that make straight lines seem to curve, or black and white boxes flash
with colors. Illusions. Given that I've been able to exclude every
empirically external or received part of myself, and still have this
strong impression of my identity, I guess I have to think I'm nothing
but an illusion too.

That doesn't answer, though. If all I am is illusory, what about the
rest of the world? Is it all just some story I invented to account for
my sensations? Where do those sensations come from then? This is starting
to sound awful philosophical.

What's going on here has to be a concrete thing. Let's stipulate, for
a moment, that the world, all its phenomena, history, and future, are
dramatic in nature. Let's suppose that my brain is a mechanism for
creating and maintaining this drama, and that a dramatic understanding
conveys a biological advantage. Predictability. If I can represent the
world as drama then I can hunt more easily, anticipate danger, and become
literate. Really handy stuff.

A mechanism like that seems like it's almost an inevitable product of
evolution, nothing spooky about it. It seems fair to say, then, that
my identity is another part of this dramatic world. Not an illusion,
but not as immutable as the ages either. What goes on beneath the drama -
the various levers, pulleys and props behind the proscenium of my brain -
is a flowing process I can't describe as drama. If you duck back there
the dramatic understanding naturally vanishes like grease-paint, and
inevitably my identity, a character in the drama, goes with it.

If we can reconstruct the drama that I use to represent me and mine,
there's no essential difference between one production and another. There
may be a different theater, or a different audience. The natural process
of metabolism replaces every atom in my body every 7 years, so that
certainly doesn't require any new-fangled technology for me to
understand it.

If this view is fair then I need have no fear of uploading or transporting;
so long as memories, processes, and relationships are not dramatically
perturbed, my identity will naturally be preserved.

In fact, when I think about it, it's faith in this dramatic continuity
that permits me to happily close my eyes and go to sleep at night, content
that I'll still be me in the morning. If one day I'm uploaded and copied,
if there's more than one of me, and if I can afford the costs associated
with running more than one copy, I won't be especially perturbed. If any
one of me needs to be killed, I'll be content so long as the play is
written down in a form that can be revived for an appreciative audience.

All the world's a stage ...

Peter Merel.

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