X-Message-Number: 14154
Date: Sun, 23 Jul 2000 13:00:22 -0700
From: Peter Merel <>
Subject: Identity FAQ V1.1

Here it is again. The last two or three times this question raised its
ugly head the following post put an end to the noise and returned the
list to what passes around these parts for signal. If this doesn't knock
your identity concerns on the head I'll be most interested in your
reasoning for the next version. Otherwise it's probably time to put
the question back to bed until we forget and have to dredge it up again.


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, now or not. 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
universe, 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
little or afraid. Or a combination of those adjectives, something like
a taste or a smell.

But then what's all this stuff about love and harmony? 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 even 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.

Well now 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 were learned rather than innate.

I had to be born with some minimal abilities or I couldn't have
learned 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.

Still these genes are plainly just information, and then 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.
I don't think there's much difference between my genes and everyone else's.
My genes make me human - they don't make me me.

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

Maybe identity is hallucinatory? 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, perhaps 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. It might take years of reading to go down
that path - reading dry stuff by introverts with long names. Heck, let's
keep well out of that if we can.

What's going on here has to be a concrete thing. Okay, let's stipulate,
for a moment, that the world, all its phenomena, history, and future, are
dramatic in nature. There's something going on beneath the drama, like
the city beneath a streetmap, but let's suppose that my brain is a
mechanism for creating and maintaining drama, that for some reason
a dramatic understanding conveys a biological advantage.

I guess that's got to be 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 some flowing process I can't describe with drama, because to do so
is like trying to construct lego block with lego blocks. Not enough
resolution, not enough subtlety, and not enough blocks!

So if you duck back there beneath the drama the dramatic understanding
naturally vanishes like grease-paint, and inevitably my identity, a
character in the drama, goes with it. Where, after all, is Othello
after the curtain rings down and the actor and his audience go home?

If we can reconstruct the drama that I use to represent me and mine,
there can be no essential difference between one production and
another. Drama needs a willing audience, a suspension of disbelief,
sure. And there may be a different theater, or different actors. The
natural process of metabolism replaces every atom in my body every 7
years, so believing that certainly doesn't require any new-fangled
technology or long-winded philosophy.

If this view is fair then I need have no fear of uploading or reconstruction;
so long as my memories, processes, and relationships are not dramatically
perturbed, my identity will naturally be preserved along with all the
rest of this drama I call the world.

In fact, when I think about it, it's faith in that 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. I'm content so long as the play
is written down in a form that can be revived for an appreciative
audience. For all I know, an uploaded reproduction is all that's
happening around me right now anyway.

After all they say that all the world's a stage ...

Peter Merel.

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