X-Message-Number: 27629
Date: Fri, 17 Feb 2006 11:58:05 -0500
From: Daniel Crevier <>
Subject: platonic forms and pragmatism
References: <>

Valeria Retyunin made the following comment in responding to a post where I
mentioned that there
is a well established philosophical tradition behind the "pragmatic" point
of view on identity:

> You mean Plato's "motionless, timeless, and absolutely real" forms,
> and onwards? If you rely on this tradition for your survival, it's no
> surprise you have stopped worrying about uploading. You should forget
> uploading altogether - you're an abstract and eternal pattern already,
> of which your brain is merely an imperfect copy.

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. Let me try again. The point of view makes
sense for precisely the opposite reason: there are no timeless forms.
Actually, Plato's mentor Socrates was the one who had it right. He did not
state, as later thinkers came to believe, that horses are horses because
they are copies of an ideal form. He recognized that category making was a
pragmatic activity, and recommended doing it by "carving where nature left
articulations." (Really! The first time I saw this phrase, I thought it was
by some modern materialist. It was in fact uttered 2500 years ago, by none
less than Mr. S.). Socrates thought it made sense to define a "horse"
category because its members could be easily identified, and had interesting
properties: they ran fast, and could be domesticated.

The problem of identity is one of categories: we are trying to draw the line
between the category of possible beings that are, say, me, and those that
aren't. In some respects, there are neat articulations where to carve, like
the obvious cleavage between "me" and "you". However, in discussing possible
technological enhancements or replications, we are faced with a continuum of
possibilities. Most people would agree that me 5 years from now would still
be me, even if all my atoms will have been replaced by metabolic activity.
What about Kirk, who gets disassembled in one spot, and reassembled
elsewhere with other atoms? Some would say we're dealing with a different
Kirk. But what if he were reassembled in the same spot, with the same atoms?
What if only part of him were disassembled, reassembled and reconnected to
the rest? How large a part would that have to be for there to be a different
Kirk? What if part of his brain were replaced by electronic components? How
much of it would have to be replaced?

When there are no articulations, s.o.p., if we must carve, is to do it where
it's convenient. This is what legislators do: the legal limit for abortion
is an integer number of months, speed limits are round numbers, and so on. I
believe the convenient way to carve in the above continuum is to use an
empirical criterion: if it remembers like Kirk, and behaves like Kirk, then
it's probably Kirk.

Please note that this post, as well as others I did, is written in neutral
language, designed neither to offend nor deride. I would ask anyone who
wants to reply to do it in the same way. Doing otherwise generates more heat
than light.

Perhaps Valeria, having twice commented on what she thought my opinion was,
would care to tell us where she herself stands. Would Kirk die a thousand
deaths in the teleporter? Would an uploaded copy of him executing in a
computer still be him?

Daniel Crevier, Ph.D.

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