The paradox of identityPosted by admin
I think this video by animator Josh Wheldon sums the problem up nicely.
As life goes on, my atoms are replaced by other atoms, and I remain myself. But what if this process of replacement didn’t go so slowly? As in, all of my atoms replaced at once right here with identical atoms of the same elements, in the same configuration. Well, I would answer that with the confident statement that I am still me; I’m the pattern that the atoms are arranged in, not the atoms myself. I am a state of matter, not a lump of it.
But what if the replacement didn’t happen right here, but instead was performed over there? These atoms get disassembled and analyzed, and that same configuration is reproduced over there? That is the definition of a Star Trek style matter beam. Well, my intuition would extend to this being simply a case of teleportation. I was here, now I’m over there.
So if that’s true, then what if the me that is here is analyzed without being disintegrated, until 5 minutes later? What do I experience, in that situation? After a tipsy Scotsman says the word “Energize,” do I remain in place until I die 5 minutes later, or do I awaken over there? Or, somehow, both?
To continue to follow this logic down the rabbit-hole is to reveal that I have committed a blunder, begging the question. I ask “Well, which do I experience?” as if I have a self that continues from one moment to the next. I feel that I do… but previous experience is no guarantee of future results. Though unlikely, in the next instant we could cease to exist due to some catastrophe. And, though unlikely, the one instance of my current physical state could also go up by one to be two instances.
Just as I went from zero of me to one of me when my neurons formed the necessary connections to support self-awareness as an infant, somebody would be getting born. But which one? Again, that is to beg the question, which one. It reveals another assumption. Each moment in the present is a gift. We can’t rely on physical causation, continuation of patterns in a state similar to what they were in the last moment, and call that inheritance a legacy of identity. We are who we are now, and the past is what it must be to lead up to the present moment. I become neither the person in the far side of the transporter or the person who remains in place. I cease to be along with the present moment, and they receive the torch as their moment comes, persons with awareness fortunate enough to be allowed to exist by the whimsical laws of causality of the universe.
I find that I cannot logically justify the continuation of identity from moment to moment. So why justify saving for retirement? Who is that old guy who is going to get all my money? Why not spend it? (Actuaries take note. Low savings rates in the U.S. relative to Japan might be because of these philosophical concerns. Kids here watched Star Trek in the 60′s and savings rates plummeted.) I save my money because I feel like it, alright? Because even if I can’t justify it, I say that I exist. Hell, I shout it. Family, friends, fellow sentient beings of the universe, we state our conviction that we exist, that our lives are precious. The world will turn and stars will burn, and never will any refutation be returned to us.
But what is the point of all this, you might ask. We don’t have matter transporters, after all. This isn’t Star Trek. We are born, and eventually we die. There are either zero or one instances of our particular configuration, and the philosophical issues of the transfer of that number from one or the other value are culturally pretty well-understood. Well, okay, we don’t have some technology yet that can make copies, but this is important, because there are companies that freeze people at the moment that they die, with the expectation that they will be able to thaw them someday, fix whatever was wrong with them at that time, and resuscitate them. It is useful to think of this freezing as a transporter, not over a dimension of distance, but over the dimension of time.
Take the case of Dora Kent. In 1987, Saul Kent, board member of the cryonics company Alcor, had his 83-year-old mother transported from the nursing home to the Alcor facility. According to Alcor, she died of natural causes at the facility, and was preserved. Well, her head was preserved. The coroner’s office examined her body, but never got the head, which was moved to an undisclosed location. Alcor claims that the coroners were mistaken that the cause of death was homicide by administration of barbiturates, and states that this was administered after death to slow brain metabolism so that her brain could suffer as little damage as possible as it was cooled. However, the book Mothermelters by Alan Kunzman adds some troubling details to this account.
The nurse at the nursing home stated in her interview that Dora was having one of her better days when the two Alcor employees came to pick her up. She was well enough to sit in her chair in the rec room, more lucid than usual. The Alcor employees, wearing lab coats and driving an Ambulance pushed in a gurney and informed the staff that they were picking up Dora. Dora stated that she was going with them, only on the condition that she would be brought to her son Saul’s home. The employees said that yes, she was going to his home. This never happened. She went to the Alcor cryogenic facility, and if Alcor is to be believed, passed away in short order, before any medical assistance could be obtained. And the barbiturate cocktail was just part of their freezing protocol.
The whole thing stinks, and it’s pretty clear that Saul ended his mother’s life with the barbiturate cocktail, froze her, and cut off her head. So why would he do this? Well, as a board member of Alcor, he probably sees this process as a transporter, but across time instead of space. She’ll be revived eventually. And he thinks that if he didn’t end her metabolic function with the cocktail and freeze her, her Alzheimer’s disease would have ravaged her brain to the point that there would no longer have been any part of her identity left to save. To him, I suspect the decision was the moral equivalent of deciding whether Scotty should beam her up, to a place where they could cure her Alzheimer’s and extend her life, though he wouldn’t get to see her anymore, versus keeping her with him where in a few weeks or months all that was her in her brain would be permanently gone. With time as just another dimension, the same as distance.
But I just do not buy that. Doing that was murder. And it is because I say so, because if it isn’t, then I don’t get to declare that I exist, that my little flame here and now has value. Like the lingering copy of me at the starting platform of the matter teleporter pleading for more time in those final 5 minutes, I don’t want to permit that my state here and now could be morally equivocated about, that based on certain contingencies I might be what Hitler termed an “extra person.” As I demonstrated above, the assertion is logically groundless, but screw it, it is my assertion to make anyways, and I stand by it. I exist. We all do. This mystery of consciousness that arises from our synapses is our mystery to own. As long as your mom draws breath, you don’t fill her veins with barbiturates and make her heart and breathing stop. You don’t get to do that.