Is There a True, True Self?

I have compared the “true self” to the “false self” before, and while I will still stand behind the claim that the distinction can be made usefully within a certain semantic realm, I’m going to go the other direction in this post because in a different, more general realm, there is no “true self.”  As a matter of fact, if you look at it in the most general, explicit sense, you have no self at all apart from the information that constitutes your decision-making and thinking matrix.  What I’m trying to say is that when someone says that they act a certain way and that’s their “true self” and all other ways of acting are them doing something other than being their true self, they are misleading themselves.  No matter what they do, they cannot escape the fact that the same decision-making matrix, no matter how intricate or complex, caused them to act that way in each of those situations.  Now, if they mean to say that they have a preferred mode of behavior, but are forced to use a different mode of behavior in varying circumstances, well of course.  I have preferred modes of behavior, too, like I prefer to sleep or go out or play video games to doing actual work.  That doesn’t mean that I’m my true self only when I’m in the process of a preferred mode of behavior.  But that’s exactly how a lot of people reason out their reactions to, most commonly, certain other people.

I’m getting into material identity again, but since it is I suppose my preferred philosophical specialty I may as well.  Because of the fact that there is no single piece of information you can subtract from a person to make them not-that-person, the person as a whole (considered as a contiguous entity) only has meaning as far as perception will take it.  Relative to someone else, it’s their perception.  Relative to the person themselves, it’s their own perception that matters.  Imagine that you woke up and you were a different person!  Now, because of the nature of logic, this sentence has no true parseable non-tautological meaning.  I have included in the sentence that “you” are a different person, meaning you are still you.  So the Engish way to handle this issue is to change the meaning to “you wake up with a different body, probably that once belonged to someone else.” or something similar.  No matter the way you parse it in English, it isn’t handled in a logically rigorous way in the same way that we don’t answer the question “Would you like tea or coffee?” with “Yes.”  While logical, it conveys little useful conversational meaning.  Bear in mind though, that if we spoke a truly logical language, you would answer in a way that did convey conversational meaning, the same way you don’t say “Yes” in English (Although framework of asking the questions would probably receive more semantic-structural changes than the affirmative/negative response structure).

But I digress, seriously this time.  We nearly had a terminal digression there into the land of logical languages.  Back to the issue of having one identity.  The truth is that we have an assumption here that we haven’t questioned: is it necessary to treat identities in the same way that we treat physical objects?  Once again this is a conceptual piece of English- we like to treat concepts like objects.  We can pick up drawing, have an idea, find an answer, and so on.  I’m not going too far into this as a topic- I would recommend Steve Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought for more on the subject.  Anyway, the assumption that identity is an object has numerous flawed bases.  Firstly, there is 1 “person” per body, and we can count bodies.  Ergo, there must be 1 and only 1 identity per person because that person has 1 and exactly 1 body.  The next flawed idea is that identity is immutable and does not change.  That there could ever be a “one true” identity.  This isn’t even true for the lowest-level aspect of identity at the level of the physical body, so how anyone can formalize the idea that identity must be fixed is beyond me, but it does happen.  It should be completely obvious that the body of a child is different from the body of an adult, and so assuming that there is any relation beyond material continuity is a flagrant violation of logic.  Now it is not an error to say that there may exist similarities between these two identities/bodies/people, especially considering how causally connected the latter stage is from the former.  But to say that there is a fixed identity from which changes may be noted as deviations is just plain wrong.  People change a lot- people change very quickly.  Through the course of a day each of us goes through periods of high and low energy, moods, thought patterns, and who knows what.  However there are people who are guilty of the next identity fallacy, which is that somehow those aspects aren’t significant pieces of your identity.  They are passing and trivial and should be ignored because in the grand scheme of the human identity they are categorically different.  Well this is wrong, but it’s less obvious to most people because it has some deep religious roots.  The idea that the body is distinct from the soul, and that the soul is much more important than the body can ever hope to be is an old religious idea with tendrils all over the place.  The idea that something like a state of hunger contributes to your identity in any significant way is perhaps odd.  But look at it this way.  If there was a teleportation machine that destroyed your body and created one exactly like it at a different location- I have used this example before.  If there was such a machine, and it re-created your body perfectly in every detail, except it omitted recording information needed to compute and recreate a state of hunger (somewhere between total satiety and death by starvation) then is it a valid teleportation machine?  I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t step through that bastard for a billion dollars, and not because I might be a starved corpse on the other side- it’s because I have no idea what information went into the complex computation of my own state of hunger/satiety.  Probably all kinds of things from the contents of my intestinal tract to levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.  If the machine omits all that information, I don’t come out the other side of that teleporter.  Someone else does.

So I am aware that I have a difficult position to defend here.  I’m saying, at the same time, that there is an immense degree of flexibility in what constitutes a person- that you can still be “you” in the sense that counts from the time that you’re a child until the day you die, but at the same time the standard for building a teleporter must be absolutely flawlessly perfect in order to preserve material identity.  The reason for this is that I’m making the two comparisons based on different criteria.  I’m a strict materialist- everything can be reduced to an arrangement of matter and energy if a sufficient level of detail and fidelity is used.  However, matter and energy in and of themselves are just rocks and colored lights- they have to be organized into information patterns to be interesting.  So in the case of a stardard human life, without being teleported, the information pattern persists in direct fashion through space and time and can be identified perfectly as being materially continuous.  However, once you introduce the ability to jump around in space and time, you have to get a little bit smarter than that in order to maintain material continuity.  To think about material continuity, I’ll call it the Where’s Waldo? Effect.  If it’s possible to look into the universe like a giant, four-dimensional Where’s Waldo book (including all periods of time) and find you, or any given person, then you have material continuity.  When you introduce the ability to jump around in space, then you need to have the end of one string and the beginning of another match to a sufficient level of detail that the four-dimensionally-conscious being looking into the Where’s Waldo Universe can put together the pieces.  The same thing is true if you’re jumping through time, of course, but most conceptualizations of time travel account for perfect material transport as a matter of course, so it’s not as interesting to talk about.  Still, if you have a time machine then you necessarily have created a teleportation device because you could teleport back in time exactly enough time to go wherever you’re going and then go there, arriving at exactly when you left.  Not a super elegant mode of teleportation, but quite effective in physical and relativistic terms.

In fact, to be even more technically precise, it’s impossible to build a teleporter without somehow cheating relativity.  The modern idea on how this might be done is taking advantage of quantum entanglement to transfer information instantaneously to anywhere in the universe- it might also be done with some form of tachyon particle but entanglement shows much more promise.  It’s something of an important idea that material identity is both time and space independent because even if you could transfer the totality of your information instantaneously anywhere, I find it unlikely that it’s possible to instantly create a new body for you on demand.  As long as a more or less perfect copy gets made (ideally before you get “re-activated”) it makes no difference if you lost some time in the middle.  The real question is- how perfect does this copy have to be?  That is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer.  I have no idea how you would go about answering it in a mathematical sense.  As long as you have material continuity to fall back on then you have nearly endless flexibility, but the second that gets taken away it really becomes a question of what you believe the limit is.  And a strange sort of “are you feeling lucky, punk?” kind of attitude.  It’s the same operation, because material continuity is just using the super-perfect teleport trick over impossibly small distances and over the smallest possible time lengths (Planck time, approx 10^-44 seconds) using the same medium that the stability of the information pattern itself is composed of, so the accuracy is so absolute as to be perfect.  Sure, particles jitter and all sorts of other stuff is going on, but that’s the nature of the pattern that you’re made of anyway.  Even in periods of the most rapid change you can conceive of, relative to the length of a single Planck time- I mean, come on.

I don’t think that 10^-44 seconds will even fit into the human mind as a workable unit of time.  That means that you would need 1 followed by 44 zeroes of them in order to get one single second.  To put that into perspective, if you had that many nanoseconds the total length would be 3×10^27 years, or enough to contain the entire history of the universe (15 billion years) over 200,000,000,000,000,000 times.  A Planck time is small.  There is no practical way that sufficient change to break material identity could happen on a timescale so small.  So I just say that no matter what, material continuity equals material identity.  It’s not strictly true, but if you’re seriously in doubt then you must be talking about some thought-experiment edge case like “what if we had a particle accelerator that could destroy n brain cells in exactly 1 Planck time, how many would we have to destroy…”.  They’re awesome, and I do it all the time, so that’s great, but as a rule of thumb I think the idea of material continuity = material identity works quite well.

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