Products of our time
October 27, 2019 4:31 PM   Subscribe

Philosophy often emphasises the significance of being the same person despite change. It asks how various changes – such as total memory loss or a brain transplant – might create a different person. This helps to clarify aspects of personal identity and the self, but it also overshadows intuitions about the significance of change itself. The ideal or model way to persist through time is not to stay exactly the same. Instead, it is to change.
posted by eirias (20 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hm. So this is basically the buddhist idea of the self. That we are not a solid, concretized self, but instead are an ever-unfolding process. One of my favorite books for explaining this idea is Integral Buddhism by Traleg Rinpoche. This essay by Thich Nhat Hanh approaches it from a different angle, and may be a bit advanced for non-buddhists, but it is pretty great. Western ideas of the self have a lot of catching up to do.
posted by nanook at 5:25 PM on October 27, 2019 [7 favorites]


This reminds me of Karyn Lai's observation that Western philosophy is focused on abstract ideas and ideals, the unchanging, and the individual, while Chinese philosophy is focused on diversity, interconnectedness, and change.
posted by zompist at 5:36 PM on October 27, 2019


On the face of it, it seems like the difficulties Tobia is grappling with mostly arise from the seemingly unexamined assumption that the self is a thing in the first place. If the self is merely a construct of convenience that allows us to tell more coherent stories about our experiences, then it doesn't seem terribly remarkable that this construct changes when our stories change.
posted by Not A Thing at 5:53 PM on October 27, 2019 [17 favorites]


My sense of self at this moment that I type this seems unique and important, but is my memory of the last time I noticed a sense of self the same as it is now, is it an accurate memory or an imaginary memory of this moments self builds to reinforce it's sense of importance.
posted by sammyo at 6:20 PM on October 27, 2019


If you or I have a toothache, we can say it is merely the universe having toothaches and it is all the same thing. But it matters to me where it is located.
posted by thelonius at 6:29 PM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


On the face of it, it seems like the difficulties Tobia is grappling with mostly arise from the seemingly unexamined assumption that the self is a thing in the first place.

Eponysterical!
posted by Foosnark at 6:30 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Great post.
Ship of Theseus. I, remember when Dr. Rush found the secret bridge on The Destiny from SG: Universe.

Doubt the ship was 259 years old.

My best friend died of heroin and he was not the same person self admittedly conntrary to my examples; Time +drugs÷ memory= mnemonic entropy. Are you same person asleep hunched over a running vacuum with a cigarette still in the hand?

My grandmother was patient with my questions for 35 years but as she rounded 97 years old she admitted she didn't have time for the past for her mental clarity. She wanted to focus on the present.
She died at 103 and 10 month's were not lucid as if she were 5 again. The only thing prescribed was Vicodin, low dose. Grandma drank a beer and had a smoke in a blue moon but did not take Painkiller's for 101 years except for 2 incidents. I can draw no thesis or even reason but it's as if that ease of pain prolonged her life.

The shitty thing about philosophy is its lack of clarity when most everyone wonders how long will she suffer, linger, oh, I'mtiredneedtogohome.
posted by clavdivs at 7:25 PM on October 27, 2019 [5 favorites]


Perhaps amusingly, the transient (or absent) self is one of the things some transhumanists are banking on — they think that with gradual introduction of neural implants, you could effectively replace the biological brain by degrees, as the implants learn to replicate brain function, eventually enabling them to excise the biological matter with no loss of awareness or function.
posted by aramaic at 7:49 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


There is a lot to consider in how changeability/potential can be imputed to some selves and not others, from that final link:
When Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he obliterated a time-stream, devastated an open range of changes. And somewhere on that American jury, someone thought this was justice, someone believed in the voodoo of shotguns and teleportation. Michael Dunn killed a boy, and too robbed a man of his chance to be.
posted by Not A Thing at 9:15 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Western philosophy is focused on abstract ideas and ideals, the unchanging, and the individual, while Chinese philosophy is focused on diversity, interconnectedness, and change.

It's worth mentioning that Chinese philosophy is not homogenous. e.g. In ancient Chinese thought, Mozi is a utilitarian, and quite abstract-idealistic about it.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:17 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


The entire concept of persistent identity is forced to be a little bit fuzzy because, when it comes right down to it, no part of the Universe (and I'm using that word to label the totality of what was, is and will be) is the same in every respect as any other; if it were, it would be that other. In other words, in order to speak reasonably about any part of the Universe we have to apply specific criteria to distinguish it from all the things that it is not, and that very act of conceptual splitting defines the thing's identity.

So since I can distinguish me-as-I-was-an-hour-ago from me-now by virtue of the first thing occupying a region of spacetime that's an hour earlier on my worldline than the second thing, I can reasonably discuss the differences between those two things, and that means that they're not identical.

And it's not just me. Even the grossest physical objects have the same thing going on. This laptop now is not the same as this laptop an hour ago. Hell, even that chunk of decorative granite over there on the back deck isn't the same as it was an hour ago; some of the uranium atoms inside it have exploded and tiny bits of its outsides have just flaked off in the sun.

Ah, you say, but these temporally distinguishable mes are parts of another thing, which is whatever occupies the region of spacetime along my entire worldline, and that's my persistent identity right there, surely?

Well, maybe, but it sure doesn't feel like it. I don't experience my entire worldline all at once; the amount of it I can ever work with directly is probably best measured in milliseconds, and frankly I haven't the slightest idea how to reconcile that direct experience with what Relativity has to say about how spacetime actually works. So most of the time it's convenient to ignore the whole-worldline identity and concentrate on the evolving temporal one.

But even setting that distinction aside, my temporally evolving identity turns out to be kind of fuzzy spatially as well. Where are my edges? At what exact juncture do the carbon atoms I exhale stop being parts of me?

What I'm getting at is that what I'm referring to when I use words like "same" and "identity" are heavily context-dependent, irreducibly and unavoidably so, and that getting all tied in knots by the consequences of that and seeking more precision than the concept admits of is a waste of time. Don't worry about it. Re-file the Ship of Theseus under "amusing word games" and stop taking it all so seriously.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


Most of the first essay, by the way, gets its paradoxical piquancy via the rhetorical trick of ignoring the category difference between me-along-my-whole-worldline and me-an-hour-ago. If it were an essay about geometry instead of identity, this would be akin to an extended musing on how paradoxical it is that a cylinder can have corners when it's actually a kind of circle.
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 AM on October 28, 2019


By positing relatively stable entities (eg. atoms, forms, genera) within the universal flux, philosophy establishes the basis of science.
posted by No Robots at 8:30 AM on October 28, 2019


Not so sure about that. Seems to me that the human brain is a hardwired recognition engine, that it will perceive and label such relative stability as is present in its environment regardless of what kinds of stability philosophers have decided is respectable, and that trying to define what's really real by appeal to pre-decided philosophical principles has been an activity that's been getting in the way of science for as long as science has been a thing. It's certainly the root cause of the difficulty that people have with deciding whether electrons are "really" waves or "really" particles, for example.
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 AM on October 28, 2019


Humans first operate upon the basis of the patterns in nature that they are "hard-wired" to recognize. This is experientia vaga. At the level of the intellect, the human mind comes to see the patterns as mere moments in the universal flux. At the level of scientific intuition, the human mind comes to see that all the patterns constitute an essential unity of the whole of being.
posted by No Robots at 9:07 AM on October 28, 2019


There is always the Gurdjieffian notion that there is no one person inside you. There are many. Or to quote the New Testament, “We are legion.”
posted by njohnson23 at 9:08 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


We encounter a microcosm of this problem in my field (music) because we talk about musical “works” or “pieces” of music, when all we’re really describing are temporal phenomena—there is no ‘there’ there, other than conceptually. The only place a musical object can actually exist is inside a human being’s imagination (audiation?), and otherwise it’s just pressure waves propogating through the air for as long as energy is in the waves, and then it’s just memory (which is imagination again).

Mistaking the very necessary and useful practice of thinking about music as a thing, for music actually being a thing, has been fairly problematic in musical practice. Considering the distinction, between an imaginary musical object and the actual phenomenon of sounding music, I’ve learned many useful parallels to being, to the process of life and my experience and ideas about self. I think that we get hung up when we consider a temporal experience (being alive) as a non-temporal object (my “self”), and mistake the conceptualization (a useful and important tool) for the thing itself. There is no ‘me’ that persists across time in any fixed state, even all of the cells in my body are different about every seven years (not counting the 1/3 or so of my physical mass that isn’t even me at all, but bacteria etc.).

So I am, to me, a consistent temporal experience much moreso than a person-object. That’s what I have in common with the person in baby pictures of me: none of the actual, physical parts in that picture exist anymore, all those cells died and have been replaced, the mind inside that baby’s noggin is vastly different. But I still recognize that baby as ‘me’ because some version of that vessel has provided a persistent, unbroken temporal, consciously aware and meta-cognitive experience of being between there and here, and going forward to whatever point in the future my ‘there’ will extend to.

I have a much stronger sense of myself as a verb than as a noun, and while a lot of Buddhist reading in my 20s really helped with that, more than anything music and musical practice taught me this. I find it’s a really beautiful way to think of people, and really keeps me from judging myself and others too harshly, and also makes compassion lots easier. We all play out-of-tune or miss an entrance, no matter how much we’ve practiced or how hard we’re trying, and that’s OK—we’re here together to make our music a little bit better each time, and that’s part of the joy of it all. Even the very best musicians need to keep practicing and rehearsing, because another part of the joy is always growing and changing and learning new music and adding new people to the ensemble*.


* - One thing I point out to every student I teach, probably too often, is that the most generic word we use for a group of musicians is ‘ensemble,’ which is a word we took from French that literally means ‘together.’ Collaboration, listening and understanding is so important to verbing music well, that the most generic term we have for a group of musicians is a ‘together.’ There is an important life lesson there.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:50 AM on October 28, 2019 [6 favorites]


Was NOT expecting that last essay, ouch! I didn't see the writer's name before I started reading it, and as the piece went on, I couldn't believe how powerful the writing was.
posted by MiraK at 3:31 PM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


Was NOT expecting that last essay, ouch! I didn't see the writer's name before I started reading it, and as the piece went on, I couldn't believe how powerful the writing was.

*secret whisper* that piece is actually the one around which this post accreted in my mind. I've been holding onto it like a worry stone since the day it was published.
posted by eirias at 3:45 PM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


There is no ‘me’ that persists across time in any fixed state, even all of the cells in my body are different about every seven years (not counting the 1/3 or so of my physical mass that isn’t even me at all, but bacteria etc.).

That's one way to look at it. Another is to pay a little bit of attention to the context in which the idea of "me" is being used, and simply cease expecting that word to have the same referent regardless of context.

For what it's worth, most of the time I can't usually find any good reason to distinguish my microbiome from any of my other organs when thinking about how I'm put together. The idea that my personal microbiological ecology is somehow foreign or alien has just stopped working for me. In fact, sometimes I like to amuse myself by deliberately conceptualizing its ongoing success as the entire point of my existence, marvelling at how well organized - literally - all those little creatures have managed to become, and wishing that humanity as a whole could get it together to do at least as well.

So I am, to me, a consistent temporal experience much moreso than a person-object. That’s what I have in common with the person in baby pictures of me: none of the actual, physical parts in that picture exist anymore, all those cells died and have been replaced, the mind inside that baby’s noggin is vastly different. But I still recognize that baby as ‘me’ because some version of that vessel has provided a persistent, unbroken temporal, consciously aware and meta-cognitive experience of being between there and here, and going forward to whatever point in the future my ‘there’ will extend to.

That's very similar to what I get in any context where "me" refers to my entire worldline, as distinct from my present experience. Also, I've taken to giving the side-eye to frequently-expressed claims that conscious experience is itself persistent and/or unbroken and/or in any other way continuous; by personal observation, it's not accurate to describe my own consciousness that way. When I'm asleep, for example, my persistence and unbrokenness is much more akin to that of the bed I'm sleeping in than to anything resembling a soul.

Something else I enjoy when musing on this kind of topic is to make some kind of distinction between objects and processes. Every part of the world is both, of course, but using the word "object" to denote those things whose internal organization changes relatively slowly, and "process" to denote those with relatively large amounts of ongoing internal change, is something I like to do. Given that distinction, the whole physical body I'm usually referring to when I use the word "me" is more object than process, my consciousness is almost entirely process, and that process is itself an ensemble of countless sub-processes that it is indeed very pleasing to think of as analogous to the lines played by individual instruments in an orchestra.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 PM on October 28, 2019


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