Archive for February, 2010

What We Are

Friday, February 26th, 2010

What are we, if we are informational entities?

Like most people (and unlike some philosophers) I will stick to the view that we are persons.  In this post I will try to state clearly what persons are according to the theory of persons I recommend, which I call the Information Theory.  I will begin to flesh the theory out, by drawing out some of its consequences.

The Information Theory

Here are some claims of the Information Theory of Persons.

  1. Persons are entities that can be multiply instantiated, like tunes, dances, literary works, electronic files, computer programs, and genes.
  2. Like all those things, persons are entities that can be expressed as information.  A person can cross a spatio-temporal gap in the form of information carried by any convenient medium, such as electronic files.
  3. Persons are distinct from the living biological organisms they depend on, as software is distinct from the hardware it runs on. (more…)

What We Are Not

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

What We Are NotWe are not Cartesian egos.  We are not biological organisms either.

Not Cartesian egos

A Cartesian ego is a kind of mental or spiritual thing that is thought to inhabit a human body and give it life.  Many people believe we can exist independently of a human body – that we survive the death of our bodies, continuing to have experiences either without a body, or by being reborn in another body.

I hardly need to argue against Cartesian egos.  The idea is in widespread disrepute without any assistance from me.  It is hard to reconcile with a scientific view of the world.  We have no convincing evidence that such things exist.  Until we have, we should use Occam’s Razor for its intended purpose to prune them from our conceptual scheme.  Leaving them in creates clutter and awkward problems.

One problem comes from split brain research.  When the corpus callosum connecting a patient’s two cerebral hemispheres is cut, two centres of consciousness appear where there was one before.  Should we conclude that the surgeon’s knife divided a spiritual substance?   Instead of deepening our understanding, this multiplies mysteries.

Despite its academic unrespectability, the idea that we are Cartesian egos is embraced by billions of people.  It is deeply involved with emotion, as this passage from Umberto Eco’s novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana illustrates:

One evening the spiritual director stood in front of the altar balustrade, illuminated – like all of us, like the entire chapel – by that single candle that haloed him in light, leaving his face in darkness.  Before dismissing us, he told us a story.  One night, in a convent school, a girl died, a young, pious, beautiful girl.  The next morning, she was stretched out on a catafalque in the nave of the church, and the mourners were reciting their prayers for the deceased, when all of a sudden the corpse sat up, eyes wide and finger pointing at the celebrant, and said in a cavernous voice, “Father, do not pray for me!  Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought – and now I am damned!” (more…)

The Self Illusion

Monday, February 1st, 2010

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To find the right answers, ask the right questions.  I have skated around the question, “Is there a rational justification for self concern?” without coming up with a solid argument that settles it one way or the other.  But there is a related question which can be answered.

Two Views of Teleportation

As we have seen, teleportation by means of information transfer can be viewed in two ways.  The facts of the case are: I am scanned in North Vancouver and my information is sent to Omaha, where it is used to construct a living replica of me.  Meanwhile, the original in North Vancouver is destroyed.  Two views of these events are:

SURVIVE: I am transported from North Vancouver to Omaha.

DIE: I am killed in North Vancouver, and someone else – my replica – is constructed in Omaha.

People who think about teleportation disagree about whether SURVIVE or DIE is an accurate description of the case.  How can it be settled which view is true – or whether neither is true?

People who disagree about SURVIVE and DIE do not disagree about the facts of the case.  The facts are not in question.  No scientific experiment can be devised to settle which of SURVIVE and DIE is an accurate description of the facts. (more…)