Archive for the ‘thought experiment’ Category

Parfit’s Retreat: “We Are Not Human Beings”

Friday, March 30th, 2012

In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums.  This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause:

Our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R—psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, either with the normal cause or with any cause, provided (b) that there is no different person who is R-related to us as we once were. [Parfit, 1984, p 216]

I call Parfit’s new view a “retreat” because it is a move away from the radical insights about what we are which illuminated Reasons and Persons, to a ‘conservative’ account of persons as physical substances. I find the move puzzling, because I can’t see that Parfit is compelled to make it, and disappointing, because it raises once again the fog of mysteries about persons that looked well on their way to being dispelled.

Parfit’s claim that persons are their cerebrums has as a direct consequence that persons cannot survive information-based teleportation. If  I plan to be teleported to Mars, I should accept that my replica on Mars will not be me, because my replica’s cerebrum is numerically different from my cerebrum. The cerebrum is a body part, which, like any other ordinary material object, ceases to exist when it is destroyed. Its replica on Mars is a different cerebrum—hence, if Parfit is right, a different person.

Parfit has long thought that survival—a person’s continued existence—is different from what matters in survival. His new view on what persons are could perhaps coexist with his earlier position that information-based teleportation preserves everything that matters in survival. But such coexistence, I will argue, is an uneasy truce between fundamentally warring ideas. An alternative account of what persons are—informational entities—is a better fit to Parfit’s intuition (which I endorse) that nothing important need be lost in teleportation of persons.

“Why We Are Not Human Beings” is Parfit’s response to animalism—the view put forward by Eric Olson and others that persons are identical to animals, or biological organisms. (In the animalist literature, “human being” is used as a synonym for “human animal.”) In this review of Parfit’s paper, I raise the following points:

  1. The arguments Parfit brings to bear against animalism rely on an intuition that has equal force against the paper’s conclusion that persons are their cerebrums.
  2. The claim that persons are their brains was strongly rejected in Reasons and Persons for reasons that supported a central argument of that book. If we were identical to our cerebrums, Parfit’s main argument against the Self-Interest Theory would be undercut in the same way that it would be if we were identical to our (whole) brains.
  3. The claim that we are our cerebrums weakens Parfit’s argument in Reasons and Persons that “ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica.” If I am my cerebrum, it is hard to believe that destruction of my cerebrum is not especially bad for me, even if a replica of my cerebrum is manufactured in its stead. (more…)

Kolak: I Am You

Friday, September 30th, 2011

People who think deeply about the puzzle cases of personal identity have come up with a variety of bold and radical responses. Like Alexander hacking through the Gordian knot, Parfit wielded an analytical scalpel to divide personal identity from what matters in personal survival, reaching the conclusion that ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and replaced by a replica. Robert Nozick was so impressed by the difficulties posed by fission cases that he decided personal identity must depend on extrinsic factors: you are identical to whatever person is your closest continuer at any future time, a thesis with the odd consequence that, if your closest continuer after fission dies, you may suddenly find yourself being someone who until that time was someone else, your second-closest continuer. David Lewis’ solution to was to abandon the tried-and-true principle that persons can be counted by counting heads. Since there are two persons after fission, there were two all along, even though, before fission, they occupied the same body and were unaware of their duality. (Bizarre though it sounds, I support Lewis’ solution as one that inflicts the least damage to the traditional concept of a person.) Thomas Metzinger’s analysis led him to conclude that “no such things as selves exist in the world.”

In his book, I am You, Daniel Kolak offers yet another radical theory of personal identity: There is only one person, and that person is all of us.  What are commonly understood to be boundaries between individuals, he says, do not “merit the metaphysical significance ordinarily accorded to them.”

Our borders do not signify boundaries between persons. We are all the same person. [Kolak, 2010, p 1] (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 4

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

This is the final episode of the story.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

Javeed’s lawyer confronts him at the break.  “You didn’t shave this morning!”  Javeed doesn’t bother to answer.  He didn’t shave yesterday either.

David brings his face down close, nose to nose, so that Javeed smells the lawyer’s sandwich.  “To win this we each have a job to do,” David tells him.  “My job is to argue your case.  Your job—no less critical—is to present yourself as the guy you were before you were arrested.  A professional engineer, a proud Canadian, a young husband looking to build a life for yourself and your wife.  You can’t afford to let this stuff get you down!  Now, I’m going to hoof it to the hotel and beg a free razor; you can shave in the washroom.  Another thing—you fell asleep in court yesterday.  If you won’t eat, at least have an energy drink!”  He hands Javeed a bottle of bright repulsive liquid. (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 3

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

This is episode 3 of a story about life insurance and the law.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

Javeed’s journal: Apr. 1st, 2089.   Federal Corrections Facility Abbotsford.  This morning I was outside with nothing between me and the open sky—the almost-infinite blue across which puffy clouds blew freely from the wire-topped fence on the west side of the yard to the same fence on the east.  Birds fly over the fence, in and out.  The robots on the corner towers pay no attention to them.  We men, who know we are being watched, do not go near the fence.

I got a call from the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, some kind of liberal-minded NGO.  The guy said I shouldn’t give up hope.  I said nothing—but kept listening.  In the CCLU’s opinion my trial was a travesty.  I was incompetently represented.  Instead of hanging up, which I should have done, I said, “Tell me something I don’t know.” That only encouraged him.   He said there are grounds for an appeal.  I told him I’m already in debt, expecting him to back off, but he did not.  He said money was no concern—an important principle of law is at stake, and the CCLU is ready to fight for it.   I’d be represented by a team of top lawyers, CCLU members passionately committed to overthrow the terrible precedent set by my case.  Moreover, I’d qualify for legal aid!  There are several grounds for appeal, including egregious lapses of duty of my former counsel (may he eat flies!), all the way to potential conflicts with the Charter of Rights.  Would I launch an appeal?

“At no cost to me?” I repeated, to be crystal clear.

“No cost whatever.”

It being April Fool’s Day, and being a fool myself, obviously, I agreed to meet their lawyer, Mr. David Ogilvie.

As I just now read in the Qur’an, “Fighting  is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.”  So I fight. (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 2

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

This is episode 2 of a story about life insurance and the law.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

Javeed’s first day in court lasts all of ten minutes.  The crown prosecutor—Vinod Dasgupta, JD—requests a three-week delay, to March 14.  Justice Mackenzie grants the request.  Javeed is disgusted that Darren doesn’t object.  “Javeed, bud, there’s a simple thing called playing by the rules.”

 

Rex vs. Amiri. On the morning of March 14, Javeed finds himself at Darren’s elbow listening to the theory of his life according to Mr. Dasgupta.  The Crown will show that although Javeed purchased life insurance for himself as soon as he was married, he did not suggest a policy for his wife.  That the marriage began to deteriorate in the fall of 2086, when the couple came under financial pressure as interest rates rose sharply after they bought their condo.  That an expected year-end bonus from Javeed’s employer failed to materialize, and so did a hoped-for promotion.  That Javeed was chronically over-optimistic about his prospects, and clueless about the financial health of his employer.  That, unlike Javeed, Laila made an astute career move, landing a better-paid and more responsible job in the emergency ward where she worked.  That Javeed urged her not to take the promotion; in fact, implored her to cut her working hours, even leave the workforce entirely, despite the couple’s obvious inability to meet their obligations on his salary alone.  That Naser, the couple’s friend, who worked as a paramedic at the same hospital, helped Laila make her move, and tried his best to help Javeed see that it was in their interests.  Tried in vain.

The Crown will also show that Javeed neglected to go in for a refresher scan on his policy’s anniversary date, although he continued to pay the premium, thereby ensuring his old backup would remain on file.  That there was no plausible motive for this failure to update, other than Javeed’s belief, confirmed in his journal, that it would allow him to evade responsibility for his actions. (more…)

Jihad of the Heart – episode 1

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

“Jihad” is a story/thought experiment about our legal system coming to grips with restorative life insurance.  What happens to someone who is charged with a crime committed by his later self?  It is also about the Canadian immigrant experience, a few years down the road.

It’s Canada Day.  But he and Laila are not at any of the usual patriotic festivities—they wander the heat-softened asphalt of the Playland midway breathing vivid airs of onion rings, candy floss and puke.  They don’t speak, except with clasped hands and their eyes—of lying entangled and sticky on sun-struck sheets, that long holiday morning.  The Maple Leaf snaps overhead.  Hucksters lean from booths offering three balls, knock down the jugs and win a bear for her—Javeed waves them off, knowing the game is fixed.  Now she points to something she wants—a flailing horror of cartoon teacups.  He laughs—“No, Laila!  My stomach won’t stand it.  Let’s try that one” —the ferris wheel, stately benches rising into the blue view in which lovers can lose themselves.  But she has pulled away.  A carny opens a door and she almost collapses into the arms of Canadian strangers.  The machine starts up, leaving him, Javeed the engineer, inspecting the mechanism, greased rods and pistons blackly abused.  A bolt is loose. “Laila!”  She spins up, and then he knows—but cannot watch her fly off the handle.

Javeed finds himself on his back under a light blanket, full of panic that begins to fade as he sorts out dream from reality.  On his cot in the Detention Centre.  Again.  How many times has he woken, in just one night, to find himself here?  The light is too bright.  He understands why they keep a light on.  But why so bright?

The first of how many nights?

The first and only!  He did nothing wrong.  This is Canada, not Tehran; not the hell-hole of Guantanamo either.  Canada is a country of peace, as he learned in immigration class, and good government—and a third thing, order—gentle and tolerant, welcoming of newcomers.  The lawyer will return and explain everything at tedious length.  There will be apologies all round.  They will let him go home.  Let him go…where?  He heard his address had changed.   Home to what, exactly?

They said he was charged with….  “That’s insane!  You’re talking about my wife and my friend!”  But it’s useless to argue with the police. (more…)

The Neurology of Anticipation

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In the previous post, I asked what is the difference between having a painful experience myself and feeling sympathy for someone else’s pain.  The answer seems pretty clear.  My experience of my own pain is neurologically ‘hard-wired’, but there is no direct neural connection between other persons and myself which exposes me to their pain.  Things could have been different.  If we, like the Na’vi of the movie Avatar, had the physiological equivalent of USB-ports which allowed us to connect our nervous systems at will, then we could experience the pains, pleasures, and other sensations of other people while we were connected to them.  The ‘privacy’ of our minds is an anatomical limitation, not a metaphysical necessity.

A parallel question can be asked about future experience.  What is the difference between anticipating my own pain and having sympathy for a friend whose pain I can foresee?  As in the case of present pain, there is a vivid difference in my experience between anticipating having pain, and expecting you to have pain.   There is nothing resembling a direct neural connection between myself, now, and myself in the future, to explain this difference.  Nevertheless, neuroscience can help us understand it: why it is so vivid, why expectation of my own pain makes me anxious rather than just sympathetically concerned, why foreseeing pain in my own future feels like an unavoidable problem for me in a way that foreseeing your pain does not.

Another difference is that sympathy for others, unlike self-concern, seems at least partially under conscious control.  When we feel we cannot afford it, we tend to dial it down or switch it off altogether.  It feels optional, in contrast to the sense of unavoidability that clings to self-concern.

In his book, Hardwired Behaviour, Laurence Tancredi of the New York University School of Medicine offers some clues to an answer from a neurological perspective.  The engine of self-concern is a cyclical interaction between the limbic system, which generates our emotions (giving emotional ‘meaning’ to experience), and the prefrontal cortex, which makes plans and decisions. (more…)

Lessons of Human Fusion

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The story of Jerry and May (“Coed”) should give pause to anyone who invests all his or her self-concern in psychological continuity and connectedness.

To summarize the plot: Jerry, a 40-year-old neuroscientist, is diagnosed with devastating rapid-onset dementia, a prospect which he regards as equivalent to death.  To save himself, he hits on the plan of copying his psychological attributes to the brain of a graduate student, a young woman named May.  The copying process ‘reads’ his brain-states and ‘writes’ them to her brain, effectively reproducing his memories, abilities, personality, and other psychological dispositions.

Sticklers would regard this as a breach of academic ethics.  But Jerry, although manifestly self-centred, is not without a conscience.  The process he employs does not damage May’s psychology; instead, it takes advantage of redundant capacity in her brain to add his psychological attributes to her own.

Before the mental merger takes place, Jerry sees transference of his psychological attributes to May as a way to escape the fate of his disease.   He anticipates having a future in May’s body, which he expects to share with May herself.

The procedure works according to plan.  When they wake up, the personalities of both May and Jerry are recognizably present in May’s body.  All is not smooth sailing – May and Jerry find themselves in competition for motor control of a single body.  In order to act effectively, they must cooperate.  Sometimes the best way is for one to sit back passively and ‘let the other drive.’

But it is not an equal relationship – Jerry is at a distinct disadvantage.  May is at home in her body, and perfectly competent to manage it, but Jerry finds it foreign and difficult.  When he planned his transformation, he failed to anticipate the full impact of the physical dissimilarity it entailed: the sex change, the reduced physical stature, the girlish voice, loss of the gravitas that society concedes to the mature.  With May’s body, Jerry is more awkward than a pubescent teen. (more…)

Coed – episode 3

Monday, June 21st, 2010

This is episode 3 of “Coed”, a short story about fusion – two persons coming together to share a single body.  If you haven’t yet read episode 1, start here.

The next few days of cohabitation are comparatively peaceful.  Although more spills occur, they are genuine accidents, the inevitable price of learning.  Once May realizes the futility of obstructing him, Jerry’s motor skills improve.  In exchange for her cooperation, Jerry observes certain taboos.  She does not need to tell him, even silently, what they are; his awareness of her sensibilities has sharpened remarkably.  He does not mind too much, finding an unexpected, heady pleasure in his new situation – the joy of youthful health.  I had no idea how my vision was greying out, he announces one sparkling morning, the same day be begins seriously thinking how to get his job back. (more…)

Coed – episode 2

Monday, June 14th, 2010

This is episode 2 of a short story about fusion – two persons coming together to share one body.   If you haven’t yet read episode 1, start here.

When consciousness returns, May finds it cluttered, like a room in which she can’t find something she’s looking for.  Adrift in the jumble, she clutches at anything familiar.  She knows she’s in the lab – she remembers the looming, blinking machines.  Other, more important things are hidden.  She can’t recall her age.

She used to sail with her dad up and down Ghost Lake, in strong winds.  If she was scared, she only needed to look at his face.  He grinned at the sun and wind, embracing any weather.  He worked in forestry.  The memory of a year ago chills her, like a snow cloud blown over the sun.  A sudden headache at breakfast, her mother said.  Then he doubled over and vomited on the floor.  How could that happen?

The enormous prickly helmet, she notices with relief, has been removed.  Stretching, wriggling her toes, she grows annoyed that no one is there to attend to her.  She cranes her neck, looking for her clothes.  She can’t remember what she wore to the lab.

I am now familiar with the entire literature on hemispheric specialization, she thinks, to comfort herself.  Or most of it anyway.  I’m a leading expert in computational neuroscience.  Now I know descriptive and inferential statistics, and ASL. She pictures Nina and Tina going through their intricate routines.  But the meanings are as dark as ever.  I don’t know ASL! she realizes in astonishment.  Didn’t Jerry know it?

There was never enough time, she answers herself defensively.

Nervous, she wishes Sam would come with her clothes – whatever they were.  She vaguely recollects a purple departmental T-shirt, which needed washing, with a picture of a nerve cell.  But that wasn’t mine! She even remembers its sour smell as she pulled it over her head.  It must have been mine. And down, over her flat, sparsely-haired chest…. (more…)