Journal Excerpt – Multiple Personae in Ordinary Life

Our organisms can harbour and support multiple personae – like several software applications running on one computer.  We may have quite different personae corresponding to our different roles in life.  As a businessman, my goals, feelings, manner of speech, attitudes may differ greatly from my goals, feelings, manners and attitudes as a father, as an amateur photographer, or as an outdoorsman.

Our personae draw upon the shared resources of the organism, and even compete for them.  Being torn between work and family is a familiar experience for many of us.

I am currently involved in a transition.  I have sold my business, I_ Inc., and am retiring from it.  I am transferring my work roles to others.   If I am successful, then the others will be able to carry on without me, will cover my roles successfully.  If I fail, they will not, and I will fade from the enterprise.

Not just roles are important, also goals.  For years, one of my main goals has been to improve data quality.  Now that we have  been bought by the Chicago-based H_ Company, I find myself trying to persuade others to adopt this goal.  I want to inspire people in the larger organization to adopt my goal – especially those who are best placed to make it happen.

As past president of I_ Inc., I am earnestly trying to stamp my mark on the H_ Company.  But in another mood, I find all that boring, a drain of time and energies.  Sometimes I am not terribly interested in the H_ Company or its activities.

I am interested in it and I am not.  This is consistent, if the two uses of “I” have different referents.  But really, no one talks that way.  We are convinced that we are single, not multiple persons.

People contradict themselves.  People are not known for a high degree of consistency in their statements and actions.  We explain this by saying we are conflicted, or confused.  But this inconsistency may be more like disagreement between persons than disagreement within a person.

Do I have any justification for using the word “person” in this way?  It is contrary to ordinary usage.  I need an independent argument to support the idea that a gestalt of more-or-less consistent desires, intentions and beliefs merits the description “person” or even the waterier “persona”.

Can several distinct persons sequentially inhabit a human organism throughout its lifetime?  Distinct in beliefs, intentions, habits, lifestyle, but not completely distinct in time – they would certainly cohabit for extended periods – and not altogether distinct in other qualities either – particularly insofar as they would share a lot of memories.  Memory makes our personae similar, draws them together.  That is why we are most inclined to say, “She is a different person,” when speaking of someone who has suffered severe memory loss.  Without memory as a constant reminder of “who we are”, our behaviour would probably be much more volatile – would draw from a much broader range of known human activity.

What is my argument, then?  First, from empiricism and Occam’s razor: there is no scientific evidence of a spiritual substance.  Yet we attach great importance to human identity, and use identity as a justification for action – perhaps even the main justification for most of our efforts.  Looking for an entity that is scientifically admissible to carry this impressive moral weight, we are led in two directions: the biological organism, and its mental attributes: memory, intentions, feelings, experience.  Until fairly recently, mind and body have seemed more or less inseparable (although people have had little difficulty in imagining them existing separately after death).  But now technology has taken us to the point where it is easy to describe cases where mind goes one way and bodies another, while life goes on, all within the realm of observation.

Secondly, between organism and mind, mind is a worthier bearer of the moral weight.  When mind and body diverge, our intuitions favour the mind.  If I wish to preserve my life, and I can choose between saving my mind in another body, or my body inhabited by an alien mind, I’ll choose to preserve my mind.

Thirdly, although mind is preeminent, in the absence of a spiritual substance, mind is just a set of attributes of a living organism.  And attributes admit of replication.

Just like software, or other intellectual products.   What is the ‘same program’, the ‘same movie’ or the ‘same book’?  Perhaps such examples furnish helpful analogues for the criteria of personal identity.


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4 Responses to “Journal Excerpt – Multiple Personae in Ordinary Life”

  1. Old Friend Don says:

    During your presentation you spoke of people wanting to make a difference, to leave a legacy, to remain around in some way, all of which may prompt them to have a digital copy of themselves made so that they can be reincorporated somehow in the future. That point really did strike a chord for me in that I really do (did?) want to make a difference, to leave some legacy, to remain around in some way. It’s important for me to have grandchildren (and eventually, maybe great grandchildren even though I won’t be here to see them) so that someone is around to ask “what do you know about Grandpa Donald and Grandma Lorraine?” I’d like to write the odd article or letter which may outlive me. I envy Darwin, Dickens, Einstein and the like – I’m certainly not in their league, not even close, but they left a legacy such that they are remembered instead of disappearing off the face of the earth without those who followed them ever knowing they even existed.

    This is why those carvings we saw in various old British castles and churches grabbed my attention .. they were apparently townsfolk who were commemorated by being models (maybe unwillingly or unwittingly) for the artists who created this fountain. It was probably an issue of teasing between friendly contemporaries, and this relationship has long outlasted their original corporate bodies. If you can’t be a world famous scientist, then at least, what a wonderful way to be remembered, to bring joy or amusement to one’s descendents.

    “Being remembered” has also been the subject of autobiographies, memoirs, endowments, buildings named after their benefactors and scholarships; clearly, it is an issue which is very important to many people. Who knows .. this issue might be worth a chapter by itself?

  2. Old Friend Don says:

    If I were moving files from one computer to another in our network, I would never delete the original files until I was confident they were completely and accurately copied to the recipient computer. You would have to do the same, if you are transporting people because if you had a power outage during the middle of the transport, you couldn’t just say “Oops. Maybe it will work better with our next customer” – which brings up an awkward question. Which do you do, transport by moving the file and deleting the original as all one action, and risk losing it all in a power outage? Or copy and ensure the file move was complete, then delete the original? What happens if the original decides he doesn’t want to be deleted after all, in which case you now have two copies of the same person? And if you deleted the original individual against his will, could this be considered murder?

  3. Gordon says:

    Don – on “leaving a legacy”: I think what you describe is the right way to think (and feel!) about our lives, and how we interact with the world we live in. We all have effects, all the time. Some people’s names are attached to their legacy, for a long time – you mention Darwin, etc. – but the legacy is there, whether the name is remembered or not. Even if your supervisor took credit for your work, it was your work; and it helped your colleagues at Fisheries. They probably remember who helped them; and even if they don’t always, the fact remains that you helped them. And of course, the effect we have on our children is profound – all those dinner-table interactions, and learning to ride a bike, and moral support in situations in which life-choices are made. You and I are lucky in our children. I don’t mean lucky as in a coin-toss, but lucky as in a career where, by dint of effort and inspiration, and creative response to unforeseen events, we succeed over the long haul.

  4. Gordon says:

    Regarding not deleting files too soon: coming from a career in software development, I too have learned this painful experience. A human transporter would certainly need good integrity checks and storage redundancy. Here is an outline of the process as I see it:
    1. I enter the booth at my departure location and am scanned.
    2. My file is stored on a local server, and redundantly on another, independent local server.
    3. I am rescanned, and the results are compared to the original scan file to ensure that “nothing important is lost.” (There would be quite a bit under the covers on that one. I’ll try to expand on that in another post.)
    4. If everything checks so far, then my file is good.
    5. At this point, since my file is correct, and is backed up on independent servers, it would be safe to destroy the original. But people might feel more comfortable if the original is left intact until a later step.
    6. The file is transmitted to the destination location. The communications protocol and integrity checks in the file itself ensure that nothing is lost in transmission.
    7. A replica of me is constructed from the information in the file. (There’s a lot under the covers here as well.)
    8. To verify that the reconstruction was successful, it would be wise to rescan the replica, and compare the resulting file to the one used for reconstruction, as in step 3. Of course, no two scans of a living organism taken at different moments in time would be identical, because of the many changes that occur within us from one minute to the next. The aim in comparing these files would be to ensure that the differences between them are consistent with the differences to be expected in a human being over a time span of a few minutes.
    9. After all that’s done, there should be no compunction about destroying the original. I don’t think the original should be allowed to change his mind after a certain point in the process – certainly not after the replica has gained consciousness. Things could be arranged so that, after the original has been scanned, there is no further opportunity for him to signal a change of mind. He is committed. Because society cannot, I think, tolerate a system which would allow people to make multiple copies of themselves. That would pose many social and legal difficulties.

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