What We Are

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.
  4. Persons can change over time.  This fact does not distinguish them from organisms, which also change while retaining their numerical identity.  But the identity criteria of persons are different from those of their bodies.  An event which ends the life of the person need not be fatal for the body.  Similarly, with the right technological assistance, a person may survive the death and destruction of his or her body.

Psychological Connections

Thinking of myself as an informational entity helps to clarify what is important about my life.  It makes me value psychological continuity and connectedness more highly, and biological survival less highly.  As stated in the Overview, the theory

…leads to the conclusion that we have little reason to fear the death of our living organisms; rather, we should fear isolation.

Derek Parfit and others, in a tradition going back to Locke, argue that what matters most in a person’s survival are psychological continuity and connectedness.  Physical resemblance is not unimportant – it is the basis of face-recognition and even voice-recognition, and some people are deeply invested in their physical appearance or athleticism.  But most of us consider a great loss of psychological function to be worse than a great physical disfigurement or disability.

Psychological connectedness between two different times in a person’s life is a similarity in mental states – personality, beliefs, intentions, abilities – resulting from causal connections that hold over that time period.  Connectedness is a matter of degree.  Two stages of a person’s life may be very strongly connected over a period of a week, and much more weakly connected over thirty years.  Yet within the thirty years, from each week to the next, the connection may be strong.  The succession of strongly connected stages in a person’s life is described as psychological continuity.

One of the normal causes of psychological connectedness and continuity is persistence of brain states.  Episodic memory is a persistent brain state.  Other persistent brain states are responsible for learned skills and the countless habits which help us get through life efficiently.  But wonderful as it is, the brain is a very lossy medium of information storage.  Most of us rely on other, more stable media to help preserve important information, including information we regard as important to who we are.  We write things down.  Authors of books and other sustained intellectual works find it absolutely essential to record drafts and notes in some medium other than their memories.

Thus, the brain is not the only bearer of psychological continuity.  We can and do supplement and correct the brain by using other storage media: written words, electronic files, photographs.  My father died when I was four.  I could not remember his face clearly if I did not have his photograph.  Memory is one among several media of information storage that we use.  It is not privileged.

Media other than memory with which we preserve important information can also be used to convey it to others.  The thoughts I am now typing will be published on the Phantom Self website.  The most common medium through which we convey our ideas, knowledge, emotions and attitudes to others is speech.

Speech can be wonderfully effective that way.   Famous examples include Churchill’s Blood, Sweat and Tears speech, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream, and Obama’s Yes, We Can.  Some, like the speeches with which Adolph Hitler galvanized his supporters, are justly infamous.

At the end of Hitler’s 1934 speech to the Sixth Party Congress, Hess got up and announced to the audience, “The party is Hitler!  But Hitler is Germany!  Germany is Hitler!”  This could be construed as metaphor.  But when I watch the speech, take in the rapt faces and frantic applause filling the huge hall, listen to the shout of “Sieg Heil!” from thousands of mouths in a single resounding voice,  I am tempted to describe Hess’ rhetoric as literal truth – applying to that audience at that time, if not to all of Germany.  The audience became Hitler.

But I should restrain myself; that is an overstatement.  True, Hitler’s speech transmitted much to the minds of his followers.  Not factual information – the speech contained little factual content – but emotions, attitudes, and what could be described as a framework for interpreting experience, or a lens through which to view reality – a biased lens that brought some subjects into sharp focus and blurred others, a coloured lens that bathed the symbols of Nazi power in a majestic glow, inspiring profound respect, even worship, while casting symbols of other points of view in an unflattering light, making dissent appear disloyal, and the non-Aryan appear repulsive.  Hitler conveyed much – his entire world-view, in broad strokes – and so effectively transformed his listeners into deputies.  Almost avatars.

But not into himself.  That would be an overstatement.  During that speech, the facial expressions of the members of Hitler’s audience grew eerily similar.  When some rose to their feet in ovation, others leaned forward; soon all rose.  And the Seig Heil shout, the Hitler salute, the raised arms appeared as one shout, one gesture.  The members of the audience were certainly not identical to Hitler.  They did not share his inmost thoughts.  But they shared much.

Relationships to Self and Others

How do our relations to ourselves differ from our relations to other people?

I don’t think they are very different.   Differences exist, both in degree and kind, but they are not fundamental.  They are rooted in limitations of biology and technology, not in metaphysics.

Memory and intention are capabilities which allow a person to communicate with himself over time, without need of pen and paper or spoken voice.   By committing what’s happening to me now to memory, I inform my future self of these events.  By forming an intention, I hope to influence his behaviour.

These capabilities are far from perfect.  Memory is faulty, and resolution is weak.  That’s why I write down the details I most want to remember, and bolster my intentions by discussing them with family and friends.

One fact that can seem special about memories and intentions is that if I don’t tell anyone about them, they are private – even more private than a locked, encrypted diary to which only I possess the key.   A diary must occasionally be opened; but no one can look over my shoulder at what’s on my mind.

So it may seem.  But our minds are not as private as all that.  Our faces reveal, not all, but more than we intend of what we think and feel.  In a BBC documentary, Ramachandran described why most people are not convincing liars:

The trouble is, the emotional centres of the brain cannot conceal the fact that you’re not speaking the truth, and your face starts leaking traces of deceit.  So anybody watching you [sees that] the muscles are slightly different when you’re lying.

According to Robert Trivers, we are so bad at lying that we evolved a tendency to self-deception in order to wipe the signs of prevarication from our faces and make others believe us.  This is counter-intuitive.  Being in touch with reality should generally favour our chances of survival, and being deceived should hurt our chances; so evolution should  select for a firm grasp of reality.  Trivers thinks our faces are such open books that those who deceive themselves sometimes gain an evolutionary edge, because they are also able to deceive others.

The discussion of lying is part of Ramachandran’s explanation of the bizarre symptoms of denial, characteristic of anosognosia.  Patients suffering from left-side paralysis caused by right-hemisphere damage often deny the paralysis, offering strange, sometimes humorous, explanations of their failure to move their hand as requested by the doctor.

I’m calling up my left hand.   It’s listening, but it’s reacting slowly.  It’s tired, I think.

One patient denied that the hand was her own:

That was my husband’s hand.  I’ve been married to him for so many years, I know his hand.

Ramanchandran’s theory of why these patients deny the evidence of their senses is grounded in hemispheric differentiation.  Here are his words, transcribed from the video:

There is a tremendous need in each one of us to create a coherent belief system, to maintain a sense of continuity to our own lives.  And this is done largely by the left hemisphere, this creation of a belief system.  When there are new experiences, the left hemisphere folds these experiences into the pre-existing belief system.  If something doesn’t quite fit the story, the strategy of the left hemisphere is to deny the anomaly, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to brush it under the carpet.  And this is what we call denial.  Now, counterbalancing this is the right hemisphere, which has the opposite tendency.  Whereas the left hemisphere tries to preserve the model, preserve the belief system, preserve status quo, the right hemisphere is the devil’s advocate, constantly challenging the status quo. When the discrepancy or anomaly becomes…too large, then the right hemisphere forces a complete revision in your world view, in your belief system.

Ramachandran explains that in the paralysis patients, the intact left hemisphere engages in denial, just as it does in normal people.  But because the right hemisphere is damaged, there is no “counterbalance, challenging the story,” no “reality check.”  Therefore such patients become more deeply delusional.

…and in fact there is no limit to the delusions you can elicit, including the claim that her arm belongs to her husband, or saying, yes, I can see my finger touch your nose.

If this is right, hemispheric specialization may explain the tension between theory and experience, and the cognitive dissonance we feel when something is ‘not quite right’.  Ramachandran’s idea suggests that we may not be as well unified as we like to think we are – that a person’s thoughts are less a monologue than a debate between adversaries.   If so, this is another way in which one’s relationship to oneself is like one’s relationship to others.

Technology is also starting to invade the privacy of the mind.  Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories have used software analysis of fMRI brain scans of art majors to determine, with 83% accuracy, whether the students are looking at works by Picasso or Dali.  Kamitani also claims success in reconstructing visual sensations from fMRI data.  After training the software, the researchers showed subjects a series of letters and symbols, which the software was able to reconstruct on a computer screen.  Building on Kamitani’s methods, ATR and Honda Research have developed a device that monitors brain activity for the purpose of manipulating a robot.  The device allows a person to control a robot’s movements, without wires or implanted electrodes, simply by thinking.

It seems that nothing going on in the mind is private and inaccessible in principle.  Human beings can perceive much of the unconfessed thoughts and feelings of others by ordinary observation, helped by experience and judgement.  Technology is beginning to open the doors of the mind a bit wider.   The ways in which I communicate with myself are not importantly different from the ways I communicate with others.  We do not peer out at one another through the walls of a glass tunnel, ‘darkly’.  We see face to face.

When Do We Begin and End?

Having distinguished between persons and the living organisms which sustain them, it makes sense to ask whether persons and their organisms coincide in time.

The answer, on almost everybody’s theory of personhood, is no.  Those who maintain that persons are identically biological organisms would of course say yes, but they are in a small minority, even among physicalists.

The life of a human organism, like that of all ‘higher’ animals, begins when an egg is fertilized.  Many people believe that a person, with a right to life, also begins at this moment.  This belief is characteristic of the Pro-Life movement.  According to Wikipedia, “Attachment to a pro-life position is often but not exclusively connected to religious beliefs about the sanctity of life.”  I see no reason to doubt Wikipedia on this point.  Those who think that the right to life begins at conception, but not on religious grounds do indeed seem to be thin on the ground.  The author of The Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League Homepage introduces himself with the words, “All too often, I fear that I’m the only nonreligious person who opposes the genocide of abortion used as a birth control substitute.”  Some groups like Feminists for Life present themselves as secular, or at least neutral with respect to religion.  But the Pro-Life mainstream opposes abortion on grounds typified by this statement from the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church:

The inalienable rights of the person must be recognised and respected by civil society and the political authority.

These human rights … belong to human nature and are inherent in the persons by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin.

Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life … from the moment of conception until death.

It is interesting that Catholics and many other religious pro-lifers identify conception, an event defined by biology, as the start point of a person’s existence, while maintaining that the same person will continue to exist after his or her biological death.  According to them, persons coincide with their biological organisms from the start until the demise of the organism, but not thereafter.

On other views associated with Eastern traditions, we do not coincide with our organisms at the start either.  Believers in reincarnation say they lived earlier lives in other bodies, long before their human body was conceived, and that they will go on to live other lives after their body dies.

More modern, physicalist theories of personhood tend to cut in the opposite direction.  Rather than saying we continue after death, and perhaps even begin before we are conceived, physicalist views are more likely to say that a person begins some time after birth, and may cease to exist well before the death of the organism.  This thinking is rooted in the idea that the distinctive qualities of personhood require a level of maturity – that in order to become persons, we need to develop sophisticated abilities like self-awareness, which we do not possess from birth.  By the same idea, if a human being permanently loses those distinctive qualities of personhood, that loss marks the end of a person’s existence, although the organism may live on for some time.

In 1975, at age 21, Karen Ann Quinlan entered a coma.  As a result of brain damage caused by temporary respiratory failure, she never recovered consciousness.   She persisted in a vegetative state for several months with the aid of a respirator, and thereafter without the respirator, until she died of infection in 1985.  The autopsy showed moderate damage to her cerebral cortex and severe damage to her thalamus.  The brain stem, which controls autonomic functions like heartbeat and breathing, but which does not support consciousness, was undamaged.

When did Karen Ann Quinlan die?  Someone who thinks characteristically human abilities are essential to being a person would say her life ended in 1975.  She was never conscious after that time.  Although unconsciousness is not death – most of us lose consciousness every night – her case was different because she could not be roused; her brain damage was too severe to support consciousness.  Her body, on the other hand, lived for another ten years.

The idea that the lives of persons do not closely coincide with the biological lives of their bodies is not far-fetched, as these examples show.   Most people – notably excepting those who believe the Organism Theory of persons – hold some such view.

According to the Information Theory, when should we say our existence starts and ends?

The answer is not at all clear, for reasons stemming in part from a tension within the identity criteria of informational entities that can span spatio-temporal gaps and change over time.  We saw such tension at work in cases of evolving intellectual artifacts such as folk songs and dances, and to a lesser extent, recipes.   Depending on what is important to us when we discuss a folk song, we may wish to describe it as something with a long history of many changes, including branching and merging events, or we may prefer to talk about an entity that came into existence at the latest fork in its geneology.

The question when does a person begin and end requires us to confront the question what is important about persons.   And since persons are central topics of our conversation, and different aspects of persons are important for different conversational purposes, it seems unlikely that we will have an easy time settling on a key set of attributes which will answer the question of extents.

Consider Elliot’s case in “Forking”.   If a man were replicated, it would be important to distinguish between the two instances, and treat them in many ways like two persons.  If one of them signed a contract after splitting, we would hold him, and not the other, responsible for fulfilling it.  But if he signed the contract before the split, we could reasonably hold both post-split individuals responsible.  That is not to say we should expect the contract to be filled twice over.  The two post-split persons might settle the matter by agreeing between themselves which of them would fill it.  But until some such settlement were reached, we would have a legitimate claim against both.

This sort of situation would be legally awkward.   It is partly because of such difficulties that I do not expect society to condone human replication.  However, the example is revealing.

If the contract were signed after the split, we would want to treat these individuals as we normally treat two persons.  If it were signed before, we would want to treat them, with respect to the contract, as though they were one.  Both post-split individuals maintain the obligations of the pre-split person, in the same way that we all maintain obligations we made at earlier times.

The core claims of the Information Theory of persons do not determine the extents of persons, any more than the Information Theory of folk songs determines their extents.  Rather, they leave the question of extents somewhat open.

Is the question of extents one that needs to be settled?

That may depend on whether or not prudential concern is rationally justified.  Prudential concern is a primary motive of human action – perhaps more so than any other motive.  If prudential concern is grounded in a real relation that holds between different times in a person’s life, then we need to know whether or not that relation holds in any case about which we want to make a prudentially-motivated decision.   Traditionally, the idea of justification for prudential concern has been very closely tied to that of personal identity – so closely tied that most people have difficulty grasping the idea that I might be justified in having prudential concern for someone who is not identically myself, or that I might not be justified in having prudential concern for myself under some circumstances.

If both these statements are true:

Prudential concern is rationally justified


If any relation justifies prudential concern, it coincides with personal identity

then it is important to settle questions of when we begin and end.  I have argued for the second of these claims.  But the second is unimportant if the first is false.  Although I have given some reasons for thinking that the first is false (see posts on Evolution of the Self and The Phantom Self), I don’t think my case is rock solid yet.  The question whether there is a relation that justifies prudential concern is too big to settle in this post.

Among the remaining fundamental questions about persons as yet unanswered by the Information Theory are:

Is prudential concern rationally justified?

What unifying relations of persons – psychological continuity, physical similarity, or other relations – are most important, and why?

When do persons begin and end?

Rather than address these head-on right now, I would rather step back from philosophy and examine the Information Theory another way, by asking what our lives would be like if we believed it.   As we have seen, accepting the Information Theory would remove an obstacle to the adoption of information-based teleportation as a pleasanter and more environmentally sustainable means of transportation.  But transportation is just one practical application of human replication technology.  Another is life insurance – an improved life insurance which, instead of providing monetary compensation to a bereaved family, provides them with something much better – the restored life of the deceased.

Practical questions can often be answered more straightforwardly than abstract theoretical ones.  Suspending disbelief allows us to postpone some difficult theoretical questions and focus instead on practical aspects of life as seen from the viewpoint of the Information Theory. The practical question I would like to consider first is:

What is a Life, for Insurance Purposes?

If a salesman offered you an insurance policy on your spouse’s life, a policy which undertook, in the event of death, to restore him or her to you, alive and well, what questions would you want answered?

(I’m assuming you would want your spouse back.  Those who would prefer money would opt for the traditional form of life insurance.)

If I were in that position, I would want to know:

Will she remember the details of our life together, that she remembers now?

Will she feel the same way, emotionally, about me and our children?

Will she look and sound the same?  Will any of her friends or family notice a difference in outward appearance or behaviour?

Will she lose any competence or strength?  Is there any health risk?

Will she herself believe and feel that she is the same person who lived with me all those years, raised our children, wrote books and a raft of magazine articles, went kayak-camping in the summers with the family?  Will she identify with the woman who was terrified to paddle around the dangerously exposed Rafael Point on Flores Island, but who did it anyway, three times?

If the answers to the above questions were favourable, I would regard this new kind of life insurance as a vast improvement.  If the insurance were affordable – and my wife agreed – I would sign.

But as with most good things, there is a catch to this kind of insurance.  “She won’t remember everything,” the salesman admits.  “She’ll only remember up until the most recent backup.  But we offer monthly backups at no extra charge.  Our competitors only offer six-month backups; if you want more frequent, you pay extra.  With us, the most you’ll lose is thirty days, worst case.  She might end up forgetting a hair appointment or something.”

“What about her work?” I press him.  “She’s a journalist.  She could be in the middle of a story.  She could have interviewed a dozen people in that time.”

“Does she record the interviews?” the salesman asks.  I nod, and he shrugs.  “People think, ‘Oh my god, I could lose three weeks!’  But when it comes to it, they recover amazingly quickly.  We think a month is a good backup interval for most people.  Nobody ever complained that they lost a lot of work.  I mean, when you consider the alternative.”

Considering the alternative, I have to agree with him.  I try to imagine the pros and cons of the new life insurance in more detail…

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