[ExI] Next moment, everything around you will probably change

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Wed Jun 20 16:35:44 UTC 2007

On 6/19/07, Lee Corbin <lcorbin at rawbw.com> wrote:

> It looks to me as though
> you are saying here that there is no truth to the matter of
> personal identity.

I'm saying that the "truth" of personal identity is entirely
pragmatic, and this in no way diminishes its practicality or our
certainty of its usage.  Identity does not "exist", but rather, it is
assigned, as a result of a process of identification by an observer.

Identification is always in terms of  features meaningful to the
observer.  In the case of inanimate objects, perceived similarity in
physical/functional terms is meaningful, and perceived continuity can
be a useful heuristic.  In the case of persons, the most meaningful
feature, necessary in all cases of perceived personhood, is agency,
the capacity to act intentionally on behalf of some entity.

> Since your model seems peculiar to me, let me ask some
> questions.  My first question is inspired by relativity theory.
> Einstein debunked the notion of an absolute velocity. A
> critic might have challenged "So you are saying that there
> exists *some* so-called frame of reference from which
> an object would appear to have any particular pre-assigned
> velocity?"  and "This viewpoint, which say assigned a velocity
> near c to the Earth would be just as legitimate a point of view
> as any other?"  and Einstein would have replied "yes" to both.
> So, Jef, could there be some observer who saw me and George
> Washington as having the same personality, and this viewpoint
> would be just as legitimate as any other?

It's funny in a sad way when people are confronted with something that
appears mysterious so they try framing it in mysterious terms such as
quantum theory, probability theory, or relativity theory.

To respond to your extreme example, an observer with very little
knowledge of humans might see no difference between you and George
Washington.  Would that view be "legitimate"?  Hardly, at least in our
terms.  Better to ask whether it would be meaningful.

> > <snipping some more straw-man rhetoric>
> So very SORRY!

Thanks for your sincere apologies.

> > Lee, I've said many times that your
> > similarity view works just fine as a practical matter of everyday life
> > (and it even works for your duplication thought-experiments at t = 0.)
> What about at t = 0.0001 seconds?  What difference could one
> ten-thousandth of a second make?  (Please try to interpret this
> question charitably, as though I were not attempting to make a
> straw man of your position and as though I were not attempting
> to ridicule your position.  I mean the question quite sincerely.)

I said it works at t = 0. I didn't say it doesn't work at t = 0.0001
seconds.  This is another example of your straw-man argumentation. You
may mean it quite sincerely, but it's still a straw-man since it has
no weight.

The point here, and we've been around this loop before, is that you
say physical/functional similarity tends to diminish with time and
that beyond some point one is no longer the same person, but your
theory of similarity-based personal identity doesn't say anything
about how much similarity or how it diminishes. Your theory is
incomplete, it only accounts for a special case.

> >> [In the case of the near-identical duplicates in conflict] You suggest that
> >> it would be inappropriate to [say] that they're still the same
> >> person.  Well, if personality tests and people who knew them
> >> affirmed that they were still the same person, I would simply
> >> conclude that the two instances of that person were not
> >> capable of seeing this truth (or chose to deny it), and were
> >> not capable of acting on this truth.

Here you're simply affirming your own conclusion.

> > Like another person on this list, one who is fixated on proving the
> > vital importance of a continuous physical trajectory to matters of
> > personal identity, you appear to be fixated on the importance of
> > similarity,
> That's probably true!   I go with similarity on many, many other
> things.  Leibniz even elevated to a principle "Identity of Indiscernables"
> in a somewhat related context.  Hot days are like other hot days,
> dependent on similarity of structure (along one dimension). Two
> rabbits are considered to be of the same species not because their
> DNA is exactly equivalent, but because of close similarity.  In such
> ways we categorize almost *everything*, so similarity is pretty
> universal and powerful (judging by the success of Darwinian creatures
> who employ it, e.g., a gazelle that lumps all lions into a single deadly
> category).

Similarity is not the problem.  The point is that with regard to
personal identity, similarity in terms of agency is more coherent and
extensible than similarity in physical/function terms.

> > I'm not denying the essence of your view, as I said, it works as a
> > special case, which happens to be the most common case today.
> Hmm.  Okay, so what is an example of where it doesn't work?

I already gave you the example of the two near-identical duplicates in conflict.

> Is there a concrete A/B decision scenario in which my criterion
> doesn't seem to you to give the correct answer?  Or at least
> gives a different answer than you'd act on?  The best scenarios,
> incidentally, are those that ask a "what would you choose" type
> of question.
> > I offered you a simple scenario showing an internal contradiction
> > resulting from your view, and you have yet to respond directly,
> Was that the one where I was a greedy bastard?  (No offense
> taken---I'm just not sure what scenario you are referring to.)

Yes, as in the following exchange which you deleted without comment.
>>> In your scenario you consider some very selfish person who
>>> forks and then is at odds with his other self.
>> Yes, I suggested a very selfish person to make the thought-experiment
>> easier for you, but any degree of selfishness will tend to put
>> duplicates at odds with one another as they interact from within
>> increasingly disparate contexts.

> If you would be so kind as to cut and paste it, and ask for a
> "yes", "no", "right", "wrong", be assured that I will directly
> answer.  Please accept that my dodging of the issue was
> unintentional, and not due to any personality defect.   I hate
> it when people won't answer directly, and I will be very
> happy to opine in a completely unambiguous way!

Okay, once again:

As a corollary, a physical instantiation could be extremely similar to
Lee, even more similar than, say, Lee of one year ago, but be
considered by anyone, including Lee, to be for **all* practical
purposes a different person.  As an example, imagine that Lee is by
nature a greedy bastard (this is so patently false, I hope, as to be
inoffensive.) Lee makes a perfect duplicate of himself to go off and
work at programming so Lee (original) can spend his time playing
chess.  At this point they are each Lee by virtue of each being a full
agent of the abstract entity we all know as Lee.  But software
engineering can be a hellish life, and eventually the duplicate, being
a bit unstable and a greedy bastard to boot, realizes that he could
empty the common bank account (belonging to Lee-the entity, rather
than to either Lee-the-agent) and assume a life of leisure.  If Lee
(the original) gives him any trouble, he can simply kill him and take
his place.  Of course Lee (the original) is inclined to similar
thoughts with regard to his duplicate.  We can easily see here that
despite extremely high similarity, for all practical
moral/social/legal purposes, anyone (including the duplicates
themselves) would see these as two separate individuals.

The point here is to show that despite extreme similarity, a pair of
duplicates can easily fall into conflict with each other. This
conflict can be over property, relationships, legal responsibility; in
essence these are conflicts over rightful identity -- a paradox if, as
you claim, they are necessarily the same identity due to their
physical/functional similarity.

Or maybe simpler for you, consider the two duplicates, each with
identical intent to prevent the existence of the other. If, as you
say, physical/functional similarity determines personal identity, then
do you see the paradox entailed in a person trying to destroy himself
so he can enjoy being himself?

Or back to the biological organism manifesting Disassociative Identity
Disorder.  I said this supported my point, and you said "thanks"
without further comment.  In such a case we can agree that the
physical/functional similarity is total since it's only a single
organism, but we also agree that that any observer (including the
observers manifested by that particular organism) will see different
persons to the extent that they are perceived to act on behalf of
different entities.

Personal identity is about agency.  Physical/functional similarity is
only a special case.

- Jef

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