[extropy-chat] The Importance of Context [Was: Probability of identity]

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Wed Oct 11 16:06:22 UTC 2006

Russell brings up an interesting twist on the old topic of personal identity, reviving discussion of the "patternist" and "threadist" interpretations.

Heartland (threadist) reminds us that what seems most significant to him is that the thread of identity appear to be unique and unbroken.

Lee (patternist) reminds us that he's thought this through most carefully and that it's obvious that a copy of a person is necessarily and absolutely the same person.

Jef offers strange and cryptic comments about agency and illusion which might make sense if anyone could understand what point he's trying to make.


It's all about context.

*	Without context there is no meaning; things simply are as they are. 

*	Context and meaning necessarily imply an observer.  There is no ultimate meaningful objective viewpoint.

*	Paradox is always a case of insufficient context.  In the bigger picture, all of the pieces must fit.

Alrighty then, so what?


Russell talks about paradox and asks how can predictions be made, given a context of infinite possibilities.  I respond (in rather terse and mystical fashion) that no absolute predictions can ever be made about the real world, because any system of prediction is operating within a limited context.  I offer reassurance by saying that there is no actual paradox because (as a matter of observation and faith) we exist in a rational universe and all the pieces must work together in a way that would make sense, if the observer system has context sufficient to model the observations of interest.

*	We can make highly confident statements about formally defined systems such as mathematics, but Gödel, Chaitan and others have shown us that even in mathematics the context is open and expanding. 

*	We can make useful but less confident statements about the behavior of engineered systems -- but we recognize that no matter how carefully and thoroughly we exercise our engineering knowledge, we can expect to be surprised and perplexed when they breakdown due to unmodeled interaction with the larger context of the environment.

*	We can make somewhat useful predictions about complex systems such a social interactions, but we are learning that rather than modeling the entire system of interest, we are able to exploit regularities in its behavior, while Hume's Problem of Induction looms in the distance, threatening a greater context within which the regularities no longer hold.

*	We can make useful predictions about the probabilities of quantum behavior, but as we look closer we find that the observer is an unavoidable element of the context of interest.

*	For many persons, the world is flat.  They are able to make predictions effectively within this context.  For persons with a greater context of geography, astronomy and so on, the world is certainly not flat, but space-time is flat - or isn't it?

*	We feel that we have free will, but we observe that everything appears to follow a cause and effect relationship.  Simply a matter of context.

My point is that every system of meaning is necessarily dependent on context and necessarily implies an observer.

I also make a related comment about what we mean by Self -- more on this later.


Lee often explains how a copy of a person must be considered the same person.  He points out that the copy is more similar to the original than the original was to its predecessor a day earlier. We have no difficulty maintaining personal identity through much greater differences over a lifetime, so why not acknowledge that an exact copy must be exactly the same person? He's quite right -- within the context of his argument. 

But what about within the context of social interaction?  Does it really make sense to consider each copy to be precisely the same person, or within a larger context does it make sense to make distinctions?  I brought up the issue of agency because it is fundamental to our concept of self.  Moral and legal responsibility, our concept of "free will" (another useful illusion), all rest on a workable concept of agency.

*	If your exact copy, who has been out mining asteroids for the last ten years, comes home, should he (moral/legal "should") be entitled to an equal share and control of your property?  [I could also mention spousal relations, but that carries a lot more extended ramifications than I have time for at this moment, so I won't mention it.]
*	If your copy is sued for gross negligence out on the asteroid (now you know why he came home), should you be equally liable?

And does it make sense that personal identity (in a practical/social context) be established by physical/functional similarity or might agency be more relevant?

*	If I spawn a temporary copy of myself for the purpose of increasing my working bandwidth for an urgent project, then it seems clear that there are two of me working on the project, common agency and physical/functional being unquestionable.

*	If I spawn a temporary copy of myself for the purpose of increasing my working bandwidth for an urgent project, but I make the copy different from me in certain obvious physical ways such as having bright green skin, then it seems clear that there are still two of me working on the project, with common agency and functional similarity being unquestionable and physical similarity being irrelevant.

*	If I spawn a temporary copy of myself for the purpose of increasing my working bandwidth for an urgent project, but I make the copy different from me in the certain obvious functional ways such as not needing sleep and not caring about entertainment, (bear in mind that I can change my functionality as well via drugs, surgery, prosthetics, etc., without my identity being questioned) then it seems clear that there are two of me working on the project, common agency being unquestionable and physical/functional similarity being irrelevant.

*	[I could continue with an example of a copy in a computerized virtual reality, but I fear I risk boring the reader.]


Heartland asserts that identity is established always and only by continuity of the physical trajectory of the matter which performs the mind function.  To most of us on this list, there appear many immediate and obvious exceptions and logical flaws with this reasoning, but despite much discussion, Heartland appears to continue to hold this sincere belief.  Even when it is suggested that he believes this to be true because he wants it to be true, he has always shown the capability for further discussion.  This is yet another example of system behavior within a specific context.


Time for me to get to work.

- Jef
<Who despite being hard to understand at times, is most certainly neither a mystic nor a postmodernist.>

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