Tag Archives: identity

Reasons for Persons

Suppose you are replicated on Mars, and the copy of you on Earth is killed ten minutes later. Most people feel like there is some definite answer to whether the Martian is they or someone else. Not an answer got from merely defining ‘me’ to exclude alien clones or not, but some real me-ness which persists or doesn’t, even if they don’t know which. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit argues that there is no such thing. Personal identity consists of physical facts such as how well I remember being a ten year old and how much my personality is similar to that girl’s. There is nothing more to say about whether we are the same person than things like this, plus pragmatic definitional judgements, such as that a label should only apply to one person at a given time. He claims that such continuity of memories and other psychological features is what matters to us, so as long as that continuity exists it shouldn’t matter whether we decide to call someone ‘me’ or ‘my clone’.

I agree with him for the most part. But he is claiming that most people are very wrong about something they are very familiar with. So the big question must be why everyone is so wrong, and why they feel so sure of it. I have had many a discussion where my conversational partner insists that if they were frozen and revived, or a perfect replica were made of them, or whatever, it would not be them. 

To be clear, what exactly is this fallacious notion of personal identity that people have?

  • - each human has one and only one, which lasts with them their entire life
  • - If you cease to have it you are dead, because you are it
  • - it doesn’t wax or wane, it can only be present or absent.
  • - it is undetectable (except arguably from the inside)
  • - two people can’t have the same one, even if they both split from the same previous person somehow.
  • - They are unique even if they have the same characteristics – if I were you and you were me, our identities would be the other way around from how they are, and that would be different from the present situation.

So basically, they are like unique labels for each human which label all parts of that human and distinguish it from all other humans. Except they are not labels, they are really there, characterising each creature as a particular person.

I suspect then the use of such a notion is a basic part of conducting social relationships. Suppose you want to have nuanced relationships, with things like reciprocation and threats and loyalty, with a large number of other monkeys. Then you should be interested in things like which monkey today is the one who remembers that you helped them yesterday, or which is the one who you have previously observed get angry easily.

This seems pretty obvious, but that’s because you are so well programmed to do it.There are actually a lot of more obvious surface characteristics you could pay attention to when categorising monkeys for the purpose of guessing how they will behave: where they are, whether they are smiling, eating, asleep. But these are pretty useless next to apparently insignificant details such as that they have large eyes and a hairier than average nose, which are important because they are signs of psychological continuity. So you have to learn to categorize monkeys, unlike other things, by tiny clues to some hidden continuity inside them. There is no need for us to think of ourselves as tracking anything complicated, like a complex arrangement of consistent behaviours that are useful to us, so we just think of what we care about in others as an invisible thing which is throughout a single person at all times and never in any other people.

The clues might differ over time. The clues that told you which monkey was Bruce ten years ago might be quite different from the ones that tell you that now. Yet you will do best to steadfastly believe in a continuing Bruceness inside all those creatures. Which is because even if he changes from an idealistic young monkey to a cynical old monkey, he still remembers that he is your friend, and all the nuances of your relationship, which is what you want keep track of. So you think of his identity as stretching through an entire life, and of not getting stronger or weaker according to his physical details.

One very simple heuristic for keeping track of these invisible things is that there is only ever one instantiation of each identity at a given time. If the monkey in the tree is Mavis, then the monkey on the ground isn’t. Even if they are identical twins, and you can’t tell them apart at all, the one you are friends with will behave differently to you than the one whose nuts you stole, so you’d better be sure to conceptualise them as different monkeys, even if they seem physically identical.

Parfit argues that what really matters – even if we don’t appreciate it because we are wrong about personal identity – is something like psychological or physical continuity. He favours psychological if I recall. However if the main point of this deeply held belief in personal identity is to keep track of relationships and behavioural patterns, that suggests that what really matters to us in that vicinity is more limited than psychological continuity. A lot of psychological continuity is irrelevant for tracking relationships. For instance if you change your tastes in food, or have a terrible memory for places, or change over many years from being reserved to being outgoing, people will not feel that you are losing who you are. However if you change your loyalties, or become unable to recognise your friends, or have fast unpredictable shifts in your behaviour I think people will.

Which is not to say I think you should care about these kinds of continuity when you decide whether an imperfect upload would still be you. I’m just hypothesising that these are the things that will make people feel like ‘what matters’ in personal identity has been maintained, should they stop thinking what matters is invisible temporal string. Of course what you should call yourself, for the purpose of caring disproportionately about it and protecting its life is a matter of choice, and I’m not sure any of these criteria is the best basis for it. Maybe you should just identify with everyone and avoid dying until the human race ends.

Person moments make sense of anthropics

Often people think that various forms of anthropic reasoning require you to change your beliefs in ways other than conditionalizing on evidence. This is false, at least in the cases I know of. I shall talk about Frank Arntzenius‘ paper Some Problems for Conditionalization and Reflection [gated] because it explains the issue well, though I believe his current views agree with mine.

He presents five thought experiments: Two Roads to Shangri La, The Prisoner, John Collins’s Prisoner, Sleeping Beauty and Duplication. In each of them, it seems the (arguably) correct answer violates van Fraassen’s reflection principle, which basically says that if you expect to believe something in the future without having been e.g. hit over the head between now and then, you should believe it now. For instance the thirder position in Sleeping Beauty seems to violate this principle because before the experiment Beauty believes there is a fifty percent chance of heads, and that when she wakes up she will think there is a thirty three percent chance. Arntzenius argued that these seemingly correct answers really are the correct ones, and claimed that they violate the reflection principle because credences can evolve in two ways other than by conditionalization.

First he said credences can shift, for instance through time. I know that tomorrow I will have a higher credence in it being Monday than I do today, and yet it would not be rational for me to increase my credence in it being Monday now on this basis. They can also ‘spread out’. For instance if you know you are in Fairfax today, and that tomorrow a perfect replica of your brain experiencing Fairfax will be made and placed in a vat in Canberra, tomorrow your credence will go from being concentrated in Fairfax to being spread between there and Canberra. This is despite no damage having been done to your own brain. As Arntzenius pointed out, such an evolution of credence looks like quite the opposite of conditionalization, since conditionalization consists of striking out possibilities that your information excludes – it never opens up new possibilities.

I agree that beliefs should evolve in these two ways. However they are both really conditionalization, just obscured. They make sense as conditionalization when you think of them as carried out by different momentary agents, based on the information they infer from their connections to other momentary agents with certain beliefs (e.g. an immediately past self).

Normal cases can be considered this way quite easily. Knowing that you are the momentary agent that followed a few seconds after an agent who knew a certain set of facts about the objective world, and who is (you assume) completely trustworthy, means you can simply update the same prior with those same facts and come to the same conclusion. That is, you don’t really have to do anything. You can treat a stream of moments as a single agent. This is what we usually do.

However sometimes being connected in a certain way to another agent does not make everything that is true for them true for you. Most obviously, if they are a past self and know it is 12 o clock, your connection via being their one second later self means you should exclude worlds where you are not at time 12:00:01. You have still learned from your known relationship to that agent and conditionalized, but you have not learned that what is true of them is true of you, because it isn’t. This is the first way Arntzenius mentioned that credences seem to evolve through time not by by conditionalization.

The second way occurs when one person-moment is at location X, and another person moment has a certain connection to the person at X, but there is more than one possible connection of that sort. For instance when two later people both remember being an earlier person because the earlier person was replicated in some futuristic fashion. Then while the earlier person moment could condition on their exact location, the later one must condition on being in one of several locations connected that way to the earlier person’s location, so their credence spreads over more possibilities than that of the earlier self. If you call one of these later momentary agents the same person as the earlier one, and say they are conditionalizing, it seems they are doing it wrong. But considered as three different momentary people learning from their connections they are just conditionalizing as usual.

What exactly the later momentary people should believe is a matter of debate, but I think that can be framed entirely as a question of what their state spaces and priors look like.

Momentary humans almost always pass lots of information from one to the next, chronologically along chains of memory through non-duplicated people, knowing their approximate distance from one another. So most of the time they can treat themselves as single units who just have to update on any information coming from outside, as I explained. But conditionalization is not specific to these particular biological constructions; and when it is applied to information gained through other connections between agents, the resulting time series of beliefs within one human will end up looking different to that in a chain with no unusual extra connections.

This view also suggests that having cognitive defects, such as memory loss, should not excuse anyone from having credences, as for instance Arntzenius argued it should in his paper Reflections on Sleeping Beauty: “in the face of forced irrational changes in one’s degrees of belief one might do best simply to jettison them altogether”. There is nothing special about credences derived from beliefs of a past agent you identify with. They are just another source of information. If the connection to other momentary agents is different to usual, for instance through forced memory loss, update on it as usual.

How to talk to yourself

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) airplane on Kiruna...

Image via Wikipedia

Mental module 2: Eeek! Don’t make me go on that airplane! We will surely die! No no no!

Mental module 1: There is less than one in a million chance we die if we get on that airplane, based on actual statistics from as far as you are concerned identical airplanes.

Mental module 2: No!! it’s a big metal box in the sky – that can’t work. Panic! Panic!

Mental module 1: If we didn’t have an incredible pile of data from other big metal boxes in the sky your argument would have non-negligible bearing on the situation.

Mental module 2: but what if it crashes??

Mental module 1: Our lives would be much nicer if you paid attention to probabilities as well as how you feel about outcomes.

Mental module 2: It will shudder and tip over and we will not know how to update our priors on that, and we will be terrified, briefly, before we die!

Mental module 1: If it shuddering and tipping over were actually good evidence the plane was going to crash, there would presently be an incredibly small chance of them occurring, so you need not worry.

Mental module 2: We could crash into the rocks!!! Rocks! In our face! at terminal velocity! And bits of airplane! Do you remember that movie where an airplane crashed? There were bits of burning people everywhere. And what about those pictures you saw on the news? It’s going to be terrible. Even if we survive we will probably be badly injured and in the middle of a jungle, like that girl on that documentary. And what if we get deep vein thrombosis? We might struggle half way out of the jungle on one leg only to get a pulmonary embolism and suddenly die with no hope of medical help, which probably wouldn’t help anyway.

Mental module 1: (realizing something) But Me 2, we identify with being rational, like clever people we respect. Thinking the plane is going to crash is not rational.

Mental module 2: Yeah, rationality! I am so rational. Rationality is the greatest thing, and we care about it infinitely much! Who cares if the plane is really going to crash – I sure won’t believe it will, because that’s not rational!

Mental module 1: (struggling to overcome normal urges) Yes, now you understand.

Mental module 2: and even when it’s falling from the sky I won’t be scared, because that would not be rational! And when we smash into the ground, we will die for rationality! Behold my rationality!

Mental module 1: (to herself and onlookers from non-fictional universes) It may seem reasonable to reason with yourself, but after years of attempting it – just because that’s what come’s naturally – I think doing so relies on a false assumption. Which is that other mental modules are like me somewhere deep down, and will eventually be moved by reasonable arguments, if only they get enough of them to overcome their inferior reasoning skills. Perhaps I have assumed this because I would like it to be true, or just because it is easiest to picture others as being like oneself.

In reality, the assumption is probably false. If part of your brain (or social network) doesn’t respond sensibly to information for the first week – or decade – of your acquaintance, you should be entertaining the possibility that they are completely insane. It is not obvious that well reasoned arguments are the best strategy for dealing with an insane creature, or for that matter with almost any object. Well reasoned arguments are probably not what you use with your ferret or your fire alarm.

Even if the mental module’s arguments are always only a bit flawed and can easily be corrected, resist the temptation to persist in correcting them if it isn’t working. An ongoing stream of slightly inaccurate arguments leading to the same conclusion is a sign that the arguments and the conclusion are causally connected in the wrong direction. In such cases, accuracy is futile.

Mental module 2 is a prime example, alas. She basically just expresses and reacts to emotions connected to whatever has her attention, and jumps to ‘implications’ through superficial associations. She doesn’t really do inference and probability is a foreign concept. The effective ways to cooperate with her then are to distract her with something prompting more convenient emotions, or to direct her attention toward different emotional responses connected to the present issue. Identifying with being rational is a useful trick because it provides a convenient alternative emotional imperative – to follow the directions of the more reasonable part of oneself – in any situation where the irrational mental module can picture a rationalist.

Mental module 2: Oh yes! I’m so rational I tricked myself into being rational!

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Population ethics and personal identity

Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting topped ...

Photo: Misocrazy

It seems most people think creating a life is a morally neutral thing to do while destroying one is terrible. This is apparently because prior to being alive and contingent on not being born, you can’t want to be alive, and nobody exists to accrue benefits or costs. For those who agree with these explanations, here’s a thought experiment.

The surprise cake thought experiment

You are sleeping dreamlessly. Your friends are eating a most delicious cake. They consider waking you and giving you a slice, before you all go back to sleep. They know you really like waking up in the night to eat delicious cakes with them and will have no trouble getting back to sleep. They are about to wake you when they realize that if they don’t give you the cake you you will be unconscious and thus unable to want to join them, or be helped or harmed. So they finish it themselves. When you awake the next day and are told how they almost wasted their cake on you, are you pleased they did not?

If not, one explanation is that you are a temporally extended creature who was awake and had preferences in the past, and that these things mean you currently have preferences. You still can’t accrue benefits or costs unless you get a bit more conscious, but it usually seems the concern is just whether there is an identity to whom the benefits and costs will apply. As an added benefit, this position would allow you to approve of resuscitating people who have collapsed.

To agree with this requires a notion of personal identity other than ‘collection of person-moments which I choose to define as me’, unless you would find the discretionary boundaries of such collections morally relevant enough to make murder into nothing at all. This kind of personal identity seems needed to make unconscious people who previously existed significantly different from those who have never existed.

It seems very unlikely to me that people have such identities. Nor do I see how it should matter if they did, but that’s another story. Perhaps those of you who think I should better defend my views on population ethics could tell me why I should change my mind on personal identity. These may or may not help.