Memory and Identity

Note: I wrote this Friday, but didn’t get a chance to post it until today….

Stephen Den Beste has posted a discussion today inspired by one of my all-time favorite movies: Ghost in the Shell, (a movie which, in fact, I suggested he watch, in an email back when he started posting about anime). The movie is a Japanese anime which in a nutshell best fits in the “cyberpunk” category, except that the movie is truly not that easy to “nutshell”. It’s an extremely philosophical film; it asks questions that are not easy to answer, relating to personal identity, and the eternal question Who am I?.

Steven is what he describes as a mechanistic atheist, and this being the foundation for his belief and outlook is probably one of the reasons I enjoy his writing so much. I pretty precisely match his religious/philosophical outlook (e.g. I too am a mechanistic atheist as defined by him), and his experience as an engineer sometimes gives him a conceptual vocabulary with which he can express concepts that I understand instinctually, but cannot articulate in words. This similarity will be important in a moment, as I intend to use his discussion of his own belief as a springboard for my own. As I saw the movie almost 10 years before he did, (and having seen and read Frankenstein long before that), I’ve probably spent a bit more time thinking about these things than he has. 🙂

In discussing some of the issues raised by the film, he hashes over some pretty obvious statements regarding the physical body, such as the idea that my getting a haircut does not remove anything that is inherently “me”, and moves through the gamut of losing a limb, and a Frankensteinesqe idea of swapping someone’s brain into another body and asking who that is. He writes:

What am I? As a mechanistic atheist, the only answer I’ve ever really ever had was that I am the computational properties of the higher functions of my brain and the memories and data which my brain has stored and uses in the process of thought. I am more than my memories, because a different brain which might be more powerful, or less powerful, or powerful in different ways, would use those memories differently and the result would not be the same. But at the same time, I am more than just the computational unit, because that unit with different memories would behave differently.[…]

Unfortunately, it also opens new uncomfortable questions. For instance, what if I were insane, or mentally disturbed? If I could be cured, would I still be the same person? There might be continuity of memory from before the cure, but would it be a new person accessing the memories of the previous occupant of the body, a previous person who no longer exists?

Doesn’t that happen anyway to us all? I am not the same at age 50 as I was at age 20. Am I really the same person, or am I someone different? If I’m not him, when did he go away? When did I appear? Were there any others?[…]

If I am my memories and the computational properties of my particular brain as it processes those memories, then if my memory is changed, at what point do I become another person? Or no person at all? How much change does it take?

If I suffer amnesia, did I die?

I agree with his premise, but I would like to try to answer his questions in a manner that is a bit more definitive than any response he gives. In brief: “I” am the culmination of my particular contiguous consciousness over the course of my life.

Ten minutes ago I was the culmination of that consciousness over the course of my life until ten minutes ago. Is that any different? Of course it is, though most likely that change is subtle. Over the course of years we generally change quite a bit, simply by the flood of tiny changes that happen to us over time — like micrometeors wearing away the surface of the moon. Major changes can happen quickly, as well. If something major happened in the last ten minutes, for example, if I’ve gotten in a car accident and killed someone, that would change me significantly. The key is this: though I am changed, I am still the culmination of my experiences and my consciousness.

The “contiguous” in this definition is important. In this type of discussion there is often posited the idea that your memories and so forth are copied to an incredibly advanced computer at the same time that you are killed. Is the computer now “you”? My answer is clearly “no”, because the consciousness in your original body ended and the copy started up separately. This always seemed to be a false question of sorts, because the death of the original person is an arbitrary complication that blurs what otherwise seems like an obvious question.

There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which a character is phobic of the transporters that are obiquitous throughout the Federation, because he thinks that you die when your atoms are dispersed and a new person with all your thoughts and memories and an identical body springs into being when the atoms are reassembled at the destination. Is he correct? If the consciousness ends at dispersion, then yes, he is; and we have over the years unwittingly witnessed a countless succession of murders on network TV. (Of course, we have anyway; just not on that particular show.) If they existed, I too would probably avoid matter teleporters. This concept is wonderfully illustrated in the short story Think Like a Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelley (also available here as an ebook.

He begs the question of amnesia. The issue with amnesia is that even without conscious memory of the past, an amnesiac usually retains unconscious memories. The general personality doesn’t change, usually, (any psychiatrists and the like please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!); which suggests to me that there is still a tenuous link to the consciousness of the past — there is, again, continuity. Did the person die? Almost, but not quite. There is something of the past there. That of course may be cold comfort to those who love the person he was, or offer hope of a recovery. There are also cases when personality changes radically, which suggests a total break from the earlier identity. In such a case, the old person is dead.

Though his heart stopped beating only a few days ago, Ronald Reagan, tragically, died years ago.

There is also the question of insanity, and there the issue becomes a bit more complicated. As I discussed a moment ago, we (obviously) do change over time. The insane person is still the culmination of past experiences — the insanity does not exist in a vacuum. Insanity is an illness, but short of completely wiping out all memories, it is the same person, but he is changed. If there is a recovery later, the then sane person will carry memories of the insanity, and that experience will affect who he is afterward.

As a bit of a side note, this definition really applies to the “identity” of physical objects as well. Is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper the same painting it was a week after he painted it? Yes, even though today it is significantly more worn. If I take a photograph of it and make a full-size print of it, that is not the original because of lack of continuity.

There are clearly situations wherein a person can change so completely that he is no longer recognizable. (“You’re just not the man I married!”, while not literally true, has a genuine meaning.) That does not change their identity, in my view. They are the same person, but that person has changed over time.

That’s about all I have for now. This is obviously not the be-all and end-all of discussion on the subject, but I think the concept serves the purpose well. Steven’s article asks a lot more than I have attempted to answer, but with complex conundrums, the answers (if there are any) are usually built up by examining small parts and using those examinations as blocks to form the structure of a greater model. Hopefully someone else (or I down the road) will find it useful and build from it.

Update: SDB sent me the following via email in response:

Your concentration on physical continuity has other problems associated with it. I’ve gotten (and answered) so many letters about this that I’m getting a bit weary, and I also have to go out and so some errands, so I’m afraid this will have to be a bit short.

In “Ghost in the Shell”, one of the technologies was cyber-replacements for sections of the brain. Even the guy who was “still human” had some of that.

If a part of the brain is replaced by a cybernetic equivalent, is that a break in continuity?

If eventually the entire thing is replaced, but incrementally, one small piece at a time, is there any discontinuity? (Presuming information copyover on each replacement step)

If the rest of the body is also then replace, one piece at a time, with mechanical replacements, was there any discontinuity?

At the end you have a creature which is entirely fabricated. Every bit of it came from a factory. Yet it has the memories of a biological being, and has exactly the continuity of identity you describe.

Is it the same individual? Does it really make sense to say that?

My immediate impulse is to say, “Yes, it’s the same person.” I may have to think about it further and comment in a later post.

2 Responses to “Memory and Identity”

  1. basie Says:

    I wonder when one’s identity starts. That is before been born. At what point are there enough neurons in a fetus to say it has an identity.

  2. Stephen Rider Says:

    Well, you could argue that identity starts when the physical distinction begins, which is pretty early, or later, when brain function begins. Either way, I believe brain function begins pretty early — a few weeks into the pregnancy. The fetus at that very early point is mentally the equivalent of a catatonic, but progresses from there. Dare I say, it’s all a case of where you draw the line.

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