Reflections on my Williams College 20th Reunion

While bouncing up and down to ‘Come on Eileen’, these words inexplicably popped into my head:

What we have been is past. What we shall be through Christ  awaits.

Not exactly a typical thought to have during my 20th college reunion – especially with Dexys Midnight Runners blasting in the background. Yet these words – which I have heard at church – haunted me all night.  Why would I think about abandoning my past at the very moment when I was (rather pleasantly) reconnecting to it?

It didn’t take long to figure out the answer. The fact is that as much fun as I was having at my reunion, I actually feel very disconnected from my past self. This is in part due to my weak long-term memory, which has left me with only sketchy fragments from my youth. But it is even more because the many twists and turns of my life over the last 20 years have made me a different (and hopefully better) person. What I have been is indeed very much past. So the question becomes – is that past self still me?  What is the connection between who I am now and who I was in 1991?

Interestingly, the answer to that question can vary considerably depending on whether or not you possess some form of faith. For most people of faith, there is a clear and obvious thread that ties together the random points in a person’s life. That thread is what we would typically call ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. One’s soul can change (which is the point of the words above), but it is a continuous reality throughout a person’s life (and in the views of many, beyond that life). In contrast, a core tenet of atheism is that no such ‘further fact’ exists (to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Derek Parfit).  In this Reductionist worldview, a person’s existence must ultimately be reduced to its material basis: the body, the brain and the stream of consciousness generated by these two material entities. If I were a reductionist, I would have to say that the only connection between myself and the Louise Price who went to Williams College is that there is some degree of physical and psychological continuity between that person and who I am today.

In his magnum opus Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit not only argues for the Reductionist viewpoint, but proposes that the ‘self’ we take for granted is in fact an illusion. In a brilliant logical process, he demonstrates that in a variety of scenarios we can’t easily define the boundaries between our own identity and that of another person (for a helpful summary of these different scenarios, check out this blog post).  One of my favorite scenarios is when Parfit explores what would happen if he could undergo an operation that would allow him to transform into Greta Garbo – both physically and mentally. As in a number of other cases, he uses a slippery slope technique to challenge our conceptions of identity. In the first version of the operation, he has inherited only a small number of Garbo’s brain cells and physical characteristics, while in the final version Parfit has been completely transformed into Greta Garbo, including receiving a complete download of all aspects of her memory and consciousness.  Parfit argues that in this final form, it would be very hard to argue that he is still himself.

While this particular scenario is still well beyond the realm of possibility, phenomena such as the Hogan twins, or the remarkable advances described in this article about the Singularity, make us realize how rapidly science is progressing in these areas. Even just consider a person who has gone through a full sex change. Does someone who no longer has the same name, looks completely different and has changed genders, still qualify as the same person? I think a Reductionist might have to say no.

Here’s the thing: I would say yes.  I would also say that Parfit, even after he looked and thought exactly like Greta Garbo, would still be Parfit. The reason why I think this way is actually provided by Parfit himself. In the last section of his book, he introduces the “The Time Dependence Claim”:

If any particular person had not been conceived when he was in fact conceived, it is in fact true that he would never have existed.

The core of this claim rests on the fact that human life is created from the joining of one out of millions of sperm with one ovum. If conception occurs at a point in time A, it would occur with one sperm. If it occurs at point in time B, it would occur with a different sperm. The difference in sperm would lead to slightly different genetic composition, thus the person created, genetically speaking, would not be identical in these two instances.

It seems to me that with this point, Parfit has raised a greater point that undermines Reductionism. Although in the Time Dependence Claim Parfit only focuses on the genetic implications of the timing of our conception, the real issue he has raised is that our identity is dependent on Time. If we take that thinking a little further, we realize a more basic point: our entire lives occur within a unique strand of space and time – a strand that only we occupy. Even if it were possible to transfer my entire identity (physical and psychological) to some other being, that other being would not be me – because it/she would not be the one who had occupied the space and time of my life in the past.  And, to answer the question Parfit continuously asks: this matters. This matters a lot in fact, because as I’ve lived through these moments in space and time, I have interacted/befriended/hurt or otherwise touched probably millions of people. All those people have had a moment (or more) of connection with me and only me. The core of my continuity is not my tenuous memories and consciousness, but the complex network of relationships I have built and continue to maintain to varying degrees.

This is not to say that I am completely dependent on others to define my identity. Rather – that what makes me uniquely me is not just the neurologically based stream of consciousness that occurs in my own brain, but the immaterial ties of my connections to others over time. The truth of my existence lies in my relationship to others.

Interestingly, at least two movies I am aware of explore this very issue: ‘Moon’ (brilliantly) and ‘AI’ (cheesily)  both deal with the dynamic of human relationships in a future where people can be cloned (bottom line: being a clone is lonely).

So I guess the answer to what connects me to my past self is the same thing that motivated me to come back to reunion in the first place: my friends.  Or as Parfit puts it: “What we value are the various relations between ourselves and others, whom and what we love, our ambitions, achievements, commitments, emotions, memories and several other psychological features.”

Indeed.  Can’t wait for my 25th…

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5 Responses to Reflections on my Williams College 20th Reunion

  1. Congratulations on coming to grips with the ideas of Derek Parfit. Raising these questions and trying to get clear about them is valuable.

    I don’t agree that a reductionist is required to say that a person who had undergone a sex change and a name change, and embraced a completely new way of life, was not the same person. Even with all those changes, there can be a high degree of psychological continuity from each day to the next, and even–through the persistence of memory–a reasonably high level of connectedness throughout the entire period. Connectedness is strengthened by persistence of goals, and, as you stress, by persistence of relationships. A reductionist may attach high importance to relationships between people, as “something that matters in survival.”

    Parfit’s question can also be asked this way: am I a substance or a collection of attributes? His teleportation thought experiment puts the question in sharp focus. Suppose a new ‘transportation’ method is invented which works like this: you are scanned at place A, and your information is sent over the internet to place B, where it is used to construct an extremely good copy of you (as like you as you are from one minute to the next). When the copy is complete, the original in place A is (painlessly) destroyed. The copy, of course, thinks she is you, and will pick up your life–including your relationships. How should you feel about this, when you are deciding whether to get into the scanner at place A? If you think you are a substance, you will refuse to do it, because you will regard the procedure as your own death, and replacement by somebody else. If you think you are attributes, you have no reason to hesitate, because all your attributes that matter will be preserved. As will your relations to others.

    Before rejecting teleportation lightly, think about the benefits of the technology: it’s quick, and doesn’t require going through security lineups. The technology, when it’s developed, will lend itself to even more valuable applications, including life insurance that actually gives you your life back if you’re killed. You will get scanned every few months, and your information will be kept on file. If you get run over by a truck, or murdered by a home invader, you can be reconstructed from your backup. You would lose memories of the time between your last backup and your death, but that’s a small price to pay, compared to the alternative.

  2. seeingfaith says:

    Dear Gordon,

    Thank you so much for reading this post and your helpful reply (and my apologies for my delayed reply – the end of the school year is a hectic time!). I agree that the sex change example is not a good one for the reason you cited – the example would only work (perhaps) if the person also suffered from complete amnesia! Your teleportation example and case (well, actually Parfit’s example and case) is indeed really interesting. I will fully acknowledge that I haven’t worked his all out yet, but I think I would say that no, the teleported copy is not me, it is a copy of me. It might be a really lovely copy, and in many scenarios such as those you listed it might be much better than nothing, but I am not convinced that it is the same thing as me. However, the reason I feel that it is not me is actually not an explicitly religious one, despite the fact that I am religious. Rather, I am interested in whether the fact of our existence in a specific stream of space and time, and the relationships that are developed during that stream, themselves constitute a certain reality that can’t be replicated, because it is dependent on time and we can’t ‘redo’ or go back in time. So, a teleported copy of me might remember all of my past memories and relationships, but that copy would not be the actual being who had those relationships and had been present at those times. I think that difference would matter – to the people with whom I’d had the past relationships. I just try to imagine how my husband would feel if he suddenly was living with a teleported copy of me rather than me. I think it might make him uncomfortable. What do you think? Are you aware of anyone who has made similar arguments (I’m guessing that someone has already articulated this better than I am and it would be interesting to read)?

  3. seeingfaith says:

    Oh – and just to directly answer your question – I suppose that this means that I do consider my identity a ‘substance’ not a collection of attributes. However, the substance that I am describing is not the conventional Cartesian, dualistic conception of a soul that is totally independent from the body. Rather, I am wondering whether what makes this substance real is the context in which it exists….

  4. Dear Louise,
    You think you would say no, the teleported copy is not you, it is a copy of you. My response is, yes, it is a copy of you, but do you have a reason for thinking there is any important difference between yourself and a copy?
    One helpful analogy when thinking about this question–only an analogy, but for me it was an illuminating one–is that of books. In my personal library are two copies of The Inheritors, by William Golding (an underappreciated novel which I recommend, about what it could have been like to be a Neanderthal about to be displaced by modern human beings). They are copies of the same book. We have a concept of a book as intellectual work, and we have a different concept of a book as a printed volume. The fact that we use the word “book” for both types of entities has some potential for confusion, but only a little; we don’t have much difficulty distinguishing between these two types of entities: the physical book, and the intellectual work. Of the two physical books in my library, one is more dogeared than the other; they are not identical. But they are both copies, or instances, of the same book, which Golding published in 1955, 24 years before the paperback volumes which I own were printed.
    If I burn one of my copies of the The Inheritors (which, don’t worry, I won’t do), it is destroyed. But Golding’s novel is not destroyed, because other copies exist. My question about substance and attributes can be rendered this way: are you–the person–more like a printed volume, or the intellectual work it embodies?
    By the way, although I’m a pretty confirmed atheist, I enjoy your blog. Your voice is honest.

  5. seeingfaith says:

    Dear Gordon,

    Thanks for your helpful comments. The book analogy is great (maybe it’s because I love books so much!). Definitely gives me a lot to think about. And I’m glad you like the blog – I’ve had fun reading yours too. The recent story you’ve been working on is fascinating!

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