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…