Philosophy in 3 Minutes

Just ran across these little gems on YouTube — overviews of important philosophers done in three minutes, with excellently bad animation!

Here’s one on Aristotle that’s good (although it’s almost four minutes long, tsk tsk):

And one on Locke:

And a good one on Kant’s ethics:

SHRDLU on Film

The glory days of Artificial Intelligence — those heady days when researchers thought genuine intelligence and perhaps even consciousness would transcend the bonds of human brains and sit comfortably on computer hardware — well, it was a fun time to be alive. And check out this gem:

http://www.csail.mit.edu/videoarchive/history/aifilms

An awesome historical collection of AI videos housed at MIT.

This one’s my favorite:

 

A silent, grainy, low-res film of Terry Winograd’s awesome SHRDLU in action. For those of you youngsters out there, SHRDLU was really quite a remarkable achievement in computer programming. And the fact that Winograd’s first release of the software was in 1968 makes it all the more remarkable. The idea was to create a program that could parse real English sentences and respond intelligently to them. Winograd realized that he couldn’t tackle the problem in an unlimited domain (that is, his program wasn’t going to be able to talk about everything a human might be able to), so he limited the program’s world to a virtual table top with some blocks on it, and a virtual robotic arm that could pick up and move those blocks. Within this tiny domain, SHRDLU was really very impressive. Frankly, I’m still impressed by the program today, even though it’s more than 40 years old.

Here’s a sample excerpt from a human-SHRDLU interaction:

Person: WHAT DID THE RED CUBE SUPPORT BEFORE YOU STARTED TO CLEAN IT OFF?
Computer: THE GREEN PYRAMID.
Person: THERE WERE FIVE BLOCKS TO THE LEFT OF THE BOX THEN.
Computer: NO, ONLY FOUR OF THEM: THE RED CUBE, TWO LARGE GREEN CUBES AND A LARGE RED BLOCK.
Person: PUT THE BLUE PYRAMID ON THE BLOCK IN THE BOX.
Computer: OK. (does it)
Person: IS THERE ANYTHING WHICH IS BIGGER THAN EVERY PYRAMID BUT IS NOT AS WIDE AS THE THING THAT SUPPORTS IT?
Computer: YES, THE BLUE BLOCK.
Person: DOES A STEEPLE
Computer interrupting: SORRY, I DON’T KNOW THE WORD “STEEPLE”.
Person: A “STEEPLE” IS A STACK WHICH CONTAINS TWO GREEN CUBES AND A PYRAMID.
Computer: I UNDERSTAND.
Person: ARE THERE ANY STEEPLES NOW?
Computer: NO.
Person: BUILD ONE.
Computer: OK. (does it)
Person: CALL THE BIGGEST BLOCK “SUPERBLOCK”.
Computer: OK.
Person: HAVE YOU PICKED SUPERBLOCK UP SINCE WE BEGAN?
Computer: YES.
Person: WHY DID YOU DROP IT?
Computer: BY “IT”, I ASSUME YOU MEAN THE SUPERBLOCK.

Really impressive language processing.

AI researchers (and philosophers) at the time were a little too impressed with SHRDLU, and thought that genuinely intelligent computers were surely close at hand. In fact, Winograd himself, after wrestling for years with SHRDLU and computational language processing, came to the conclusion that AI researchers were generally far too optimistic about their achievements, at least as regarded the actual supposed intelligence of their creations. Winograd wrote:

“Most current computational models of cognition are vastly underconstrained and ad hoc; they are contrivances assembled to mimic arbitrary pieces of behavior, with insufficient concern for explicating the principles in virtue of which such behavior is exhibited and with little regard for a precise understanding.” [Winograd, 1987]

This was a cold shower for a lot of optimistic AI researchers, and a bolster to philosophers who opposed functionalism. But this is a topic for another post.

Happy AI film viewing!

Quandary Corner: Baby Hitler

Quandary Corner: In this new topic section, Alec and I will each discuss a particular ethical quandary and how we would deal with it, based on whatever ethical theory we take to be applicable at that time or in that situation. Will there be consistency across quandaries? Hahahahahahaha! Good question.

Today’s ethical quandary is an oldie but a goodie: A scientist has created a time machine that can take you back in time to when Adolf Hitler was a baby (let’s say at five months old). You will be sent to his nursery at a time that baby Hitler is alone. The nature of the time machine is such that you are only there for a maximum of two minutes. You cannot bring baby Hitler back to the future with you. You can, however, kill him. Ignoring the question of whether it is possible to change the past or not, should you kill Hitler when he was a baby or not?


Alec

My students, following my example, don’t take long before offering up “Hitler and the Nazis” whenever I ask for an example of great moral evil. Indeed, if there were a prohibition on mentioning Hitler, I’m not quite sure what I’d do, pedagogically. I suppose I’d have to resort to fictional super-villains. (Maybe I should anyway. It’s not as depressing to talk about Lex Luther.)

So, faced with the opportunity to wipe out the source of perhaps the greatest evil perpetrated in the last couple of centuries, what would I do?

Utilitarianism

My initial thought is: Of course I would kill baby Hitler. But there are some mitigating ideas that cross my mind soon after.

For one thing, Hitler was not alone in carrying out the Holocaust, and perhaps it would have happened regardless of his existence. It could well be that social forces were pointing Germany in that direction, and that another figurehead would’ve stepped into Hitler’s place, if Hitler hadn’t been available. If we’ve learned anything from time travel movies it’s that the whole thing is very unpredictable. But let’s put this worry aside for the time being, and address my feeling that the baby Hitler should be killed.

I imagine that this is the popular intuition here. But what is the basis for this intuition? Well, I can see two probable bases: utilitarianism, and righteous vengeance.

Utilitarianism is the philosophical stance that ethical decisions should be made strictly on the basis of weighing the possible good and bad outcomes of your actions. Famously, utilitarianism says that, other things being equal, ten lives are more valuable than one life, and so an action that kills one person in order to save ten is ethically justified. (We’ll save the finer points of this theory for another post. Utilitarianism is not, as you might imagine, free from problems.) Well, if you can save ten lives by killing one, just imagine the scenario where you can save millions by killing one. That’s the scenario we’ve been tasked to analyze here. By killing the baby Hitler, we are ostensibly saving millions of lives that will eventually die at his command.

Virtue Ethics

Another thing that makes me pause, when thinking about killing baby Hitler, is that I’m tremendously squeamish about death, and the idea of killing a baby (even an evil one) makes me blanch.

Gregory Peck, confronting a moral dilemma.

Gregory Peck, confronting a moral dilemma.

Now, psychological squeamishness, one could argue, has no place in ethics. If something is the right thing to do, and I don’t want to do it, I’m just wrong about that, despite whatever my superego is telling me.

But there is an aspect of this squeamishness that is actually philosophically relevant, and it revolves around the issue of virtue. Most theories of ethics are action-based. Utilitarianism, for instance, is supposed to tell you what to do in any given situation. Virtue ethics (Aristotle is most often credited as its founder) is based more on the idea of developing a good character — the idea is that if you are a generally virtuous person, you’ll generally make the right decisions when faced with moral dilemmas.

Well, it is reasonable to argue that it’s the sign of a virtuous character to be squeamish about killing a baby. And so perhaps killing the baby Hitler is the wrong thing to do, if we are to take virtue ethics seriously. Of course, it’s also the sign of a virtuous character to save millions of lives if you can, and so virtue ethics sends us mixed signals on this one.

The Right Thing To Do

In the end, I think that killing the baby Hitler is the right thing to do. And if you try to justify sparing his life, on the basis of virtuous squeamishness, you’re probably displaying the unvirtuous trait of cowardice.

There are some philosophers who argue that utilitarianism goes wrong in cases of human death, because it’s just wrong (and impossible) to weigh a life. But I say there’s something wrong with a theory of ethics that tells us we can’t weigh one life against millions.


Jim

Alec makes some good points in his write-up of the issue. I think that baby Hitler should also be killed, but I am not sure that it is for the same reasons. Let’s see.

What should we do if we have the chance to save a life, and we can do so at little to no peril to our own life? We should save the life. Few people would argue that point. Well, I might argue that point. I am not entirely convinced that life, least of all human life, is always worth saving, and that is not even based on the character or worth of the (human) life. That is a matter for another post though, perhaps. Here, I am content to go with the status quo and agree that life should be preserved.

If you see a person about to cross the street, but he does not see an oncoming car, you should alert the person to the danger, grabbing him if necessary (and, again, if it does not immediately imperil your own life). Should we save life if the only way that is available to us is to end the life of another? Whew. Good question. Do we have time left for this? We do? Dammit.

Superbad

Hitler was a bad, bad, superbad, person. If anyone ever deserved to die, it was Hitler. Perhaps, as Alec suggested above, Hitler was not the sole person responsible for all the evil attributed to his movement, but he was close enough to the sole person. Would most of it still have happened had Hitler not have been? While that is an interesting question, I don’t see that it matters much here. Baby Hitler is, as a baby (philosopher-speak: qua baby), is not evil, has not committed evil, and does not, in any modern understanding, exhibit evil tendencies or character. We are going to kill baby Hitler for what adult Hitler will bring about.

This is an interesting sense of justice: we are trying to balance a wrong that has yet to happen, but will certainly happen. The ‘balancing’ act however, is such that it will ensure the evil never occur. If that is so, then our act is unjust. If we do not do this act though, then great evil will result and that seems to make not committing the act unjust as well. There is a true dilemma here, and each horn is going to do whatever you think would make for the least possible cliche here.

This is not a true dilemma of the ordinary sort as we know what will happen if we do not act. We are 100% positive (Mel Gibson’s father aside) about what will occur if Hitler is not killed as a baby. Hence, I suggest that all the time travel does for this scenario is modify our verbs in a way that bothers us. In a justice sense, baby Hitler has to die for what we know adult Hitler will do.

Squeamishness, Utility, and the Right Thing

As for the squeamish factor that Alec notes above, I think I agree, but only as an interesting artifact. Can we trust squeamishness as a guide to morality? No, but nor does Alec think so. It is a suggestion or a clue at best.

Would I feel squeamish about killing baby Hitler? I would like to say no, because of the greater good I would be serving, but that would be a lie. I would be a little squeamish; he is a baby after all. Were I to look at his little mustache and think for even a moment about the evil commands that would march out, albeit much later, from beneath it, however, I would full on vomit with squeamishness were I not to kill him.

Lives will certainly be saved by killing baby Hitler and an enormous evil will be excised from the world. Will some other evil fill that void? More than likely, as the world seemingly sucks. Will that substitute evil be more evil than Hitler? Who can say? Baby Hitler should be killed because more lives will be saved, including infant lives, than will be lost by the singular act of killing baby Hitler, and this we can be remarkably certain of given our futuristic knowledge.

And if it turns out we were wrong, surely we would appear to ourselves in the past to stop us before it is too late. Right?

Philosophy in the Movies: Dr. Orlof

This is a new feature here at We Love Philosophy where Alec and I will look at some piece of film or literature or whatever, a piece that few if any would consider to have philosophical themes or import, and try to find philosophical themes or import within. This is not an easy task and may be better abandoned than pursued, but, as my old P.E. teacher used to tell me: “Go ahead and try Thomas, just so you will know I was right about your failing.” Let’s try. We will start with a brief synopsis of the work selected and then the picking and stretching will begin.

For the inaugural posting within this topic we chose a topic sure to kill this topic nigh-immediately: the film The Awful Dr. Orlof. Alec chose this. I agreed with the choice, but remember that this was Alec’s remarkably ugly baby.

Dr. Orlof and his blind sidekick.

Dr. Orlof and his blind sidekick.

[Note from Alec: I’m really terribly sorry. I recommend that no one watch this movie. Ever. If you see it playing one night on Turner Classic, throw your TV out. And move.]

Since this movie is on Netflix and came out in 1962, and we’ve warned you not to watch it, we are going to ignore any worries about spoilers and just lay the whole intricate plot out. Dr. Orlof is kidnapping and then killing young girls in order to cure his daughter. A few specific points should be made: Dr. Orlof himself does little of the killing, but has a blind ‘special’ assistant, Morpho, do so; the cure seems to involve skinning the women, or at least some body parts of the women; it is not entirely clear what is wrong with his daughter aside from a kind of catatonic listlessness and mild scarring; the entire police force is hopeless and remarkably uncaring about the people they have sworn to protect.

While Dr. Orlof is having girls taken and killed by Morpho, a police detective is trying to find the killer — this after four women have been reported missing. The police department really kicks into action when a man is found murdered though. I suppose one could make an argument that the movie is sexist here, but, to be fair, they found the dead body of the man, and the bodies of the women are still just missing. The police detective’s fiancee gets involved in the investigation for reasons that are never clear, but not much of the movie is, so let’s not hold that against her. She, the fiancee, is kidnapped by the doctor who, I think, needs her breasts to complete the treatment of his daughter (the contents of such a thought are uber-creepy). Dr. Orlof is eventually killed by the monster he inspired to kill for him, and that monster dies as well.

Whither Whence the Philosophy Cometh?

Oof. So, now that the summary is out of the way, whither whence the philosophy cometh? Some of these entries are going to require more stretching than others. This first entry is beyond Stretch Armstrong levels and approaching Mr. Fantastic/Plastic-Man levels. Here goes: we are going to divide this into two sections. Ethics and Epistemology. I will take the ethics section, for reasons that have yet to be explained, and Alec will take epistemology. The ethics topic of the movie is fairly straightforward, unlike everything else in the movie: is the life of one person dear to you (here, Dr. Orlof’s daughter) worth more than the lives of (at least) five strangers? And if the answer is yes, is it morally allowable to have an irrational person do the killing for you? For that last question, there is a sub-question dealing with who is to blame for the killings. Morpho did not seem to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he was remarkably capable of tracking and killing, despite his blindness (which I think was almost entirely due to the papier mache mask he was wearing).

The epistemology part is a bit of a stretch, but that is what we are here for. Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge — what makes something knowledge and what justifies our beliefs. There are a couple of questions about the movie that fit that description: 1) As no one had ever tried Orlof’s methods before, what justified his belief in them (assuming that he was justified at all); 2) How did the detective’s fiancee ‘know’ that she had seen the killer? Is women’s intuition a reliable font of knowledge?

The Ethics of Orlof

Dr. Orlof is clearly not a utilitarian. At least, based on what we are given by the plot, Dr. Orloff is not a Utilitarian. His acts are all aimed at making his daughter better/cured (as it is never clear what her condition is beyond a sort of laissez faire attitude about life combined with a bad make-up job), and this is never suggested as being anything other than purely selfish on his part. She, Orlof-fils, is never portrayed as a brilliant scientist, or a dedicated humanitarian, or a inspirational person. Rather, she is the doctor’s daughter and so she must be fixed.

Utilitarianism is the ethic that the right action is the one that creates the most pleasure and the least pain for the greatest number of people. Ergo, Orlof is not a utilitarian.

He is selfish to a degree that many of us would find startling were he a real person (Note to Alec: this was not based on true story, was it?). We all love those in our family. Well, many of us love at least someone in our family. Within that group are many who say, truthfully or so they believe, that they would do anything to save or preserve the life of their loved one. Perhaps that includes even dying, if doing so would certainly, or damn near certainly, save or preserve the life of the loved one. Such an attitude is not entirely selfish, of course.

Dr. Orlof, however, not only loves his daughter, and not only loves his daughter more than he loves anyone else, but he loves her to the point that other lives are meaningless when compared to her own. The lives of other human beings are merely tools for Orloff to use to better aid his daughter. “What I want,” Dr. Orlof seems to be saying through his actions, if not through well-written dialog, “is what determines what is right for me and so for the world. If it is not what you want, whoever you might be, then I will sic my blind murderer on you as well.”

This is a kind of hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the most important goal, but of a non-universal character. It is one thing to say or argue that the goal in life is to be as happy as possible. That can be universal in the sense that it is what you think is so for everyone. “Hey,” you might say to me, “why are you sitting at that desk when you could be having fun?” Good question.

Alright, I am back. Thanks for suggesting that I take a break. See? A hedonist need not be a selfish prick, at least a universal hedonist need not be. Orlof, though? He’s a selfish prick. His pleasure is what matter the most to him. One could argue that he does what he does (or gives the orders to kill that he gives) because he is thinking only of his daughter, a kind of pass-the-buck hedonism.

“Your pleasure is what matters the most, such a person would say to you, “so tell me what would make you happy and I will do it.” That almost sounds like altruism: the sacrificing of one’s happiness so that another is made happy in your stead. Ignoring whether or not altruism truly exists or is rational (hey — future topics!), is that what Orlof is guilty of? I doubt it. His daughter never says or indicates that she approves of what he is doing; in fact, there is no indication at all that she is receiving any benefit at all from the murders and procedures her father is performing. Perhaps Dr. Orlof is telling himself that what he is doing is for his daughter alone, but all the visual evidence (that I shudder to recall) indicates he is doing it for himself.

So, is selfish hedonism a valid ethical standpoint? Sure, I suppose. It is as valid as any other ethical standpoint, so long as you do not take as a given that all or even most or at best some people are equal to yourself in terms what it takes to be happy. Is that what you think? Are you an Orlofian? Are you???

The Epistemology of Orlof

How did I get stuck with the epistemology piece of this? Sigh. Oh well, here goes what might literally be nothing.

First things first, let’s dive into the women’s intuition thing. So, in the movie, the detective’s fiancee happens to see the killer (without knowing that he’s the killer), and somehow is immediately convinced that she has just seen the killer.

Is she justified in this belief?

You know what? Let’s dive right back out of this women’s intuition thing. There’s nothing good that can come of the discussion, is there?

What’s more interesting here is the sentence “Is she justified in this belief?” This contains two of the three components to what might be considered having genuine knowledge of something.

A Standard Conception of Knowledge

When can we be said to know something?

Obviously, belief has to factor into it.

Belief

If Dr. Orlof is the murderer, but I don’t believe that he is, then I really can’t have knowledge that he is the murderer. So belief is certainly necessary for knowledge, though it’s also not sufficient.

Suppose Superman is the murderer. If I believe that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, I still don’t have any knowledge that Dr. Orlof is the murderer. (My belief is false.)

So we need to account for truth — circumstances that match our beliefs.

Truth

If I believe that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, and he is in fact the murderer, then can I say I have knowledge of him being the murderer?

Well, though truth is definitely necessary, it’s not sufficient.

Suppose Dr. Orlof is the murderer. But I believe he’s the murderer only because I dreamed about him being the murderer the night before. Do I have knowledge of Dr. Orlof being the murderer in this case? Nope. In effect, I’ve just made a lucky guess, and this shouldn’t count as knowledge.

So we need to account for the idea that knowledge should also be justified.

Justification

If I don’t know that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, but my wife (who never lies to me) tells me she saw Dr. Orlof murdering the victims, do I have knowledge yet?

Justified true belief. A pretty darn good working definition of knowledge. (Though we’ll talk about a famous counterexample to this definition in a future post.)

So does the detective’s wife have knowledge that Dr. Orlof is the murderer? Well, she has the belief that he is, and it’s true that he is, and so the question hinges on whether or not her women’s intuition can form the basis of a justified belief. I won’t take a stand on that issue here. Feel free to take a stand in the comments…

The Teleportation Debate

Arguing Over Nothing: A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.

Today, we argue about the rough points of personal identity in Star Trek style teleportation cases. Given that the debate is essentially one about personal identity, the argument isn’t really over nothing; but the fact that teleportation is impossible makes the debate one that skirts around the edges of nothing.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).


Alec: I Am On Venus

So the standard teleportation scene in sci-fi goes something like this: You step into the teleportation chamber here on Earth, the technician presses a few buttons, a beam sweeps over you, and moments later you materialize in a teleportation chamber on Venus (a lovely vacation destination; bring your sunscreen).

Of course, sci-fi is not science, so it can gloss over the finer points of how this might work. Philosophers (bless them) parading as scientists have given us a couple of options regarding these finer points. (Scientists have stayed away from the issue because of it being “impossible” or some-such. Such negative nancys.)

Option 1: Each particle of you is converted to energy and actually beamed through space to be reconstituted into matter on Venus.

Option 2: Each particle of you is scanned, and the teleportation chamber on Venus pulls particles from a pile of carbon and constitutes them one by one to match the original you on Earth.

The first option is “cleaner”, in that the you on Venus is pretty incontrovertibly you. It’s all of the same particles, in the exact same configuration, after all. The messy part is in the details of how exactly you could survive being ripped apart into atoms and rebuilt. Imagine your brain being deconstructed, particle by particle. At some point your identity will be in question, as your brain will be half gone.

The second option is more interesting, and seems (to this non-scientist) to be the more likely scenario. Your physical structure is essentially computed (analyzed in the minutest detail), and rebuilt as a perfect replica. Once the replica is created, it will be atom-for-atom identical with you, and so how could it fail to have the exact same memories and thoughts as you? How could it, in other words, fail to be you?

The problem, of course, with this scenario, is that there are now two of you. In the standard case, the original you is supposed to be anesthetized and killed after the scanning/reconstructing process. The new you (with all of your memories, and the exact molecular structure of you), wakes up on Venus, with no concern about the dead original on Earth. What happens (so asks the thought experiment) if the Earth-side anesthetization goes wrong, and the original you wakes up on Earth before being killed? The technician sheepishly says: “Um, sorry, but you have been successfully replicated on Venus, and you weren’t supposed to wake up here on Earth. I’m gonna get fired if I don’t kill you right now.” Would you be okay with this? Clearly not. And this intuition fuels some philosophers to say that the original you is you, and the replicant you is not you.

But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. What happens if the technician on Earth has an untimely heart attack, and dies before anesthetizing and killing the original you. Now the technician on Venus says to the replicant you: “Um, sorry, but the original you on Earth hasn’t been successfully killed. There can only be one you, and since you’ve only existed for a few seconds, we figure you should be killed now.” Would the replicant you be okay with this? Of course not. The replicant you has the same memories, feelings, and thoughts as you do, and would not want to be killed by a technician, no matter what the circumstances. So the same intuition that causes some philosophers to say that the original you has sacrosanct rights and is thus clearly the one you, lets us argue that the replicant you also has sacrosanct rights and is also clearly you.

What are we to say about this? Well, I think we have to bite the unpleasant bullet that there are actually two yous in this scenario, each with complete human rights and responsibilities. They almost immediately will diverge, and so the “problem” of personal identity of having two of the “same” person is not really a problem after the initial reconstitution on Venus. In fact, as soon as the replicant you has any new experience, he is effectively a different person. Which one is the real you? It’s an unanswerable (and therefore bogus) question, I think.

Jim’s Reply

Well, first of all, congrats to Alec for presupposing a big objection and then biting that bullet clean in two. I still disagree with him, but such is the nature of a friendship based on unquenchable hate.

Because Alec was kind enough to break his argument into two options, I will respond in kind. Option One is just as I would have described it, and though Alec takes the you-ness of the arrivee as incontrovertible, I controvert it just the same.

What are we to mean when we talk about a person and her identity, when questions of preservation or sameness arise? I tried to address the difficulties of this question over the past few weeks, and hopefully no one solution was seen as much better than any other (I strive for objectivity as much as possible). Let’s see what is going on here.

If you are just your parts, then option one results in you arriving at the destination, and Alec is right. Your parts are deconstituted at pod 1, shot through space in some sort of stream (the mechanics here do not matter), and are reconstituted at pod 2. However, I doubt that anybody else, Alec included, thinks of a person as just the collection of her parts. Should a serial killer dismember an individual and place all those body pieces in a bag, is that person in the bag? Surely not — who among us would say that was the person we once knew instead of saying that is what is left of that person? Were we to sharpen a pencil until all that was left was a pile of wood shavings, graphite, and an eraser, no one would point to that collection and label it as a pencil. Instead, we would all correctly say, that once was part of a pencil. I mention both a person and pencil to show that I am not going to argue for some sort of ineffable soul as the missing piece.

I think it has to be the parts and how those parts are put together, how they function, that makes the person or the object what it is. What does this say for the ‘stream’ of parts as they travel from one place to the other? You are, then you are not, then you are again. But what are we to say of you when you are not? Are you dead, only to return at a later time and different place? Are you merely gone? But to where? And how did you get there?

I am going to guess that Alec is against such a conception, once he thinks about it. Perhaps he will just bite the bullet and say that the stream is you, recognizable or not. Okay. What if we put a reflector dish in front of the receiver at pod 2 so that instead of being put together, you are bounced off into deep space, never to be caught in another receiver? Are you still existing? Do you cease to exist only when the potential for reincorporation ceases to exist? That then puts personal identity into terms of potentiality, of what ifs, of what you would be in the right circumstances. I am what I am because of what I am likely to be? But what an odd conception that seems.

As for the second option, I wholeheartedly agree with Alec. The person at the other end, the one who steps from the transporter, is not you, though it looks as much like you as you ever have and has the same thoughts and desires as you ever have had. It is not you though. You are who you are because of what you do (function) and why you do it (mental states) and what makes that possible (physical states). Those three together, in just the way they are, is what gives rise to you. The movie clone that steps out of the destination pod can only be identical in two of those three requirements (function and, possibly, mental states). Now I just have to hope that Alec does not press me on what proportions of the three above ingredients are necessary for identity to be preserved.

Alec’s Rebuttal

That’s a great way to think of the first scenario: “You are, then you are not, then you are again. But what are we to say of you when you are not? Are you dead, only to return at a later time and different place? Are you merely gone?” That observation definitely makes dubious my belief that the you on Venus is the you from Earth. I should’ve picked up on this from my own quote: “The messy part is in the details of how exactly you could survive being ripped apart into atoms and rebuilt. Imagine your brain being deconstructed, particle by particle. At some point your identity will be in question, as your brain will be half gone.” At some intermediate point, indeed your identity will in fact be null and void.

So now the question is whether or not a discontinuity in your identity is enough to call that identity into question. Well, if we take consciousness as central to the question of one’s identity, then, no, a discontinuity is not enough to call that identity into question. A dreamless sleep; an period of unconscious drunkenness; going under general anesthesia for an operation;… all of these put a big discontinuity in our conscious lives, and we still think we’re the same people after such events. But if you take bodily intactness and continuity as the key element in personal identity, then the discontinuity that your body goes through in the first scenario is indeed a big problem. The atoms all scrambled and shooting through space obviously don’t keep your physico-functional form — we can’t say that your particles flying through space are a person, any more than we can say that our pile of pencil parts is a pencil.

Jim wrote: “I think it has to be the parts and how those parts are put together, how they function, that makes the person or the object what it is.” Yes, indeed. The pile of pencil parts is not a pencil, because being a pencil is more than just the sum of its parts — it’s also the functional configuration of those parts. But if you took the pencil parts and were able to thwart the laws of thermodynamics and put all of those parts back together in the exact same configuration as when it was a pencil, then don’t you have the same pencil again? Well, then if you put those human atoms all back together again on Venus, in the exact configuration they were in before, then don’t you have the same person again, on Venus?

In fact, that’s really what this debate boils down to, metaphysically speaking. If you have a thing, and duplicate every last atom of that thing, in terms of function and construction, then don’t you have two of that exact thing? Jim thinks not; I think so. We’ll debate this more closely in a future post on the possibility of making diamonds out of Cheetos. (Seriously.)

Dualism in the Movies

What Is Dualism?

Dualism is the age-old belief that there are two sorts of stuff in the universe: physical stuff (the stuff that constitutes brains and bodies and stones and trees and cats), and mind stuff (or “soul” stuff, if you like). It found it’s most cogent expression in Descartes’ Meditations, where early on he remarks that there is one thing clearly, distinctly, and uniquely possessed by the mind: Thinking.

Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am — I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be… I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing…

Whatever else he might be, it is definitely the case that Descartes is a thinking thing. Go ahead and doubt the existence of what we usually think of as the real world — stones, trees, and cats. Say that it’s all an illusion, or a dream, or that there’s an evil demon deceiving us about the true nature of things. But one thing that’s certain is that if Descartes is being deceived, Descartes is being deceived — even if his mind is being fooled about things, it is his mind that is being fooled.

Well, if the mind has this certain specialness that the rest of the world (if it exists at all) doesn’t, then the mind and the body must be separate sorts of things:

[B]ecause I know that all which I clearly and distinctly conceive can be produced by God exactly as I conceive it, it is sufficient that I am able clearly and distinctly to conceive one thing apart from another, in order to be certain that the one is different from the other, seeing they may at least be made to exist separately, by the omnipotence of God; and it matters not by what power this separation is made, in order to be compelled to judge them different; and, therefore, merely because I know with certitude that I exist, and because, in the meantime, I do not observe that aught necessarily belongs to my nature or essence beyond my being a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists only in my being a thinking thing [or a substance whose whole essence or nature is merely thinking]. And although I may, or rather, as I will shortly say, although I certainly do possess a body with which I am very closely conjoined; nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am], is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.

Here is dualism: the idea that mental and physical substances are of an entirely different kind from one another. And, in fact, the idea goes further — mind-stuff is inherently non-physical. It doesn’t exist in space-time (otherwise it would just be a variety of physical stuff), and it doesn’t need the body in order to exist.

Dualism in the Movies

Hollywood, always up for exploiting a good philosophical idea, has a proud history of using dualism to good dramatic effect. There are a plethora of mind/body transfer stories told on film.

Here Comes Mr. JordanAnd early film taking full advantage of dualism was “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”, in 1941. The story has our hero, a boxer named Joe, die in a plane crash at the start of the film. Unfortunately, the death was a mistake, due to the slip-up of an absent-minded angel. Joe wasn’t really supposed to die for a good long time. (We can use this example to talk about determinism. Maybe someday…) Joe, obviously, isn’t happy about this, and so God allows Joe’s soul to be transferred into the freshly dead body of a corrupt millionaire, just murdered by his wife. Misadventures ensue, as the personhood — the identity — of Joe tries to navigate his way in a new body, in new circumstances.

The key for our discussion here is that Joe’s mind — his personhood; his soul — is completely separatable from any physical body. It is a different sort of stuff entirely, and can be housed in any host body by a sufficiently powerful supernatural being.

You might, at this point, be thinking the following very reasonable question: But how does this non-physical mind stuff actually interact with a physical body? Well, that’s a damn good question, and sits at the core of many criticisms of dualism. We usually think of causation as a purely physical process. Billiard balls smash into billiard balls and make them move; atoms collide into atoms, generating heat and occasionally atomic detonations; you push a door in order to open it; an avalanche crushes trees beneath its mass;… physical objects and physical movements cause other physical objects to move. How is a non-physical thing (a mind) supposed to cause anything physical to happen? If you’re a dualist, you’re in trouble here. The mind (a non-physical thing) thinks that you should raise your right hand; the physical hand moves. What is the causal chain here? Descartes postulated that the mind finds its way into the brain via the pineal gland; but this is really no answer — it just delays the answer. The new questions becomes: How does the mind interact with the pineal gland? And we are back at square one.

“Here Comes Mr. Jordan” was remade in 1978 as “Heaven Can Wait”, with Warren Beatty.

Heaven Can Wait

And ever since there has been no shortage of dualistic cinema to amuse us and make us question our philosophical takes on the philosophy and metaphysics of the mind.

Actually, there were several Disney flicks that got in on the dualistic action, before “Heaven Can Wait”.

1959’s “The Shaggy Dog”, starring Fred MacMurray as an unfortunate soul who gets transferred into a dog’s body:

The Shaggy Dog

In 1976, the franchise was continued with “The Shaggy D.A.”, starring (if you can call it that) Tim Conway as another unfortunate mind-transfer victim, into another dog’s body. (“The Shaggy Dog” was, naturally, remade in 2006 with Tim Allen, and a million dollars worth of computer graphics.)

“Freaky Friday” was another Disney movie that might have been the first actual mind-swap movie:

Freaky Friday

In this movie, a daughter and a mother actually swap minds — the mother’s mind takes up residence in the daughter’s body, and vice versa. A clearer illustration of dualism at work can’t be found. The mind “stuff” is completely separable from the body, and indeed can be transferred into a new body with the right sort of voodoo.

Dualism has, of course, also found its way into horror movies. Of course, every ghost movie, or life-after death movie, can be said to be dualistic in its nature. But one of the funniest expressions of dualism in a horror movie comes from the “Child’s Play” franchise, wherein the mind/soul of a murderous psychopath is severed from his own body and transferred into a talking children’s doll. The mind stuff doesn’t even need a brain, apparently! And it can control the doll’s movements to the extent of being able to wield knives and run relatively fast.

Child's Play

Other Philosophies of Mind

Dualism eventually gave birth to behaviorism, which begot physicalism, which begot functionalism. This isn’t the place to discuss all of these, but suffice it to say that functionalism is closely tied to the field of artificial intelligence, and thus is tied to a stack of other movies, from “2001” to “The Matrix”. But we’ll save that for another post.

Science and What Exists

To make the transition to Einstein’s universe, the whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force, and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole.

—Thomas Kuhn

One problem metaphysicians have been dealing with for, well, forever, is the unfortunately necessary intertwining of metaphysics and epistemology. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of what exists; epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. And it’s trivial to point out that the best we can do in detailing what there is that exists is to rely on our best epistemology: We can’t talk about what we know about, without talking about what (and how) we know. If we know about quarks, it’s not simply the case that quarks exist, but that we figured out that they exist. Our catalogue of items in the universe is inherently tied to our knowledge of those items.

Why is this problematic? Well, many metaphysicians are very conscious and conscientious about keeping existence separate from knowledge of existence. Much of the problem can be traced back to the venerable Bishop Berkeley, who posited that everything in the universe in actually mind-dependent for its very existence — it’s not, Berkeley thought, just that the computer screen in front of you is merely hidden from view when you close your eyes, but that this lack of observation actually means the computer screen is not really there when your eyes are closed. Problems with this theory forced Berkeley to say that God observes everything at all times, and so there’s no worry about things blinking in and out of existence with the blink of an eye. God never blinks. But regardless of the absurdity of this centuries-old bit of philosophy, the aftershocks have stayed with us. There’s something very compelling, apparently, about the idea that our minds have metaphysical power — that minds can create some of reality.

The great irony is that the best scientifically-minded philosophers of the 20th Century, while trying to shore up the mind-independence of the external world, actually gave proponents of mind-dependence a strong foothold in the metaphysical debate.

Naturalized epistemology — the brain child of W.V.O. Quine, though it was clearly anticipated hundreds of years earlier by David Hume — takes science to be the paragon of knowledge-farming; the discipline whose results we are most certain about. Naturalism, though, if we accept it, forces us also to acknowledge the following: We can’t make judgements about the world from some point of privileged access outside of science. That is, there is no way to step outside science and see what there is in the world; we don’t get a clearer picture of quarks without science — science itself tells us about quarks, and without science this piece of ontological furniture would not be accessible to us whatsoever. Our metaphysical house, chock full of interesting furniture, wouldn’t merely look somewhat different without science; it would be a bare, dirt-floored cabin with very little of interest in it.

This leads to a very tantalizing point. Science often changes its mind, and in such episodes of change what we take to be our ontology (our catalogue of things that exist) changes as well. For instance, once upon a time science told us that there was a substance called phlogiston that is released from things when they are burned. This substance — a consequence of a good scientific theory that explained several phenomena related to chemistry — was taken by scientists (and the informed public) as existing in the world. If science is our best arbiter of what exists, then, at the time during which science told us that phlogiston existed, there’s a strong sense in which it actually existed. Science, remember, tells us what there is, and there’s not privileged perspective outside of science to figure out our metaphysics. It turned out, however, that the phlogiston theory of chemistry ran into serious problems, and was more or less wholesale replaced by the oxygen theory of Lavoisier. In this new theory, there was no place for phlogiston. At this point, science told us that phlogiston does not exist.

There are (at least) two conclusions that can be drawn from this, each of which I will encapsulate using the Kuhnian metaphor at the top of this entry:

Standard Naturalism: The whole of science forms a conceptual web from which vantage point we purvey the world. There is no spot outside of the web from which to purvey the world. We can change science by changing some part of the web — this amounts to changing our ideas about an unchanging world. The world is independent of our ideas about it, even as we discover new ways to look at what exactly is in it. For instance, we were simply wrong about the existence of phlogiston. It never existed.

Kuhnian Mutant Naturalism: A scientific theory is a conceptual web that uniquely lays upon the world giving it its shape. When a new theory is developed, an entirely new web is made. There is still no place outside of the web from which to purvey the world, but we can shuck off the entire web in favor of a new one. The world is partly dependent for its existence on our ideas about it — whichever web we throw onto the world actually gives the world its shape. When we change our ideas, we change the world. For instance, phlogiston actually did exist while scientists were working with phlogiston theory. When Lavoisier came up with a new chemical theory, the world actually changed — phlogiston disappeared, and in its place oxygen and other items filled our metaphysical cupboards.

Many have noted from Kuhn’s version of naturalism that he is an anti-realist in the Kantian vein. We won’t get into the thickets of Kantian metaphysics here, but, in short, he believes that our ideas are not merely a pre-condition for theorizing about things, but that theorizing indeed is a pre-condition for the very existence of things. Contrary to this, standard naturalism usually goes hand in hand with common-sense and scientific realism, wherein, as Philip Kitcher notes: “Trivially, there are just the entities there are. When we succeed in talking about anything at all, these entities are the things we talk about, even though our ways of talking about them may be radically different.”

One reason Kuhn is led to his odd metaphysics is because of his implicit description theory of reference. On a description theory, the only way to correctly refer to an entity is to have its unique description in mind; but if a scientific revolution changes the description associated with a key scientific term, then the old description no longer refers. This leads Kuhn to the idea that competing scientific paradigms are incommensurable. It also motivates his metaphysics. If a term once referred and now it does not, all on the basis of our changing descriptions, then by some inferential jump one could think that this correlation was causal; i.e., that our changing descriptive thoughts cause a change in the world.

We’ll examine description theories and the philosophy of language in an upcoming post. Stay tuned…

S#!+ Philosophers Say

Clones and You (no, the other You)

We have, over the past few weeks of (very) personal identity discussions, really come together as a family, I think. We know each others tics and tacs, smarts and spasms, love of chili con carne and even what that gross stuff is. But do I really know that it is the you that you are? Or are you some other you, a devious you made to make me think that you are you when in fact you are not you at all. And maybe even you are wrong to think that you are you, so well made have you been. If you are not you, the you that you think you are, then who are you? Surely you are not no one (well, maybe not surely, my medication is still being ‘balanced’, so you could easily be no one; but let’s try to remain optimistic, even if only medicatedly so), for everyone is someone (source: Seuss). Can you be wrong about who you are? Wrong according to who or what? This is why clones suck.

Before we go into more detail about any of the above, let’s get straight on what we mean (well, what I mean; c’mon, its not like you are writing this) when we talk about clones. The scientific ‘clone’ is only interesting in the scientific sense: it is genetic copy of another organism. Creatures with the same DNA need not act in the same ways though, and so only the most ardent materialist would claim that one’s identity is entirely due to one’s DNA. Such an ardent claim would be foolishly idiotic at best since such a concept of personal identity is not one that is of much use to almost all of us. Anyone out there know what your genetic code is? Mine starts with a ‘c’ – I often, to save time, just refer to my genetic code as “the c-word”. (For example, a lot of my inherent drive to be successful is due to the c-word.) Does anyone here ever wake up, wonder who you are, sequence your DNA, and then think,”oh, yeah – that’s me”? Right.

In personal identity, at least in this take on it, ‘clone’ is going to mean a ‘movie clone’, where the clone does not just have the same DNA, but also has the same scars, beliefs, desires, tattoos, etc., that the original has. While such a creature only exists in science fiction (what the hoi poloi call ‘sci-fi’), there is sound philosophical reasoning that such a creature could be, especially if you a materialist. Recall, if you will and can, our most previous discussion where you put the locus of identity into or about the brain. Since you go where the brain goes, it stands to reason that an exact duplicate of the brain would work just as the original does and so be you as well, right? All those neurons and chemicals and whatnot are the things of you, if you go where they are. A movie clone is just an exact copy of that brain (together with the rest of the body because, hey, we care about the customer), so why would it not think and behave just as the original brain does, so long as it has the same set of neurons in the same configuration firing in the same patterns at the same stimuli?

It is the possibility of movie clones that make me think that the ‘cloning will lead to slavery’ debate is ridiculous. I do not want to get into ethics here, but much of the hullabaloo about cloning has to do with playing God or mistreating a living thing, but think about this: suppose you have a lot of work to do. Maybe you are a full-time student who also has a job and a kid to take care of (now do you see why condoms are important?), you are just the sort of person who needs a clone to take up some of the slack. So, you go to the cloning place (You2), have a clone made and bring it home.

“Right,” you say, “I am going to take a nap. “You,” you point at your clone, “can work on the research paper and make dinner.”

“Haha!” your clone says. “I am going to take a nap while you do that.”

See, your clone thinks and desires just as you do, and if you cannot convince your own lazy ass to get things done, how successful will you be at convincing an ass identical in every way to your own? So, slavery, as far as movie clones go, is unlikely at best and openly chaotic and murderous at worse. Mostly, clones will just confuse us. But, back to the topic at hand: is the movie clone you?

Yes, it is. If memories are what makes you who you are, then the clone is you as it has all the memories you do. It even remembers going to You2 and being cloned (and so it think thinks it is the original and you are the clone). Whatever memories you do not have any longer, it does not have either. It reacts in the same way in the same situations that you do.

If the body and brain are what makes you who you are, then the clone is you as it has the same body and brain. At least, there is no way for anyone at any level to tell the difference between the two of you: same DNA, same cellular structure, same neural configuration, and so on. Of course, what some of that means is pretty much what it does for the memory solution as our memories are stored or encoded in our neurons.

Hurray! We have a found a fire that both of our camps can gather about to tell ghost stories (even the materialist/body/brain camp cannot even begin to believe in something like non-material ghosts).

So, wow. Huh. (Movie) clones are you. Cool. This did not take too long at all. What’s that? Some of you disagree. But why? How could you? After all we’ve been through!? I don’t even know who you are anymore! (Yes, yes – I’ve been waiting weeks to work that one in.) Why might a clone of you, a movie clone even, not be you?

There are a couple of reasons, and I am just going to list them in as unbiased a fashion as I can manage (you inbred jackass!).

Both revolve around our (very basic) intuitions about what makes us who we are, and what we think that means. Think of the following example (and, dammit, remember this example as we are coming back to this in a few weeks when we talk about determinism and free will). We are going to make a movie clone of you, but the process requires that you be asleep. Both you and the clone wake up in identical rooms (same colors, furniture, feng shui, etc.). On the table next to your bed(s) are two glasses: one of apple juice and one of water. Whichever glass one of you reaches for is the same glass the other will reach for. Both will hold the glass in the same (though respective) hand, both will drink the same amount, both will place the glass back on the table in the same (though respective) place. What might seem like magic is, in fact, just the result of our above discussion about the brain and how it works. You like the food or drink you do because of your brain, so two brains that are exactly alike will like the same things exactly.

However, should one of you have a clock in the room, but the other be clockless, all bets are off. The neurons of the clocked individual will forever differ from those of the clockless (this is sometimes called the clock gap (no, actually; it isn’t)). Two questions spring forth from this example, both challenge the idea that the movie clone is the same person as you. (A) Did you, when both bodies drank, have two drinks or only one? If the clone is you, that implies that you live in two separate bodies simultaneously (shades of Parfitt!) and so you had two drinks at the same time. If the clone is not you, you only had one drink. But this leads to the second question: (B) Once the neurons change in the clocked you, which is the clone and which is you? Are those changes enough to make for a different person? Maybe not, but eventually, as both body’s experiences differ, there will come a division, but if there was initially no way to tell the difference between you and the clone, who is to say that you are the original and the other the clone now? Any decision seems mostly arbitrary and whatever identity comes down to, hopefully it is not arbitrary.

Now for the second big intuitive reason against the clone being you. Suppose that after the cloning procedure, we hold you (the original) up with paperwork but let the clone go home to your sweetie, and the two of them proceed to make ever-so-sweet woo. Has your sweetie cheated on you? Well, sweetie might not think so, but what do you think? Did you experience sweetie’s deliciously hot breath caress your neck, torso and nethers? Did you feel sweetie’s sweaty weight pulse and throb beneath and then above you? Was that you afterwards whose voice was hoarse due to multiple exclamations about heaven and all that is wonderful about it being there in the bed with you and sweetie? Or were you filling out paperwork back at You2?

This is really a question of anticipation. The relationship of anticipation is one that is special in the sense that you can only truly have it with a future you. You can look forward to a friend of yours winning a lot of money, but you do not look forward to that in the same way that you do about yourself winning a lot of money. Suppose I offer you a million dollars to be cloned, but the original body is destroyed and the clone is what gets the money. Do you think that is you who is getting the money? For many of you, that answer is ‘no’. For those of you who think the answer is ‘yes’, what happens if there is a mistake in the machine and the original is destroyed but the clone body is not made for one week: where are you during that week?

In conclusion: clones are and are not you. Maybe simultaneously. Also, sexy lightsabers.

Personal Identity and Brain Swapping

When last we left this perplexing topic, many of you were trying to get me arrested for a crime another I committed. (I say “many of you” even though only my mom and my lawyer were trying to do that, but my circle of friends has scant points about it, so ‘many’ it was.) When we are looking at memories as the signpost of identity-pointing, there are detours aplenty. Today, we are going to move on to the third of the potential candidates for identity fixing: the physical body.

Are You Your Body?

The pros and cons of the body as a candidate for personal identity here are pretty intuitive, and much of them we have seen earlier (with memories), if in slightly different form. The body is easily recognizable, and, in fact, is how we identify others. Slight changes, such as haircuts or tanning, seem to do little to distort or erase the recognizable features. However, which features matter the most? How many of them are necessary to maintain if one’s identity is to remain constant? Suppose you gain or lose three hundred pounds, you may well feel and be unrecognizable to both yourself and others. Are you a different person?Many soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs; are they different people? Both examples will result in the individual’s feeling different, but is that enough for identity to change as well? Think of the liquor store example from my previous post. How would that apply here?

Suppose that I rob the liquor store, but instead of getting hit by a car I instead cut off one of my arms.

Losing an arm

Is the the one-armed man the guilty person (I know Harrison Ford’s answer)?

What if I gain a lot of weight during the six weeks the police look for the robbing murderer?

Getting fat

I doubt there is much controversy to either of these scenarios, and almost every one of you is going to think that identity has remained constant, that the same person is still there or here or whatever, even if that same person is not exactly the same (what’s the difference?, you might wonder, and good for you, you wondering person; the topic of identity when not dealing with people is going to be dealt with soon).

Remember when we talked about the Ship of Theseus, and I suggested that there are some who suggest that every possible change results in new identity. Such an individual, if she is consistent, would have to say that I am not the person who robbed the liquor store because I cut my fingernails or because I removed some hair. Such a person, though, is not really a person in the traditional sense of the word ‘person’, but is more of a collection of experiences that are joined together. Such a person cannot recall her first date, as all her recollections belong to someone else, just as such a person cannot look forward to a happier time in her life, as it will not be she that is enjoying that time, only someone who looks and thinks much as she does.

Few of you think like that, though. But why? If you are not in the memory camp and the physical features have changed beyond recognition, why is a person still the same even after extensive physical changes? What’s that? Sorry, the sound on my computer is muted — what are you saying at your screen as though Skype were on and our conversation was being passively monitored by virtuous government agencies? Ah, I see. Thoughts! The thoughts have not changed. Good! It’s almost as though you knew where I wanted this post to go. Thanks!

Thoughts and Brains

Of course, by ‘thoughts’ what your philosophically ignorant train of thinking was suggesting was the brain. What most members of the physical camp believe to be the defining feature of identity anchoring is the brain. So long as you have the same brain, you are the same person.

Another way to get to the brain is by elimination. Which parts of the body matter? For the body, that is pretty simple: beards, arms, legs, livers, ears, moles, etc., are all pretty superfluous. The part that matters is the brain. How much of the body matters? Really, again, almost all of the body is superfluous except the brain. What if the brain is damaged and the thoughts no more work good? Well, that is not the same brain then, is it? As far as which parts matter and how much of those parts matter, what am I, a brain scientist? (Yes. Yes, I am. Not in the United States, of course; regulations and all that have proven quite the obstacle to my life goals).

The solution to those worries is normally dealt with by a kind of common sense functionalism. Most of us don’t know Broca’s area from the pubic bone, but if you cannot remember anything from last night back, your brain… it don’t work too good. So the parts and amounts that matter for personal identity are the ones, whichever they are (and brain scientists know which those are), that affect the functioning of the brain.

Simple enough then. You are your functioning brain, and wherever it goes, so go you. Right? Right. Right? Well, dammit.

Swapping Brains

Let’s swap brains, then, you and I, and see where we go. Who wakes up in a svelte killing machine of evolutionary perfection and who wakes up in body aimed at child predation? No, no. There are no trick questions on this site. You will wake up, most of you think, in a body not originally yours. If the swap is permanent, maybe your personality will change based on how people around you treat you (either with sexual fearsomeness or with fear of your sexual perversity), but you are still basically the same person. You are your brain.

Note that this is different from those mind swap movies that are made every other week or so. In those instances, it is, or seems to be, the memories that are swapped and not the brains. A brain-based identity theorist watches those movies and laughs (partly at their sheer delightful hilarity) because the only change is that the individuals involved wrongly believe themselves to be someone else. How could they be, though, since their brains are still where they have always been?

There is really no way to confound anyone’s intuitions about the brain as it relates to identity, is there? Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Sorry, sorry — whoo, man. You really had there for a minute. Alright, let’s get to the confounding.

Suppose a man, let’s call him Gary, was born with half a brain. This happens, you know. Gary can still function and get about, but he only has half a brain. Maybe he cannot recall as much stuff as you can, maybe his motor skills are shaky in places, but he is a person and his name is Gary. Everyone okay with this?

Now let’s suppose that another person, Harry, has a regular, whole brain. But, egads! Harry is hit by a crazed Canadian driver and the resulting life-saving operation leaves him with half a brain. Now, this is not how it would work, but let’s suppose he still has around half his memories and the like. Is anyone here, aside from the identity-extremists, going to suggest that Harry is no longer Harry? Harry is still Harry even if only half of his brain is there since Harry can still function, to some degree, to some recognizable degree, as Harry used to.

Alright, and if we were to swap Harry’s half brain and Gary’s half brain, I suspect that you are going to think they, the people, go whither their brains do. Fine, fine. And if there was a third person, Terry, who lost his brain altogether, where is Terry? Gone. Right.

Brain swaps

What about this, though (and this is due to philosopher Derek Parfit): let’s take Gary’s half and Harry’s half and put them together into Terry’s head. Who is that? It has half of each person’s brain (well, I guess, it has all of their available brain, so whatever) and, so, we are suggesting here, it has half of each person’s memories, is it both Gary and Harry? If not, why not?

If Harry with a brain in his head was still Harry and not dead, then Harry’s half with Gary’s half should make them both be (please try not to laugh) who they once were. Can the one body be two persons? What if both Harry and Gary had had whole brains that we split, combining one half from each in two separate bodies? Can two bodies then be four persons? Oh, philosophy, what have you done to our so carefully coddled beliefs about all that is personally identical in the world?

Next Time…

Next time: clones! And light sabers! And sex!!! But mostly, and only, just clones.