Re: Begin and end of self

From: Lee Corbin (
Date: Thu Apr 10 2008 - 19:24:11 MDT

Mike writes

> On Tue, Apr 8, 2008 at 8:13 PM, Lee wrote:
>> What is so hard, unfortunately, is that almost the first baby-thing
>> we learned in our cradles is that anything outside of what looks
>> to be our own unique piece of skin is necessarily non-self. It's
>> high time, with uploads and duplication coming, that we unlearn
>> that bit of wrongheadedness
> So where does self begin and end?

Well, having not yet read the others' replies, let me venture
an answer.

We probably should try to conform our answer to "what is a self"
as close as we can to our answers to similar ontological items,
e.g., "what is a democracy", "what is a star", "what is a tree",
and so on.

It's not hard to deconstruct the notion of self or even democracy,
and those who really get into it manage to deconstruct our notions
of "stars", "Jupiter", "salt", whatever they want. Of course, they
then either become incoherent by wrecking all their sentences
by utterly silly qualifiers, or you can no longer get them to communicate
sensibly (according to their own standards) at all.

The answer to *all* of the what-are questions above, is, IMO,
very much the same. The answer is "similarity of structure".
For example, we say that two stars are both "G2" if enough
isomorphism can be found among their different layers (see
where the term "layer" is mentioned at least a dozen times.

If two biological items that we think both may be trees are
considered, then we decide what "a tree is" by first, a
morphological analysis, which in the 20th century, was
extended down to the DNA, which then facilitated a
discovery of the evolutionary sequence. So Linnaeus
worked on morphological similarity, and today we compare
strands of DNA for similarity.

Of course we should do that for selves, i.e. "what is a self".
Suppose that we made an exact molecule for molecule
copy of a tree. Everyone will (or should!) agree that "that's
exactly the same tree, except for location".

So, I say, it is will persons and selves. "That's exactly the
same person", we should say, upon the instant of duplication.
And---just as two trees may begin to differ depending on,
say, how much water or sunlight or good soil they subsequently
get---so the entities, initially the same person, begin gradually
to become different, just as the trees do. That's the logical,
scientific way that would automatically be accepted by anyone.
Except for one small detail:

People then begin imagining the *subjectivities* involved, and
even though we have grown up with the idea that we often
err on subjective matters, they just can't grasp the nettle and
admit that their subjective impressions are WRONG. It's
perfectly clear from a physical inspection, and objective
inspection, of all the facts, that the same answer should be
provided, whether it's "trees", "democracies", or "persons",
or "selves".

> Despite sounding like some kind of koan, should a baby
> learn that its room is part of its self?

I think that that would be less than useful, despite Dawkins'
"extended phenotype".

> Should the presence or absence of caregivers be included
> in the definition of self?

We should avoid *like the plague* all the futile efforts to
fix upon exact definitions!

> What do we call the intersection of multiple self-centric sets?

An image I like to use is configuration space, (or "phase space").
A person then can be thought of as a fuzzy sphere in the space
of all algorithms, and his or her life as a trajectory through that
space. The conception works well in physics, and I think that
it works well here in the philosophy of personal identity too.

So, perhaps the answer you want is that someone who was
intermediate between you and George Bush would be some
tiny region in the intersection of those two fuzzy sets? Just
as we can morph images, someday we may be able to merge
or even morph memories. There could be a creature in
principle who remembers being you and being George Bush
in many different ways, with many possible memories deleted
(i.e. many different flavors). I'm not sure what the best term
would be. Some analogy would arise in the language that
would be fitting and natural.


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