Abstract Identity through Social Interaction

Identity is a complicated subject, made more confusing by the numerous different meanings in numerous different fields where we use the term. In mathematics, the term identity already takes on several different uses, but fortunately those uses are already rigorously defined and relatively uncontroversial. In the social sciences (including psychology, etc.) identity is something entirely different, and the subject of ongoing debate and research. In philosophy, identity refers to yet a third concept. While all of these meanings bare some relation to one another, it’s not at all obvious that they’re actually identical, so the whole thing is a bit of a mess. (See what I did there with the word “identical”? Common usage is a whole other barrel of monkeys, as it usually is.) Fortunately, the Stanford Encyclopedia has an excellent and thorough overview of the subject. I strongly suggest you go read at least the introduction before continuing.

Initially I will limit myself specifically to the questions of personally identity, paying specific attention to that concept applied over time, and to the interesting cloning and teleportation cases raised by Derek Parfit. If you’ve read and understood my previous posts, you will likely be able to predict my approach to this problem: it involves applying my theories of abstraction and social negotiation. In this case the end result is very close to that of David Hume, and my primary contribution is to provide a coherent and intuitive way of arriving at what is an apparently absurd conclusion.

The first and most important question is what, exactly, is personal identity? If we can answer this question in a thorough and satisfying way, then the vast majority of the related questions should be answerable relatively trivially. Hume argued that there is basically no such thing — we are just a bundle of sensations from one moment to the next, without any real existing thing to call the self. This view has been relatively widely ignored (as much as anything written by Hume, at any rate) as generally counter-intuitive. There seems to be obviously some thing that I can refer to as myself; the fact that nobody can agree if that thing is my mind, my soul, my body, or some other thing is irrelevant, there’s clearly something.

Fortunately, viewing the world through the lens of abstractions provides a simple way around this confusion. As with basically everything else, the self is an abstraction on top of the lower-level things that make up reality. This is still, unfortunately, relatively counter-intuitive. At the very least it has to be able to answer the challenge of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (roughly “I think therefore I am”). If the self is purely an abstraction, then what is doing the thinking about the abstraction? It does not seem reasonable that an abstraction is itself capable of thought — after all, an abstraction is just a mental construct to help us reason, it doesn’t actually exist in the necessary way to be capable of thought.


 

I wrote the above prelude about three weeks ago, then sat down to work through my solution again and got bogged down in a numerous complexities and details (my initial response to the Cartesian challenge was a bit of a cheat, and it took me a while to recognize that). I think I finally have a coherent solution, but it’s no longer as simple as I’d like and is still frankly a bit half-baked, even for me. I ended up drawing a lot on artificial intelligence as an analogy.

So, uh, *cough*, that leaves us in a bit of an interesting situation with respect to this blog, since it’s the first time I get to depart from my “planned” topics which I’d already more-or-less worked out in advance, and start throwing about wild ideas to see what sticks. This topic is already long, so it’s definitely going to be split across multiple posts. For now, I’ll leave you with an explicit statement of my conclusion, which hasn’t changed much: living beings, like all other macroscopic objects, are abstractions. This includes oneself. The experiential property (that sense of being there “watching” things happen) is an emergent property due to the complex reflexive interactions of various conscious and subconscious components of the brain. Identity (as much as it is distinct from consciousness proper) is something we apply to others first via socially negotiation and then develop for ourselves via analogy with the identities we have for others.

I realize that’s kinda messy, but this exploratory guesswork is the best part of philosophy. Onwards!

Conventional Language: A Problem of Social Negotiation

The philosophy of language is an extremely broad field covering a number of interesting problems. Unfortunately the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not appear to have an umbrella article on the topic, but the Wikipedia entry is fairly decent.

The SEP does, however, have an article on Conventions of Language, especially on how convention (effectively what I’ve been calling social negotiation) generates meaning. The Lewisian and Gricean accounts in that article provide an interesting “base” to build upon, which I will do by responding to some of the objections given in that article (and modifying them as I see fit along the way).

Sentences, Words, and the Components of Meaning (Stanford Section 7.2.2)

One such objection is on the relations of sentences to words, and how previously-unspoken sentences can have meaning since there must be no convention behind them (given that they’ve never before been spoken). This objection neatly knocks down the sentence-based accounts of Lewis and Grice, and appealing to just sentences-as-composed of words has its own serious problems. The underlying problem is that the unit of meaning is itself fuzzy.

Consider idiom: there is a Polish expression which roughly translates as “not my circus, not my monkey” and means, more generally “not my problem”. Here we have a phrase whose words would seem to mean one thing, but whose actual meaning is something else. Both meanings are valid, and both are due to social negotiation; it is simply that the conventional sentence meaning overrides the conventional word meaning for those who hear it (except in the context, of course, where an actual circus and monkey are present!).

It is perfectly possible for some person to speak fluent Polish but be totally unaware of this idiom: given that it is syntactically valid and composed only of known words, they would be able to assign a coherent meaning to it the first time they heard it, but the speaker would then be required to explain the convention in order to get their point across. However, if a circus and monkey were present, then our listener would be able to accurately construct the literal and intended meaning of the sentence without any additional explanation.

The point here is that the source of meanings is not specifically words, or sentences, or anything else. Meaning can be assigned to abstractions and speech-components of any size, and when we end up with multiple conflicting meanings at various layers of abstraction, we default to the “largest” (most abstract) unit unless context indicates otherwise.

Grammar and Radical Interpretation (Stanford Section 7.2.3)

Chomsky (further developed by Schiffer and others) argues that language is an internal process related to semantic and psychological properties bearing no special ties to social interaction or convention. This is a radically different tack, and not obviously wrong. It seems feasible, for example, for some person entirely isolated from any other being to develop and think in some new language. Where is the social negotiation in that?

Strictly speaking there isn’t any, but that simply makes the language entirely arbitrary. With no social interactions to bind the meanings and force conventions for practicality’s sake, the speaker is free to change it entirely at will. This makes the actual words and grammar used effectively meaningless, since the only association they actually have with the thought processes of the speaker is that speaker’s “speaker-meaning” (in the Gricean sense) at the time of utterance. If the speaker develops conventions regardless she is free to do so, but there “conventionality” is limited to the speaker’s habit, nothing more.

(Chomsky also does this bit about language as tacitly known grammatical rules, but I feel I effectively dealt with that tack in the previous section on multiple layers of meaning).

In a related way, Davidson points out that there are cases where we deviate from any conventional meaning (at any layer) and fall back to what he calls “radical interpretation” (effectively guessing based on context). Since we are capable of this radical interpretation at any time (when dealing with malapropisms, spoonerisms, etc), then in some sense language is independent of convention. I would argue that while radical interpretation is certainly communication, it is not actually language per se.

This redefinition is in some sense just a linguistic trick, but I believe it effectively answers the spirit of the argument: we are perfectly capable of communicating in some sense without language, though the process is laborious and error-prone. Just because we sometimes fall back on contextual clues when using language does not make those clues part of language itself, any more than falling back to a lower-level programming language for one part performance-critical piece of a program makes that lower-level language “part of” the principle language in use. They are simply different methods of communication that we are free to mix for our own convenience.

Head in the Clouds: The Problem of Many

Now that we have seen the problem of Material Constitution and how it is, in effect, a problem of abstraction, we shall turn to the Problem of Many. Coincidentally, the problem of many is another one with which Peter Unger is closely involved — you may recall that I borrowed parts of his eliminativist solution to the problem of material constitution in my previous post.

In the problem of many we are asked to consider a cloud. From the ground, a cloud may have clean, sharply-delineated borders, but of course this is an illusion. When we look more closely, we realize that the cloud is made of many water droplets, and that what appeared at first to be a sharp border is in fact a fuzzy “trailing off” as the water droplets become gradually less dense.

The question then becomes, what is a cloud? If we simply define it as a collection of water droplets in the air then we have two problems. First, our definition is clearly too broad as effectively all air in our atmosphere contains some moisture. Second, and more troubling, is that we also seem to have an enormous number of clouds where there appears to be only one. After all, if I take only the left half of our cloud, that is itself a collection of water droplets, and thus a cloud in its own right. But this trick can be used to create a “cloud” for every possible subset of water droplets, which defies our understanding of clouds. Should we say that the main cloud is composed of millions of overlapping little clouds of every possible shape and size? That seems absurd.

As with material constitution, Unger’s solution is one from which I draw inspiration but do eventually deviate. Unger’s move was to claim that for certain conceptual reasons involving inconsistent definitions, there are no clouds. This, as the Stanford Encyclopedia article notes, is counter-intuitive, and I find Unger’s reasons for his conclusion rather confusing. At this point, my approach in the next few paragraphs should be obvious if you’ve read my previous posts (especially the most recent one on material constitution).

Once again, we are faced with a disagreement not about the nature of the underlying reality (which, for our purposes, can be talked about in terms of water droplets) but about how to define, delineate, conceptualize and refer to that reality. Unger is, in a sense, correct: there are no clouds in the fundamental underlying reality (just as there were no ships in our discussion of the Ship of Theseus). However, when I point in the sky and say “Look, a cloud” I am not talking nonsense; I am referring to the shared abstraction of a cloud, constructed via sociolinguistic negotiation.

In this view, there is one cloud and not millions simply because we all agree that there is only one cloud. If there were two cloud-shaped groups of water droplets very close to one another, it is entirely possible that one person would call them “two clouds” and another person would call them “one cloud with a very thin spot”. It would be wrong to assume that in this situation one of those people would be wrong and one would be right; wrong and right in that sense are a property only of facts about reality, not about our abstractions on top.

As long as you are consistent in your abstractions, you can have as many clouds as you want.

Material Constitution: A Problem of Abstraction

The first philosophical problem we will tackle is known as the problem of material constitution. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains a wealth of information on all sorts of interesting philosophical problems, so expect to see it linked a lot in this section. Its article on material constitution is well worth reading: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/material-constitution/

The problem of material constitution can be demonstrated in a few different ways: one of my favourites is the story of the Ship of Theseus. In this story, the famous wooden Ship of Theseus is preserved in a museum. Over time, its boards wear out and are replaced until eventually not a single original board remains in the ship. Is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Taking the problem a step further, suppose someone has been collecting the worn-out boards, and when all the boards have been replaced, they construct a (substantially worn-down) ship out of the original boards. We now have two complete ships, both of which have some claim to the original identity of the Ship of Theseus. Which is the real one?

Skimming the Stanford entry, there are two popular solutions which seem to somehow fit within the framework I’ve layed out so far: Unger’s Eliminativism (section 4), and Carnap’s Deflationism (section 7). In effect, my solution is a synthesis of these two approaches.

Recall for a moment my third axiom: “There is some underlying consistent reality that is made up of things”. Also note the scientific reality of molecules and atoms etc. My fundamental claim follows naturally from these and is quite similar to Unger’s: properly speaking there is no such thing as a ship, there is only some collection of things in the underlying reality (the correct word is “atoms”, but it’s already been used for something else by physics!) that are arranged in a pattern we think of as a ship. To quote the Stanford article, “the most common reaction to this claim is an incredulous stare”, and here is where I am able to draw on Carnap’s Deflationism and my own work to go beyond Unger and provide a coherent answer.

When you say “but of course there are such things as ships” and I say “there is no such thing as a ship”, strictly speaking we are both right — we are using different meanings of the word is. The problem, as Carnap would argue, is only linguistic.

For this to make sense, recall way back to my post on Truth and Knowledge. We have now covered enough to realize that what I originally referred to as “Relative Truth” is nothing more than the set of abstractions we work with in our day-to-day life. Using these tools, we can see that when you say “but of course there are such things as ships” you are referring to the abstraction of a ship, the relative truth of the fact. The “ship” abstraction is one we both presumably share, so I am happy to grant your claim. However, when I say “there is no such thing as a ship” I am referring to the fundamental being of a ship, the absolute truth of the fact. Since ships are made up of molecules and atoms, there is no such thing that is, in itself, the ship, and so my claim is also correct.

To conclude, both Unger and Carnap were right, as far as it went; they each simply missed half the picture. In the Ship of Theseus, there is no conflict about what happens to the underlying reality (whether it consists of particles or something more exotic). The only question lies in what we call the resulting abstractions, and this is an issue because here there is no absolute truth to refer to; they are only abstractions, and abstractions are perpetually subject to the process of social negotiation.

Roadmap #4: Philosophical Problem-Solving

Wow, onto our fourth major section. I didn’t think I’d still be writing these after this many months 🙂

Having started with some really foundational philosophy, covering systems theory, and then touching on practical human behaviour, our fourth section is a return to philosophy in a much more practical way. We’ve finally built enough of a foundation that we can actually put it to use, so we’re going to do just that in order to knock down well-known philosophy problems one after another.

I’ve included one level of sub-topics in this roadmap because I’m not sure at this point how much I’ll fit into each post, whether I’ll end up doing one post per approach (potentially dealing with several problems at once) or one post per problem, spreading the same approach across multiple posts.

[edited after the fact to partly match what I actually wrote; I kind of petered out halfway through and revisited some of these topics much later]

I’m going to love this section. Allons-y!