The illusion of Persistent Identity & the Role of Information in Identity

After reading and commenting on a post at “A Philosopher’s Take” by James DiGiovanna titled Responsibility, Identity, and Artificial Beings: Persons, Supra-persons and Para-persons, I decided to expand on the topic of personal identity.

Personal Identity Concepts & Criteria

I think when most people talk about personal identity, they are referring to how they see themselves and how they see others in terms of personality and some assortment of (usually prominent) cognitive and behavioral traits.  Basically, they see it as what makes a person unique and in some way distinguishable from another person.  And even this rudimentary concept can be broken down into at least two parts, namely, how we see ourselves (self-ascribed identity) and how others see us (which we could call the inferred identity of someone else), since they are likely going to differ.  While most people tend to think of identity in these ways, when philosophers talk about personal identity, they are usually referring to the unique numerical identity of a person.  Roughly speaking, this amounts to basically whatever conditions or properties that are both necessary and sufficient such that a person at one point in time and a person at another point in time can be considered the same person — with a temporal continuity between those points in time.

Usually the criterion put forward for this personal identity is supposed to be some form of spatiotemporal and/or psychological continuity.  I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the question of which criterion is correct has already framed the debate with the assumption that a personal (numerical) identity exists in the first place and even if it did exist, it also assumes that the criterion is something that would be determinable in some way.  While it is not unfounded to believe that some properties exist that we could ascribe to all persons (simply because of what we find in common with all persons we’ve interacted with thus far), I think it is far too presumptuous to believe that there is a numerical identity underlying our basic conceptions of personal identity and a determinable criterion for it.  At best, I think if one finds any kind of numerical identity for persons that persist over time, it is not going to be compatible with our intuitions nor is it going to be applicable in any pragmatic way.

As I mention pragmatism, I am sympathetic to Parfit’s views in the sense that regardless of what one finds the criteria for numerical personal identity to be (if it exists), the only thing that really matters to us is psychological continuity anyway.  So despite the fact that Locke’s view — that psychological continuity (via memory) was the criterion for personal identity — was in fact shown to be based on circular and illogical arguments (per Butler, Reid and others), nevertheless I give applause to his basic idea.  Locke seemed to be on the right track, in that psychological continuity (in some sense involving memory and consciousness) is really the essence of what we care about when defining persons, even if it can’t be used as a valid criterion in the way he proposed.

(Non) Persistence & Pragmatic Use of a Personal Identity Concept

I think that the search for, and long debates over, what the best criterion for personal identity is, has illustrated that what people have been trying to label as personal identity should probably be relabeled as some sort of pragmatic pseudo-identity. The pragmatic considerations behind the common and intuitive conceptions of personal identity have no doubt steered the debate pertaining to any possible criteria for helping to define it, and so we can still value those considerations even if a numerical personal identity doesn’t really exist (that is, even if it is nothing more than a pseudo-identity) and even if a diachronic numerical personal identity does exist but isn’t useful in any way.

If the object/subject that we refer to as “I” or “me” is constantly changing with every passing moment of time both physically and psychologically, then I tend to think that the self (that many people ascribe as the “agent” of our personal identity) is an illusion of some sort.  I tend to side more with Hume on this point (or at least James Giles’ fair interpretation of Hume) in that my views seem to be some version of a no-self or eliminativist theory of personal identity.  As Hume pointed out, even though we intuitively ascribe a self and thereby some kind of personal identity, there is no logical reason supported by our subjective experience to think it is anything but a figment of the imagination.  This illusion results from our perceptions flowing from one to the next, with a barrage of changes taking place with this “self” over time that we simply don’t notice taking place — at least not without critical reflection on our past experiences of this ever-changing “self”.  The psychological continuity that Locke described seems to be the main driving force behind this illusory self since there is an overlap in the memories of the succession of persons.

I think one could say that if there is any numerical identity that is associated with the term “I” or “me”, it only exists for a short moment of time in one specific spatio-temporal slice, and then as the next perceivable moment elapses, what used to be “I” will become someone else, even if the new person that comes into being is still referred to as “I” or “me” by a person that possesses roughly the same configuration of matter in its body and brain as the previous person.  Since the neighboring identities have an overlap in accessible memory including autobiographical memories, memories of past experiences generally, and the memories pertaining to the evolving desires that motivate behavior, we shouldn’t expect this succession of persons to be noticed or perceived by the illusory self because each identity has access to a set of memories that is sufficiently similar to the set of memories accessible to the previous or successive identity.  And this sufficient degree of similarity in those identities’ memories allow for a seemingly persistent autobiographical “self” with goals.

As for the pragmatic reasons for considering all of these “I”s and “me”s to be the same person and some singular identity over time, we can see that there is a causal dependency between each member of this “chain of spatio-temporal identities” that I think exists, and so treating that chain of interconnected identities as one being is extremely intuitive and also incredibly useful for accomplishing goals (which is likely the reason why evolution would favor brains that can intuit this concept of a persistent “self” and the near uni-directional behavior that results from it).  There is a continuity of memory and behaviors (even though both change over time, both in terms of the number of memories and their accuracy) and this continuity allows for a process of conditioning to modify behavior in ways that actively rely on those chains of memories of past experiences.  We behave as if we are a single person moving through time and space (and as if we are surrounded by other temporally extended single person’s behaving in similar ways) and this provides a means of assigning ethical and causal responsibility to something or more specifically to some agent.  Quite simply, by having those different identities referenced under one label and physically attached to or instantiated by something localized, that allows for that pragmatic pseudo-identity to persist over time in order for various goals (whether personal or interpersonal/societal) to be accomplished.

“The Persons Problem” and a “Speciation” Analogy

I came up with an analogy that I thought was very fitting to this concept.  One could analogize this succession of identities that get clumped into one bulk pragmatic-pseudo-identity with the evolutionary concept of speciation.  For example, a sequence of identities somehow constitute an intuitively persistent personal identity, just as a sequence of biological generations somehow constitute a particular species due to the high degree of similarity between them all.  The apparent difficulty lies in the fact that, at some point after enough identities have succeeded one another, even the intuitive conception of a personal identity changes markedly to the point of being unrecognizable from its ancestral predecessor, just as enough biological generations transpiring eventually leads to what we call a new species.  It’s difficult to define exactly when that speciation event happens (hence the species problem), and we have a similar problem with personal identity I think.  Where does it begin and end?  If personal identity changes over the course of a lifetime, when does one person become another?  I could think of “me” as the same “me” that existed one year ago, but if I go far enough back in time, say to when I was five years old, it is clear that “I” am a completely different person now when compared to that five year old (different beliefs, goals, worldview, ontology, etc.).  There seems to have been an identity “speciation” event of some sort even though it is hard to define exactly when that was.

Biologists have tried to solve their species problem by coming up with various criteria to help for taxonomical purposes at the very least, but what they’ve wound up with at this point is several different criteria for defining a species that are each effective for different purposes (e.g. biological-species concept, morpho-species concept, phylogenetic-species concept, etc.), and without any single “correct” answer since they are all situationally more or less useful.  Similarly, some philosophers have had a persons problem that they’ve been trying to solve and I gather that it is insoluble for similar “fuzzy boundary” reasons (indeterminate properties, situationally dependent properties, etc.).

The Role of Information in a Personal Identity Concept

Anyway, rather than attempt to solve the numerical personal identity problem, I think that philosophers need to focus more on the importance of the concept of information and how it can be used to try and arrive at a more objective and pragmatic description of the personal identity of some cognitive agent (even if it is not used as a criterion for numerical identity, since information can be copied and the copies can be distinguished from one another numerically).  I think this is especially true once we take some of the concerns that James DiGiovanna brought up concerning the integration of future AI into our society.

If all of the beliefs, behaviors, and causal driving forces in a cognitive agent can be represented in terms of information, then I think we can implement more universal conditioning principles within our ethical and societal framework since they will be based more on the information content of the person’s identity without putting as much importance on numerical identity nor as much importance on our intuitions of persisting people (since they will be challenged by several kinds of foreseeable future AI scenarios).

To illustrate this point, I’ll address one of James DiGiovanna’s conundrums.  James asks us:

To give some quick examples: suppose an AI commits a crime, and then, judging its actions wrong, immediately reforms itself so that it will never commit a crime again. Further, it makes restitution. Would it make sense to punish the AI? What if it had completely rewritten its memory and personality, so that, while there was still a physical continuity, it had no psychological content in common with the prior being? Or suppose an AI commits a crime, and then destroys itself. If a duplicate of its programming was started elsewhere, would it be guilty of the crime? What if twelve duplicates were made? Should they each be punished?

In the first case, if the information constituting the new identity of the AI after reprogramming is such that it no longer needs any kind of conditioning, then it would be senseless to punish the AI — other than to appease humans that may be angry that they couldn’t themselves avoid punishment in this way, due to having a much slower and less effective means of reprogramming themselves.  I would say that the reprogrammed AI is guilty of the crime, but only if its reprogrammed memory still included information pertaining to having performed those past criminal behaviors.  However, if those “criminal memories” are now gone via the reprogramming then I’d say that the AI is not guilty of the crime because the information constituting its identity doesn’t match that of the criminal AI.  It would have no recollection of having committed the crime and so “it” would not have committed the crime since that “it” was lost in the reprogramming process due to the dramatic change in information that took place.

In the latter scenario, if the information constituting the identity of the destroyed AI was re-instantiated elsewhere, then I would say that it is in fact guilty of the crime — though it would not be numerically guilty of the crime but rather qualitatively guilty of the crime (to differentiate between the numerical and qualitative personal identity concepts that are embedded in the concept of guilt).  If twelve duplicates of this information were instantiated into new AI hardware, then likewise all twelve of those cognitive agents would be qualitatively guilty of the crime.  What actions should be taken based on qualitative guilt?  I think it means that the AI should be punished or more specifically that the judicial system should perform the reconditioning required to modify their behavior as if it had committed the crime (especially if the AI believes/remembers that it has committed the crime), for the better of society.  If this can be accomplished through reprogramming, then that would be the most rational thing to do without any need for traditional forms of punishment.

We can analogize this with another thought experiment with human beings.  If we imagine a human that has had its memories changed so that it believes it is Charles Manson, has all of Charles Manson’s memories and intentions, then that person should be treated as if they are Charles Manson and thus incarcerated/punished accordingly to rehabilitate them or protect the other members of society.  This is assuming of course that we had reliable access to that kind of mind-reading knowledge.  If we did, the information constituting the identity of that person would be what is most important — not what the actual previous actions of the person were — because the “previous person” was someone else, due to that gross change in information.

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Dreams, Dialogue, and the Unconscious

It has long been believed that our mental structure consists of both a conscious and an unconscious element.  While the conscious element has been studied exhaustively, there seems to be relatively little known about the unconscious.  We can certainly infer that it exists as every part of the self that we can’t control or are not aware of must necessarily be mediated by the unconscious.  To be sure, the fields of neuroscience and psychology (among others) have provided a plethora of evidence related to the unconscious in terms of neuronal structures and activity, and the influence it has on our behavior, respectively.  However, trying to actually access the unconscious mind has proven to be quite difficult.  How can one hope to access this hidden yet incredibly powerful portion of themselves?  In this post, I plan to discuss what I believe to be two effective ways with which we can learn more about ourselves and access that which seems to elude us day-in and day-out.

Concept of Self

It is clear that we have an idea of who we are as individuals.  We consciously know what many of our interests are, what our philosophical and/or religious beliefs are, and we also have a subjective view of what we believe to be our personality traits.  I prefer to define this aspect of the self as the “Me”.  In short, the “Me” is the conscious subjective view one holds about themselves.

Another aspect of the self is the “You”, or the way others see you from their own subjective perspective.  It goes without saying that others view us very differently than we view ourselves.  People see things about us that we just don’t notice or that we deny to be true, whether they are particular personality traits or various behavioral tendencies.  Due to the fact that most people put on a social mask when they interact with others, the “You” ends up including not only some real albeit unknown aspects of the self, but also how you want to be seen by others and how they want to see you.  So I believe that the “You” is the social self — that which is implied by the individual and that which is inferred by another person.  I believe that the implied self and the inferred self involve both a conscious and unconscious element from each party, and thus the implication and inference will generally be quite different regardless of any of the limitations of language.

Finally, we have the aspect of the self which is typically unreachable and seems to be operating in the background.   I believe that this portion of the self ultimately drives us to think and behave the way we do, and accounts for what we may describe to be a form of “auto-pilot”.  This of course is the unconscious portion of the self.  I would call this aspect of the self the “I”.  In my opinion, it is the “I” that represents who we really are as a person (independent of subjective perspectives), as I believe everything conscious about the self is ultimately derived from this “I”.  The “I” includes the beliefs, interests, disinterests, etc., that we are not aware of yet are likely to exist based on some of our behaviors that conflict with our conscious intentions.  This aspect in particular is what I would describe as the objective self, and consequently it is that which we can never fully access or know about with any certainty.

Using the “You” to Access the “I”

I believe that the “You” is in fact a portal to access the “I”, for the portion of this “You” that is not derived from one’s artificial social mask will certainly contain at least some truths about one’s self that are either not consciously evident or are not believed by the “Me” to be true, even if they are in fact true.  Thus, in my opinion it is the inter-subjective communication with others that allows us to learn more about our unconscious self than any other method or action.  I also believe that this in fact accounts for most of the efficacy provided by mental health counseling.  That is, by having a discourse with someone else, we are getting another subjective perspective of the self that is not tainted with our own predispositions.  Even if the conversation isn’t specifically about you, by another person simply sharing their subjective perspective about anything at all, they are providing you with novel ways of looking at things, and if these perspectives weren’t evident in your conscious repertoire, they may in fact probe the unconscious (by providing recognition cues for unconscious concepts or beliefs).

The key lies in analyzing those external perspectives with an open mind, so that denial and the fear of knowing ourselves do not dominate and hinder this access.  Let’s face it, people often hear what they want to hear (whether about themselves or anything else for that matter), and we often unknowingly ignore the rest in order to feel comfortable and secure.  This sought-out comfort severely inhibits one’s personal growth and thus, at least periodically, we need to be able to depart from our comfort zone so that we can be true to others and be true to ourselves.

It is also important for us to strive to really listen to what others have to say rather than just waiting for our turn to speak.  In doing so, we will gain the most knowledge and get the most out of the human experience.  In particular, by critically listening to others we will learn the most about our “self” including the unconscious aspect.  While I certainly believe that inter-subjective communication is an effective way for us to access the “I”, it is generally only effective if those whom we’re speaking with are open and honest as well.  If they are only attempting to tell you what you want to hear, then even if you embrace their perspective with an open mind, it will not have much of any substance nor be nearly as useful.  There needs to be a mutual understanding that being open and honest is absolutely crucial for a productive discourse to transpire.  All parties involved will benefit from this mutual effort, as everyone will have a chance to gain access to their unconscious.

Another way that inter-subjective communication can help in accessing the unconscious is through mutual projection.  As I mentioned earlier, the “You” is often distorted by others hearing what they want to hear and by your social mask giving others a false impression of who you are.  However, they also tend to project their own insecurities into the “You”.  That is, if a person talking with you says specific things about you, they may in fact be a result of that person unknowingly projecting their own attributes onto you.  If they are uncomfortable with some aspect of themselves, they may accuse you of possessing the aspect, thus using projection as a defense mechanism.  Thus, if we pay attention to ourselves in terms of how we talk about others, we may learn more about our own unconscious projections.  Fortunately, if the person you’re speaking with knows you quite well and senses that you are projecting, they may point it out to you and vice versa.

Dream Analysis

Another potentially useful method for accessing the unconscious is an analysis of one’s dreams.  Freud, Jung and other well-known psychologists have endorsed this method as an effective psychoanalytic tool.  When we are dreaming, our brain is in a reduced-conscious if not unconscious state (although the brain is highly active within the dream-associated REM phase).  I believe that due to the decreased sensory input and stimulation during sleep, the brain has more opportunities to “fill in the blanks” and make an alternate conceptualization of reality.  This may provide a platform for unconscious expression.  When our brain constructs the dream content it seems to be utilizing a mixture of memories, current sensory stimuli constituting the sleeper’s environment (albeit a minimal amount — and perhaps necessarily so), and elements from the unconscious.  By analyzing our dreams, we have a chance to try and interpret symbolic representations likely stemming from the unconscious.  While I don’t believe that we can ever know for sure that which came from the unconscious, by asking ourselves questions relating to the dream content and making a concerted effort to analyze the dream, we will likely discover at least some elements of our unconscious, even if we have no way of confirming the origin or significance of each dream component.

Again, just as we must be open-minded and willing to face previously unknown aspects of ourselves during the aforementioned inter-subjective experience, we must also be willing to do the same during any dream analysis.  You must be willing to identify personal weaknesses, insecurities, and potentially repressed emotions.  Surely there can be aspects of our unconscious that we’d like and appreciate if discovered, but there will likely be a tendency to repress that which we find repulsive about ourselves.  Thus, I believe that the unconscious contains more negative things about our self than positive things (as implied by Jung’s “Shadow” archetype).

How might one begin such an analysis?  Obviously we must first obtain some data by recording the details of our dreams.  As soon as you wake up after a dream, take advantage of the opportunity to record as many details as you can in order to be more confident with the analysis.  The longer you wait, the more likely the information will become distorted or lost altogether (as we’ve all experienced at one time or another).  As you record these details, try and include different elements of the dream so that you aren’t only recording your perceptions, but also how the setting or events made you feel emotionally.  Note any ambiguities no matter how trivial, mundane, or irrelevant they may seem.  For example, if you happen to notice groups of people or objects in your dreams, try to note how many there are as that number may be significant.  If it seems that the dream is set in the past, try to infer the approximate date.  Various details may be subtle indicators of unconscious material.

Often times dreams are not very easy to describe because they tend to deviate from reality and have a largely irrational and/or emotional structure.  All we can do is try our best to describe what we can remember even if it seems non-sensical or is difficult to articulate.

As for the analysis of the dream content, I try and ask myself specific questions within the context of the dream.  The primary questions include:

  • What might this person, place, or thing symbolize, if they aren’t taken at face value?  That is, what kinds of emotions, qualities, or properties do I associate with these dream contents?
  • If I think my associations for the dream contents are atypical, then what associations might be more common?  In other words, what would I expect the average person to associate the dream content with?  (Collective or personal opinions may present themselves in dreams)

Once these primary questions are addressed, I ask myself questions that may or may not seem to relate to my dream, in order to probe the psyche.  For example:

  • Are there currently any conflicts in my life? (whether involving others or not)
  • If there are conflicts with others, do I desire some form of reconciliation or closure?
  • Have I been feeling guilty about anything lately?
  • Do I have any long term goals set for myself, and if so, are they being realized?
  • What do I like about myself, and why?
  • What do I dislike about myself, and why?  Or perhaps, what would I like to change about myself?
  • Do certain personality traits I feel I possess remind me of anyone else I know?  If so, what is my overall view of that person?
  • Am I envious of anyone else’s life, and if so, what aspects of their life are envied?
  • Are there any childhood experiences I repeatedly think about (good or bad)?
  • Are there any recurring dreams or recurring elements within different dreams?  If so, why might they be significant?
  • Are there any accomplishments that I’m especially proud of?
  • What elements of my past do I regret?
  • How would I describe the relationships with my family and friends?
  • Do I have anyone in my life that I would consider an enemy?  If so, why do I consider them an enemy?
  • How would I describe my sexuality, and my sex life?
  • Am I happy with my current job or career?
  • Do I feel that my life has purpose or that I am well fulfilled?
  • What types of things about myself would I be least comfortable sharing with others?
  • Do I have undesired behaviors that I feel are out of my control?
  • Do I feel the need to escape myself or the world around me?  If so, what might I be doing in order to escape? (e.g. abusing drugs, abusing television or other virtual-reality media, anti-social seclusion, etc.)
  • Might I be suffering from some form of cognitive dissonance as a result of me having conflicting values or beliefs?  Are there any beliefs which I’ve become deeply invested in that I may now doubt to be true, or that may be incompatible with my other beliefs?  If the answer is “no”, then I would ask:  Are there any beliefs that I’ve become deeply invested in, and if so, in what ways could they be threatened?

These questions are intended to probe one’s self beneath the surface.  By asking ourselves specific questions like this, particularly in relation to our dream contents, I believe that we can gain access to the unconscious simply by addressing concepts and potential issues that are often left out-of-sight and out-of-mind.  How we answer these questions isn’t as important as asking them in the first place.  We may deny that we have problems or personal weaknesses as we answer these questions, but asking them will continue to bring our attention to these subjects and elements of ourselves that we often take for granted or prefer not to think about.  In doing so, I believe one will at least have a better chance at accessing the unconscious than if they hadn’t made an attempt at all.

In terms of answering the various questions listed above, the analysis will likely be more useful if you go over the questions a second time, and reverse or change your previous instinctual answer while trying to justify the reversal or change.  This exercise will force you to think about yourself in new ways that might improve access to the unconscious, since you are effectively minimizing the barriers brought on through rationalization and denial.

Final Thoughts

So as we can see, while the unconscious mind may seem inaccessible, there appear to be at least two ways with which we can gain some access.  Inter-subjective communication allows us access to the “I” via the “You”, and access to both the speaker’s and the listener’s unconscious is accomplished via mutual projection.  Dreams and the analysis of such appears to be yet another method for accessing the unconscious.  Since our brains appear to be in a semi-conscious state, the brain may be capable of cognitive processes that aren’t saturated by sensory input from the outside world.  This reduction in sensory input may in fact give the brain more opportunities to “fill in the blanks” (or so to speak), and this may provide a platform for unconscious expression.  So in short, it appears that there are at least a few effective methods for accessing the unconscious self.  The bigger question is:  Are we willing to face this hidden side of ourselves?