Posts Tagged identity

Jokes and Memory

Friday, November 26, 2010
What’s the worst joke you ever heard?

This is an odd prompt – why would I remember a bad joke?  But then I realized that you could take “worst” in a number of ways, “most bad quality” being only one of them, and maybe this meant “most offensive/terrible.”  Of course, about the same time I started thinking about memory and its implications, so this blog post will cover both!

I spent a long while one day in college reviewing, which I sometimes call “Texts from Last Night before Texting.”  Bash was a repository for hilarious things said on IRC (in public chat online).  My favorite was the following, which could definitely be considered “most offensive/terrible”:

Joker: You know Hitler killed six million Jews and one clown.
Fish: Why the clown?
Joker: See, nobody cares about the Jews!

I apologize to everyone I have now offended with this hilariously offensive bit of humor from

Memory is odd – I am kind of terrified of ever losing pieces of my memory, because I consider Myself to be somewhat firmly attached to the sum of my experiences.  The awful thing, of course, is if you start forgetting things, how would you know?  There’s the possibility you would know something is missing, either through some internal sense or by comparison with the world around you, but it’s still frightening.  I spoke almost a year ago on Identity and how I feel memory is tied up with it, and perhaps the trick is to fully accept that every moment the “I” is being reinvented in small irreversible ways, and it is this set of Daves that forms my identity.  It’s just so weird to think about sometimes!

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Who am I?  Who is anyone?  How do you tell if, after going through some transformational experience, you are still you?  These are the sorts of questions about identity that keep me up at night.

One of the core issues of identity to me is the difference (or gap, I guess) between the way I make my thoughts (let’s call it agency) and the sum of my experiences (let’s call it memory).  Throughout my life, as I experience new things, I am continuously altering myself in tiny ways.  I like to think of myself as the combination of my memories, but this immediately leads to a problem: if I somehow lost my memory, or if, in the course of aging, I became unable to recall some memories, am I a different person entirely?  This bothers me – I think that I have an unbroken chain of identity through my life, so that each moment I can still lay claim to being “me”.

On the flip side, if I were to suffer some huge shift in personality or ability to think, would that alter my agency and thus my identity?  This seems like a more likely candidate to change Dave from “me” to “someone else”.  Of course, once again we consider the case where over time, I subtly but surely alter my thought patterns in response to experience.  Is this different than the radical shift I proposed first?  My guess is it’s not very different at all.  So where alteration of memory seems irrelevant to my identity, alteration of agency seems highly relevant.

There’s another factor – the continuity of my physical body (by which I mean brain) – but I choose to discount it (see my posts on Free Will).  That’s because I think the relevant factor in identity is some combination of memory and agency, and not physical being.  I think that if a person could somehow be transferred into pure energy or information (as in, running on a computer system), the chain of identity for that person could remain unbroken and they would still be “them” (curse you, English, for no neuter third person singular for individuals!).

This brings us to the extreme cases:

  • Teletransportation – I think I am still me.  The continuity of the physical body is not relevant to me… but there’s yet another factor here: my BELIEF that I am the same person.  Dennett considers this in his essay Where Am I? In the case where the teletransport can make a copy, which is the real me?  Are both the real me?  What does that mean for my conception of identity?
  • Replacement of Brain with Machine – This one gets me thinking again about how agency is represented.  Maybe there’s something really complicated about natural brain changes over time that this replacement with machine parts couldn’t capture.  Another random thought – this means that a computer simulation could potentially model me and claim to be me… would it be?  I want to say “no” but I can’t really give a reason – I don’t think that the initial biological organism has any special claim of primacy here.
  • Soul Removal – When the issue is forced, and I have to say whether I believe in a nonphysical soul, I have to say not really – there’s no particular evidence to convince me, and I feel like the universe is complex enough to handle all of my existential questions without the need for hidden variables.  As to my answer to the question, I think I am still me… but I would feel bad.

Here’s a parting thought: I often stop and think, why is it that I am in this moment, thinking this thought, of all the possible moments I could be living as “now” – and of all the people I could be?  It’s very frustrating to be unable to even consider the question of why in a thorough manner with respect to this problem of identity.

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Identification, Please

Some thought experiments before getting into definitions and discussions of identity (as discussed by me and some college friends during a recent visit; I can’t find the website with them in quiz form):

EDIT: Todd found it! The questions below, in quiz form.

  1. You are traveling to Mars.  You have two options for getting there: spacecraft or teletransportation.  The spacecraft is pretty dangerous: there’s a 50% chance you’ll die in transit.  The teletransportation method will disassemble you at the origin (Earth), transmit you as information, and reconstruct you at the destination (Mars).  Which do you choose?
  2. You are suffering from a peculiar neurological malady.  You have two options: you can let it run its course, or you can go through a process designed to fix it.  If it runs its course, your brain will be screwed up and you’ll have a radical personality shift.  The process to fix it involves replacing all of your brain, piece by piece, with new techy brainlike material – you’ll retain your current personality (totally cured) but when the process is complete, none of your original brain will remain.  Which do you choose?
  3. Scientists discover the nature of the soul (or agency, or consciousness, whatever you prefer), around the same time that you contract a deadly disease.  It turns out the soul will leave a dead body and attach to a newborn, a sort of reincarnation.  You have two options: you can let the deadly disease run its course, have about a 50/50 chance of dying, and your soul will reincarnate to a new host, or you can be put into cryostasis long enough to cure the disease.  The same research which determined the nature of the soul also found that this cryostasis operation will destroy your soul.  Which do you choose?

Another really interesting essay on identity, via Kelly: Where Am I?

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