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Arguments Supporting Open Individualism

by Iacopo Vettori – January 2012

“But he has nothing on at all!” said a little child at last.
(Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor's New Clothes")

1) An informatics model of personal identity
An informatics version of the group of dualist theories and the group of reductionist theories, showing how OI can be considered a theory of the reductionist group and allows it to override that distinction.

My mean concern will be to show that OI does not really require any extraordinary assumption over what the alternative views already require. In the last part I will then present the argument that I believe makes the OI the most rational theory, other things being equal. The first part, in this and in the two following chapters, covers the same kind of work that Daniel Kolak did in great detail in his book “I Am You”. The adopted information science methodology used here is, I believe, compatible with what he wrote. Kolak in his book leaves a lot of room to alternative interpretations of OI, as he presents it as a “full-contact philosophy” that may fit to every metaphysics. I will try to go one step beyond, accepting some restrictions in order to avoid any mystical charging, criticizing our common sense identity concept, and underlining some problems that are hidden in traditional reductionist and dualistic metaphysics. I will finally discuss the basic problem which only OI can rationally answer.

One of the most important questions that I want to make clear is why OI can be considered, at least in the version that I subscribe to, a reductionist theory. Here I am using the term "reductionism" in a non strictly traditional way, i.e. meaning that consciousness could be reduced to something of material, but in a weaker sense, i.e. that the emergence of the consciousness requires some physical structure that could be described and could be used to check if a given physical structure represents a conscious living being or not. This conception may concede that the mystery of consciousness might not be completely explained in terms of matter, but still firmly retain that it requires a particular physical structure to emerge and manifest itself. Actually OI results to be fundamentally agnostic regarding the dualism/reductionism contraposition. This happens because the primary problem that causes this contraposition is the question if we have something that may have the role of the soul or not. As OI eliminates the need of using any kind of placeholder of our personal identity, the conflict between reductionism and dualism become less important. It could be summarized by the single question about the full reducibility of all the behaviour of living physical structures to some mandatory physical laws, eliminating the possibility that any form of willingness might express itself independently by them, even if the consciousness' emersion would remain a fact beyond any possible explanation, especially if the behaviour of the matter would not be influenced by it in any way. But once separated from the problem related to our personal identity, the question takes the form of a non-decidable problem, especially considering that our mental behaviour is influenced by quantum phenomena that can be investigated only with statistical methods.

Anyway, my position is that the base element of reality is information. The concept of information links together the concepts of material data and the abstract capacity to interpret them as something meaningful. The same concept of "meaning" implies something that is understood by somebody, i.e. the coexistence of a physical part and a mental part. This can be considered as a form of dialectical monism or maybe better of neutral monism. I will do some more considerations of this type in the final part of this paper, but anyhow this view does not affect the reasoning that I will explain. What I really care about here is to give an interpretation of OI that does not need any mystical concept as a "Cosmic Soul" or something like that, nor that presupposes any hidden link between all of us that may allow us to express a common willingness or to share information between us. Nor do I want to deny this possibility, I just want to show that this hypothesis is not necessary. It is possible, and it is sufficient for the admissibility of OI to think that all that we can experience is just the kind of life with limited conscious faculties like the ones that we are currently living. What I really mean is that this kind of OI does not need anything that could be considered mystical.

According to the weak concept of “reductionism” that I adopt, and considering the aim of this paper, I classify the theories as "reductionist" or "dualist" not basing this choice on their opinion about the full reducibility of the mystery of consciousness to something of material, but basing it on their requirement to identify univocally any conscious living being. A strong or weak reductionist theory cannot require anything more than what can be deduced in a detailed description of it. A dualist theory requires something more, but incurring in some further problems as we will see later. Actually, for Open Individualism the problem does not exist at all, because there is nothing that makes our person different. Therefore, as it does not need to add anything to the physical description of conscious beings to identify them univocally, it can be considered a reductionist theory, at least in the weaker sense, if we think that anyway the consciousness needs some complex physical structure to have the chance to emerge. In this way the question if a fully reductionist theory is possible or not becomes a separated question that does not affect the plausibility of OI. Let us see this in detail, as it will give us a model to define clearly other problems that we will debate next. We will start considering how we may evaluate the theoretical set of all the conscious living beings according to every non-OI theory, in order to define the key differences between reductionism and dualism.

My considerations are influenced by my experience in computer programming, so I propose an informatics model to determine if a theory is of dualist or reductionist type. Imagine that any possible conscious living being could be described in the degree of detail that you want, until you reach the detail level that you retain to be sufficient to capture not only the fact that the entity described is a conscious living being, but also to univocally define its personal identity. You could reach the sub-atomic level if you want, and you may even imagine to access some hypothetical hidden information inside elementary particles, or to have some future knowledge not available today: the only discrimination here is that the information could be described at last theoretically, no matter if we actually can do it. This must be possible in principle for every non-OI reductionist theory, because they don't need to add any further indescribable element (something that might be considered like a soul) to distinguish univocally the personal identity of each actual conscious living being.

We can imagine a huge database table, with a huge number of columns, each of them corresponding to an information that plays a part in this complete description, and a number of rows, that eventually could be considered infinite, each corresponding to a different conscious living being, with a defined personal identity. This will be the table of “All the Conscious Living Beings” (ACLB table for brevity). This kind of informatics description has the largest degree of freedom: you can imagine that the information stored contains anything you may think necessary to include any form of weird conscious life. Somebody may want to think that each row describes a whole body, somebody else might prefer to think that each row contains the detailed description of the neural network of the brain of each being. We could even imagine that each row contains the detailed story of all the life of a living being: our considerations will be so general that they are valid in every case. We may imagine that not all the attributes contained in a row are fundamental to define the personal identity, but if we adopt a non-OI reductionist theory, we must assume that even personal identity is just a matter of different values contained in some column. These special columns could be thought as forming the “Primary Key” of the ACLB table, i.e. a set of columns containing a univocal combination of values that allows to identify completely each row of the table. As I adhere to OI, I really think that nothing can define the personal identity, so it cannot be reduced to a matter of different column values, but now I want to try to signal the difficulties that arise when we assume that this definition of personal identity could be done.

Using this model, we can define precisely the differences between reductionist and dualistic theories: according to all the reductionist theories, the information stored in each row representing a given conscious living being is enough not only to determine if it is really a conscious being, but it is also enough to determine "who" it is, i.e. what is its personal identity, basing this on the key values stored in the columns that represent the Primary Key. These key values should be something more complex than the simple DNA sequence, as we believe that even if we could produce billions of people cloned with the same DNA, they would have some little but crucial difference in their corresponding rows in the ACLB table, that should make it possible to distinguish their personal identities one by one. But theoretically every non-OI reductionist theory should agree that as nothing else exists except the physical world, if we could produce two perfect copies of living beings having all the key values equal, we should conclude that they were not just two identical persons, but actually the same person. This seems an hazardous claim, and we will see later what strategies may be adopted to avoid the occurrence of such a situation, but we have to acknowledge that in any reductionist theory, each living being is fully describable, and this fact leaves the theoretical possibility of the existence of a perfect copy of each of us, not just simple clones with the same DNA.

Dualistic theories are different because they claim that, despite any possible information, there still will remain something of not explicable that is precisely what contains the secret not only of our consciousness, but also of our personal identity. We can represent this requirement introducing in our ACLB table an special column that will be named "ID", containing a conventional datum that we can imagine as an integer number, that does not have any meaning but must be considered just as an abstract placeholder which will univocally represent each different personal identity. This will represent what naively is called “soul”, even if modern dualist theories prefer adopting other terms that sound less mystical. This kind of ID is often used in database programming, and allows us to distinguish rows that would be otherwise equal. In this way we can imagine for any dualistic theory that two different conscious living beings could be fully equal, but despite this they may have two different personal identities, just because we suppose that they differ in the "inaccessible datum" that contains the mystery of their personal identity. The description of these two living beings would then be contained into two different rows of our imaginary ACLB table, differing only for the content of the ID column.

We may imagine a number of different dualist theories, so we may also imagine that some of them would allow that two different bodies had the same soul, even if completely different in all the other attributes, just like it happens for the traditional theory of reincarnation. We may also imagine that the same soul could live simultaneously in two different bodies, if we concede that souls could go freely back and forth in time. We may imagine also that there exists a single soul that lives simultaneously in all our bodies: this is the dualistic version of Open Individualism that most people may find more easy to imagine. The difference with the reductionist version of Open Individualism is that the dualist version may imagine that this “Cosmic Soul” is something having a separate existence from the matter, something that may or may not inhabit a material structure, whilst in the reductionist view the consciousness is interpreted as a phenomenon that may manifest itself only in the presence of some complex material structure as a brain is, and cannot exist independently from it. If we take the OI point of view this difference between reductionism and dualism might be expressed equivalently by the question if the matter could be influenced by something of non-material. Without the need to trace the individual personal identities, OI can interpret the consciousness not as “something” that has its own independent existence, but as a function, a property, a base ingredient of the existence as well as time and space. Trying to continue to ask “who” this “Cosmic Soul” might be is missing the point that OI is the only way to empty that question of any meaning. Instead of thinking of me as a physical structure owned by some “instance of consciousness”, I should think of being a physical structure having the property of expressing consciousness. Beware that this distinction has a sense only if we mean that the “subject of experiences”, what Daniel Kolak in his book named the "subject-in-itself", is not just an individual “instance of consciousness” or any instance of something else, but the “consciousness phenomenon” itself.

Let's see what can we say about the Open Individualism theory when considering this ACLB table. If we ascribe it in the group of dualist theories, we have to consider what number we must write down in the ID column. Because Open Individualism claims that the personal identity is always the same, we have to write the same number (maybe ‘1’, or maybe better ‘0’) in each row of our ACLB table. That information does not seem to be very useful. What is its purpose? It is just to verify that it always contains the same number in all the rows. But the theory itself assumes as hypothesis that it were necessarily always the same. It is easy to see that the ID column can always be empty, and may even be deleted safely from our ACLB table without any information loss. The fact that it should contain always the same data should make us aware that it is not necessary at all and can be removed without losing the possibility of OI. This might represent the tiny conceptual gap between dualist OI (where the ID column always contains the same value) and the reductionist OI (where the ID column is always empty or doesn’t exist at all). Anyhow, as the eventual value contained in that ID column results to be completely useless, every conscious living being can be fully described in a database table without the ID column, as it is for every reductionist theory. This demonstrates that OI does not have to be considered a dualist theory. This now may seem a simple data manipulation trick, but it really reveals that the idea that OI requires some dualist concept is just a bias due to our existing concept of personal identity, that’s precisely what we want to now criticize in its fundamentals.

Let us focus again on non-OI reductionist theories, and how they should consider the ACLB table. We said that some theories could consider just a subset of all its data, contained in the column set which we named the Primary Key, as strictly necessary to define the personal identity of the actual living being described by the row’s data. A mereological essentialist, who thinks that the identity of something changes as soon as a little part of it changes, may claim that all the data in the row are required to form the Primary Key, but someone else may think that not all the data are really necessary to individuate the identity of a person, assuming that there are some changes that we could make in the row without losing the identity. Moreover there are certainly some data that two rows could have in common even if they are supposed to describe beings with different identities. The property of having a consciousness is something that all the beings described in the ACLB table have in common by definition and it should be described somewhere in every row, even if this information is scattered in more than one column. As we are restricting our focus on the reductionist theories, we are assuming that the property of being conscious is something that depends on some physical structure, so we can obtain this information without the need of some abstract ID column nor the need of a dedicated “is_conscious” column, but in a more reductionist way, just by evaluating the values of the existing columns, by imagining to pass the entire row to a very powerful function “is_conscious()” that returns ‘TRUE’ or ‘FALSE’. As we are examining the rows of All the Conscious Living Being Table, such a function would always return the value 'TRUE' if called passing as argument a whatever row from the ACLB table.

According to the OI view, I really imagine that there is nothing that could influence the choice of the personal identity, but for the sake of our discussion, I may equivalently affirm that the personal identity is influenced only by the presence of the consciousness itself, that is the only property that all the conscious beings must have in common. Actually, the ability to be conscious might be determined by the combined action of the same values contained in the same columns required to determine if a living being is conscious or not. The single values may slightly vary between all the living beings, and their variations may allow to define different personal identities. In an analogous way, our daily survival does not depend on some specific food, the only thing that matters is that we may eat enough of a variety of edible foods. On the other way, presuming that to define the personal identity were required some additional properties other that those already required to define the presence of consciousness, will leave the theoretical possibility to get an “incomplete being” having all the properties required to be defined “conscious”, but not sufficient to define its personal identity. Anyhow, we can always imagine that personal identity doesn’t depend on any variation, not even on a fixed set of properties, but only on the return value of the function “is_conscious()”, that is always ‘TRUE’ or ‘FALSE’: in this way, each conscious being will result to have the same personal identity, even if the corresponding descriptions were differing in all the values stored in the columns of ACLB table. All the other individual characteristics that may vary freely, in the same way they may vary in my person at age 5 from my person at age 50, without affecting the personal identity. Here I am not claiming that this position is necessarily the best one: I want just point out that it has no conceptual obstacles that alternatives don’t have. For each non-OI theory, each of us owns a numerically different personal identity, but if we imagine that the identity of each “instance of consciousness” is influenced only by the same phenomenon that allows the consciousness to emerge, and not influenced by the little quantity variations of the required ingredients, nothing is left to represent the identity of a person. The question then is no more “what consciousness” each conscious living being had, but is if the living being “has the consciousness” or not.

I will return to this issue with a more materialist approach, considering the set of all the possible conscious brains and the consciousness that emerges from each of them, but for now this should have explained that the clues that seem necessarily to retain OI as a dualist theory are preconceptions linked to our difficulties to free ourselves from a closed individualist view, according to each of us has their own isolated personal identity that doesn’t change in their entire life. The problem that required to review it was that in a full reductionist theory we could lose the tracking of a personal identity unless we can somehow mark it. According to OI, there's nothing we can lose, as doesn’t exist the possibility of “another” personal identity numerically different from the same that each of us believes it were just their own one, but is the only one possible, so there’s no need of any tracking and any abstract ID. The mystery of the subject that emerges from mental activities is still there in all the reductionist theories. OI just reduces the problem of the personal identity of the emerged subject to the one about the emergence of consciousness, simply assuming that there's no need to imagine that the personal identity depends on anything else than the same mysterious process that makes the "subject" appear, independently from any differences in specific attribute values, so implying that it must be always the same. I know that at this moment this may appear as a simple opinion, but I want you to realize that this opinion does not need anything of more mysterious or mystical than the alternatives. One could think that the mere fact of being generated by numerically different occurrences of the same mysterious process could be sufficient to give an intrinsically different identity to each conscious living being, but as we will see after, this idea is untenable by any reductionist theory.

It is also useful to consider that if our lives were in a succession where each life begins after the end of the preceding life (like the mythical Phoenix), it would be easier to accept that we may have always the same personal identity, i.e. we are all the same person. The real problem is to accept the possibility of being here simultaneously despite the fact that we are all the same person. What is difficult to accept is that our common subject-in-itself could be in more than one place at a given time - i.e. it can experience non-locality, that seems something mystical or magical. Moreover, the same conception of reincarnation seems to be unavoidably mystical. But we will see next that the need to allow some form of non-locality is required in exceptional circumstances by each reductionist theory, not only by OI. Once we are forced to accept that there are circumstances in which it could happen, why not think that they could be the normal circumstances?

Continued on the next page The weakness of the instance identity concept.


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