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papo   The third hypothesis
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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")

2) The weakness of the "instance identity" concept
Why the subject-in-itself that emerges from the mental activity of physical brains can be considered always the very same "consciousness-in-itself", instead of a single "instance of consciousness".

The proposed informatics example of the table listing All the Conscious Living Beings (the ACLB table) can be translated in a more materialistic view that could be easier to realize. We might consider the "set of all the possible brains apt to let a consciousness emerge". In this case the individual consciousness, according to the traditional materialistic view, may be interpreted as some "deluded subject" of experiences ("deluded" in the sense that it may think to have an existence independent from the activity of the physical brain that generates it), that arises in some mysterious way by the sequence of mental states that occur in the brain, and correspond to what Kolak in his book “I Am You” named the “subject-in-itself”, i.e. that particular “instance of consciousness” that should have to be used as a personal identity placeholder even when the subject experiences any kind of extreme mutation. Pure reductionists may claim that even my believing to be a person is just an illusion, but I am at least something that undergoes that illusion, so we can always refer the definition of “subject-in-itself” to that “something” that believes to be “someone”, if you prefer.

In each reductionist theory we need to imagine that the identity of a person depends on something in the body or the brain, maybe in the whole structure, maybe in a part of it, maybe lasting for a lifetime, maybe lasting for an instant. Douglas Hofstadter in his book "I am a strange loop", identifies the individual consciousness in a logic structure of the brain’s neural network, capable to evaluate itself in a recursive way, creating a logic loop that he named "the strange loop". He thinks that because each of us has his or her own individual instance of strange loop, we correspondingly must have our own individual personal identity. Each instance of brain has its instance of strange loop that in turn generates a different instance of consciousness, a different subject-in-itself, who for these reasons could not be thought of as a shared instance between all the different brains of the set of "all the possible brains apt to let a consciousness emerge".

But what is the actual meaning of "each instance of brain" and the set of "all the possible brains"? Is it really something we can safely speak of in a reductionist and rational way? How can we safely define the differences between two distinct brains and the same brain in two different states? If brains are objects that change in time, we can easily imagine that two different brains in different states could evolve in a perfectly equal state, stay synchronized as long as you want, and then diverge again in different states. What about the personal identity of the two subjects that they generate? Empty Individualism, at least in its most radical version, tries to resolve this problem assuming that each single brain state generates its own subject-in-itself, in order to avoid the need of an abstract and dualistic "personal identity placeholder" that could maintain the same subject-in-itself between two different brain states, and could allow also to distinguish between the identities of two very similar brains that might eventually evolve in the same state. According to EI, even though you maintain the memory of your past, you are not the same person that you were yesterday, or a year ago, or twenty years ago, or a minute ago (different versions of EI could propose different durations for the persistence of the same personal identity). Other proposals appeal to something like the continuity of the stream of consciousness, practically bonding the identity of the subject-in-itself to the story of the past states of the brain. But both these solutions cannot avoid definitively the real problem that until now seemed to afflict only the Open Individualism proposal: the need to accept the non-locality of the subject-in-itself.

To see this, let us consider two physical copies of the same identical brain structure that evolves in the same way (or frozen in the same single instant for the radical version of Empty Individualism theory). We can easily imagine two identical brains isolated in their own world, but physically placed side-by-side (you may think about two brains in two vats like the ones proposed in the book “The mind’s I” by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter). Might they be said to be generating the same subject-in-itself, or should they be considered as generating two distinct subjects, even if they are perfectly identical in all their attributes? If we want to consider them as generating the same subject-in-itself, we are accepting non-locality, one of the most controversial features of Open Individualism. If we want to consider them as generating two numerically different subject-in-itself, based on the consideration that these brains are two numerically distinct instances of the same brain model, constituted by different atoms and/or occupying different locations in the space, we have to face some problems that are impossible to solve without accepting some kind of dualist theory, as we can see in examining in detail what we mean for “instance”.

The concept of "instance" itself is weak. There is a discussion about the identity of things, including the unanimated ones, summarized in Theseus' Ship Paradox ( The conclusion is that the meaning of "identity" for unanimated objects is related to the use that we want to make of the object in question. The origin of the problem is that everything material is an aggregate of molecules, these being structures of atoms, made of elementary particles like quarks and electrons. So, at the very end, the "very identity" of an object is delegated to the "very identity" of the elementary particles that constitute it. The problem is that no "identity" for elementary particles exists (, so we cannot imagine that these might have a kind of "instance identity" that may allow us to think that a macroscopic object could have an identity inherited by the atoms that compose it. The only way to assign an intrinsic "instance identity" to an object is to assume that the particles had some hidden property that might function as the ID column in the ACLB database table. But this could be considered as “dualism for particles” theory.

The habit to assign an identity to objects, especially to our own personal objects having an affective meaning for us, ultimately descends from our original preconception about our personal identities. As we are limited in space by our body, a fact that Daniel Kolak in his book calls “FEC”, the Fact of Exclusive Conjoinment, we suppose to be different persons, and this drives us to project some “intrinsic identity” to material objects, in the same way we think to have separate “intrinsic personal identities”. So the strategy of the reductionist theorist to avoid the OI imagining that personal identity could descend by some bundle of attributes, which can only represent restrictions of a definition, result to be based on a supposition (attributes may define identity) that is deduced by a fact assumed as true (we have different identities). Any pure reductionist theory should reject as dualistic any concept of “intrinsic identity”. Maybe he could still trust in a more practical concept of identity, but even then there are subtle difficulties that avoid getting a rigorous identity definition.

When in our every day life we say that two objects are different instances of the same base type (e.g. two coins), we delegate their identification to their positions and to some small differences or little imperfections. But as we make a sharper definition of the type, even these imperfections may become a part of this definition, shared by every object of the same type. When the type definition becomes so sharp that it doesn't allow any little imperfection, reaching the atom level (e.g. in the case of microscopic crystals), we still can distinguish two objects only because they exist together, side by side, and we can count them, like the two brains in the same state that I mentioned earlier. At this point, we can concede that the identity of the person emerging from these two brains could be the same, acknowledging that in this very special case, the non-locality can be given even in every non-OI reductionist theory. Otherwise, we could argue that the difference of position of the two otherwise identical brains could be sufficient to grant a different personal identity to the subjects that emerged from them. But if two objects can be distinguished only by their relative positions, this means that their instance identities are not derived only from something inside them, but from their relations with other objects.

This means that the descriptions listed in the ACLB table should enclose, in each row, the description of what, in the surrounding environment, we imagine could influence the personal identity, maybe the immediate spatial configuration or the gravitational forces acting in the moment of the birth or whatever, but in general it will be something different by some mere spatial coordinates that anyway need some absolute reference point to be meaningful. Although, as long as this description remains a finite one, nothing prevents the possibility that the same conditions might exist somewhere else in a far region of our universe, leaving open the possibility of the non-locality of the person generated from that specific finite description. Recurring to an infinite-length description raises other problems that I will discuss later, together with the dualist theories. What we should have seen until now is that every finite object description cannot give an absolute way to distinguish between two different instances of objects of the same type. Every finite description is necessarily relative and this impedes that by itself it could grant the physical uniqueness of the conscious living being that it describes. But only the guarantee of this uniqueness could allow a reductionist theory to avoid the non-locality of the subject-in-itself corresponding to the described living being. Otherwise, nothing would stop us imagining some exceptional circumstances where two living beings identical in every detail of their description exist simultaneously, forcing us to consider identical also their personal identity, admitting the non-locality of their common subject-in-itself. To avoid this situation, we had to recur to a description of infinite length, or admit some kind of dualism. Both these alternatives have problems we'll see next, but anyhow I imagine that for the majority of reductionist philosophers, the admittance of non-locality of the subject-in-itself might appear as the less unscientific option.

What I want to show is that if we agree with Douglas Hofstadter on the concept of "strange loop" that allows the emergence of the consciousness (as I do), we cannot appeal to the different physical instance of such a strange loop to support the claim that our subject-in-itself has to be considered each time as a different instance of consciousness. The fact of being conscious may well depend on the realization of a physical structure that allows the formation of a strange loop, but it cannot cause, by itself, the creation of an instance of consciousness with its own intrinsic identity. In the reductionist view of Open Individualism the personal identity of the subject-in-itself depends directly from being generated by a logical structure of the "strange loop" type. Other reductionist alternatives must assume that something more is required than that basic logic structure, maybe a number of little admissible variations, maybe some other logic structure that defines essential characteristics required to define our personal identity, or maybe the whole brain in a given instant, as it is according to the most radical version of EI theory. But even with these differences, these alternatives cannot avoid to admit the occurrence of non-locality in some exceptional circumstances, so they cannot pretend to have any theoretical advantages over OI.

Once expressed in this way, it’s easy to see that there’s no technical difference between the three theories that presuppose that the personal identity depends on the minimal “strange loop” logical structure, or on a subset of the logical structure of the brain greater than it, or on the logical structure of the whole brain neural network. Adopting this point of view, some questions that seem to afflict only OI appear to be exactly the same for the alternative theories, e.g. "How and when did the ‘universal subject-in-itself’ come to exist?". To assume that the subject-in-itself is a different one for each of us cannot give any help to answer the same question. If we think that a specific subject-in-itself can merge in any brain that has a “strange loop” structure and some additional characteristics, we have no reason to require additional explications for assuming that the same subject-in-itself can merge in every brain that has a “strange loop” structure, no matter what other additional characteristics the brain may have.

No conceptual difficulties arise when we reduce the "first cause" of personal identity to that minimum subset (that is logical, not physical, so it would work in the same way even in the weirdest form of conscious life that we could ever imagine). This consideration has the same role of the hard work that Kolak did in his book, arguing against all the apparent excluders of OI. Once we agree that assuming OI instead of another reductionist theory doesn't imply any new problems that alternatives must not face, we will be ready to accept it as a viable solution. As we saw, all the differences between OI and the reductionist alternative theories cannot prevent them to allow in some special cases the possibility of non-locality. There is still the possibility to adopt some kind of dualist theories that seem to survive to all the problems discussed now, together with the hypothesis of the need of an infinite length description to define the personal identity. Now we must see what their biggest problem is, which makes them definitively weaker than reductionist alternative theories. Furthermore, we must get rid of another big bias of the traditional reductionist view. According to OI, what matters in personal identity is the bare fact of being conscious, so "I am You" really, even if each of us has their own subjective "now": this is a consequence of non-locality. All the other conscious beings are just different experiences of the same person who in my subjective "now" is me, exactly as I will be myself tomorrow or in a week or in all my future life, so all the pain is my pain, as also all the good is my good. This may seem mystic, but actually it doesn't need any “Cosmic Soul” or "Cosmic Unity", it just requires non-locality. Can the alternative theories really give a consistent model able to avoid any feeling of mysticism like this one seems to give? This is what we will examine next.

Continued on the next page The fall of a granted assumption about life.


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