Identity 101

The philosophy of identity asks a simple question. What makes me, me? It’s valuable because it’s answer has a lot of implications:

  • Whether killing one of two identical simulations with billions of identical people is murder or not
  • Whether me today is the same person as me tomorrow (if not, the non-identity problem kicks in)
  • Whether uploaded minds are the same as the physical person they were uploaded from.
  • Whether sufficiently similar people count as one person.
  • Etc…

There are a few basic theories of identity.

The first theory is naive physicalism. Who I am is defined by the physical vessel I inhabit. I am me because I have my body. The problem with it is that it’s highly counterintuitive in a number of situations. It says that if I transplant my brain into a cyborg body I am not longer me, which seems wrong because I am the same consciousness with the same memories and thoughts and feelings. It says that if I loose an arm, I am less me and if I loose enough of my body I am not me. It doesn’t really make sense.

The second theory is continuism. This is the one most people hold. It says that I am me as long as there is a continuous line of consciousness. Even though  in 20 year I may be very different from myself today in a number of ways, I would still be me because there is a continuous consciousness that links those two points in time. The problem with this theory is that it’s also counterintuitive. If over the course of 20 years I gradually metamorphosize into a fish with an effective human IQ of 0.5, continuism says I’m still the same person. That seems wrong. A goldfish is not me even if it’s consciousness is directly linked to mine by an unbroken line of experience. There are also other weaker objections about things like interruptions in consciousness caused by, say, sleep or dying and then receiving CPR.

The final theory, and the one that best aligned with my intuitions, is one I like to call the personspace proximity theory of identity. There are X traits or attributes that a person has. Age. Sight. Hair Colour. Memories. Character. Intelligence. Etc…  We consider some subset of these traits to be morally relevant to determining a person’s identity. Let’s call that set N. That gives us an N dimensions space in which a person is a point. Identity is that point. That is you. The further you move from that point, the less you a person is. Eventually you move far enough, let’s say into goldfish territory, and the difference is so great that you are no longer who you once were. This theory is nice because it avoids the problems of the physicalist and continualist theories. It’s also nice because it’s not discrete. Sudden cliff far discontinuities in personhood are strange. Binary identities are weird. Moral reality is continuous, not discrete.

Against Pascals Wager

Pascals wager says that we should believe in god because the cost of not believing could be eternity in hell while the cost of believing is 0. It’s wrong in a few obvious ways.

  • There is an infinitely large possible space of possible omnipotent beings. Many would punish faith, not reward it. Hence having faith is not a strictly dominant strategy.
  • Believing is not costless.
    • Submission to evil is bad (yes, most gods are evil.)
    • Having inaccurate beliefs about the world is bad. (If your utility function contains a term for belief accuracy)
    • Making yourself more vulnerable to religious infohazards. (If you believe religion is bad and seductive and accepting some of it’s tenants makes you more vulnerable to others.

I think a persons ability to understand and refute pascals wager type arguments is a good litmus test for general argumentative ability, at least in philosophy.

Against torture

If you read the public discourse, the standard argument for torture is that in some situations the moral harm of torturing someone is outweighed by the moral benefit of preventing some other bad thing. The standard response is to talk about the value of life and human rights. One reason the two sides seldom convince one another is because deontological argumentation is not persuasive to a consequentialist and visa versa.

What’s a more persuasive consequentialist argument against torture? There are some common arguments. Torture doesn’t work. Torture cases backlash which strengthens our enemies. I won’t bother repeating these. Some are less common, more broadly applicable and are not brought up often enough. The simplest one of these is that clear moral norms are useful and their erosion has has serious long term costs which likely outweigh any short term gains. One such norm is that society and the state should not abuse human beings. Allowing torture erodes that norm. Another one worth considering is that our states cannot be trusted to use torture judiciously and morally. Hence even if torture is morally acceptable in certain situations, it’s legalisation or tolerance would mean it’s used in many situations where it is immoral.

I think each of these arguments could have a whole article about them with flowery dialogue and facts and complex argumentation. For the norm erosion argument it would be about the long moral journey the west has made, how deeply rooted certain beliefs/norms are and how quickly they can fall away leaving the worst of society free to come out. It would paint a vivid picture of how our humanitarianism shapes us. How it stems from both christianity and later the enlightenment. It would paint an equally vivid picture of the times in history where we rejected these norms and where that lead. The holocaust. The civil wars in Yugoslavia or other places. Slavery. Etc… For the untrustworthy state argument it would be a chomskeyesq long expose of the horrors the US/UK have done abroad. From funding and arming horrific, torturous groups in Latin America to consistently crushing secular arab nationalism and feeding the forces of reaction to Asia and the support for the Khamer Rouge, mass killing of “socialists” in Indonesia and so on. At the end it would chronicle or interview people tortured by the US/UK wrongly and the effect it had on them, possibly talking to a torturer as well about why they found torture dehumanising and wrong, before ending on a note saying that most experts believe torture is ineffective.

Weaving stories is satisfying. It’s also encouraged and rewarded by our society. It feels good. It’s not. A stories persuasiveness only loosely correlates to its truth value. Most normal people can’t extract arguments from a narrative. Most people, normal or not, don’t even try to. Complexity and stories don’t reveal truth. They hide it.


  • Maybe the norm thing is just a unfalsifiable justification I make up to rationalise my existing view, that torture is wrong.
  • There are plausible arguments in favour of torture. Some of them also aren’t common in the public discourse. By choosing to not make them and instead only give the anti-torture argument, I’m lying by omission.

Not all good things are just

There is a distinction between whether an act or event was good and whether it was right. Goodness refers to effects. Rightness refers to justice. The difference between the two is that justice takes motives into account. This is why it is possible to simultaneously believe that colonialism was wrong and that it was good. Wrong because the colonisers often systematically oppressed and abused their subjects. Good because it bought education, peace, medicine, modern agriculture and various other benefits.
This is not to say these are my positions. Just that that there is a difference something being good and just and that distinction is worth remembering.

Infinite regress, circularity or unjustified beliefs.

I spent some time talking about metaphysics with my other half. There are physical facts. Jupiter pulls smaller things towards it. The sun is hot. Any epistemic system needs to explain physical facts. Why is the sun hot? Because of nuclear fusion. Why is nuclear fusion happening? Because the sun is large enough for its gravity to force atoms together. The problem is that explanations of fact/ law requires referencing another different fact/law. Saying that X is the case because X is the case isn’t acceptable. We need a deeper reason. The problem then is that for every law or fact you use to explain something, you generate another question asking for that fact or law to be explained in turn. There are only four possible ways this kind of chain can end:

  • Infinite regress
  • Circularity
  • Axiomatic/foundational/unjustified beliefs
  • A magic fact/law which is self-explaining and requires no explanation.

Circularity and infinite regress are unsatisfying and illogical. Systems which accept them are usually just trying to hide the fact that they, like any system of beliefs, rest on axiomatic beliefs which are not empirically justified. Finding a magic self-justifying law or fact seems implausible at best if not downright impossible. Claims like “A happens because A happens” don’t satisfy any resonable notion of explanation. Hence the only option left is accepting that any thought system will inevitably rest on some kind of bedrock which is not justifiable. For our current science, that that bedrock could include axiomatic beliefs like

  • That the future will be like the past in certain important ways. (e.g: Gravity won’t just disappear next Tuesday.)
  • That our empirical observations about the universe are mostly true. (We’re not in a simulation being fed false imput)
  • That logic is true

Here’s a good general rule: Any system which claims it assumes nothing is lying or badly wrong.

2018: Year 1 in Review

I started this blog with a post on the 14th of October, 2017. I mostly posted random collections of links for the next 6 months until I started to actually publish my own writing in April. I think now’s a good time to look back.

My best articles this year:

Decent articles this year:

I’m happier with this year than with the ones that came before, I wrote more and I got some of the important ideas that occupy me down on paper. There’s a long way to go, both in content to cover and the quality and clarity of my writing. There’s also a tension between my two styles of writing. Sometimes I write in a clear, logical and precise manner, checking off arguments one by one. Other times I write more freely mixing metaphor and image and idea together into one big mess. I think both are valuable but it’s an open question how far the latter is intelligible to people who don’t already know me and aren’t familliar with my ideas.
What about the coming year? The main objectives are the same as always: to keep writing and not be afraid of writing dumb stuff. There are also some things I want to write about. I’ve been meaning to start writing book reviews when I read valuable things. I have a few drafts hovering around from last year which should be decent with a little bit of polish. Specifically, I have reviews at some stage of in progress for:

  • The three heads of cerberus
  • Heretic
  • Skin in the Game
  • The high growth handbook
  • On violence and Violence of the Mind
  • Fear no Evil
  • The elephant in the brain

I also have some topics in mind to cover in a bit more detail:

  • The Identity sequence
    • The problem with naive physicalism
    • The problem with continuity
    • A mind-space theory of identity
    • Is the copy problem a problem?
    • Past-body privilege and why location is morally irrelevant
    • The irrelevance of causal entanglement
  • Practical and Pure ethics
    • Practical vs Pure ethics
    • Applications to common ethical problems
  • Philosophers cannot build skyscrapers
  • The horror of evolution
  • My rules for relationships and daily life
    • For honesty
    • Against false friendships
    • Accept suffering & adversity
    • Most people are amoral
    • Towards moral vision
    • Marginal Improvements Compound
  • Competitive Debating
  • Software Engineering (potentially in a separate blog to avoid political contamination or the need for self-censorship)

The first two sequences are things I’ve been thinking about on and off for years now. Evolution I’ve already covered but I think a clean and argumentative piece would be good. The real added value probably lies in discussion of my rules for relationships and daily life. I find that some of my most deeply held beliefs are also ones I consider obvious and not worth writing about. I also find they’re not so obvious to many people I talk to. I should write about them a bit.

Impossible Problems

(Epistemic Status: Uncritical Brain Dump. Read at your own risk. May contain raw cancer)

The world is so very large and the future may be so big. Often we focus on the little things, the problems of the present. I’ve always been interested in the bigger problems. Whether they’re worth tackling so early or even thinking about a lot I don’t know. Here are two of these problems. Both of these seem intrinsic to our universe  and things technology or power alone won’t necessarily tackle.

Evolution as a hostile process

Evolution optimises for reproductive success. Not for morality. Not for less suffering. Not for knowledge. Just for reproductive fitness. This is horrific because at best it leads to a world with so much less value than is possible and at worst, and in what I think is the more likely scenario, it leads to a hell which is worse than non-existence where life is a death tournament of predators and parasites an disease and death and suffering is omnipresent. Where all sentient things are hardcoded to like the strong and defect when it pays to do so and believe what it helps them to believe. It’s a hell that technological advancement or having more power or resources general is unlikely to help us solve. Evolution always occurs. If not at the biological level than at the individual level through other means, like which future cyborg like group can/will most quickly produce clones. If not at the individual level than at the group level. In fact, the only solution seems to be to do one of two things:

  • Stop change
  • Ensure there is only one individual/system

Both of these stop evolution because things cannot change in the first instance and because there is no competition in the second, but both have serious costs. The cost of the first path is more than stagnation, it’s death. It’s a civilisation stuck in a crystallised present not just in terms of tech but in terms of culture  and people and everything else. Either that or a short, continuously recurring cycle. Say goodbye to dreams of immortality and godhood or exploring the full space of possible minds. The cost of the second path is two fold. One downside of having only a single entity is that if that entity should cease to exist, life probably ends. Of course there are arguments against this. Maybe a multi-polar world actually has a higher risk of extinction because, say, in the far future any agent can easily acquire reality destroying weapons. Maybe a single entity/civ could have catastrophic survival strategies which re-seed the galaxy following it’s demise. A system of dead-man switches or the like. Still, it’s impossible to assess how persuasive these objections are in the context of a far future that is beyond our understanding. The second downside of a singular future is that again it shuts off so many reals of possibility, so many possible universes teeming with different and valuable life exploring all the desirable parts of the mind space. Evolution is scary. It’s omnipresent. It seems to be a core feature of any iterated multi-agent system just as much as the laws of gravitation are embedded in any system containing matter. It’s difficult to even imagine a conceptually possible solution. This does not bode well.

(Warning: high probability of cancer from this point forward)

Causality denies free will and thus personhood.

The universe is fundamentally a machine. That machine runs on cause on effect. Whether everything is deterministic or certain interactions are probabilistic is besides the point. The point is that the physical world is the physical world and it is governed by physical laws. Intelligent agents human or otherwise do not hover somewhere above the material plane, reaching in to change events when they will it so. Rather we are parts of the machine, cogs and nothing more. We are entirely reducible to simple processes explainable by these laws and the only difference between our “conscious” minds and rocks or waterfalls or any other naturally occurring pattern is that our minds are complex enough that the abstractions we build to understand them can seem to take on a life of their own. That and we’re programmed to believe in these abstractions. This is a problem. If we are nothing more than cogs then our personhood is an illusion. All our hopes and dreams and desires are no different from the stars at night or the growing blade of grass. This is something we need to fight and I have no idea how to do so. My only thoughts on the matter are childhood scribblings which talk about temporal transcendence and other sweet nothings.

If you don’t buy my argument above because you think a mechanistic universe and physicalism are compatible with free will or because you think that personhood does not require free will, here’s a weaker but more broadly appealing case for the same conclusion. We are who we are because of many things. Because of our genes. Because of where we grew up and who shaped us as we did so. Because of what we chose. Given that the lines between these things are somewhat arbitrary, if my parents raise me to be violent and abusive and then I act in that way have I chosen it or are my parents to blame, but where they are isn’t relevant for this argument. Today most people have more choice than a hundred years ago when we were bound be caste and clan and sex and faith. We still have so little though. When I grew up, all around me I saw others in school who could have been successful but weren’t because the toxic culture consigned them to the trash heap. (Or in my eyes because they were weak). So few are show the many different ways to live, the different ethos and paths. The path of the warrior with it’s discipline. The path of the prophet with its rage at the injustice of the world and its madness. The path of the lover, of giving yourself to another and living with and for them. There are so many ways to be and to live and yet most normal people have so little choice in who they grow up to be. That is a shame.