Who Am I? A Brief Meditation and Summary of my Personal Identity and Values
Disclaimer: I’m totally talking out my ass for most of this and have no expertise whatsoever in psychology, sociology, human behavioral ecology, ethics, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, neuroscience, or any other relevant fields. What follows is just my own oversimplified, rambling conjecture. As it’s written for an audience of one (i.e. myself, as a short reflection), I’d like to apologize for its queer mix of colloquialism and utterly unnecessary jargon. I also touch upon topics that may be uncomfortable to some and am, as usual, exceedingly open about my own thoughts and feelings, many of which are like to be horribly misguided and bigoted and awful, so reader beware – if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon this, there’s probably little of value or interest for you here. That said, I’d be happy to discuss anything I’ve written, and welcome any correction of mistakes I’ve made.
Also, I’ve yet to master the art of navigating multiple drafts in WordPress, so I just publish things straightaway. If you’re reading this, it means this post still needs editing and expansion.
My own muddled, misbegotten, folksy views on personal identity hold that many people seem very concerned with identifying and describing who or what they are. They mull deeply over matters of their own individuality and experience a strong sense of belonging when they come upon the descriptors that adequately capture their innermost selves, that truly target what they really “feel like” deep down. Some people, upon finding a sufficiently applicable label, proceed to wrap their entire identities around that kernel of being and belonging, even to the extent of interpreting the whole world through its lens (though I guess you do need a lense of some sort).
This, in turn, structures their behavior, because they feel the need to adhere to the entire complex of traits that empirically co-occurs with whatever ones brought them to the label in the first place (even the ones that don’t “naturally” covary). This behavioral modification could be from repeat or biased exposure to others with those traits, peer pressure, some conscious internal self-modifying mechanism, or something else (do note that traits here can refer to anything, more or less, from hair color to taste in fashion or music to nationality to sports team allegiance to religious or political leaning to programming language preference to temperament to gender expression to ethnicity).
They are also tidily demarcated from other groups, providing them with a community they can aid and that can aid them, as well as an opposing group to rally against. The trait complex can, to some extent, be a natural division in trait-space – whatever intrinsic, underlying qualities determine one trait can partially determine an ostensibly distinct trait, leading to structure in the variation expressed throughout the space. Similarly, there might be trade-offs leading to inverse associations between different traits. On the other hand, there might be artificial, self-reinforcing divisions in trait-space created by society and the groups that comprise it. Individuals who don’t fall into pre-existing clusters are molded into them if they wish to extract community-benefits.
And not all behavioral or ideological traits have equal fitness on the marketplace of ideas. Some – especially those in pre-existing and popular complexes – are better able to “replicate”, leading to something like a “correlated selection of memes” in a disruptive/diversifying fashion, typically along “natural” axes of variation (though this covariance structure can itself change easily enough). This leads to the self-reinforcement of clusters or “meme-plexes” (as an aside, I’ve never been too fond of the “meme” framework, but it can occasionally be useful in discussions like this).
This isn’t bad, per se – communities can foster cooperation that creates wholes greater than the sums of their parts. They can push you to be the best self you can be if your own values and desires, but not your current behaviors or attributes, align with those of the community. Finding holes to stuff your pigeons in can free up precious mental resources you can devote to more interesting or important pursuits. People who feel ostracized or “other’ed” from their “birth” communities can benefit tremendously from finding a group of likeminded peers — it must be quite the relief to discover that you are not alone in your eccentricities, that there are other out there like you who not only accept that you like or are something, but like or are that thing themselves. “Knowing” who you are can empower you to “become” who you are and push you along towards self-transcendence and self-actualization.
For example, if you internalize that you are a good, diligent, honest researcher, you might me more driven to do good research, and if you openly claim honesty, you’ll be held more accountable for your mis-directions and lies. And who doesn’t like to reassure themselves that they Know Who They Really Are, and what easier way to do that than by giving yourself some easily repeated names? I can certainly understand that (much of my early teens were devoted to “living authentically”, which largely entailed trying to pinpoint on which sides of any number of debates I fell and what terms I could use as a shorthand descriptor for my beliefs). Also, the common categories by which humanity subdivides itself might also match up with people’s internal sense of being perfectly, in which case why wouldn’t you identify as a member of that category?
On the whole, however, I think that people’s tendency to keep their identities “large” can often be harmful and restricting, especially when it’s forced explicitly or implicitly upon others. When people reify observed divisions in traitspace into essential groupings (and those observations are, of course, sampled non-randomly – participation in any group inherently introduces bias), they unfairly bin others who do not or do not wish to fit into those groups. This causes tension and difficulty for non-fitting individuals, who are typically already marginalized over their (oftentimes) minority status.
Even individuals who integrate nicely into foreordained categories are limited in their ability to grow beyond them. If some quirk of development pushes people outside the cubbies they’ve formed for themselves (or they hear a particularly convincing argument for a position alternative to their own, or they’re unconvinced they’ve correctly identified themselves and wish to experiment, etc.), strict allegiance to labels will prevent them from properly exploring traitspace and finding their own, personally ideal (at the time) maxima. But I emphatically support anyone and everyone to be or identify as whoever or whatever they want, so long as few enough pockets are picked and legs broken (and this extends from more mainstream groups like, I dunno, Chicago Bears fans, to less mainstream groups, like LGBT Bears, to even less mainstream groups, like bear otherkin – more power to all of ‘em!).
Given my above thoughts, I’ve found that I don’t personally identify with terribly much, or at least not along the axes that people most commonly use to structure their identities. I am who I am, and there it generally stops. In terms of gender, for example, I don’t have any powerful internal sense of masculinity or manliness, which I guess would place me under the genderqueer umbrella (as “agender”) if it were sufficiently rainy (or potentially “cis-by-default”). I think in practice my “gender expression” conforms to societal expectation in many respects because 1) it’s the path of least resistance, and going too against the grain would require more effort for too little reward than not, beyond, IDK, the occasional bout of flamboyance and wearing skirts and makeup and arranging flowers or w/e and 2) I like to engender certain outwardly expressed virtues in myself that are traditionally “masculine” or manifest as “masculine” gender performance, such as strength, durability, power, ambition, etc., which modify my appearance in “masculine” ways (e.g. building muscle). My preferred traditionally “feminine” virtues like gentleness, gracefulness, warmth, etc., meanwhile, are less likely to manifest themselves externally, and so would be less obvious to some outside observer.
That said, I imagine that if I woke up tomorrow to see my body transformed into one expressing the suite of primary and secondary female sex characteristics, I think the overwhelming majority of my concerns would be logistical (e.g. now I need new clothes, securing gov’t ID will be tricky, I hope Kate still finds me attractive, etc.) and not intrinsic (woe is me, this is not who I truly am!). I might experience some amount of dysphoria, who knows (I can’t quite draw upon any comparable experience — the closest might involve rapid weight loss/gain during bulks/trips, where I’ve gained upwards of 50 lbs in nine months and lost 35 in two, and that didn’t really bother me any, outside of mild frustration in the latter case at watching my gains slip away. I do recall feeling more “corporeal” going from 140 lbs -> 200 lbs, though, in the sense of being less affected by wind or crowds, but that seems more a response to external stimuli than any shift in my self-ID). Currently, I do see my body as something of a meat puppet, a tool to be used and cared for that I might do neat things. It’s not really me, but it’s also not really not me – it’s just there, and I have experience operating it in a fairly seamless manner, as a trained surgeon might find a scalpel to act an extension of her will and herself.
I think this is partly attributable to my steady childhood diet of sci-fi and fantasy, where people would routinely transform into (or already be) sapient trees or living mountains or whatever. If I were made much smaller, I might lament my loss of strength or ability, though perhaps the positional nature of that sort of thing would soon reassert itself and return me to normalcy. I currently have some minor dissatisfaction with my body, in that I’m not a 10ft tall, planet-busting Bruce Banner, perhaps with the proportions of Robert Timms, glowing with an eerie internal light and capable of advanced displays of power in flagrant violation of all known physical law, but there’s little to be done there. And even if I were to take such a form, I’d still lament my disability relative to some higher possible state of being.
I’d also say I bristle a bit whenever gender is invoked to impose some standard of behavior upon myself, e.g. of the form “real men: drink vodka/play football/eat meat/never back down from a fight, thereby failing at basic conflict resolution/etc.” You can’t tell me what to do! I do what I want! Incidentally, there’s a bit of a double standard here — I don’t care so much about being told to veer left instead of right to enter one locker room over another, but since that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg it might not be as comparable (not to trivialize those with gender dysphoria who feel genuine distress over being forced to use the wrong room).
Similarly, I don’t really “identify” as heterosexual or whatever, in the sense that it’s some intrinsic part of who I really am. I’m heterosexual mostly in that it’s the easier to be heterosexual in today’s sociopolitical climate than any alternative – but it’s not to me any more person-defining than my preference for sorbet flavor. If tomorrow I were to awake with no sexual desire for the “human female” form, I’d certainly be very distraught, but largely because it would pose a rather large challenge to my marriage, which has a large and important sexual component. Otherwise, I could well “identify” as pansexual (or bisexual, to be more restrictive), though I think I’m predominantly gynephilic, in that I’m usually stronger and more often attracted to “female bodies” (e.g. you might frame it as my having, say, a mild-moderate boob fetish, or something)
I’m not really sexually attracted to particular “gender identities” in themselves, but rather to particular morphological traits and personality characteristics, some of which covary with gender/femininity and many of which do not, but can certainly be attracted to male (or androgynous/non-binary) ones as well (though I’m typically more picky there – where I might find, oh, 30% of women attractive, I’d only find 5% of men attractive, or something. I’m also broadly interested in siring children, so reproductive compatibility is at least somewhat important). Ignoring “practical” issues, I’d say my taste in clothing (tending towards a lumbersexual/workwear/Americana/19thCenturyExplorerNaturalist aesthetic currently, probably as a reflection of my general outdoorsiness, with a general fondness for shades of blue. Though I have been exploring the varieties of streetwear lately) to be nearer my core self than my gender or sexuality, which is to say not very. Indeed, though I have a lot of fun with things like biology (as a scientific discipline), hiking, etc., I feel some discomfort referring to myself as a “biologist” or a “hiker”, even though I’ve spent many thousands of hours in the pursuit of each. I’d sooner say it’s something I do for fun and profit than some integral part of “who I really am”.
Of course, it’s awfully convenient for me that I fall into one of the most privileged (sizeable) groups of individuals ever to occur on earth – I’m lucky enough to be a citizen of an incredibly rich, post-industrial nation with excellent healthcare and social services, where many diseases that plagued past populations have been locally eradicated/immunized against. I rarely went hungry or sick as a child, with generally ample access to food, clean water, shelter, lead-free paint, etc., and have trivial access to more-than-adequate nutritional resources now. I was raised by a loving mother whose care gave me enough freedom to learn and explore, to express myself creatively, to seek out problems that challenged and stimulated me. I was able to pursue (and am still pursuing) an education from some of the finest teachers ever – really the top echelon in all of history, given the shoulders on which they stand – along with having “limitless” access to learning opportunities technologically.
I’m able-bodied, have pretty solid access to the typical suite of human senses, and barring a few old injuries can participate in athletic activities as well as if not better than most, with no large outward physical “disfigurements”, psychiatric disorders, or cognitive disabilities. I’m as yet in the springtime of my youth, especially given overly optimistic prognoses of the rate of growth in life-extension technologies. I’ve decent financial stability and have largely avoided contact with crime, drugs, war, and other interpersonal sources of danger by virtue of rarely living in true poverty (by American standards – by global or historical standards I’ve never even brushed up against it). I’ve had many excellent friends, relationships, and companions. What ancestry I’m aware of is full of smart, hardworking, talented, and capable individuals, so insofar as basic quantitative genetic theory and observation hold, I have something of a leg up there (incidentally, I’ve never been much for distinguishing between different resources one is born into — there’s a tendency to praise “naturally gifted” individuals who bootstrap their way into success, for whom understanding comes easily, while condemning equally successful, but less gifted individuals who arrived suckling silver spoons, but to me both seem equally “lucky”. Indeed, I’m not much for this whole “entitlement” thing — a person is responsible for neither G nor E, and since that’s all there is, responsibility itself dissolves. I’d sooner focus elsewhere).
And I’m a tall, white, straight, English-speaking, virile, right-handed, credentialed male of European heritage (though Russians are near the bottom of the barrel there, e.g. in their portrayals in American media. But it is helpful for late-night strolls…), or at least enough of one to reap the benefits those all provide beyond what I’ve listed above.
And finally, I’m a human, and not some other sort of organism more subject to suffering and less capable of steering the course of its own destiny and flourishing (and of course here one might object and say that if I were an earthworm or dolphin or something I’d not really be “me”! But if “I” resulted from some other role of the fertilization roulette, or were born to different circumstances or parents, or were born to identical ones but subject to a different collection of chance events, “I” wouldn’t be either. So I only mean that last point insofar as the experiences of nonhumans are comparable to my own — more on this a bit later). And of course these axes are all context-and-goal-dependent: I’d rather be a snowshoe hare if naked outside in the Canadian winter, I’d rather be >30 years of age if trying to run for U.S. Senate, I’d rather not have any friends, close companions, or so forth if living in a gritty, dystopian novel struggling against a tyrannical despot fond of kidnapping and torture as a means of persuasion. These varied axes can also interact in strange and mysterious ways (i.e. it’s not all additive).
So in all this it’s easy for me to say, sure, none of those things really define who I really am, they don’t really shape my identity, don’t be too quick to ingratiate yourself with some community, etc., as I sit atop my mountain of privilege. Throughout my life I’ve also always been a highly introverted sort, easily able to entertain myself and forming friendships and bonds on an individual basis, rather than to whole social groups. But I can easily see how a less privileged individual would be pushed to “fit in” just to function (in a manner perhaps analogous to declaring gang allegiance upon entry to prison), and so can recognize my own freedom from selection pressures that might have, on some alternate earth, forced me into having a much stronger sense of personal identity. I could also just be spectacularly lacking in introspective ability, and the whole “I don’t feel any special affinity towards masculinity, I’m just me!” thing is just what it’s like to be a cis-man in a cis-normative society, or something.
But all that said, what or who do I identify as? Have I relinquished all worldly attachment, choosing instead to float through the void of perfect liberty and non-self? Of course not. I think the innermost core of my being is a reflection of my values, or my preferences regarding how the world develops and the directions in which I endeavor to push it. In other words, my “ethical beliefs”. Though that’s a tricky phrase to use because “metaethically” I tend to strongly favor anti-realism, relativism, subjectivism, etc. I’m not sure as to the extent these beliefs can be said to be “discovered” or “created” or “chosen”, in some existential sense — a large part of me feels as if I’m just trying to describe what I already value (values which have been shaped by chance factors as well as those that have evolved both culturally and genetically), but another part recognizes the general malleability of my own preferences and how I might steer my future ones in different directions (though this steering is directed by other preferences, including my “preference” to act in a way consistent with those values I explicitly claim as my own).
So I’ll usually (informally) conceptualize morality as an inference problem and categorize moral beliefs and values by analogy to model averaging, where I have some internal set of functions over possible futures, ones take as input those futures and output their desirability (or utility), weighted according to some larger plausible distribution of models (whose exact workings might be described by some set of parameters unknown to me, but which seem to fluctuate slightly through time). In other words, I have some internal set of values, ordained by birth or development, IDK, it doesn’t matter. I’m interested in identifying these values that I might better fulfill them, just as my ability to recognize and identify my hunger allows me to take steps to satisfy it, rather than plodding about in intestinal discomfort (“satisfy hunger” is itself a sort of preference, though most of its weight is instrumental — given a genie, I might choose to never need for nourishment again, and lacking a genie I almost only seek to satisfy my hunger insofar as it lets me keep on living to do other things). I might take as observations my own moral intuitions about certain actions, or how I feel after performing them, or my agreement for or against different arguments for various ethical theories. Each ethical theory, then, can be thought of as a model (again, a function over futures that outputs the degrees to which my preferences or values are satisfied), and “observations” can be made to change the degree to which I support or strive to abide by one model or another.
These “models” sometimes agree and sometimes disagree — I am large, I contain multitudes. They are also wrong, in the sense that all models are wrong, but they are useful in guiding my actions in a way that helps to maximize the satisfaction of my values. In a similar way, being able to pinpoint my hunger as a craving for a particular sort of food lets me better extract value from what I eat. Though to clarify, I mean that all models are wrong in a descriptive sense. If we’re talking globally or prescriptively, I tend to lean non-cognitivist, so it’s something of a category error to label different ethics as wrong in the same way we might models.
And so, roughly speaking, the plurality of my values, the chunk that receives the most weight, can be described by something like nepotism, where I seek to satisfy the collective preferences of those close to me: my family and friends (e.g. see my blog post on “love” for more details – those closest to me are, essentially, “utility monsters”, ha). Much of these collapse to my other values, since the people that are close to me value things similar to what I value (and if they care about me, there arises an infinite reflection sort of thing which ultimately sums to some finite amount). I’d say that this block of my preferences accounts for, oh, ~35% of the total weight, and the people it targets constitute a sort of loose and scattered “in-group” defined purely in their relation to me. Occasionally I see people argue that this is all just confusion and mistake, that we’re deep down all selfish in a way that isn’t tautological (the pain of shame being far greater than the pain of painful death, say), but they’re wrong (a more extensive critique will have to find a different essay to ramble on in).
Having such an inner in-group also lets me more intuitively understand how others can care so much more for their in-groups than their out-groups. When a person overwhelmingly values, say, a citizen of their country than that of another, my immediate reaction is one of confusion, because how strange is that!? Who cares about where you were born geographically?? But then I realize that I care for family members many orders of magnitude more than I do for strangers (as measured by, say, how much money I’d be willing to spend at the margin to save their lives, or more precisely, since even all my investments liquidated don’t amount to much, how many decades or centuries of debt I’d be willing to take on to help them). Hell, I’ve spent almost as much money to improve my dog’s quality of life as would cost to buy decades of human QALYs/DALYs in low-income countries, which I’m sure would be quite baffling to the outside observer. And much of it’s the product of total chance! So it’s not too surprising to me that someone would happily exchange, say, ten foreign lives for a domestic one if they place the latter in their “in-group”, and therefore in a narrower circle of moral concern, even though I myself would certainly not.
My next largest block of values can be described by something like “preference utilitarianism”, which takes up perhaps ~30% of the total weight. Just as I “love” my in-group, so too do I love everyone, and thereby hope to satisfy their preferences to the best of my ability (so long as it doesn’t cost too much with respect to satisfying my other values). Inclusion in the group of “everyone” is largely an empirical question and depends on how well different plausible entities can be said to have preferences in a similar sense that I myself have preferences (i.e. placing everyone in a sort of “outer” in-group, to the exclusion of things that lack proper preferences). A necessary component of this could be something like “subjective experience” (more-so than “self-awareness”, since too many things have the latter, depending on your criteria — e.g. a fridge, a flashlight, a for-loop — but probably not the former, and if someone has the former but not the latter I’d still care about it).
Unfortunately, “subjective experience”, despite many valiant attempts to define it, remains to me total gobbledygook, but it has the rough shape and taste of something I’d be interested in. It also trespasses on questions of metaphysics (particularly ontology), which I’ve found largely bullshit-y (e.g. the goofy-ass determinism/indeterminism/compatibilism debates) since my initial readings in them during high school (though if pressed, I’d say that, in principle, I lean towards idealism, but in application and practice tend towards physicalism, reductionism, and it-doesn’t-really-matter-ism). I definitely don’t understand nearly enough about intelligence or philosophy or thought to definitively say which “algorithmic” preference-like-things I care about more than others, and the whole mess is mired in uncertainty, especially since I only have access to the outward expression of beings’ preferences according to their observed behaviors (and even then just the most superficial of glimpses!).
On the one hand, I can be reasonably sure that stuff like individual photons, rocks, and bacteria aren’t “meaningfully” conscious or sentient or capable of desire, and reasonably sure that I am (though not entirely sure – it’s certainly possible that I am not, or that I do not think, which you might well suspect having read this far). Other people and animals with more sophisticated sorts of behaviors and brains (e.g. mammals, fish, birds, etc.) are closer to me on that scale, and stuff like flowers, mushrooms, current-day computers, and slime molds are closer to rocks and bacteria. “Simpler” animals (neurologically) like insects, bivalves, and echinoderms are somewhere in the middle (and I reckon the more sessile ones greater resemble plants than pigs, generally).
The scale on which I’m judging these things is better thought of as continuous than discrete, too (i.e. moral worth is not binary, but falls along a spectrum), with some fat-tailed distribution describing my uncertainty regarding the moral value of each class of entities. So to sum, I want to satisfy the preferences, whatever those are, of the entities who have them, whatever those are, averaged over my uncertainty. A lot of terribly flawed criteria can be used to determine all this in practice (e.g. “can it communicate using symbolic language?”, “does it express an avoidance response to noxious stimuli?”, “does it have a certain sort of brain architecture?”, “is it more closely related to modern humans than to other taxa of interest?”, “is it capable of self-identification, be it using a dot and a mirror, some smelly cotton and a nose, or whatever your sensory system of choice?”), some of which are easier to apply than others (representing parameter uncertainty, in contrast to the model uncertainty inherent to choosing or averaging over different criteria).
Given this uncertainty and some rather fancy multiplication of decimals, I try not to do the best I can given the information available to me (e.g. I might be, say, 17% certain that chickens have moral value worth thinking about, and 83% certain that they do not, but I still avoid incentivizing the torture and killing of chickens in the same way I’d avoid imposing Russian roulette with a six-shooter on an entity I’m 99% certain has moral value). I favor preference utilitarianism over, say, hedonistic utilitarianism in that I only care about involuntary suffering – if someone wants to suffer voluntarily (say, by pushed themselves to do something hard), I wouldn’t want to stop them (nor would I want to be stopped myself). To these ends, I try to engage with and donate to worthwhile charities some portion of my earnings — not very much now, maybe a twentieth to a tenth or so, but certainly more once I’m better established. Here and in some of my other writings one might find loose connections to the “effective altruism” community, but I wouldn’t say I really number among them either, though I’ve popped in and out of their periphery for the last half decade and some. They’re mostly ok.
The next chunk of my values, constituting perhaps ~25% of the total weight, can be well encapsulated by something like hedonism, egoism, the cultivation of my own virtues, and the pursuit of my own personal eudaimonia. I want to be happy, to experience pleasure and avoid pain and suffering, to become strong and capable and kind, and to pursue my hobbies and interests. A full quarter of my values are devoted to me (me me!), and a solid fraction (more than a quarter) of my resources are devoted to ensuring that I can travel, hike, play, read, exercise, socialize, learn, etc. This is done both for instrumental reasons (“please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others”), but also for terminal ones – I do like being happy. To some extent, though, I feel that U(θ) doesn’t care that much about my happiness or sadness in and of itself, in that there are many contexts where I wouldn’t wish to be more happy or less sad ceteris paribus, but rather sculpt the external conditions responsible for that happiness and sadness. If, say, a loved one dies, it feels only right and proper that I should feel sad, and I wouldn’t wish to press a button to lessen my suffering even if it nothing else (e.g. commitment to future actions) were to change. Sometimes, I might also even take a sort of masochistic pleasure from my own discomfort, though insofar as that’s just from confirmation that I’ve truly challenged myself I do not know.
Sometimes people try to reconcile their revealed preferences in this regard with their stated preferences of being totally devoted to the universal, egalitarian betterment of others — i.e. they claim the pursuit of their own pleasure to be purely instrumental. That’s always seemed awfully convenient to me, especially when their behavior scarcely differs from self-described (partial) egoists.
I also want to be virtuous and the sort of person who does virtuous things, both (and mostly) because I want to wield those virtues to accomplish things as they relate to my other values, but also because I think being courageous, compassionate, honest, friendly, powerful, enduring, tenacious, diligent, funny, perceptive, and so on would be really neat. It should also be noted that while my values do conflict occasionally (e.g. I get more hedonic pleasure out of a raspberry bush than I do donating its market value to effective charities), they are often pretty well aligned (e.g. I experience plenty of muditā when helping others). Some part of my values are also self-perpetuating, in that I want to prevent them from drifting too far and in particular directions. Meta-ethically, I don’t really distinguish between a preference for chocolate ice-cream (over vanilla ice-cream) and a preference for joyous screams (over painful screams), but I’d certainly not want the later values to flip where I’d care little if the former ones did.
I run into stumbling blocks here, however, when it comes to speculative scenarios involving teleporters, resurrection from backup, etc. I’m tied to the physical substrate from which my conscious experience emerges, and would refrain from killing myself if, say, I knew a nearly exact duplicate were to take my place some time later (though see further below). I would, however, be much more inclined to do a piece-by-piece mind upload such as that entailed by the Moravec procedure, where neuron-by-neuron, over some sufficiently long period of time, my consciousness, normally implemented in and emergent from gooey organic tissues, is transferred into some digital, electronic technology (after all, I’m no carbon chauvinist, I don’t think there’s anything special about biomolecules like proteins or lipids or nucleic acids or anything). Perhaps digital Nik, more aware of his own transience, would feel greater freedom in the face of a copy-destroy-reconstruct machine, but organic Nik sees it as a bringer of death (and new life, OFC). I‘m just not nearly certain enough that copies are meaningfully “me” to risk biological death, but my intuitions don’t balk nearly as much in the case of procedures like that of Moravec. Perhaps the question’s even arbitrary, and you can just as well imagine agents who value their “particular” configuration of matter as well as those who value only the pattern that configuration represents, or those who value both, or those who value neither. All that said, in some hypothetical sci-fi universe I’d be totally in favor of creating “back-ups” before performing risky activities, if only because a lot of what I value — as the preceding paragraphs hopefully illustrate — doesn’t have much to do with me, personally, and the backups could fulfill those goals just as well in the event of my untimely demise (I’d also be in favor of just creating more of me, but that’s a separate discussion). But I wouldn’t regard hedonic joy experienced by Nik-2 to be the same as that experienced by Nik-prime, though I probably would care about Nik-2’s affairs more than I might some random person’s (if only in the expectation of symmetrical reciprocation ;D).
Some other questions that have helped me probe my intuitions in this matter:
- Someone you deeply care for is scanned and reassembled while sleeping dreamlessly (or under anesthesia, or whatever). Two of them lie side by side before you. Do you kill one without regret? Is it harder to kill one than it is to kill an extremely high fidelity video game model of one?
- You say goodnight to your romantic partner of choice and go to sleep beside them. While you both sleep, someone sneaks into your bedroom and painlessly kills them. You wake up to see the intruder standing over their lifeless body. You are angry and upset. The intruder says “it’s all good dude, I scanned them before killing them! Here’s their saved brainstate (or whatever)”. Do you laugh it off? And maybe kick the intruder out for playing such a hilarious practical joke?
- Unbeknownst to you, you were copied yesterday and your copy has since slept a dreamless sleep (or is still saved somewhere and hasn’t been created yet). Are you more comfortable with killing yourself then and there and being reformed from the save-state, or taking a 24-hour amnestic?
- Is the badness of death continuous or discrete? Presume you’re entirely, 100% OK with the perfect fidelity copying thing. Now wiggle some of the atoms around. Are you still 100% on board? Wiggle some more atoms. Change your favorite flavor of ice-cream to rum raisin, but leave everything else intact. Make your colon half an inch longer. Tuvan throat singing is now overwhelmingly your favorite sort of music. Etc. Still ok with it? Those things aren’t really integral to your identity, are they? Or is the death of the “original”, instead of being a neutral act, now 5% as bad as death sans “copy”? Now approach the process of copying from the other direction — instead of having a perfect copy, you find out that “Sam” exists. Sam’s your distant kin, and they sorta like the same things you do. They’re willing to step into your shoes, bed your partner(s), take over your job, etc. when you get vaporized. Are you now slightly reassured at the prospect of death?
- How certain am I of the meaninglessness of “non”-death-with-copying-and-replacement? As in, identify the number, p equals what? Am I 99% certain? That still leaves 1% chance you die meaningfully (and there’s still uncertainty about that probability estimate, captured perhaps with hyperparameters). How great a benefit do I have to receive to gamble on that uncertainty?
- If you don’t think the speed with which Theseus’ Ship is rebuilt does not matter, consider that you also grow and develop and change your mind in varied ways? Are you impartial between me changing your mind over several hours via deep conversation vs. changing your mind instantaneously via my mind-changer-beam? Let’s say you don’t have a choice in either scenario — I’ve tied you to a chair and you’ll talk with me whether you want to or not.
People also change throughout their lives. Are you ok with your current preferences, thoughts, values, etc. being instantaneously switched to whatever they’d be 40 years from now? Many of them are shaped by somewhat random environmental factors, but it’s still you, right? Identity would have been continuous over that interval.
Anyway, what are we at, 90%? The remaining 10% of the weight I’d devote to something like aesthetics or unspecified moral intuitions, as well as the rest of misc. ethics out there, like various natural rights theories. Ultimately, I see morality and valuation as a descriptive (and not a prescriptive) endeavor (hence my aforementioned “metaethics”, with caveats). That’s to say that the abstracted descriptions above might not adequately capture what I really desire, but I’m pretty sure they do on the whole. Still, they might lead me to some repulsive conclusions, and a regular diet of bullets results in some pretty gnarly dental wear. So I think of this as a sort of fudge factor, where if I really don’t like something, I can incorporate a sort of meta-meta uncertainty to avoid doing it. But not too much, otherwise what’s the point?
This comes most into play when thinking through stupid thought experiments – if a dozen sadists really, really want to torture a single victim (who understandably doesn’t want to be tortured), and they’re the only things in the universe, and the preference arithmetic says to let them go ahead, I still lean heavily towards “fuck ‘em”. This isn’t to say that I’d walk away from Omelas or anything (though there, I’ve always wondered what possible good walking does for the kid – remaining in the society and seeking to understand and modify the mechanism by which it functions seems to be the obviously better answer, far superior to shielding your eyes and washing your hands in the name of personal purity), but that sometimes I’ll cast caution to the wind (or act extra cautiously, depending on how much you agree with me) depending on the circumstance and context.
As already mentioned, since the core of my identity is wrapped up in my preferences, and the majority of those pertain to entities external to myself, I find myself in the somewhat fortuitous position of not fearing death as much as I otherwise might. So long as I am survived by the executors of my will and there are sentient beings left to flourish somewhere or else, those parts of my identity live on, despite their actual progenitor — the fleshy, cranial meatbag perched atop my spine — no longer existing. This applies especially well to those I particularly care for, who might be sheltered under my nepotistic umbrella. And if some copy of me goes on to fulfill my various wants, all the better, for even if its pleasures are not my pleasures, its victories might still be my victories. I’m fairly partial to sentiments like that expressed by Woody Allen, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” But I can see something to immortality after death, too.
[TO BE CONTINUED]