If your reading this for the first time, you probably don’t exist in the way that you think you do. I want to challenge your belief with – in my opinion – overwhelming evidence on the nature of you and your identity. To do this, I will be answering the teleportation thought experiment found here. Having a thought out answer to the thought experiment will give you an understanding of the reality of personal identity. It will allow you to discover why you may not be who (or what) you thought you were.
Lets Begin. Please read the teleportation thought experiment if you have not already done so.
Solution to the Thought Experiment, and the reason behind you you don’t exist:
I created this thought experiment for the purpose of understanding what personal identity consists of. The thought experiment present problems which are not solvable with the traditional notion of the self. By changing how we see ourselves and our personal identity, we can create a theory of the self which is able to solve the thought experiment and thus be a more accurate representation of how we really exist. It can lead to a better understanding of how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us and lead to a number of ethical, psychological and social implications. First however we must solve it.
There are many different ideas and different types of reasoning about what percentage to choose. Some people may believe that it doesn’t matter what percentage you choose, and be inclined to choose 100% in order to get a greater reward. Others however, seeing this as suicide, would hold onto the opinion that 0% is the only acceptable answer. Others however, seeing 0% as too little, may choose a percentage roughly equal to the number of atoms, on average, which a person looses and gains in any given fraction of a second. With the many different answers, as is evident, comes with many different lines of reasoning as to why a particular answer is correct. Our goal is to make the determination about which line of reasoning is correct in order to solve the thought experiment. We can do this by asking “what constitutes personal identity?” as this question is the key to understanding how you exist, and the key to choosing the correct percentage.
The thought experiment is a metaphor for the change that occurs as we age and progress through different stages of life. As we grow (or even develop in the case of a new born child or a fetus) the specific atoms that exist in our body change, and are no longer with us. Just like our life, the teleporter changes the specific atoms in our body – only instead of taking a number of years to happen it happens instantly. This thought experiment was designed in order to highlight and emphasize the contemporary problems associated with the nature of personal identity. It makes the reader ask -”what is personal identity?” and “how do we exist” – and it is with these type of questions, when considered in the context of a self which is changing with respect to specific atoms of which it is composed, that evoke an understanding of the self as an impermanent entity.
It seems that the traditional understanding of the nature of personal identity over time – at least in western culture – is unable to solve the thought experiment. It also follows that, as a metaphor for the change we go through in life, that this understanding is also not congruent or reflective of the true nature of the self. This traditional notion is the idea that you exist over time from birth until death and retain throughout your life a unique identity. Within this paradigm it is impossible to answer the teleportation thought experiment, and in the next section I discuss the problems associated with this and also its solution.
A Few Theories:
There have been a number of proposed solutions and ideas about what constitutes personal identity, and a few of these are listed below. Each theory focuses on a different aspect, or a different part of an individual which is thought to be the key to personal identity. For example the soul theory believe that everyone has a soul – and that it is this unique characteristic which determines a persons personal identity. Each theory will undoubtably have a different line of reasoning and different ideas about how to solve the thought experiment and what percentage one should choose.
The idea that the soul is the key to personal identity, where each person has a unique soul and their personal identity is derived from this.
The idea that the brain is the key to personal identity, where the unique thoughts, ideas, and cerebral activity is where a persons personal identity is derived.
Idea that the physical body is the the key to personal identity, and a persons unique body – rather then the brain – is where personal identity is derived.
The idea that your personality is the key to your personal identity.
The idea that your personal identity only exists in the present moment and not across time.
Includes a number of theories examining how the self persists through time. Each theory above can take its form as a 4-dimensionalist theory. Ex. the soul 4-Dimensionalist theory sees the soul as existing across time and it is that which gives a person their identity. The unrestricted 4-Dimensionalist theory examines the self to exist as 3-dimensional time slices which, when chronologically strung together, create identity.
My Solution: Part 1: excluding the supernatural
My solution to the thought experiment rests partly upon the philosophical idea of reductionism. Reductionism is the philosophical idea that everything can be broken down and explained by the sum of its individual parts. Taking a wheel for example, we can break it down into various parts: a hub, many spokes, a circular frame, and a rubber insert which fits along the circular frame and which will provide traction as the wheel spins. These parts can again be broken down into small parts – for example perhaps the circular frame is composed of two semi circles welded together. This can, once again, be broken down into even smaller parts, and taking this to its ultimate conclusion we can see and understand a wheel to be composed of only atoms – which are themselves composed of many sub-atomic particles such as quarks, leptons, bosons etc.
My idea is not that we should view our personal identity as being the sum of some set of individual atoms, but rather, that we exist as only as matter. My ideas about personal identity and the solution to the thought experiment rests on this idea: that the only thing which has ever existed and will ever exist is matter in its various forms. This includes for example light, electromagnetic energy, heat, etc. Matter, and all of its properties – anything with a mass, volume, energy, or some type of observable quality are the only thing which exist.
If this idea, as well as the idea that all phenomena can be explained by the sum of its parts, it gives us some understanding of the nature of reality and the self. It means that supernatural forces (such as souls) do not exist. What this means for the thought experiment and the nature of personal identity, is that “the self” exists only as matter, and that it is only explainable entirely by matter, energy, and their resulting interactions. It means that our personality, our body, our thoughts and our mind are all composed of atoms and through the interactions of those atoms. It means that personal identity can be reduced to atoms, and in order to understand how we exist, we need to view the self as a group of atoms (or matter) at some point or for some duration of time.
This is the starting point for solving the thought experiment and understanding nature of personal identity over time. With this in mind, we can begin to examine how the self can be defined and what it is composed of. In the following paragraphs I will examine how we as humans change over time, and what this change means for our personal identity through the ‘reductionist’ / ‘only-matter-exists’ paradigm.
My Solution: Part 2: Discussing Change
Now that we have eliminated the idea of souls or supernatural forces, all we have left to do is determine which atoms in our body constitute our personal identity. However we are left with a problem: we are constantly changing.
As it turns out – it is impossible to assign a unique personal identity to any set of atoms within your body because of its impermanent nature. Lets look at a few examples:
A) We can’t assign personal identity to our entire body because part of our body is constantly changing. (ex. our skin cells are constantly dying which would change our identity.)
b) We can’t assign personal identity to our entire body because part of our brain is constantly changing. (ex. we are constantly learning new things which would change our identity)
c)We can’t assign personal identity to neurons in our brain which have remained with us since birth because this would mean that we exist only as those neurons. (this ignores our thoughts/feelings/emotions and the rest of our entire body. Not only would changing these atoms change our identity, but it also allows for multiple people to have the same identity. consider these neurons being placed into someone else’s brain – it would mean that two people would share the same identity which we know is impossible. )
All of these examples give evidence to the fact that you cannot assign a unique personal identity to any set of atoms within your body. Since we are always changing and are in a state of flux, we do not exist in any one form over time, and thus cannot assign personal identity to any number of characteristics or sets of characteristics over time. Please see My Solution Part 3 for an explanation of all of the problems that arise when trying to define the self.
My Solution: Part 3: The Problem with Identifying Identity
This section outlines the problems that occur when trying to define the self. It starts out by examining all of the whys that someone could potentially define themselves and outlines the problems associated with this type of definition.
First a few definitions:
Restrictiveness: The amount of specificity or vagueness in a definition which determines how well an object is defined. Restrictiveness runs along a continuum from completely vague – to completely specific.
Loose definition: a definition which contains excessive amount of vagueness.
Ex. Dog: mammal that barks
Strict definition: a definition which describes an object specifically, clearly, and comprehensively which eliminates vagueness and uncertainty – this definition is typically long and gives lots of detail.
Ex. Dog: “a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. It is widely kept as a pet or for work or field sports.”
The above chart shows all of the possible ways someone could define themselves – and includes every possible definition. Lets begin by examining problems associated with the four points on the image above.
- Firstly, lets examine what happens when we create the loosest definition of the self possible. This definition would not be a definition at all because it would contain no words, and thus be completely vague. Thus the self cannot be defined and we cannot know what what personal identity consists of.
- As we increase restrictiveness to the second point, we have a loose definition of the self. We know that loose definitions contain some amount of vagueness in them and do not completely describe what the self or personal identity is composed of. Remember that we are making the assumption that only physical and observable material exists (due to the reductionist assumptions explained) which eliminates the possibility of souls or non-material objects as being the self.A very loose definition contains some amount of vagueness, and when any amount of vagueness exists within a definition, it is impossible to know when an object does (or does not) exist. The problem with vagueness is that it does not allow us to know how all of the characteristics of a object are defined and so it is not a functioning definition we can use to understand the self. For example – if we define the self as “a person with a scar on their leg” its not very helpful as the definition includes many people not only yourself which does not make it useful. There simply is not enough information to determine what personal identity is composed of.
- As restrictiveness increases to point 3, the definition becomes less vague, eliminating most the problem of vagueness (although it is still present and makes this type of definition impossible to use). However, as vagueness decreases, the problems associated with stricter definitions (narrowness/broadness) begin to arise. Adopting a stricter definition of the self (but not the strictest definition possible) such as “a person with xyz thoughts, beliefs, characteristics, background, social norms, ideas, body, personality” leads to ‘the problem of no self’ and ‘the problem of multiple selves’.The problem of no self happens when you define yourself too strictly, and you fall outside of the definition of yourself. Ex. you include as part of your definition that you have 7,000,000,000, but you scraped your knee and how have 6,900,000,000 atoms. The problem with this definition is that it causes you to stop existing when you scrape you knee.The problem of multiple selves also begins to happen. Lets say that you knew about ‘the problem of no self’ and decide to define yourself to have a range of atoms from 6-8 billion, and decided that for many of your other characteristics you would also define within a range. What beings to happen is that multiple people or objects tend to fall within these ranges and thus you are left with two objects being defined as you. Since we know personal identity has to be unique, and that there can only be one ‘you’, this type of definition is also impossible.Additionally there is no happy medium between points 2 and 3. This would result in moderate amounts of vagueness, and moderate amounts of ‘the problem of no self’. Not only does this not answer the question about what the self actually is (and leads to problems in answering the teleportation thought experiment) but there is a chance that you could change and fall outside of this definition.
- The last way we can define the self is when the definition is as strict as possible and is not vague. This definition is a theoretical definition only and cannot be spoken or put into writing. It is incredibly long and contains all possible characteristics of the self – it contains each atom, type of atom, and their location. This type of definition contains no amount of vagueness and but runs into the problem of ‘no self’ and ‘multiple selves’ just like problem 3. The only different is that both of these problems are greatly magnified.
Thus we can see that no matter how we attempt to define the self – we run into problems. It means that it is impossible to determine what constitutes personal identity, as there is no such thing.
Conclusion / Solution
Now that we understand the impermanent nature of ourselves, and the nature of personal identity, we are able to answer the thought experiment. The answer to the thought experiment is that it doesn’t matter what percentage you choose, since there is nothing which constitutes personal identity. Choosing 0% will be the same as choosing 100%. It may more then sense to choose 100% since the reward will be higher.
This however – at least in my mind – doesn’t quite seem right. If it doesn’t matter which percentage you choose, then won’t you be killing yourself when you choose 100%? Would that make your life meaningless?
I answer these questions with regards to the thought experiment here.