And you are…?

"You see that arrangement? That's you, that is."

\”You see that arrangement? That\’s you, that is.\”

So, I’m an atheist, I’ve let go of mystical notions such as gods, spirits etc. Therefore I don’t believe I have a soul. Then what makes me me? It can’t be the stuff of which I am made; the atoms, ions, molecules, cells, etc. since they are all being continually replaced, and after all, what would be special about any atom that would change my identity if it was replaced with another?

The only possible answer can be that I am the arrangement of the stuff of which I am made, most particularly, the arrangement of the cells and chemicals in my brain. A scarily minimal thing on which to hang one’s identity, but it fits the facts:

More and more, it becomes clear that personality (to which I think we would all agree identity is greatly tied) is an emergent property of brain function. Specific characteristics in brain chemistry and structure are linked to specific psychological problems or profiles. Neuropsychology is the study of how the two are linked, and it is still in its infancy – the brain is so complex that untangling the huge numbers of processes and linking them to outwardly expressed behaviours is incredibly difficult – but, as usual with science, the more time passes, the more can be explained by a good understanding of the processes involved.

We start life with a brain which has certain formative characteristics. There are many arguments to be had about how much of our personalities is inbuilt and how much a product of our environment, but it is clear that the answer will turn out to be “a bit of both”. For instance, I know that I have continuity with the child I used to be, but I have clearly changed to some extent, with different needs, desires, attitudes and opinions. These have arisen as I have interacted with the world around me, adding to the experiences on which I draw for further interactions in an ongoing feedback loop. I am even part of the environment with which I interact – ever felt guilty about an action and resolved to change? That’s you being your own environment – cool, huh?

Thus, as time goes on, the pattern that is me has grown and changed, while retaining sufficient characteristics to claim a continuing “self”, and when I die, that pattern will break up and cease to exist. The only real continuation is in the effect I have on others who will remain afterwards, and their effect on yet others, etc.

You are an ephemeral arrangement of stardust. So be good to yourself, and try to leave a better environment for all those other arrangements to come.


Just a tad belatedly ūüėČ I’d like to make an adjustment to my postulate – we are not the arrangements themselves, we are the processes that occur within those arrangements. Hence when those processes cease, so do we. And if those processes can be restarted before the substrate deteriorates, back we come!

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14 Responses to And you are…?

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    I agree that the chances are that any single atom would have an imperceptible impact on your being, should it get replaced. However, each of your constituent cells is linked physically, temporally and contextually. They are copies that exist in a particular place at a specific time having been created using a template that is your own – or indeed ‘you’. ¬†Consider if a “complete” copy of the instructions that form your DNA were recorded and all the matter that is you right now is stored ( sorry,a bit gooey) then at some point when technology allows, all that was you is perfectly reconstructed to be you. ¬†Somehow we know that it will not BE you. ¬†I think then that there is more to the definition than a recipe or plan however complex. ¬†I’m not sure I know what it is, I suspect it is transitory rather than indefinite but I’m not sure it is spiritual. ¬† ¬†

    I agree that your definition fits almost all of the facts as we currently perceive them.  Each of us may have a projection into another dimension that we are completely unaware of, a link to another perspective on reality.  For example if we existed in the proverbial 2 dimensional space of Pacman(tm) but had some type of flag protruding orthogonally to that 2-d space in which we exist.  Just as a Pacman(tm) may be impacted by this hidden drag in a vertically orthogonal dimension that it cannot perceive, our existence in this theoretical imperceptible dimension may impact our experience of the reality in which we live.  We would continue to be oblivious to the cause, if any.  This imaginary flag protruding in to a third dimension may cause drag but in a 2-d existence it is completely unfathomable.

    As you say, personal conception and expression are our identity and I agree this is driven by the current state, be it chemical, physical and temporal of our body. ¬†I agree also that as neuropsychology advances it will discover more about the interplay of brain chemistry and the manifestation of personality. ¬†Ultimately though it is a science founded on the set of scientific principals and laws that are thought by many to be “missing something”. ¬†Like Newtonian mechanics and Special Relativity before it, Quantum mechanics, thought to be the universal theory of everything is still flawed at the extremes. ¬†

    I am also not sure that the we do actually start life with a blank sheet – a sponge ready to soak up the environmental experiences around us. ¬†This doesn’t explain instinct and species memory. ¬†How do we “know” how to feed/breathe/etc? ¬†Is it hard wired in all cells? Some of these are quite complex functions. ¬†How do some species “know” where the mating grounds are? Is it really just transferred by DNA intermingling in 2 stem cells? May be it is, may be it isn’t, but you are very right about one thing, it is very cool.

    So yes, ultimately the pattern that is you, as defined by our current understanding of science, has gone when you die. But the imperceptible part that truly distinguishes you from just a collection of atoms arranged in a very precise pattern, has that gone too? Many religions have a concept of a sustainable component that transfers elsewhere, is this just wishful thinking or could it be based on a broader species-wide awareness that we can’t quite explain?

    My comments are probably driven by the gaping knowledge gap that became apparent when I started my existential questioning – my first blog was called existential angst. ¬†I find that in many ways I am jealous of people that have made a leap of faith and are deeply religious. As much as I abhor some of the (in)human things that people do in the name of religion I admire the fundamental underlying principles of many of humanity’s religions – in the main. There are many examples of extreme self sacrifice in the name of some spirit or god. These maybe examples of enlightened self sacrifice – where the sacrifice is done in the knowledge that it benefits the sacrificer in the long run- but still many are further than I believe I could go personally. This complete abandonment to a religion seems very comforting and I cannot believe, as many do, that it is all due to some intellectual deficiency or existential fear.¬†

    Until recently, like you, I thought there was one highly complex, biomechanical explanation of our existence and that eventually the blue print would be understood and in some way this would provide satisfaction to me. ¬†That is until I read about the approaching singularity on Raymond Kurzweil’s website and the plethora of research and analysis that points to the veracity of this concept despite its conceptual implausibility. ¬†My wonderment at existence and the incalculable complexity of life has been reignited. ¬†¬†¬†

    Thank you for making me rattle these neurons around in my brain once more.  However inelegant my expressions of these thoughts are, I hope they tickle your neurones too.

  2. Thanks for the full and thoughtful response, James. As you might expect, I’d like to come back on some of the points you raise.

    Firstly, “…Somehow we know that it will not BE you.” This is the crux of the matter. If this experiment were to be done, I think I would be very upset when I was reconstituted and you told me that I was not me. I am postulating that there is no need to invent anything external (whether in known or unknown dimensions!) to explain what makes a person, that the complexity of the connections is sufficient. If the experiment is done and the reconstituted person either just sits and stares, or goes out and starts murdering children, or isn’t recognised by automatic doors, then at that point it will be clear that there is more going on, but I can’t see any reason why the reconstituted person would not act, think and feel like, have the same memories as, and in all possible ways BE the same person. I can’t disprove your hypothetical extra dimension with its attendant “drag”, but I don’t think that “Somehow we know” is sufficient reason to require it, and I don’t see what problem with my explanation your conjecture solves.

    Of course no branch of science has succeeded in explaining all phenomena that fall within its scope, and therefore can be described as “missing something”, but undoubtedly science by its very nature continues to cover new territory, and to give more and more accurate explanations. Thus quantum mechanics captures more of what is going on than Newtonian mechanics. I think it is widely accepted that the current difficulties with the Standard Model imply that there is a better model and a different conceptualisation that remains to be found, but I would be deeply surprised if when found, one of its consequences was the description of a spooky-person-stuff that explained individuality.

    I think you may have misread some of what I wrote. I said “We start life with a brain which has certain formative characteristics. There are many arguments to be had about how much of our personalities is inbuilt and how much a product of our environment, but it is clear that the answer will turn out to be ‚Äúa bit of both‚ÄĚ.” You responded with “I am also not sure that the we do actually start life with a blank sheet…”.

    I agree that it is astonishing the vast distances some animals migrate, and that it is hard to credit that this information is somehow encoded in genes, and yet, we know that genes encode every part of our bodies, and they are far more complex than some sort of map or set of directions to get to a far breeding ground. Add to that the fact that it would appear that the reason that some migrations are so enormous is that they are very, very old migrations that used to be much shorter when the planet’s surface was in a different configuration, and it becomes clear that the mechanism must be a very basic one, since a clever mechanism would switch to a closer destination!

    I do believe that the concepts within religions are driven by the psychological needs of humans, and that the difficulty we all have in considering our own cessation is a major driving force, so yes, “wishful thinking” rather than “species-wide awareness”. I don’t deny that many ideas within religions appeal to the best in human nature, but that doesn’t make the religions true, and the non-religious also perform acts of self-sacrifice (axiomatically without hope of benefit after death), so I don’t know that we can draw any conclusions about religion based on self-sacrifice of the religious.

    I also sometimes used to wish I could find faith, and felt that this would be comforting. However, having come to the conclusion that all religious explanations are bogus, I now embrace my lack of faith and relish the unknown, cherishing the idea that we will never have all the answers, but that science is the only reliable method we have for investigating how things work, and that intelligent beings will continue to use it to discover, invent and comprehend well beyond our current limits. In particular I hope that current and future research into neuropsychology will increase our understanding of what makes people happy, enabling us to make political and societal decisions on the basis of that understanding.

    I’m unsure of the thrust of the Kurzweil idea and its relevance to this discussion – perhaps you could fill me in a bit? However, I will say that my own “wonderment at existence and the incalculable complexity of life” is fully ablaze ūüôā

  3. Incidentally, just read this in this week’s New Scientist:
    Rebuild immunity to cure compulsion
    Yet another gene involved in a psychological pathology…

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    I think what you have stimulated in me is a desire to explore these concepts much more than I have previously. A modicum of research indicates that we are probably debating very old ground between realism or materialism and idealism. It is perhaps just levels of abstraction that differentiates our view. Your point that the crux of the matter is indeed my perception of ‚Äúidentity‚ÄĚ, where I state that from my perspective ‚Äúit will not BE you,‚ÄĚ is indeed just a level or 2 of abstraction from where you are. That is, with your rational materialism defining the apparent absolute existence of yourself. What you see is what you get is not universally accepted as true. What I would like to explore more, taking me away from the comforting notion that we are just the construct of knowable material that can be pieced together by an all encompassing plan or map, is the idea that we are more than our apparent constituent parts. That there are other dimensions that either we or the material that constitutes us has some connection to. The concept that every atom of your existence could be catalogued and mapped and then you could be deconstructed in to your basest components then stored for a period of time and then completely reconstructed and the result would be ‚Äúyou‚ÄĚ on every level of abstraction, I find difficult to accept. Not just some bad ‘B’ movie plot about the loss of a soul! but there is something just right about knowing that this is true. I shall wrestle with this some more using my neurons and Wikipedia. Bare in mind also, I find it staggeringly implausible that the lion will lay with the sheep in a beautiful paradise for eternity too. ūüôā For me religion, or more correctly some form of spiritual existence is also nonsense.

    I have no time right now to read the New Scientist link or to draft a sensible summary of Kurzweil’s philosophy but I shall try later. There is a link to Kurzweil’s essay on my blog

    I hope to do more research on Bishop Berkeley’s view of Idealism and also Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. My wikipedic research has piqued my interest.

  5. I should point out that I accepted the whole reconstitution thing as merely a thought experiment. I would not be surprised to learn that this will always remain impossible, and the prospect was not a main theme. I admit to being somewhat facetious in guessing the actions of the reconstituted person, but there was a serious point there: what is it that you think such a person would be missing, that would make them not the same person? Do you think that they would NOT have the same emotions, attitudes, memories etc? And would you shun such a person in the face of their desire to be recognised?

    Even if we take as true your idea about connections to other dimensions, there must be some mechanism by which the connection arises, and unless you’re talking about God popping souls in (and I don’t think you are), presumably it arises naturally at some point during the process of conception, gestation and birth. Presumably it would also then disappear after the dissolution of the corporal form, otherwise what in our physical dimensions would remain connected to the other dimension? So you haven’t really solved the “mechanics” problem, you’ve just put it at a further remove, which is the same thing that the religious do with the “God did it” explanation.

    It seems to me that you are demonstrating that existential fear that you can’t believe is the cause of such thinking, and I am having some difficulty appreciating the distinction between your own position and the “some form of spiritual existence” that you say is nonsense. Sorry, not getting at you, just seriously not understanding exactly how your position relates to mine and a religious or spiritual perspective, since you seem to be trying to inhabit a middle ground between the two positions which I don’t think exists.

    Thanks for the Kurzweil link. I shall read up!

  6. Right, I’ve read the article, and he definitely covers all the ground I covered, and more. I think he mainly comes down on my side, since he compares a reconstituted human, one who has over time had every piece of them replaced and a normal human whose cells are naturally all being replaced over time, and decides that they are functionally equivalent. He does also raise the point of what happens if you create a reconstituted human while the original still lives, but I think the key is that you would have to treat the 2 approximately equivalently at first, but that then they would start to have different experiences and it would then make sense to treat them as different people. Obviously they would remain very similar, probably more so than identical twins since they would share a much greater proportion of life experiences, but still separate.

    Incidentally, the article is indeed thought-provoking. I think he is broadly correct, although he is much too liberal with the word “evolutionary”, and he makes a few assumptions which I don’t agree with. The most glaring one, I think, is that a new paradigm will always arise to allow growth to continue. It is true that new paradigms have tended to arise, but they don’t always. I wonder how a chart of progress on superconductors would fit into his exponential pattern, for instance. However, I think he is right that the pace of change is ever-accelerating, and that a lot of these changes are mutually reinforcing so that the acceleration will itself accelerate. Interesting times we live in!

  7. Jimmy Mac says:

    String Theory:

    Scientifically: There isn’t a single universal theory that describes accurately at the most fundamental level, the structure of matter. ¬†It is likely that matter exists in someway simultaneously in other dimensions. We simply cannot know if the matter that constitutes our body is currently in part protruding into another dimension. My Pacman analogy was an (plagiarised from Cosmos by Carl Sagan) attempt to draw a cartoon of this concept. Whilst my ¬†¬†reconstitution¬†experiment wasn’t meant to be realistic, again it was designed as an illustration, as you acknowledged. ¬†If indeed is was to become literally you, I’d still beat you at WotR and lose gracefully at dominion – in some dimension or other ūüėČ ¬† The serious point you make misses my point too, it’s not so much that these reconstructed beings are deficient in some abstract or literal way but more that we cannot know if the matter’s existence in other dimensions remains identical. ¬†So in summary I agree that what you have concluded is a sound assessment of the known facts, I am just concerned with the assuredness with which you seem to think that is it – you can stop now – what we know about matter is all there is to know. This rematerialised Eric may be missing a fundamental piece in another dimension that was a hidden part of your strings. ¬†

    Philosophically: plagiarised once more from who knows where – if you planted a sapling in a field and returned 20 years later to the exact spot and saw a tree. Is it the same tree? ¬†Literally -in 3Dworld- ¬†it is not, all the matter has changed. ¬†Conceptually it is, as the later one would not exist if the other earlier hadn’t been at it’s point in the space-time. ¬†What we are looking at is humanity’s ability to abstract from the literal. At some point your question about identity requires a level of abstraction. You an I appear to be at different levels of abstraction. ¬†You see matter in 3D. I see matter in +3D.

    I must read Kurzweil’s essay again. I’m glad you got some value out of reading it. I pointed you to it not to judge the hypothetical human deconstruction experiment as similar or dissimilar to your view, more to show how even great philosopher scientists still admit to doubt. ¬†This isn’t a weakness, it is a strength …. I think. ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†

  8. Hmmmm.

    I postulate that the complication of the physical form is (perhaps you would have been happier if I’d said “may be”) sufficient to give rise to all the phenomena of identity, personality and individuality that we experience. Currently that is untestable, but Occam’s razor suggests that this is a better explanation than inventing hypothetical extra dimensions, but even if we accept those dimensions and the connection you propose, you still end up with a choice of:
    1. Connection to other dimensions arises organically with growth of life form, or:
    2. Connection is present for all matter at all times, or:
    3. God did it (or any other formulation such as “spirits”, “souls”, etc.)

    If 3, then you share that position you called nonsensical
    If 2, then how would the connection of an intelligent life form differ to the connection of a rock?
    If 1, what could remain connected after the dissolution of the corporeal form?

    To summarise, when I talk of the arrangement of my physical form, I fully accept that we do not know all there is to know about that arrangement, and, who knows, maybe it extends into another dimension. But so what? The arrangement arises as I am conceived, born and grow. That arrangement disappears in the dimensions we know about when I die. Do you have any evidence to suggest that these other dimensions exist, and, critically, that the extension of my arrangement into those dimensions would persist after the arrangement ceases to exist in the dimensions we know about? I don’t think that you do, and I think that your unwillingness to accept the likelihood of my postulate is very much evidence of existential angst rather than of any real phenomenon (in any dimension).

  9. Jimmy Mac says:

    Extra dimensions…

    One of the most remarkable predictions of String Theory is that space-time has ten dimensions! At first sight, this may be seen as a reason to dismiss the theory altogether, as we obviously have only three dimensions of space and one of time. However, if we assume that six of these dimensions are curled up very tightly, then we may never be aware of their existence. Furthermore, having these so-called compact dimensions is very beneficial if String Theory is to describe a Theory of Everything. The idea is that degrees of freedom like the electric charge of an electron will then arise simply as motion in the extra compact directions! The principle that compact dimensions may lead to unifying theories is not new, but dates from the 1920’s, since the theory of Kaluza and Klein. In a sense, String Theory is the ultimate Kaluza-Klein theory.
    For simplicity, it is usually assumed that the extra dimensions are wrapped up on six circles. For realistic results they are treated as being wrapped up on mathematical elaborations known as Calabi-Yau Manifolds and Orbifolds.

    The above is an excerpt from one of the papers from my link. I seem to be provoking quite a defensive stance from you. This is not my aim, I’ve enjoyed the debate and you have made me think about identity and existence. I don’t think I am suffering from existential angst so much as existential awe.

    You are absolutely right I would not just be happier I would feel you were entering into a more rational and scientific debate if you said “maybe”.

    We simply do not know if we project our existence into other dimensions and if so what “drag” or impact that has. When we die in our corporeal 3D world what happens to elemental particles or strings and any form that they may take in other dimensions.

    In summary your postulate with”may be” in is spot on and is the foundation for where I currently am. Additionally, I postulate that physical form in your description may not just refer to matter in 3D but may involve other dimensions that have an undefined and potentially persistent impact on the matter that is us beyond what we would call death.

  10. For “defensive”, read “exasperated”, that I’m making specific points (and asking specific questions) which you aren’t addressing. My postulate is based on the observable evidence, and may be sufficient to explain the phenomenon we generally describe as identity. I can’t prove that it is, but you seem unwilling to give any good reason why you reject the simplest plausible explanation in favour of one that, as William of Ockham would put it, “multiplies entities”, i.e. requires us to accept the existence of extra ‘stuff’ without any evidence. And yes, I’m well aware of the extra dimensions implied by various contenders vying to replace the Standard Model, but even accepting for a moment that they exist, there is no evidence that the existence of intelligent lifeforms has any special impact in those dimensions, and specifically that any such impact might survive in the extra dimensions when it ceases in the known dimensions. Without any such evidence, I submit that your explanation is less credible than mine. I can’t disprove your explanation, in the same way that I can’t disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but without evidence your explanation rates little better than the possible existence of His Noodliness.

    Here endeth the lesson; Ramen.

  11. Jimmy Mac says:

    I’m guessing that “here endeth the lesson” means that you have had enough of the McD drivel polluting your blog. ¬†Sorry.

    I’m not sure I wholly agree with your assessment of my view but I think the “exasperated” statement means we’ve gone past the “event horizon” ¬†i.e. there is no way back! So I’ll try to stop, which means I will leave some of your perfectly reasonable questions unanswered – not to further exasperate you but to bring this to an end.

    Please understand though, generally I do think that your entirely rational view is supportable but I must admit to feeling that we should remain open to at least the possibility of our matter having some as yet unknown presence in other dimensions – characterising this as fantastical and foolish is your prerogative but I do not. ¬†I respect your view but I don’t share it in its entirety. Thanks for the healthy debate. Shall we try politics next ūüėČ

  12. Sorry, I didn’t intend to curtail the debate (well, maybe sub-consciously… ;-)), was just parodying the religious mode. And the reason I’m characterising your position as fantastical is that you seem completely unwilling to go beyond stating (and restating) it, to look at how it might actually work, and what consequences would flow from it were it to be true. My suspicion is that this is because at some level you know that it doesn’t bear close examination, but I would be happy for you to prove that suspicion wrong.

  13. Jimmy Mac says:

    I am willing to accept that the material universe has not yet yielded all it secrets. I wish I could give a plausible rationale for the existence of additional dimensions and what impact they may have on the matter that constitutes us – such that it impacts our identity. Alas I cannot. And I mud accept that your view is highly probable.

    No time to read all 1000 lines yet but try this, it’s beautiful.

  14. Serendipitously, the same issue of the New Scientist magazine has another relevant article, regarding migrations of butterflies and moths. Can let you have a read if you like, but one bit in particular seems worthy of mention:

    When migratory moths and butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in autumn in northern Europe, they immediately start flying south. When the next generation emerges on the Mediterranean coast the following spring, they start flying north. How do these creatures know where their breeding grounds are, when none of them lives to make the return trip?

    It seems they don’t. After the adults emerge, they simply travel in a hard-wired direction until they become sexually mature. How far an insect migrates depends on the length of this genetically determined phase. Migrants don’t decide where to land based on the weather or the vegetation: they land when they reach the insect equivalent of puberty.

    Many will land in unsuitable locations and fail to breed, but that’s not a huge problem as long as a few of them end up somewhere sensible. A mating pair of insects produces thousands of eggs. The offspring that migrate to inhospitable climes will die, but the chances are that hundreds of their siblings will land somewhere more appropriate. Insects only need about 1 per cent of their offspring to survive to sustain the species.

    So, a rather simple mechanism, easily encoded by genes. I appreciate this doesn’t cover all migratory species, but doesn’t it seem likely that the other mechanisms will also turn out to be similarly simple to explain, in the end?

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