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Who Cuts the Cookie Cutter?

February 19, 2011

And now for something making me uneasy from the implications for the sense of self.

The other day I came across a book of problems – mathematical, logical, philosophical. In one problem was mentioned the Ship of Theseus paradox. There are many variations as regards the actual object but the gist is this: if you incrementally replace pieces of an object, will the object sooner or later cease to be the original and become something else? If so, when?

Let’s say you have a car, and you fix this car by replacing parts that break. Let’s further say you have this car for such a long time (or it is of such poor quality) that you end up having replaced every single part with a new one. Since the change is gradual, you’ll never be at a point where you can definitely say the car has become a new car, with old bits instead of an old car with new bits.

So you could say that the car is the same throughout, even if parts are replaced. After all, isn’t that how it works with living things? We humans have bits replaced all the time, but would never consider ourselves to have stopped being us. By this line of logic, the essence of the thing (or person) is more in the structure than in specific parts.

So no problem, eh?

Well… Back to the car. What if you didn’t throw away the pieces as you replaced them, but kept them in your garage. And what if you – when having replaced every part of the old car – now take the discarded parts and rebuild a second car with them.

Which one is the original now?

The fact that bits of the human body are replaced continuously has always been a source of fascination to me, along with some character-building angst. It also wreaks havoc with my stance on uploaded consciousnesses and teleportation and so on.

Because if identity is in the structure and not the parts themselves, then what does it matter if the replacement is gradual or instantaneous? Meaning: is identity really not lost in a destruction/construction pair such as teleportation? I am grudgingly having to concede that point. Which makes identity separate from… erm… identity? Different sort of identity? Stream-of-consciousness identity?

Or is it that identity (as pertains sentient entities) requires an “unbroken” stream of consciousness? Seems arbitrary somehow. Also, if you’re unconscious, you’re not dead; you haven’t lost your identity.

(Actually, I sometimes paranoidly imagine that unconsciousness is like dying and that the subsequent awakening is not so much a return of consciousness as recreation of consciousness from the physical configuration of the brain. If I am ever put to anesthesia, I shall see for myself.)

So we are the shape then? The cookie cutter rather than the dough?

But even our shape changes. Neither my body nor my mind is the same as it was when I was five. Still I am considered to be the same person. The body is often and easily dismissed as being the vehicle for the brain and the mind; people getting in shape rarely get existential angst from having a body that looks different and works differently.

But the brain is a part of the body, yeah? The metaphor “the brain is a muscle” is true in the sense that the brain changes with resistance, and get leaner and fitter by being utilized. And training the mind changes the layout of the brain; it’s rather the point. New connections made, old connections weakened. Much speaks for the idea that memories are stored as structure, as connections.

So when we learn new things, we are not changing the dough, but the cookie cutter itself; we are all ships of Theseus in not just a corporeal sense but in a structural and abstract sense as well.

We are always the same and never the same.


From → General

One Comment
  1. hails permalink

    My take on this whole thing is similar, but with some differences. I might need a whole blog post for this one. Please stand by.

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