Philosophy: March 2010 Archives

When we were about to leave for church on Sunday, we had to turn the TV off in the middle of an episode of something Ethan was watching. I told him I'd record the West Coast version when it played three hours later, but it's hard for him to pull away from anything he's started.

As we rounded the corner, instead of doing a usual temper tantrum he closed his eyes, bowed his head, and said in his fully frustrated about-to-lose-it voice, "God, please rewind the day!"

I don't know if he was seriously bringing his problem before God or if this was an autistic scripting incident substituting his concern for one in whatever TV show script he was acting out. This is the first time he's done this rather than just crying out to the sun to go back (to give him more time before bedtime) or to the rain to stop.

But it was no use trying to explain to him that it wouldn't work. If God rewound the day, the part of the show Ethan had already watched would be playing, and then he'd be watching it again and stopping at the same point so we could go to church, all without remembering that he'd watched it already, and then he'd say the same thing, "God, please rewind the day!"

What we think we want isn't always what we want, and if we got it we'd discover that it wasn't really what we had wanted. The kind of impossibility involved in his desire is on a level he can't understand. But why should we think something similar isn't true with some of the things we want, even demand, or some of the things that we'd expect should happen if an all-powerful, omniscient God has a plan for how events in our lives will unfold?

The Duplication Problem

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This is the 56th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post began looking at the psychological account of personal identity. This post presents a further objection against the psychological account: the problem of duplication.

The psychological view claims that someone is the same person as an earlier person when there's sufficient continuity between the two in terms of memory, personality, beliefs, desires, and character traits. The duplication problem 

Suppose God creates a person in the afterlife who has memories duplicating mine. Is it me? God's choice of those memories is because they were mine at death, so there's a dependence on my memories. Is that enough, or is this an imposter? Could I look forward to being this person? Or is this is just a duplicate, not me?

To make the problem more vivid, consider the story of William Riker, from the sixth season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Second Chances". Lieutenant Riker was attempting to transport off a planet with difficult atmospheric conditions. Because of the risk of not getting through, the transporter technician decided to run two beams from the transporter, in case one didn't get through or in case information needed to be compiled from both beams to reconstruct the full signal. These extra measures were intended to insure Riker's survival. It turned out they did something entirely different, because on beam successfully made it back to the ship, and Riker was rematerialized there (it seems), but the other beam was reflected back to the planet, where Riker was also rematerialized there (it seems).

The Riker who made it back to the ship lived for years, continuing his career in Starfleet and eventually becoming Commander William Riker, first officer on the Enterprise-D. The Riker who ended up back on the station had to wait years before the Enterprise-D showed up in this episode and rescued him, since no one had known he was there. From the moment there were two of them, you could no longer assume that either was the original. After all, nothing makes either seem like a better candidate for being the original. Both originated from beams that was exactly the same, from a process that seems as if it would ensure survival of Riker if only one beam had succeeded in rematerializing him. According to the psychological view, all you need is a resulting person who has all the right psychological characteristics. Either version of Riker would have met that criterion, and thus either Riker (if he were the only one) would have been the same Riker as the original, as long as the other hadn't existed, according to the psychological view.

But with two of them, the psychological view has a problem. We have two thinking things. Each has a different body; each thinks "I'm Riker, the guy who did ... beforehand". But that can't be right, because these guys aren't the same as each other . So is this kind of knowledge of who we are as firm as it seems to be? They can't both be the original. Let's assign them distinguishing names to make it clear what's going on here. We'll call the original guy Riker. Commander Riker returning to the planet is Will. Lieutenant Riker, who had been stuck on the planet all these years, is Tom (based on Riker's middle name, which the planet-version goes on to take to distinguish him from the other one).

So we've got Tom and Will. Can they both be the original? Each has as much right to that claim as the other. However, assume they both are the original. Tom is Riker, and Will is also Riker. But Tom is not Will. How can Tom be the same guy that Will is without Tom being Will? Will and Tom are two separate individuals. If it's true of both of them that they're the same guy as Riker, then they're the same guy as each other, and we already know that's false.

There are a couple crazy things a psychological theorist might say to avoid this contradiction. One proposal would be to say that there were always two people in the Riker case, and they were present in the same body all along, thinking the same thoughts as each other, both doing everything the original body did. Then when the split occurred, each one went his separate way. This does seem crazy, though. What made one of them go one way and the other the other way? Why wouldn't both go to both new bodies, creating the same problem again? Also, if there would only have been one without the accident, then how does the mere existence of a duplicate in the future make there be two beings in the same body earlier? That's a funny causal relationship. The future duplication makes there have been two all along.

Another crazy view that a psychological theorist might hold to avoid the contradiction is that there never ends up being two. Riker still exists as one person. He just has two bodies from that point on. It's not that there are two of him. There's only one of him. But he has two bodies, two brains, four arms, and a bi-located existence. He's just as present in each place where he exists, and he might be running in one body while sitting down in the other body. He might be thinking Captain Picard is a jerk with one brain while thinking Captain Picard is not a jerk with the other brain. He might be thinking with one of his brains that the guy with the other body is a jerk, not realizing that in such an instance he's thinking of himself as a jerk, since the guy that he's thinking about is himself. There's actually no contradiction here. It's a coherent view. It's not as if he'd be both sitting and not sitting when one body is sitting and the other standing. After all, in that situation one body is sitting, so he is sitting. He's not not sitting. He's just standing too while he's sitting. It's not a contradiction unless you can generate something of the form "P and not-P", and you can't do that with this view. But the view is indeed crazy. There obviously seem to be two people after the transporter accident.

A third crazy view to avoid the contradiction while maintaining the psychological view seems less crazy when you first consider it, but I actually think it's more crazy. What you say is that there would normally have been a continuing Riker if the transporter had worked to materialize one Riker (in either place), but given that there are two of them he ceases to exist, and now there are two people who think they're Riker, but neither really is. This seems less crazy than the above two crazy views. After all, neither Tom nor Will can claim to have a better right to being the original guy, and they can't both be him, so it must be that neither is Riker. Riker is dead. That seems like the right thing to conclude, after looking at the arguments I've already discussed.

However, there's a serious problem remaining. Someone holding a psychological view should want to maintain that with an ordinary use of a transporter the original person does survive. It's only in these weird cases of duplication that you kill the person. But why would the same exact occurrence produce a surviving person most of the time, but then kill the person in these weird cases? The only difference in these weird cases is that some other occurrence, completely outside the causal path of the transporter, occurs. If you just had one transporter beam successful, say Tom's, then Tom would be Riker. If you just had the other successful, then Will would be Riker. But if both success, Riker dies. The exact operation that makes him survive kills him if this additional occurrence takes place in addition to the operation that would otherwise make him survive. If the events within the original transporter beam should make him survive, how can the appearance of an additional transporter beam invalidate that survival? And how can it be that any beam would count as survival if any of the others would invalidate the survival? If you're going to say that more than one beam prevents survival, why should it occur with just one beam? You're better off saying that you don't survive with this kind of transporter to begin with, and thus every time anyone on the show steps into a transporter and gets disintegrated, someone else appears on the other end of the beam. But then the psychological account would be wrong. So it seems the duplication problem is areal difficulty for the psychological account. Anything it has the resources to say to avoid the problem results in a pretty crazy view.

This problem can arise without futuristic technology, also. Go back to Locke's original example. He wanted to say that God could make someone in the afterlife be me just by giving the person my memories. A more robust psychological view would include other psychological properties than just memories, but anyone holding the psychological view could say the same thing. But what if God creates two duplicates of me? They can't both be me, because they begin to have different thoughts and be in different places. But how could you pick one over the other unless one appears first? What if both occur at once? How could facts like the existence of a duplicate or when it was created affect whether the other is me, anyway? Shouldn't it just be facts about the one that determine if it's me? The psychological view, then, fails to determine whether some proposed candidate for being me really is me, unless you're willing to say something that, upon closer examination, seems intolerable.

In the next post, I'll move on to the bodily view, the first biological account of personal identity that I'll be covering.

This is the 55th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at dualist accounts of personal identity. This post begins discussing the psychological account of personal identity.

Remember that an account of personal identity seeks to explain what it is about me that makes me continue to be me over time and through change. There must be something that grounds my continuation as me despite the fact that various things change over time. Psychological views begin with the insight that, when you wake up in the morning, you know who you are without looking at yourself or seeing if anything is physically the same compared with yesterday.

Like dualists, those who hold psychological views think it's coherent to imagine the possibility of waking up in some other body. But they don't want to insist that personal identity has to do with an immaterial soul. Some of them don't want to believe in such things to begin with, and others prefer to remain silent on the issue so that their theory of personal identity doesn't require taking a stand on that issue. What makes me me is the same whether materialism is true or false.

In particular, pychological views rely on things like memory, personality, beliefs, desires, and character traits to continue from your previous set of memory, personality, beliefs, desires, and character traits, with perhaps some change but not a very drastic change. Some continuity of these properties must be present for the person to continue.

The earliest version of the psychological account, in fact from the earliest explicit discussion of personal identity that I even know of, is John Locke's memory account of personal identity. Locke claimed that memory alone is enough to make someone me, and without memories of my doing something, God couldn't hold me responsible in the afterlife for having done it, since it wasn't me who did it.

But Locke's view faces several problems. One is that we do think of amnesiacs as people who can't remember things that they themselves did. It doesn't seem as if we generally take people to be a new person just because they can't remember having done something.

Another is that there seem to be possible ways of having memories of something that shouldn't have anything to do with being the person who did the things those memories seem to be of. In other words, there are fake memories. If memory determines the continuation of the same person, we need to agree on what counts as a genuine memory. Consider someone implanting memories into my brain (by hypnotism, neuroscience, or some other method we can't as easily think of). I didn't do the thing I seem to remember. So memory alone can't make me the person who did it. What if we had the technology to remove from my brain all memories I've got, replacing them with all of Michael Jordan's? Which is the real Michael Jordan? Obviously the original is. But why is he the original and not whoever is there in my body? It's circular to base your account of personal identity on memory and then to explain which one is the original person based on which one has the original memories. If you define the person in terms of memories, you can't also define the memories in terms of some prior notion of which person is the original. Personal identity was defined in terms of memory, and now real memory is defined in terms of who the original person is. We haven't explained anything.

One way to fix the memory account is to say that what makes a memory genuine is that it's caused in the right sort of way. Fake memories are not caused in the right way, not caused by the events remembered but, e.g., by a hypnotist faking it. Real memories are caused in the right way, i.e. by the events themselves as they occurred. Then personhood is defined in terms of real memories (and so ultimately in terms of being caused in the right way. This is no longer circular.

However, does it solve the problem? What method of being caused in the right way results in my surviving death? When you copy memories from Michael Jordan, and put them into my brain, it seems as if they're being caused by the events in question (as opposed to, say, making up memories of something that never happened). You need some criterion for when such memory-creation from real events is sufficient to make the person be the original and when it isn't. Perhaps that's not an insurmountable problem, but it will be tricky to do this kind of thing without generating a circular account. You can't base your response on anything that has any assumption of which person is the original. I don't have a lot of hope for this, but that might be due to my deep-seated intuition that this account gets things backwards. The reason the memories in my brain aren't real memories, is because I didn't do the things they seem to be about. Michael Jordan did, and I'm not him. The tendency to try to define real memories in terms of the person doing them seems to me to be natural, because that probably is at least part of what explains which memories are genuine. But that means the psychological account is wrong, since it gets the order reversed.

In the next post, I'll present an even more disturbing problem for the psychological view: the duplication problem.

For Zion's Sake

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For Zion's sake I will not be still, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, and her salvation is like a burning torch [Isaiah 62:1, John Oswalt's translation (p.576)]

John Oswalt, in his commentary on Isaiah, says of this verse:

However it might appear, God insists that he will be at work unceasingly for Zion's sake. The emphatic position of this phrase Underlines a significant point. As important as God's name is, he is not delivering Jerusalem for himself, for the sake of his reputation, but for the love of his people. (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 400-66, p.578)

Then he adds this footnote:

The other side of the position is given in Ezek. 36:19-27, where God makes plain that he is not delivering Israel because of anything it has done to deserve such deliverance. The deliverance is strictly an expression of his own holiness.

Here is that passage:

I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, 'These are the LORD's people, and yet they had to leave his land.' I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.

"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.

" 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. [Ezekiel 36:19-27, TNIV]

Here are three views that someone might hold to try to fit these texts together:

A. God does things for the sake of his glory, and God does things for the sake of his people (or those he will bring into his people). But these motivations are distinct (but at times simultaneous), and neither is wholly reducible to the other.

B. God does things for the sake of his glory, but all this means is that he acts based on his character and promotes what's good. The reason God promotes what's good is for the sake of others. So God's doing things for the sake of his glory is explainable in terms of God's doing things for the sake of others, which is the more primary and ultimate motivation for God.

C. God does things for the sake of others, but the reason God's love is important is because it demonstrates the perfection of God, the most perfect being. It's always good to promote good, and promoting the most perfect is better than anything else you might do. So God does things for the good of others because God does everything for the sake of his glory, and doing things for others does that.

Wiley/Blackwell finally has a page for The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles, to which I'm one of the contributors. (Why do I want to say "of which" there instead of "to which"? That doesn't seem grammatical, but it sounds better.) Amazon also has a page for it now.

There's still no picture, and I have no idea what this is going to look like. I wasn't all that impressed with the X-Men one's cover, but I guess they couldn't get copyright permission to depict anyone from the X-Men on the cover, and without that what can you do but have a cool way of writing the title and trying to do something interesting with the cover scheme? The Open Court volume on Harry Potter had a picture of a castle with a snow owl, and I'm guessing Wiley/Blackwell will come up with something else generic that doesn't violate copyright.

It says it won't be out until September, but the editor tells me they're actually shooting for July. Either way, it will be out in advance of the seventh movie, which I'm much happier about than I was about their original plan, which was to put it out concurrent with the eighth movie in 2011. This thing has been done for quite a while already and has just been sitting around waiting for the publisher to find it appropriate to release it. It could have been done in time for the sixth movie if they'd wanted to do that.

I'm looking forward to reading the other pieces in this one even more than I was with the X-Men one that also included a piece by me. I read the whole Open Court volume, and there were only a few duds there. I've gotten most of the way through the Narnia one, and the same is true of that one. I was disappointed in a lot more of the X-Men ones, for different reasons in different cases. I haven't read anything in this one but mine (and one that got pulled for legal reasons that I can't say anything else about here), but I've seen the email addresses of the other contributors, and I've been able to deduce who quite a few of them are, several of them very good philosophers who undoubtedly have interesting things to say.

My piece has been retitled "Destiny in the Wizarding World", which I think is superior to my own title, which was "Destiny in Harry Potter". I'm much more satisfied with the final state of this chapter than I was with the X-Men one, which I thought had been worsened by the removal of the most interesting discussions of race and even in one place the weakening of my argument due to crucial bits taken out (it even reads as fallacious to me now). There was a whole section I'd added at the editors' insistence that the series editor removed without discussion. This one, on the other hand, was, I think, noticeably improved at every stage of editing. So I'm looking forward to holding it in my hands and reading all the pieces.

The 105th Philosophers' Carnival is up at

Consider a man named Jim in the 1960s who does what people sometimes call "passing for white". His family is black, but there's enough white ancestry for him to appear white. Someone looking at him without knowing his family would think he's white. He talks in a way that no one would know his family is black. His employers would never discriminate against him because of his being black, even if they normally did such a thing, because they wouldn't know that he is black.

Jim decides to apply for college late in life, after the civil rights era is long over. There's a checkbox to indicate if he is black, which will be used for affirmative action purposes. Some people think affirmative action is immoral, and some people think it's immoral to ask or report one's race. Ignore those issues for this example, since what I want to get at is a different issue, and I don't want those as distractions. Assuming people should normally report their race accurately on such forms, should he check the box indicating that he is black? If you think he is black-passing-as-white, but you think he shouldn't check the box, exactly why is that (because it seems as if such an action constitutes a lie)?

Now consider a man in our day named Tom who has three white grandparents. His fourth grandparent is Jim. So he has two great-grandparents who are indisputably black and a grandparent who many people would consider black-passing-as-white. But Tom grew up in a white suburb in a family considered by everyone around them to be white, and almost no one he comes into contact with ever learns of or suspects that he has pretty recent black ancestors.

Tom applies for college. Again, ignoring issues about the moral status of affirmative action and assuming people should normally report the race on such forms, should Tom check the box indicating that he is black, knowing that it will qualify him for affirmative action? If not, but Jim should, what is the difference between the two that justifies a different moral result? If you think they both should not check it, is it for the same reason in both cases?


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