Identity is an emergent phenomenon (I): Uniqueness

Recently I got fascinated on the issue of identity.

I guess it is only natural for someone to wonder, who are we, what are we, what makes us us, what makes me me. Those are big philosophic questions, yet they seems related to our everyday lives, and our relationship with others … except they are not. I see no improvement of my life assuming I got these questions sorted out. Yet, I cannot help myself to ponder upon these questions, their possible answers and their implications.

I got hooked up with the last problem in this series of problems: personal identity. I know I am me, but how do I know it? If one day in the dark future I forget who I am, or I need to confirm I am me, what shall I look at? Is there a thing to look at so that I’m sure I am me? Is there a procedure I can follow to find out who I am?

I’m more or less a supporter of reductionism, so I want to break the problem down, or to reduce it, to a lower level to see whether I can find an answer then. In this case, I guess I will go to a level that is sufficiently low enough: the microscopic world.

Imagine you are an proton. You see an electron circling around you tirelessly (this is not how it works but bare with me). I’m sorry to tell you that you are not unique, far from it, every proton in this universe are identical in every way. One difference between two protons are their locations: they can be at different places. If you don’t like where you are and switch locations with another proton, the world as we know it will not change a bit. Perhaps your view from a different location is different, but I’m sorry to say, your view doesn’t matter a bit (I start to feel I shouldn’t assign your mind to a proton…). In this level, identity is boring, and nobody is worrying the problem of how to differentiate a proton from another.

Things get a little more interesting when we consider group of protons or atoms. In a crystal structure, atoms arrange themselves very neatly. Now the world is not perfect, some atoms got extra electrons that become free in a crystal, and they can conduct electric current. But some atoms got fewer electrons than most other atoms that this lack of electrons renders them to be positively charged, compared to their environment. This is called a hole, meaning an empty place waiting for a electron to fill it. Interestingly enough, this hole can move! [identity of a hole is same as identity of an electron, but equally boring]

Now let’s move to something big. Water molecules in the ocean? Not very interesting. In the realm of molecules, the big guys are DNA molecules. They are certainly big! They usually don’t appear in plenty. In a human cell, there are only 46 chromosomes, which are DNA molecules in another form. They are all different from each other. We count them, number them, in another word, give them identity. In the scope of one cell, the identity of DNA molecules is clear: it is unique. Here comes my first principle of identity:

An object has an identity when it is unique.

But this is a rather weak form of identity. In the case of a DNA molecule, it only works within a cell, which is too small and limited. Many questions arise when we think about a DNA molecule: What makes an object unique? Its parts? Its shape? Its pattern? What happens if the object changes through time? What is a replica? Is the replica share the identity, or take the identity, or create a new identity?

I’ll try to deal with these questions in the next one.

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