Who Are You?

Oh great. Another post-grad crisis.

Stefano Cagnato
Aug 28, 2016 · 4 min read

When a stranger asks who you are, you answer with your name. If the questioning persists, you give details about your work and your ancestral ties. When we are asked this question, we respond in terms of social presence; we individualize ourselves through how we are related to other people. However, what if you were to ask this question to yourself?

Truthfully, we haven’t really come up with the perfect answer for this question. This article at WaitButWhy by Tim Urban cleverly explores several thought experiments designed to discover the truth behind who and what we are and how that is tied to our bodies, our brains, and our memories.

Body Theory posits that we are our body, the physical representation of ourselves. This theory quickly falls apart when we consider how much of our physical appearance can change. We cut our hair and fingernails. We donate and receive blood. Sometimes, we need a new kidney, liver, or heart. Even if we were to change all our body parts, we would still be the same person. What about DNA? Identical twins have the same DNA, and we can clearly say that identical twins aren’t the same person. Myth busted.

Brain Theory is a bit more complex. Urban urges us to change brains with Bill Clinton. After the brain transplant, you would wake up in a different body (specifically, Bill Clinton’s body). Sure, you would be in a different body, but you would still feel like yourself. This bodes well for the theory. However, let’s say that you don’t trade brains with Clinton. You only trade memories, personality, etc. Now, when you wake up, you’re in Clinton’s body, and you’re using his physical brain, but you’re still “you”, right? Hmm…

Now we come to Data Theory, which holds that we are not anything physical. Rather, we are our memories, thoughts, and perceptions. This makes sense, right? We are a sum of our experiences. But consider this: when you are eighty-years-old, you and your best friend will probably have a lot in common. You have lived decades and perhaps even share memories and personality quirks. At eighty years old, you are much more like your BFF than your own younger, five-year-old self. If Data Theory is true, that would mean that you and your friends are more likely to be the same self than you and your younger self. What’s missing?

The string that holds our identity together seems to be more than just our bodies, brains, and our thoughts. Continuity, or the binding between our identities and time, is what keeps ourselves intact. Patrick Bailey writes that “psychological continuity and bodily continuity are both considerations for our criteria of personal identity.” I recommend you read his article for some Socratic sci-fi scenarios that put our identities to the test.

“I may venture to affirm . . . that [persons] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.” — David Hume

What about Artificial Intelligence? It’s only a matter of time (Ray Kurzweil predicts it will be within the next few decades) until we create a super-intelligent computer that is indiscernible from our own intellect. Is there a difference between the human self and the artificial self? Sure, there are proposed methods to differentiate the two, such as the Turing test, but these methods are usually biased toward what a certain culture considers “intelligent.” Besides, humans are much more than just intellect. We can learn values, social cues, and even bad habits.

Maybe we could upload our selves to some sort of hub. Then, our memories and every aspect of our personality would exist in an artificial body. A Matrioshka Brain is a hypothetical concept wherein a Dyson Sphere (a gargantuan machine that can harness the energy of a star) can be used to create a supercomputer with high processing power. David Darling says a computer like this “might be capable of simulating alternate universes or serve as a receptacle into which previously organic minds (such as human consciousness) could be uploaded.” But, would we still be ourselves if we did that? Furthermore, would we still be alive?

In this video by Kurzgesagt, we learn that there are many facets to the definition of life. We are all just bundles of dead things (proteins, elements, etc) that work together. We are like cars: no singular part of a car can move by itself, but as a whole, the automobile works together to move, play music, and heat your seat. In fact, mitochondria used to be living bacteria until they merged with eukaryotes and became “dead” cell organelles. Evolution led mitochondria to exist as a dead part of a cell in order to preserve its DNA. Maybe death is a part of life.

So, how do we know we’re alive? Well, we don’t. The difference between life and death is not as marked as we thought it was. When you think about it, everything in the universe is essentially made up from the same things. In that case, everything in the universe should be either alive or dead. Or does it even matter?

So, the next time someone asks you who you are, feel free to use any of the following statements:

  • Sorry, I didn’t hear you.
  • Ask David Hume.
  • Well, scientists and philosophers are struggling to find the difference between humans and rocks, so I’m gonna go with “pebble”.
  • If I happened to switch brains with Bill Clinton, I wouldn’t be Bill Clinton, right?
  • I’m a cyborg sent from the past to destroy you! Except since I traveled through time, I’m no longer the same cyborg I was when I left the future! Ahhhh!
  • A barista.

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Stefano Cagnato

Written by

italian-ecuadorian digital humanist and post-colonial feminist marxist

The Coffeelicious

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