Buddhism and Charles Stross and Julian Sanchez on persistent identity by mattsteinglass

I became aware via Andrew Sullivan that Julian Sanchez is having an argument with someone about immortality, or more specifically whether the idea that one’s identity doesn’t persist after death is a problem or not. In the course of his argument Sanchez notes a Douglas Adams passage about the Japanese conviction that a pagoda is still the “original” pagoda even if it’s been torn down and reconstructed many times. This brings me to two reference points in my current field of view: the Charles Stross book I’m reading, “Glasshouse”; and the Kim Lien Pagoda, a few blocks away on the far side of my village of Nghi Tam.


Kim Lien Pagoda dates from 1631, though extensive renovations were carried out in 1792. When we moved to the neighborhood in 2005 the interior of the pagoda felt heavy, medieval, antique and absolutely authentic. Last year the city tore it down, carefully, piece by piece. They’re going to improve it, rebuild it with a perfect copy in order to make it nice and clean for the 2010 celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. I expect all the bricks will be new, and that most of the timbers (particularly the carved ones) will be saved, though I fear those great old, imperfectly hewn columns may be replaced by more “perfect” ones with some kind of tacky finish.

Sanchez brings up the issue of the replaceability of “original” buildings in Buddhist traditions in the course of explaining why he feels no particular discomfort at the notion that his consciousness, embedded in his identity, is an artifact of the continuity of certain physical processes, and that once those processes are halted or dissipate, the identity will dissipate with it. The idea that identity must persist is, he thinks, partly a semantic confusion:

I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance.

So what if we did live in a world where split-brain disorders were common and Star Trek teleporters were literally on every street corner? That’s part of the premise of Charles Stross’s “Glasshouse”. We’re many centuries into the future, and two technologies that have existed since about the 22nd century are key: T-gates and A-gates. T-gates are teleportation wormholes, and they’re all over the place, such that neighborhoods can be non-contiguous in physical space from one room to the next, and you can pull a gun you’ve stored in another solar system out of a little T-gate in your pocket. More important, A-gates (or “assemblers”) can rapidly synthesize anything down to the subatomic level, including an exact copy of you, or an exact copy of you but with blue skin and four arms, or an exact copy of you but with the painful memory of your last marriage carefully excised. And widespread acceptance of the principle that an exact molecular copy is the same as the original means that people no longer die; if they’re killed, they’re quickly resurrected via their most recent “backup”; and they can go through profound transformations in their physical existence, including switching gender, or turning into an interstellar battle tank for a few decades. And memory surgery from one body to the next means you’re not necessarily exactly the same self you were before. All that’s necessary is that you voluntarily give full consent to whatever memory surgery you want to undergo, before you have yourself scanned, broken down and reassembled. The main task of society becomes the guarantee of identity, protection against identity theft, and firewalling against worms, which corrupt people’s identity from one copy to the next by infecting A-gates and inserting their code into the copies.

But is your fifty-third instantiation in the last hundred years, now a large “ortho” male rather than your previous delicate blue female with four arms, really you? Is that consciousness really the same consciousness? This question doesn’t even occur to the people living in this society; it’s an outmoded moral problem belonging to a different universe, like whether slaves have souls. There were, at one point, humans who resisted having themselves copied or reconstructed in A-gates, for philosophical or religious reasons, but those human societies died out long ago, because they were less powerful and attractive. All the humans now alive are the product of A-gates, they consider themselves to really be themselves, and they view the prospect of walking into an A-gate, having themselves annihilated and then reconstructed, with perfect equanimity, just as we view the prospect of falling asleep and waking up again.

This makes the experience of reading the novel rather intriguing, because you have to ask yourself, when the narrator goes into an A-gate and comes out again — sometimes as a person of the opposite sex, sometimes with his/her character altered, and so on — whether it’s still really the same narrator. But then you have to ask yourself what it is, when you’re reading any novel, that gives you the confidence from one chapter to the next that this is still a unitary person you’re listening to, or watching, apart from a narrative convention. That tension is brilliantly explored in William Gaddis’s first novel, “The Recognitions”, about an ultra-talented forger of oil paintings. Part of the tension for much of the novel comes from the hanging question of whether a particular painting is “real”, or the work of our protagonist; and then, cleverly, we find ourselves watching our protagonist himself only through other people’s eyes, until in the last few chapters a figure resembling him passes through the narrative, but there’s no reason to believe it’s actually him except that why else would we be hearing about this guy in this novel? So the question of a character’s integral identity is reduced to a narrative convention and to the will of the reader to believe that the character is an integral individual.

I would like to think that these kinds of questions really are integral to the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. But in fact whenever I’ve gone to a Buddhist sitting the issues raised have been vastly less interesting, and the music has mainly been intolerably bad. In any case, I do find the idea that our consciousnesses are not continuous or coherent somewhat disturbing, and I think it’d be nice to have a religion that treated the issue seriously; I don’t think it comes up much in Judaism anyway.


5 Comments so far
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“and I think it’d be nice to have a religion that treated the issue seriously”

Not sure which Buddhist sittings you are going to, but I do find it quite puzzling that your impression of Buddhism is that it doesn’t treat this issue “seriously.” The concept is of no=self is called annatta and it is integral. This concept along with Karma are one of those things that get talked about so much in my experience, and studied, and mulled over and argued and debated I’m a llttle tired of it actually. If you mean “serious” as constant inquiry and debate, than I’m afraid, your impression of Buddhism is wrong. Unless you have a different defintion of “serious” that I’m not aware of.

This notion of “no=self” is especially integral to the study of zen buddhism. (not that isn’t important to other schools of buddhist thought, just that the zen buddhists put no-self concepts front and center usually).

your occasional sittings on Buddhist groups that just happen to talk about things that day that you don’t like, does not reflect the whole story on how importnat no-self or annatta is to Buddhist philosophy and psychology.

Comment by silentbeep

I think there’s no question but that I’ve gone to the wrong sittings. I make no pretense of being able to say anything general about Buddhism on the basis of attending a few dharma talks, and I didn’t mean to imply (and I think, reading that sentence, did not in fact imply) that Buddhism does not treat these issues seriously. The intended point was that, given that Judaism does not concern itself much with these issues, one of the attractive aspects of taking up an interest in Buddhism would in theory be its reputedly greater attention to them, and it’s a shame that so far the sittings I’ve gone to have proven disappointing.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Interesting. I totally got a different impression from that paragraph then you intended apparently. In fact, I still have that same impression after reading that paragraph over again. But that’s neither here not there, I get what you are trying to say in your follow-up comment at least.

Comment by silentbeep

I’ve practiced Zen for a while, so I’ll chime in. The Buddhist argument – and there is an extensive literature on this, both modern and ancient – is essentially that people perceive the “self” to be continuous and coherent, but that it really isn’t – that the “yous” when you were 14 or 5 or a zygote are not really the same in the most fundamental sense. They have some things in common, others not. Nor can you really put a finger on when “you” began – conception, birth, talking, et al. There is no definitive answer, just as with the folks reincarnated through A-Gates.

The flip side of this is that the attachment to the idea of the self as continuous/coherent is an impediment to understanding what the “self” truly is, which is what Buddhist practice is about. “No-self” is a dangerous term to take literally – it’s not nihilistic, but more of a counterpoint to “self” and an an entry point to practice. Or, as Dogen puts it, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self…”

Comment by John McQuaid

I want to second John McQuaid’s comment and emphasize there is nothing Buddhism takes more seriously than the nature of self-ness, identity and consciousness. The foundational teachings of Buddhism rest on the understanding that ignorance of the nature of self is the principal malady to which Buddhist practice is the remedy.

That said, because the Buddhist doctrines of existence and the self are easily misunderstood, they usually are not the first thing thrown at newbies when they walk into the dharma center. Further, “believing in” a doctrine of self is not the point; rather, the nature of self is to be personally and intimately experienced through practice. And for most of us, that takes time.

Comment by hoetsu

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