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.


Euthanasia prohibition by mattsteinglass

Writes Megan McArdle (“The Politics of Cost Control”):

I actually think it’s pretty reasonable when  conservatives worry that the Dutch attitudes towards euthanasia are influenced by the burden old people and severely disabled children put on the public purse.  I don’t see how they could fail to be.

It’s “reasonable” for conservatives to worry about that, if it’s reasonable for people to be completely wrong-headed. What exactly are “Dutch attitudes towards euthanasia”? Exactly the same as American attitudes towards euthanasia; euthanasia, i.e. causing a relatively painless death, is common for end-of-life care in both the US and the Netherlands. (“Doctor-assisted suicide” is different from “euthanasia”, and is extremely rare in the Netherlands as well as the US.) The difference is that the Dutch believe the process should take place within a legal framework so that doctors and other witnesses make certain, on the record, that a patient is in unbearable pain and wishes to die, rather than the US system of making the process completely non-transparent and open to abuse by relatives and other interested parties because it’s officially illegal (though almost never prosecuted, in the US either).

In 2002 the Dutch institutionalized a process that demands that a patient be in unbearable pain with no possibility of improvement; that the patient repeatedly request euthanasia over a period of time; that at least one independent doctor besides the patient’s doctor confirm the request; and that, obviously, the entire process be recorded so that doctors are legally liable in case of abuse. Did legalization make the euthanasia rate go up? The opposite: it dropped significantly.

Fewer people in the Netherlands died by euthanasia or assisted suicides after the practices became legal, a study found.

The proportion of deaths in the nation ascribed to euthanasia, or causing a relatively painless death, fell to 1.7 percent in 2005, from 2.6 percent in 2001, the year before the law was changed, researchers said in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine. The rate of doctor-aided suicides fell by half, to 0.1 percent.

More generally, when people have a specific argument that’s stupid and based on propaganda and lies (i.e.: Obama wants to persuade your grandma to kill herself), it’s not really helpful to anyone to say “well, it may not be true, but they’re right to be concerned about the general issue (i.e. of the US government wanting your grandma to kill herself).” What they would be right to be concerned about is the fact that, while your grandma is guaranteed decent end-of-life care by the government, you, if you go into a coma after a car accident, will probably end up bankrupting your family after the lifetime limits on your private insurance policy run out — and then being guaranteed decent end-of-life care by the government because you’re now poor.