Enlightenment values presume an independent self, the rational citizen and consumer who pursues her self-interests. Since Hume, however, Enlightenment empiricists have questioned the existence of a discrete, persistent self. Today, continuing that investigation, neuroscience is daily eroding the essentialist model of personal identity. Transhumanism has yet to come to grips with the radical consequences of the erosion of the liberal individualist subject for projects of enhancement and longevity. Most transhumanist thought still reflects an essentialist idea of personal identity, even as we advance projects of radical cognitive enhancement that will change every element of consciousness. How do ethics and politics change if personal identity is an arbitrary, malleable fiction?
This essay is the sixth in a seven part series.
Problems of Transhumanism: Introduction
Problems of Transhumanism: The Unsustainable Autonomy of Reason
Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies
Problems of Transhumanism: Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism
Problems of Transhumanism: Moral Universalism vs. Relativism
Problems of Transhumanism: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty
I’m currently working on the final essay, on the ideas of political economy that have divided the Enlightenment, and which divide transhumanists today.
A version of this essay on transhumanism and personal identity is forthcoming in a book on transhumanist thought edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More.
Personal Identity and the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment thinkers attempted to move past the idea of human nature as being defined by God-given immortal souls inhabiting flesh, to the view that we are rational minds emerging out of and transforming nature. John Locke, for instance, believed an immaterial soul was an unnecessary explanation for the self. He argued that since we are thinking matter, which is as much in God’s power to create as an immaterial soul, that it is our capacity to think which makes us ensouled persons. He considered however that this created a problem for the identity of the soul at the Resurrection of Souls at the Judgment. If consciousness resides in the body, and the resurrected body at the end of time has none of the matter of the original body, then how could you be the same person? His answer was that God would have the mind in that body remember its previous self. For Locke memory connected one’s present self to one’s past, and was therefore the basis of personal identity.
…to find wherein personal Identity consists, we must consider what Person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places… (Locke, 1689)
Remarkably Locke also considered the problem of the splitting of personal identity through the example that consciousness might reside in a severed finger, and suggests that both the body and the finger could then have its own personhood. But the limb that had a continuous subjective identity is what is crucial, for “in this personal identity is founded all the right and justice of reward and punishment.” Thinking that we are the same person over time was essential for moral accountability. We have to believe that we are the same person who acted justly or wrongly in the past, and who will be punished or rewarded in the future.
The further investigation of consciousness by empirical Enlightenment thinkers almost immediately began to erode this idea of personal identity however. Fifty years after Locke the Scottish philosopher David Hume dissected the self and argued that it, like all enduring substance, was a perceptual illusion. In his Treatise on Human Nature he argues the self is an illusion created by the contiguity of sense perceptions and thoughts. The self is merely a “…a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement” (Hume, 1739). While for Locke memory was the core of personal identity, knitting together past and present selves, for Hume memory created the illusion that there was continuity between past and present mental states.
Hume didn’t pursue the erosive consequences no-self theory had for moral accountability or political theory, and for understandable reasons. Hume’s rejection of personal identity was incompatible with the Enlightenment project of building a new society of rational individuals pursuing self interests through democracy and market exchange. If we are so confused about the very nature of our selves how is it possible for us to create a society based on the equality of citizens, morally accountable persons and individual rights. Selfless and irrational individuals might instead validate benevolent despotism towards collective goods.
Humeian skepticism about personal identity also was, and remains, deeply anti-intuitive. We can’t even speak about the matter without presuming one another’s existence and continuity. Almost all of us are fairly certain of our personal identity over time. The spread of liberal individualism along with market economies, liberal political regimes, and expanding realms of individual choice have only made the intuitive belief in the continuous self, whether rooted in an assumed supernatural substance or simply materialism, even stronger.
The contradiction between the Enlightenment’s foundational concept of Lockeian selfhood and the Humeian, empiricist recognition that the self is a fiction lay dormant until the twentieth century when neuroscience, another product of the Enlightenment, revived the debate. As neuroscientists collected accounts of patients with localized lesions and degenerative diseases - men who mistook their wives for hats, or who could form no long term memories and were persistently in the last ten minutes, or were certain they were in the wrong body - they began to create an empirical model of the ways that the brain creates the ongoing narrative of the self, and illustrate just how malleable and fragile that narrative is. Multiple personality disorders are simply an extreme of the fractured tumult of desires and self images in all brains, validating Hume’s claim that our personalities are more like parliaments than monarchs. Patients with severed corpus callosums can have their left hemispheres pursue goals separate from and contradictory to those being pursued by the right hemispheres. As philosopher Thomas Metzinger has documented brilliantly in his 2009 The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, neuroscience shows that the “self-y” feeling is simply a useful heuristic that our minds create, without any underlying reality. (See also Noe, 2009). Similarly behavioral economists have carried out a similar deconstruction of the idea of the rational, utility-maximizing individual, showing that our preferences are not autonomous or coherent, and our behavior is generally irrational. For instance Daniel Kahneman’s work on the experiencing versus remembered self shows that our memories of our lives are fictional narratives that bear little relationship to our actual moment to moment experience (Redelmeier, Katz and Kahneman, 2003).
Moral and political theorists have been slow to respond to this erosion of one of the core assumptions of Western thought. One of the few exceptions is the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit, whose landmark 1986 Reasons and Persons argued a Humeian account of personal identity, but connecting it to a utilitarian moral theory. For Parfit there is no substantial self, only greater or lesser correlations between our mental states at different times, and that correlation declines over time. The self exists only insofar as an entity like England exists – it has a physical history and on top of that an evolving set of cultural groups and political institutions. Any attempt to definitely say that England began at a particular time and constitutes a specific set of people and institutions would simply be an arbitrary fiction. Nonetheless the England of 1990 is more continuous with the England of 2010 than it is with the England of 1000.
For Parfit the moral and political upshot of our declining relationship to all future versions of our selves is that we have a corresponding and increasing interest in the welfare of all future persons. At some point our future selves are likely to be so dissimilar from our current selves that we are better off acting in the interest of all future ninety year-olds instead of simply the person who inherits our body. Of course even critics who accept the idea of declining self-similarity over time scoff at the possibility that we could ever be as similar to other future persons as to the future person in our body.
Which is why the transhumanist project of cognitive and biological enhancement makes the problem of identity even more acute. We propose radical changes to desire, memory, cognition and identity, over hundreds and thousands of years, which will fundamentally challenge all our presumptions about the self.
Enhancement, Transhumanism and Personal Identity
Of all the ideological contradictions we moderns have inherited from Enlightenment thought (Hughes, 2010) the personal identity conundrum is the one that is possibly the most specifically exacerbated by transhumanism since it is precisely the radical neurotechnologies we embrace which will make the illusion of personal identity so tangible.
Oxford’s transhumanist philosopher, and the chair of the IEET, Nick Bostrom acknowledged the problem of personal identity for transhumanism in the 2003 Transhumanist FAQ:
Many philosophers who have studied the problem think that at least under some conditions, an upload of your brain would be you. A widely accepted position is that you survive so long as certain information patterns are conserved, such as your memories, values, attitudes, and emotional dispositions, and so long as there is causal continuity so that earlier stages of yourself help determine later stages of yourself…. These problems are being intensely studied by contemporary analytic philosophers, and although some progress has been made, e.g. in Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity, they have still not been resolved to general satisfaction. (Humanity+, 2003)
In her 2009 essay “Future Minds: Transhumanism, Cognitive Enhancement and the Nature of Persons” IEET Scholar Susan Schneider cites transhumanist Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 parsing of the personal identity debate into four positions:
1. The ego theory—a person’s nature is her soul or nonphysical mind, and this mind or soul can survive the death of the body.
2. The psychological continuity theory—you are essentially your memories and ability to reflect on yourself (Locke) and, more generally, your overall psychological configuration, what Kurzweil referred to as your “pattern.”
3. Materialism—you are essentially the material that you are made out of—what Kurzweil referred to as “the ordered and chaotic collection of molecules that make up my body and brain”
4. The no self view—there is no metaphysical category of person. The “I” is a grammatical fiction (Nietzsche). There are bundles of impressions but no underlying self (Hume). There is no survival because there is no person (Buddha, Parfit).
In The Singularity is Near Kurzweil (2005) advocates for position Two, which has been dubbed “Patternism,” and this is the dominant view among transhumanists in general. Patternism permits radical changes to the body and brain so long as the sense of continuity, the memory of a flow of mental states leading to the present, are maintained. Even something as radical as the recording of a personality in a brain and its reinstantiation in a computer would count as personal identity if the mind in the computer remembered the process leading to the change and identified with the prior biological person.
One transhumanist philosopher who defends a weak version of the patternist view in great depth is Max More the founder of the Extropian school of transhumanist thought. More wrote his doctoral thesis on Derek Parfit’s personal identity arguments and their implications for radical human enhancement. Max foresaw the problem that a future posthuman might have erased all their memories of their human self. In the traditional patternist view that would mean that at some point they had committed personality suicide. Max specifically argues against a focus on the continuity of memory as important for identity. Although Max says that his view is consistent with Parfit’s anti-essentialism, in the end More (1995) argued that so long as the radically transformed person was consistent with, or a fulfillment of, the values of the prior person, then personal identity was maintained. For Max’s “transformationalist” account values are the core of identity for most of us. On the other hand
This is not true for everyone…Some persons lack a strong core of values. These persons would give up their identity through transforming… Those who value self-transformation strongly can undergo more changes in other characteristics while maintaining identity. (More, 1995)
In other words the patterns that determine personal identity are strongly held values, especially the value of self-transformation, and those without these strong values are at great risk of losing personal identity as they undergo enhancement. Since posthumans are just as likely to change their mind about the values they inherited from their ape ancestry as they are its biology and mental abilities then this doesn’t take us very far in preserving a theory of personal identity. In fact, Max has almost acknowledged the fundamental problem.
Transhumanist philosopher and IEET Board member Mark Walker (2008) also grapples with the personal identity objection to cognitive enhancement and again adopts an implicitly patternist view. Walker says that since radical changes might violate personal continuity the path from humanness to “godlike” posthumanity should be gradual.
If we must accept gradualism then the worst consequence is that it seems to slow down the process whereby one might become a posthuman, it does not prohibit it. In terms of the neural surgery experiment, we might imagine that if too many neurons are added to your brain at once you will cease to exist, but if neurons are gradually added your identity will be preserved. Accepting this means that I could not demand as a right to be upgraded to a posthuman overnight, but I could consistently demand as “my right” the right to a number of small interventions that would eventually lead to me becoming a posthuman.
… we may be able to autonomously determine our identity through the exercise of technology on our biology. In fact this would be a higher expression of our autonomy than we can achieve today. (Walker 2008)
Both More and Walker concede that some enhancements would break personal identity by breaking the continuity of the personality pattern. But both believe, unlike many bioconservative critics, that personal continuity is nonetheless possible over a substantial trajectory of posthuman evolution.
Schneider (2009) suggests however that the transhumanists’ patternist theories are inadequate to establish the continuity of personal identity after radical cognitive enhancements or uploading. Transhumanist enhancement scenarios propose radical malleability in memory, values and all other elements of the “pattern.” Transhumanists also accept the plausibility, even inevitability, of multiple copies of personalities which would all feel identity with the prior original person. While most transhumanists don’t see the multiplication of selves as problematic, it is usually considered incompatible with the assumed transitive unity of identity over time. If there can be more than one You, do you really exist in the first place? If the transporter starts spitting out multiple copies of you, who owns your stuff? Schneider concludes by asking
…what is it that ultimately grounds your decision to enhance or not enhance if not that it will somehow improve who you are? Are you perhaps merely planning for the well-being of your closest continuent? (Schneider, 2009)
In fact that is what we are doing all the time. That was one of the insights that first drew me to Buddhism in my youth, that we could have meaningful, moral lives even though we are writing the fiction of our own existence from moment to moment, that the final conviction of our own non-existence is liberatory and joyful and not bleakly existential or nihilistic. On the other hand I have long understood Buddhist psychology to be in an irreconcilable tension with my political values. I have argued (Hughes, 2011, 2005) that radical longevity and cognitive enhancement will push liberal democratic society to adopt post-self moral, legal and political frameworks, frameworks grounded in a modern understanding of the mind that does not assume personal identity. What such frameworks might be I still cannot say. We may be able to live meaningful, joyful lives without self illusion, but can we translate “liberty, equality and fraternity” into a world in which we have finally lost the convenient fiction of autonomous individual citizens?
Parfit’s no-self utilitarianism, in which only the interests of all future persons, and not one’s own personal identity, are taken into account, offers part of the answer. Like all consequentialist logics, it is even possible to use a Parfitian framework to argue that, even if we all realize we are not continuous selves, that there are good reasons to continue to have our laws and politics pretend that we are. As in Buddhism, we can’t simply wish away the deeply held belief in our personal existence; it has to come as part of a developmental process in which we become comfortable with the fact that we both do and don’t exist from different perspectives. Similarly I think it is possible to argue that the good of all collective future persons would be improved by maintaining the fiction of personal identity in life and law for some purposes and not for others. This is parallel to the debate over free will and legal culpability in the light of the neuroscience of criminal behavior; even if neuroscience demolishes the idea that any criminal truly chooses a criminal act, social utility will be greater if we pretend that individuals have moral choice and are accountable for their actions.
Many other accommodations to the erosion of personal identity can be imagined however, from efforts to use neurotechnologies to create and rigidly secure personal invariability, to their use to replace individual identity with completely collective identities (e.g. “the Borg”). The erosion of the belief in personal identity may come about without any coercion, but simply as a part of neurological self-experimentation; the selective suppression of the brain mechanisms that create the illusion of the self, such as proprioception, will likely be attractive targets for people exploring neurotechnologies for therapeutic and recreational reasons. Experiences previously accessible only to yogis, such as body boundlessness, empathic unity with others, or absorptive concentration will likely become commonplace. The recording of memory and experience will also enable the sharing of memory and experience with others, which many will want as a means to entertainment, intimacy, persuasion or simply vanity. How much of someone else’s life would one need to remember before it called into question one’s own identity? If a twenty year-old inherited the memories of a ninety year-old wouldn’t there be more of the ninety year-old in the self than the twenty year-old?
By experimentally modifying our values and desires we could become people we wouldn’t have wanted to be previously, from amoral to supermoral. Nick Bostrom seems to have this kind of development in mind in his 2001 essay “Existential Risks.” After discussing natural and technological threats that could wipe humanity out he addresses the threat of “shrieks” and “whimpers,” futures in which our descendents still exist but not in forms which have maintained some essential continuity with who we are today. In 2004 he proposed a shriek scenario that might result from voluntary use of enhancement in the pursuit of capitalist competition.
We can thus imagine a technologically highly advanced society, containing many sorts of complex structures, some of which are much smarter and more intricate than anything that exists today, in which there would nevertheless be a complete absence of any type of being whose welfare has moral significance. In a sense, this would be an uninhabited society. All the kinds of being that we care even remotely about would have vanished… the catastrophe would be that such a world would not contain even the right kind of machines, i.e. ones that are conscious and whose welfare matters. (Bostrom, 2004)
In other words, if we adopt an identity theory in regards the transhuman project then some forms of post-personal identity societies might also be societies that no longer represent any continuity with the human project. Humanity would have committed suicide, as the bioconservatives are certain would be the case for any form of posthumanity. But then, the critique of identity essentialism probably applies at the level of society even more clearly than for individuals. If there is no real self and no real humanity then we are left with the question of whether we want to collectively pretend that we do exist, and if so, to what ends? Is the surrender of individualism the end of the Enlightenment project, or can we dialectically evolve a new framework of values and meaning that accepts that we will not be the same persons or species resurrected at the Judgment, or re-animated after the Singularity, or gazing on the heat death of the universe from our quantum bodies?
Bostrom, Nick. 2001. “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 9(1).
… 2004. “The Future of Human Evolution,” in Death and Anti-Death: Two Hundred Years After Kant, Fifty Years After Turing, ed. Charles Tandy (Ria University Press: Palo Alto , California , 2004): pp. 339-371.
Hughes, James. 2001. “The Future of Death: Cryonics and the Telos of Liberal Individualism,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 6(1).
… 2005. “The illusiveness of Immortality,” In C. Tandy (Ed.), Death and anti-death, volume 3: Fifty years after Einstein, one hundred fifty years after Kierkegaard (pp. XX–XX). New York: Ingram.
… 2010. “Contradictions From the Enlightenment Roots of Transhumanism,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 35 (6):622-640.
Humanity+. 2003. Transhumanist FAQ.
Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking.
Locke, John. 1689. Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Metzinger, Thomas. 2009. The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.
More, Max. 1995. The Diachronic Self. Identity, Continuity, Transformation. PhD dissertation, University of Southern California.
Noe, Alva. 2009. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Hill and Wang.
Parfit, Derek. 1986. Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press.
Redelmeier D.A., Katz, J., & Kahneman, D. 2003. Memories of colonoscopy: A randomized trial. Pain, 104: 187-194.
Schneider, Susan. 2009. “Future Minds: Transhumanism, Cognitive Enhancement and the Nature of Persons,” In: The Penn Center Guide to Bioethics (pp. 844-856), Vardit Ravitsky, Autumn Fiester and Arthur L. Caplan (eds.). Springer.