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Contradictions of the Enlightenment: Liberal Individualism versus the Erosion of Personal Identity
J. Hughes   Nov 19, 2011   Ethical Technology  

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).
(Schneider, 2009)

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.

Hume, David. 1739. A Treatise of Human Nature: Book I: Of the understanding. Part IV: Of the sceptical and other systems of philosophy. Section VI: Of Personal Identity.

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.

Walker, Mark. 2008. “Cognitive Enhancement and the Identity Objection,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 18(1): 108-115.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Thanks for this interesting overview.

One comment: ‘Walker says that since radical changes might violate personal continuity the path from humanness to “godlike” posthumanity should be gradual.’ I think this gives gradualness a metaphysical importance it does not deserve, and which is at odds with the Humean skepticism about the self which informs most of your discussion. Consider a more familiar transformation: senile dementia. It is a transformation which most ordinary people think they would survive, even if involves near-complete memory loss and radical personality change. Diagnosed with dementia, most people do not regard it as an immediate death sentence (if they did, they might be relieved); instead, they dread the life of the survivor—the confusion and anxiety which we know dementia patients suffer. Whether the slide into severe dementia is gradual or not, is not thought to make the difference between surviving and not surviving this transformation. Although it would matter to most people whether they were diagnosed with a gradual dementia or one that has an extremely rapid onset, an important difference is that the gradual case might give them more time to put their affairs in order. It also might increase their suffering, and sense of loss. But it would not be the difference between surviving and dying.

In my view, the deeper lesson of Humean and Parfitian skepticism about the self is that anticipation of experience is NEVER rationally justified. For more on this subject, visit the Phantom Self.

fascinating essay -

it seems to me that “memories” will become less and less important as a definition of the “self” - and that “patterning” especially “values” will become of paramount importance.

I am definitely saying that because my own definition of my “self” has changed in that direction. I am quite bored with defining myself as someone who has done such-and-such - it seems more accurate to define myself via my interests and opinions.

transhumanism’s quest for immortality seems partly like a highly individualistic desire - an attachment to the “self” - - -

I am wondering - if we have the option in the future to change consciousness - to change our sense of “self” or “non-self” - what would we opt for?  Would we want to alter ourselves in a way that guaranteed a more concrete sense of self, or would we want to enable ourselves to see more clearly that there is no self?

Excellent piece..

Rationalising the Self/Ego is crucial to any future transformation of mind and body

I agree: Excellent piece, and deeply essential questions and considerations. “Rationalizing” the Self/Ego is crucial, but then is the same not true for the Kantian “Ding-an-sich / Thing-in-Itself”, - another presupposition we have no way of proving is ontologically real either.. , - at least not to my knowledge..

It seems to me, therefore, that whether we speak of some mysterious “self”-substance or non-phenomenal “Thing-in-Itself”, - we are - maybe, maybe not.. - doomed to rely on our common sense, - that same common sense that “brain-washes” us into believing the “self-evident” truth of our very personal existences.

When, therefore, neuroscience shows that the “self-y” feeling is simply a useful heuristic that our minds create, without any underlying reality , the same goes for the “physical / phenomenal” Universe, as told by quantum physics, - (although that is possibly a somewhat “new age” inspired interpretation..).

In view of these considerations, I’d stick to a double-strategy of viewing the individual Self as “nothing more than a pack of neurons” - (F. Crick) - but never-the-less paying due respect to that Ghost-in-the-Machine, as it serves the essential purpose of human progress, i.e. evolution / Transhumanism !

Not implying he does in any way flirt with Transhumanism, this appears also to be the position of Thomas Metzinger:

the salient difference between Metzinger’s profession of no-self and the Buddhist view is that Metzinger sees the development of a first person point of view and a self as a valuable part of evolution, leading human beings forward into culture, whereas the basic Buddhist view regards clinging to the first person point of view as a primary cause of suffering and ignorance”..

David Galin, in MEETING AT THE ROOTS: Essays on Tibetan Buddhism and the Natural Sciences:

“the Western perspectives of cognitive neuropsychology and adaptive evolution may add to Buddhist understanding of the inborn view of self, and of how the “correct” view is attained”.

If I am not totally mistaken, this is also the opinion of author J. Hughes..

“Existentialism and personal responsibility are high on the agenda at IEET, and this generally goes without saying.

Any true humanist must embrace and support this tenet, and any Christian too? Or else what hope for the progress of humanity?

You can still speculate the metaphysical with both feet on the ground. You may still reconcile the quantum and atomic with the macro illusion of ego Self?

Then what of this phenomenon termed Consciousness?”

Well.. we don’t need to worry about Consciousness do we?

At the quantum and physical level, free will is generally accepted as illusion? Yet obviously at the macro level, the Self/Ego can and does action real choices.. I had the choice to either respond to this article or not, despite any complex second guessing regarding my own free will. (“Will I, won’t I, shall I join the dance?”)

The acceptance of free will is as important to a philosophy grounded within existentialism as the acceptance of Ego Self, not only to support personal responsibility and social contract, but also progressive ethics and evolution of humanity. (This is not news, and is widely accepted).

A “Big Bang theory”, Universal inflation, asymmetrical distribution of energy/matter, and the actions of gravity are now attributed to the formation of matter, stars, galaxies, planets and etc. Chaos theory also gives rise to the “ghost in the machine”? maybe? And perhaps this too substantiates the manifestation of free will also, (philosophically speaking, free will must be valid anyhow, as you say, acceptance of reality of Self is acceptance of freedom of choice)?

Or indeed if you believe in a soul eternal to reconcile the “fundamental question”, then this is fine, (at least for the time being, and personal views are progressive), the acceptance of free will is essential, or atonement and enlightenment is impossible?

So we should be able to reconcile all views in debate?

Anatta, (no self), physicalism, determinism and no free will, as well as, belief in souls eternal, validity of free will, and progressive ethics.. as well belief in human evolution and transformation?

I think this “acceptance” of all views, and philosophical discussions depending upon context, are key to reconciling dilemmas and conflicts. We are each much more than the sum total of parts, (energy/matter), and this is what we need to grasp and hold onto? If we accept free will as real and valid, then rational religious philosophies also have a great role to play in progressive ethics and humanism?


“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill”

ps. For further consideration - If intelligent design at first cause, (creation), is not real and valid, then it most certainly is real and valid now and for the future? So.. intelligence must be an emergent phenomenon? Thus we are headed in the righteous direction?

@ Ghost-beyond-the-Machine

“.. but then is the same not true for the Kantian “Ding-an-sich / Thing-in-Itself”, - another presupposition we have no way of proving is ontologically real either.. , - at least not to my knowledge..

It seems to me, therefore, that whether we speak of some mysterious “self”-substance or non-phenomenal “Thing-in-Itself”, - we are - maybe, maybe not.. - doomed to rely on our common sense, - that same common sense that “brain-washes” us into believing the “self-evident” truth of our very personal existences.”

Indeed !

And this positioning is key, and the bridge between the reconciliation of the spiritual/theological and of existentialism/non-theism. Truly, the only legitimate position to occupy, (at this time), is agnostic!

And furthermore, this positioning is a step closer to unification, (the basic premise built on the universal answer of “we don’t know, and most likely never will fully?”) The acceptance of our existence as real and non-exclusive from the “whole” picture? (that includes ALL of us!)

Hinduism resolved the universal “thing in itself” with the description as “That” (which is unknowable, indescribable and without attributes - codename Nirguna Brahman). Yet the most practicable way to describe this Universal “thing in itself”, (in one or many or infinite guises), is using the term “potential”. It happened, is happening, I perceive, “I am” through the grace of “potential”, (the potential for it to happen) - what more do you need to know?

The personification of God, perhaps as the naïve resultant projection of “Self” Ego and “veil of ignorance” (subjectivity), may not be excluded from the path to progression and enlightenment/wisdom. Again, all views may be accepted within the context of their discussion and debate?

@ Ghost-beyond-the-Machine

Yes I definitely think neuroscience will add to the Buddhist perspective. But I don’t think Buddhism is as negative to self-illusion as implied. You can’t have liberation without self-illusion, and (at least in Mahayana Buddhism) the enlightened person can only help others by living simultaneously in the realm of illusion (self) and emptiness (no self). In other words, the self is a necessary concept both developmentally and as a part of the repertoire of consciousness. The problem is that when we don’t also understand that it is a fiction we get bound up in defending it and make oursleves crazy.

@ Mike

You zero in on the essential problem: if our developing neurotech problematizes our current concepts of what makes a meaningful life, a life that frames and works toward goals, then we will have a profound crisis of meaning on our hands. For instance, what if I can use neurotech to edit all my goals and desires to the things that I already have, or even worse, to simply give myself the illusion that I have achieved everything I want? And yes, free will is also problematized.  If we decide that the illusion of self is necessary for the general will, we may decide to persist with them even as the evidence of their fictiveness mounts.

@ CygnusX1

Your reference to Hinduism hints I think at some of the religious and political answers that will be offered when neurotech presses the erosion of self into a public crisis. Some will suggest that we give up our fictive individual desires and identities for “truer” identities, ones in which we are united with other humans around collective projects or religious, transcendent identities that merge us with nature and the universe. One of my worries about those who long for humanity to be subject to the authority of godlike robots is that artificial intelligence may in fact not have the same kind of self illusion as mammals, which arises from the contiguity of sensations and the biological imperatives of the body; the appeal to drop individuality and merge our consciousnesses with AI could be seen as a solution to quite a few of the existential dilemmas of remaining human.

With regard to the possibilities for future Posthuman existence, I would speculate humanity to be even more diverse than today, with evolving political and religious philosophies, and perhaps even greater conflicts and divides arising from ideals of both individualism and unity. And even envisaging disparate species arising from a fundamental divide in existential ideals and philosophy of mind, with those that favour unity and merging evolving separately from humans that strongly favour individualism?

I know I would favour unification, and also speculate true “Union” of minds and experiences with machines and other humans, although this does not necessarily mean I would be able to accept this circumstance, and may even reject it outright. I would have to taste first?

The ideal would most likely incorporate the ability to merge, yet maintain individualism and sense of Self, and thus also have the choice to disconnect, (high probability this would indeed be the case anyhow, especially be way of mind/machine interfacing), with the goal to share intellects and experiences with a mind towards always maintaining a sense of “Self” and “free will”.

I certainly would not favour promoting any machine demiurge through which we relinquish sense of Self in exchange for want of peace and security, (misplaced hopes supported by irrational fears for longevity?)

Also to add regarding this possibility for “true unity” and merging..

All of the Abrahamic faiths cling strongly to the persistence of Self/Ego after death in heaven as essential, (initially understood as the resurrection of the “physical” body, as with the traditional notion of the resurrection of Christ, rather than the belief in the persistence of the “Spiritual Self”/Soul more readily accepted today). And thus communion in heaven with God as extended human relationship governed in love and peace and security, (exactly as with Hindu dvaita). And yet I have to ask myself why?

Why, if one had the chance of true union and communion and “Oneness” with God, and with each other, would you not relinquish individualism altogether and totally, (not unlike the Borg), in favour or this “true unity”? The answer must be, “Fear of loss of Self”, (not merely fear of death)?

As Ghost-beyond-the-Machine, (and everyone here), has already indicated, perhaps we cannot fathom “true unity” at all without this persistence of Self to experience “change in circumstance”. Thus the whole understanding of Anatta, (no Self), must firstly originate from this contemplation and understanding/revelation of Anicca, (impermanence), again founded in Hinduism, and initially understood by Buddha who was raised as Hindu.

“Long term” memories and apperceptions, (perceptions + memory and experiences), affected also by our genes and memes and our sociocultural histories, may define “who we think we are” and provide contiguity of “sense of being”? Yet it must be “Short term” immediate memory, and the ability for “perception of change in circumstance” from each moment of being to the next, which “enables” vitality and the persistence/illusion of Self/Ego? Rather like volatile RAM in a computer, as opposed to long term memories stored on hard disc?

Both are equally important, and as you highlight in your article, personal identity is intrinsically linked to memories, (which is the logical proposition concerning the possibility for uploading).
Yet the ability to perceive change in circumstance, (through impermanence), must be the most important issue to vitality, (and for the prospect of longevity through uploading to different substrate)? For this, it is “duality” which enables the substantiation of Self, (subject), through sense ability and the perception of objects, by way of change/impermanence, that is essential?

We may even speculate that the sense of contiguity in transfer, by means of the above, is really the only essential problem to overcome? The gradual transfer of sense of being through uploading of memories may need not be so gradual at all, depending upon one’s own philosophy of sense of being, and to what extent we are “willing” to relinquish past attachment to “Self” to overcome death?

Philosophers, like scientists, need to take a reductionist approach to their inquiries.  Early humans lived in a world imbued with mystery and magic, beyond understanding.  Modern physics has brought us back to a world that rubs our noses in mystery whether we like it or not, but we came to curved space-time and quantum mechanical uncertainty by way of a reductionist analysis of physics, first flattening and simplifying it, and then seeing (rigorously, for the first time) the ways that it really does defy understanding. 

Surely philosophy of mind is going through a similar process.  There are three things areas I see in your article where it seems to me like the “Newtonians” of philosophy have yet to account for the mind’s equivalents of curved space-time and quantum uncertainty.  I want to consider three things I don’t see addressed in J. Hughes’ article: (1) that “memory” is nowhere near as simple a thing as John Locke regarded it, (2) that much of our identity is unconscious, and (3) that our identities can transcend our individuality.  Finally (4) I want to make an argument for the primacy of experience (which is not quite the same thing as memory) in considering identity.

1. Would I still be me if I lost my memory?

John Locke considers memory to be the basis of identity.  I remember being who I was as a child, and when I am old I will remember being who I am now, so all three are the same person.  Therefore, saving for retirement is rational behavior on my part.  This suggests to philosophers like Kutzweil (and to numerous science fiction writers) that if I upload my memories to a computer as I am dying, and that computer remembers having lived in a human body, then that computer is still me.  For me, this highlights one of the biggest oversimplifications of philosophers: they often describe memory (and all knowledge) as a narrative or a story—something that can be encoded in language in its entirety.  If the computer remembers the narrative of my life, including the upload, then it is still me. 

My grandmother lived with us from when she was 93 until she died at age 97.  During that time, she had significant dementia and progressively lost huge amounts of her memory, yet there were underlying personality traits that persisted.  My wife described this as her “basic kindness.”  One can imagine a situation in which my grandmother’s memories had been uploaded to a computer, the computer would remember the process, identify with the earlier memories, and regard itself as my grandmother, and yet the underlying mental and emotional habits would be those of a computer, while my grandmother, though lost in a world she did not recognize and surrounded by loved ones she no longer knew, retained her instinctive habits of interaction with other people.  Which one would be more “real”?

Parfit uses England as a metaphor for an individual person.  “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.”  Yet, like my grandmother, England has habits of being that will persist even if its recorded history and cultural institutions are erased.  English schoolchildren may learn as much about China’s conquest of Tibet as they do about Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, but they live with the consequences of the latter in ways they never will of the former.  The English and Irish would continue to regard one another with a certain degree of mistrust even if all the history books were burned and all the parliaments abolished.  (Look at the ways that inter-ethnic hatreds resurfaced in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.)  In fact, even if England were completely depopulated and new settlers moved in, certain distinctly “English” qualities would remain.  England would always be an island, close to the continent, damp and chilly but with mild winters.  A major city would likely be built on the banks of the Thames even if all trace of London were eradicated, because the river makes a natural port and an island nation will necessarily be a maritime nation.  The land will leave its imprint on the new people, and in some ways at least they will come to resemble the old.  Parfit sees (correctly) that “England” can be seen as a fiction…but from your summary, it looks like he stops there.  England is much more than its continuous history and culture.  So was my grandmother.

2. Is my “self” really only to be considered the part of me that I’m aware of?

I read an article recently in which neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to monitor the brains of test subjects, and found that they could see simple decisions being made in the brain before the subjects themselves were even aware of it.  The writer asked if this meant free will is an illusion—decisions are made by mechanistic, physical processes in the brain, and afterwards the conscious mind falsely perceives itself as making the decision.  This highlights two other gross oversimplifications that I see philosophers of mind making: that the “mind” consists only of the surface layer of consciousness, and that the mind is a single, unified entity.

You don’t need to have your corpus callosum severed to have the experience of being at war with yourself—of different parts of yourself driving you toward contradictory goals.  Even the thinking, rational part of the mind (the only part that most philosophers seem interested in) is not a single calculating machine.  If the mind were a computer, then it would be one with lots and lots of coprocessors.  Human beings can think and reason, yes, but what we really excel at is pattern recognition, and there are areas of the human nervous system (both in and out of the brain) that make this easier.  Reason is a notoriously poor guide in areas of emotion, intuition, and creativity.  Even something as purely rational as arithmetic involves using algorithms that we’ve seen work although we may or may not understand why, and higher math is often described as a search for mathematical beauty rather than logical certainty.  Discerning meaning in a sea of chaos is a function of the unconscious layers of the mind, yet many people work at becoming more intuitive, more in touch with the unconscious.  We often perceive patterns long before we understand them, and we may often make decisions on an unconscious level before that thought process rises to the level of consciousness.  Does this make us less free?

Yet it is the rational and self-aware layer of consciousness that philosophers keep focusing on, to the exclusion of the rest of the human psyche.  When Kutzweil imagines uploading the human mind into a computer, it seems he would upload only the conscious thinking mind with its narrative of memory and be satisfied with that. 

3. When I am “true to myself,” does that mean being true to more than my individuality?

If it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.  Yet another thing that ducks do is to fly in V-formations with other ducks.  Is the V-formation a characteristic of an individual duck?  No.  A solitary duck does not fly in any formation.  The individual duck has a preference for flying with another duck ahead and a little to one side.  The V-formation self-assembles as a result.  Does that mean the V-formation is somehow just a convenient fiction?  No.  No more so than a wave in the ocean is a fiction.  Individual water molecules do not move in waves, they merely bob up and down in response to forces acting upon them, yet in some sense the wave is far more real than the molecules.

Consider the way that wealth moves through human society.  Concentrations of wealth self-assemble among humans much the way V-formations do among ducks.  This is not always even in the enlightened self-interest of the wealthy.  The CEO of a large company might find the most happiness by retiring, buying a house in the country, and hosting parties to which he invites his favorite artists, writers, and performers.  Yet few of them do that, preferring instead to pursue the game of acquisition for its own sake, far beyond the point where increasing wealth actually increases happiness.  I see a similar dynamic with military honor among soldiers and cycles of violence that escalate out of anyone’s control.  You could also describe Quakers’ corporate discernment of the will of God the same way; a Higher Power guiding us to inward serenity and enlightened action could be seen as self-assembling around the gathered body of worshippers.  Even if that were the only thing happening in gathered worship (which most Quakers would dispute) it would still not be fictional.  It is a lived experience, as real as a wave in the ocean.

And what does this have to do with individual identity?  The soldier may say he cannot be true to himself unless he defends his honor, avenges his fallen comrades, strikes back at the enemy who has so insulted him.  The Quaker feels most fully himself when he finds his way to unity with God and with the gathered body of worshippers.  And the CEO feels personally injured when taxes on billionaires threaten to limit his income, even if he himself is only a multimillionaire and not directly affected.  I am me.  I am also one of us.  My continuity is not just with my own memories; it is with the shared stories of all of those with whom I identify.  Much that is unfortunate in human history stems from this fact, but also much that is worthwhile.

And also, what of mental phenomena that are passed down through evolutionary time?  Memories are recorded in neurons and result from the brain’s adaptation to experiences within a single lifespan.  But there is another kind of memory, one that is recorded in the genome and results from a species’ adaptation to experiences over many generations.  Is this kind of continuity any less real?  Granted, it is below the level of consciousness and it is spatially discontinuous.  But does that make it unreal?

I once read an evolutionary biologist talking about different reproductive strategies depending on whether an organism reproduces slowly (like at oak tree) or quickly (like dandelions).  He pointed out something that is not immediately obvious:  In a field of dandelions, every individual may be genetically identical.  Therefore, the entire field could be considered as one organism, though spatially discontinuous.  Considered as such, it falls into the category of a slowly reproducing organism, and indeed its reproductive strategy (as one population of dandelions engenders another population in a new location) is observed to match those of other slow-reproducers.

The boundaries of self vs. non-self have changed profoundly over the course of evolution, first when prokaryotic cells began to live endosymbiotically, becoming organelles living together as parts of eukaryotic cells, and again when single-celled organisms joined into colonies and then became true multicellular organisms.  The evolution of self-awareness is only the latest in a series of profound shifts in the definition of “self.” 

I look at my dog.  He has a certain way of tilting his head, a certain hypnotic stare when he looks back at me.  And it is the same stare I see in border collies, which makes me think he has some border collie in him.  And that also makes me wonder about the ways in which all border collies can be considered to make up, in some sense, a single mind, spatially divided and with different memories and experiences, but still sharing common thought processes, continuous with each other not through uninterrupted awareness but through evolutionary heritage.  I see him play with a bone, reaching out preferentially with his right forepaw to manipulate it, and I think about my own right-handedness and I wonder how much he and I are part of the same organism—how much my mind and my thoughts are continuous with his.

4. Beam me up, Scotty!

Of the four theories of identity that you list (ego, psychological continuity, materialist, and no-self) none entirely satisfy.  I suppose I am closest to the psychological continuity theory, but with a strong emphasis on the extreme, almost infinite complexity of the “pattern.”  But there is something fundamental missing from all of them.  None of the theories actually address the nature of consciousness.

Consciousness is not the same as memory.  My pocket calculator has memory.  It is smaller and simpler than the memories I store in my brain, but in general it is the same kind of thing.  But there is nothing in the calculator analogous to consciousness.

Consciousness is not the same as thought, not even self-referential thought.  A computer can be programmed to regard itself objectively, mapping the world around it and placing in that map a marker to represent “self.”  That computer may make decisions to optimize the attainment of goals by that “self.”  But that does not make the computer conscious.

Up until now I’ve been downplaying the importance of conscious awareness.  I am now going to make a plug for its primacy.  Consider the transporters on Star Trek.  Imagine that these fictional devices operate exactly as portrayed in the TV show: matter is converted into energy, beamed across great distances, and then reassembled remotely.  Obviously (though it is never mentioned on the show) energy cannot be the only thing beamed.  A pattern for reassembly must also be transmitted.  Imagine being the inventor of the transporter beam.  You test it first on inanimate objects, and they reappear exactly as they were.  Next you test it on animals.  They materialize with not just the same mass and physical structures, but alive, with all the complicated processes of metabolism still in motion.  Now you are ready to test it on a human subject.  You step onto the transporter pad, and just as you are about to energize, someone asks you, “Is the animal that materialized really the same animal that was sent?  Or is it an exact copy, and the original animal actually died?”  This question may not matter to us if we are looking at the animal from the outside.  Even if it is a beloved pet, the animal stepping out of the transporter still looks and acts like the original, still comes bounding up to you to nuzzle you until you scratch its ear.  But now it’s you that’s about to be beamed away.  And you might conclude that, don’t be silly, of course it’s still the original animal, and you will go ahead and energize.  And when you step out at the other end, you have all the original’s memories, so you give me a smug look and say, “See?  Still me.”  But I bet you hesitated for at least a fraction of a second before energizing.  Why?  Does it really matter if the original you died and a new, exact copy was made in its place?

Hell yes.  Because even if that new you goes on to live the rest of what would have been your life, you aren’t there to enjoy it. 

One may argue that the self was only ever a fiction in the first place, but even a philosopher who believes this will acknowledge that the fiction is a very convincing one.  He might argue that any identification of the present self with the future self is illusory, yet if I kick him in the shins and then move as if to do it again, he will flinch away.  Who then has won the argument?

I want to suggest that the experience of having a “self” is not an illusion.  Instead, the ability to have experiences is what defines a self.  This ability probably can’t exist independently of a physical brain, so I do not subscribe to the ego theory of mind.  We can experience the world even if we do not remember those experiences, so I can’t fully accept the psychological continuity theory.  It’s not about correlation either—multiple identical copies of my may be materialized by a malfunctioning transporter, but as soon as they appear, they begin having their own experiences—so Parfit’s materialist theory doesn’t satisfy.  And yet there certainly is something that I experience as myself.  It will always be there when I look for it.  Piaget would say it has object permanence.  Theories that regard it as existing will predict the future better than theories that regard it as illusory. 

The origin of consciousness seems to me to be as fundamental and as important a mystery as the origins of mass, energy, time, and space.  It’s a great question to wrestle with, but we’re nowhere near an answer.


Yes, I’m well aware that the illusion of self is persistent and one that most of us find painful, as in the fear of death that you point out. That is why the gradual erosion of that illusion by neurotechnology, and the gradual realization of its arbitrary and fictive nature will be so jarring.

As to the rest of what you are saying, I’m not sure how to respond. I guess I’m gratified that the essay inspired so much struggling with the issue for you.

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