The Identity of Indiscernibles

Supra Amani, the Fifth Count of the royal estate of Amani sat in his imported Chesterfield sofa, gazing out of a French window that opened into a view of rolling hills dotted with grazing cows mercilessly mutilating grass while deftly using their ears to flick flies away. A voice from behind suddenly interrupted his reverie, as it usually did. “I wonder if these cows have a sense of self. Are they conscious like human beings?”.

The count turned his face, raised his eyebrows and looked at the portly man behind him. Heiliger Berg, the rogue philosopher at his court who almost always asked the oddest of questions. He had this immediate desire to kick the man and call him names, but he desisted. He had an errand for him and the use of violence this early in the day was, well, not prudent.

He would, he convinced himself, take Berg’s bait and engage the man in a conversation on philosophy.

Amani: Interesting question, Berg. Are cows conscious? I don’t know. But I wonder what it means to be conscious?

Berg: Perhaps it it the awareness of the self. Knowing one’s identity. Do cows give each other names?

Amani: Hmm, but what is identity, I wonder?

Berg:  Identity is the relation that everything bears only to itself.

Amani: Ah, so in that case, what does it mean when we say that two things are identical? Are any of those cows identical? They do look identical to me.

Berg: Well, it’s not that simple. My good friend, Herr Gottfried Leibnitz, who is currently busy fighting an English charlatan alchemist over credit for some new mathematical method he’s invented, constructed a rather simple principle, the Identity of Indiscernibles  If any two things are identical, they must share all the same properties.

Amani: Hmm. That’s a bit too general, don’t you think?

Berg: Alright – let me take an example to make this simpler. Consider a Mysore Bonda.

Amani: (Raising eyebrows). Alright. I have, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly crisp Bonda de Mysoeur, filled with the finest potatoes from the Andes. Go on.

Berg: Essentially, things are identical to themselves.

Amani: I was going to say “Dei”, but it means God in Latin and I, for one, shall not take his name in vain.

Berg: A single Mysore Bonda is identical to itself, as in, the same aforementioned Mysore Bonda. It has the perfectly soft lumps of potato in the exact same places and is also the same exact dimensions, which shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s the same Mysore Bonda. Identical Mysore bondas are indiscernible. So a second Mysore Bonda, no matter how skilled the cook, cannot be identical to the the first Mysore Bonda, because only the first Mysore Bonda is truly identical to the first Mysore Bonda. That, is the essence of identity.

Amani: So you are saying that the basic foundation of the definition of identity is that “I am similar to myself”? The profession of beggary is less demeaning than this kind of intellectual obscurantism. But alright. Let’s take this forward. Would this definition not run into the Ship of Theseus problem?

If a ship that left the port of Theseus and over the next several years changed and replaced every single wooden board and crew member before returning, would it still remain the same ship that departed? Similarly, let’s say I upgrade my heart to the new steampunk chrome plated artificial heart from Ferrari, would I still remain Count Amani? Would Sarah La Covaye still love me?

Berg: Good point, and yes, the original definition of identity did not distinguish between bodily attributes and attributes of consciousness. The former, I would argue, are not that important. You might physically change over time, and you might even replace parts, but your mind has memory of your past self, and that’s what makes you identical to your past self. John Locke said that it’s the mind and consciousness that defines your identity. Your body might replace cells all the time, but your consciousness remains the same.

Amani: But what happens in situations where you don’t remember? Say, a boy grows up to to be a soldier and then, later in life, a general. The general may not remember being a boy. Would you then say that the general is a different person from the boy. I would argue that the general is, indeed, a different person. The boy clearly has different attributes. He might have, for instance, liked upma. Surely the general will never tolerate such an abomination?

Berg: The general may not remember being a boy, and the general may very well have a few different attributes. But two things. One – we have a chain of memory, the upma-hating general remembers being a soldier on the front, and the battle weary soldier remembers the upma-loving innocence of his childhood. Psychological continuity is what matters here. And two – I’d argue that we also need to distinguish between essential attributes and accidental attributes. The choice of liking upma, is, for example, an accidental attribute, while your conscious memory of your self is an essential attribute.

Amani: I’m not convinced that memory or consciousness is somehow a more important attribute. Prove it to me.

Berg: OK. Consider Bernard Williams’ thought experiment. Imagine an evil scientist, who possessed the technology to transfer the contents of your mind to another person’s brain and transfer the contents of their brain to yours.

Amani: I’m imagining him doing that for our minds and I shudder at the terrible one-sidedness of that exchange.

Berg: (smoothly ignoring that insult) Now let’s say that he does indeed transfer your mind into my brain and my mind into your brain. Once he is done with the transfer, he then makes an offer. He will give one of the parties a million dollars and will torture the other one for eternity. Perhaps he will feed the tortured party only upma. Now tell me, if you had to make a choice of who will get tortured and who will get the million dollars after the mind exchange, who would you pick right now?

Amani: Hmmm…hmmm…Not bad Herr Heiliger Berg, your logic is sounder than I expected it to be. But unfortunately, it’s not convincing. Consider people who suffer from permanent loss of memory, total amnesia. Would we then say that the person who wakes up from a coma is a “different person”? Or consider Bruce Wayne and Batman. Or Clark Kent and Superman. Are they the same person? Are they identical? And wait, consider episode 24 from Season 6 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You are familiar with transporter technology, I assume. Or do you rural bumpkins not watch Star Trek?

Anyway, a transporter scans every atom in your body, records its position, recreates you at your choice of destination and disintegrates your original self, all while playing a small musical crescendo for extra dramatic effect. I know your party-pooper German friend Heisenberg will protest, but suspend your disbelief for a moment.

A transporter malfunction involving Commander Riker results in source Riker not getting disintegrated, thus resulting in 2 Rikers, one at the source, and one at the destination. Using Locke, Leibnitz and every other philosopher’s theories you just propounded, tell me if both these Rikers are “identical”. Perhaps you might say that Star Trek stories don’t count. In that case, tell me how your fancy theories of identity deal with genetic clones? Tell me? Tell me?

Berg: I give up. Your superior whataboutery humbles my puny mind. Now, you had an errand for me, I hear.

Amani: Ah yes. Good you reminded me. A good friend of mine, William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, has invented a new, astonishingly delicious variety of banana. Interestingly, every one of those bananas is a genetic clone of one another! Now, here’s some money to get 2 of them. I’d like you to take my steam powered airship and return posthaste with these 2 bananas.

Berg: With pleasure.

Heiliger (Saint, in German) Berg (Hill in German) proceeds to collect the bananas, eats one of them, and returns to the estate of Amani and presents the Count with the one remaining banana

Amani: Wait. I asked you to get 2 bananas. This is one. Where is the other one?

Berg: This is the other one.

12 Comments

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  1. Hey,you have beefed up the Goundamani Senthil classic exchange with Shashi Thoorian dimensions.
    None the less classic KrishAshok.
    How does Kovai Sarla fit in with Subramani.
    Mysore Bonda does not have potato!!!

  2. I’m not entirely sure the me who was reading this post is the same me who is posting the comment. Felt like I was reading the script of some alt. Universe Christopher Nolan movie.. I bow my cloned hat off to you sir!

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