The Illusion of Continuity
Over at The Odds Are One, the Transient Gadfly (has there ever been a better bloggernym than that?) has a post about posts that he started but didn't, well, you know. And one of the Posts of the Damned (or damned posts) is in response to this post that I wrote in response to a TMcD comment back in December. Here's the gist (and by gist, I mean, of course, the whole thing, with a few additions, which is decidedly not, um, the gist):
Emery says this:
The eternal return thing is just strange [this is in response to TMcD comment attached to this post]. Clearly, the repetition of my consciousness is an impossibility, because if it happened again, it wouldn't be mine. Part of individual identity is the continuity of existence. I am me because I was me yesterday, and the day before, and back in 1985, and back in first grade, in 1975, and so on. If there was some physically identical-to-me person in three trillion years, that would be a physically identical-to-me person, not me.
[This is TG:]I made this same statement, although in a totally different context. Suffice to say I agree with the conclusion of the argument. I don't, however, agree with the a priori (that it's because of some sort of bodily or existential continuity). Most all of the cells that made up Emery in 1975 have died and been replaced, the osteoclasts and osteoblasts have torn down and rebuilt the matrix of his bones several times over, and that person was four years old or so and Emery is in his mid-30s (I have met Emery only once, and I didn't know Emery the person I met and Emery the blogger were the same person (and I will happily accept arguments that they still aren't) until last week). But this isn't why I reject the idea of continuity as being the key to our sense of identity. In fact I think that continuity is a complete illusion....
What I'm curious about here is the use of the word "illusion." I agree 100% with TG that the physical Emery is in a constant flux, that old cells die, new cells replace them. The continuity of the physical human being is an illusion, in the sense that it is a misperception of an underlying reality. But the mental me subjectively experiences a keen sense of continuity. I have a whole pile of photo albums, and I can remember the events surrounding almost all the photos in them. Indeed, I took most of those photos, and I can remember doing so. I can still become emotionally upset about events that I remember from 10, 20 years ago, and I can remember certain emotional highs, as well, even from childhood. I am the "I" in those memories, the first-person in a first-person narrative.
To describe that subjective experience as an illusion is, it seems to me, to posit that there's a deeper truth. In one sense, that deeper truth would be (?) that there are discontinuities, personality singularities, so that my memories of Little League, for example, aren't actually my memories.
But that can't be true, can it? I mean, this is one place where subjectivity trumps objectivity, right? The fact that I experience the continuity means that it can't be an illusion. Those are my memories.
Now, from a different perspective, my sense of continuity is clearly a construct, and I would agree that it is a constantly evolving construct. The story that I tell about my life changes as new chapters are written (actually, the stories that I tell about my life change). Old events take on new meanings, and certain memories become more (or less) important. I'm not arguing with that, that the continuity is, to a great extent, a construct. But it's a construct made from materials (if that is the right word) that have continuity. Again, these memories are my memories. They reside, somehow, in my consciousness, and that without those memories, I would not be me.
I should conclude this post before it gets into Philip K. Dick territory. (E.g., what if the physically identical Emery in three trillion years had my memories, and this subjective sense that he, and not me, is the "I" in the story of Emery's life? Would he then be me, too (or me-2)?)
But I want to append, here, a short thought on a common experience that I have (common may be the wrong word, but bear with me). Sometimes we lose contact with a friend for a long time; sometimes we re-encounter someone we knew a long time ago, often in a completely different context. Let's say that this is a person we knew relatively well; not necessarily, in all cases, a friend, but certainly an acquaintance. The common experience is to think, "Well, that's the same old John that I knew back in college." This is a strange experience, because we all think that people change over the years. But, for most people, I think, there's a basic personality template, a basic outlook, that is pretty constant.
That, at least, is my subjective experience of this, even with other people.