An excess of thought circulating in a young mind trammeled by habit and hopelessness drove the first of two unusually precise friends to complain, "I'm bored, Ramij. I'm tired of thinking about all the things I usually think about. I feel like all of the philosophical questions I've had have already been answered by derivations off of the universe being governed by rules..."
Ramij sat opposite his friend at a weathered and graffitied park table; he'd been silent for some time, contemplating, but the interruption was welcome at this point.
"Well Illya, if you're up for it, I think there's a question of self-identity that's important to consider, though people generally neglect it, thinking it's either too obvious or too impossible. Specifically, I think it's important to go beyond looking at self-identity in the in the sense that we use the word 'I' to refer too; its usefulness seems to be primarily in distinguishing one person from another, which is of course a very practical thing to be able to to do, but what I'm more interested in, once we've isolated an individual, is figuring out what is that individual. In other words, how does the individual relate to the rest of existence?"
Illya nodded his assent, despite being a little disconcerted by his friend's barrage.
Ramij continued, "Probably we'll make the best progress if we can nail down a little more precisely what an individual is first—what 'I' refers to in the way it's commonly used. Ideas?"
Illya began to apprehend what he'd gotten himself into; he roused himself from his lazy boredom, sat up a little straighter, and managed to articulate, "Well, I'd say it's the atoms making up a person's body... Although... I'm tempted to go a step further and say most of the body is irrelevant and that when we speak of 'I,' it's primarily in reference to our preferences and decisions, which seem to belong to the mind particularly. So maybe 'I's and brains are one and the same."
Ramij knew fully well from the outset that they'd have to trudge through these preliminaries; he responded with patience, "I agree for the most part, but there's a tricky question of awareness that I think this misses—"
"Possibly, depending on exactly what's meant by consciousness. Ninety nine percent of what's usually meant by it is pretty mundane, and brains are obviously responsible for it: it's a part of the brain that's aware of—or, processes data from—the rest of the brain, the rest of the brain being aware of data received externally from sensory input, as well as what it has stored internally. The only quasi-mysterious aspect of it is self-awareness, which seems to come from the fact that the computations occurring in consciousness—which are about the rest of the brain—are fed back into the rest of the brain, so that some of the rest of the brain's computations end up being about itself. In either case, it's a sort of awareness that seems entirely possible in mechanical systems, and which I think is insufficient for defining 'I's.
"I think a definition of 'I' must include the aspect of brains which causes them to feel the data they process; which gives red or cold data the particular feeling of redness or coldness—though this must not be mistaken with the sensory input itself: I mean the mind's experience of processing those symbols. I think 'I,' as it's generally understood, refers to this sort of awareness... in conjunction with the operation of mundane consciousness and of the rest of the brain..."
But Ramij had a habit of thinking as he spoke, and a potential shortcoming in his statement occurred to him, "—Err, I guess this could just be a property of the functioning of brains then—something everywhere-intrinsic in their operation rather than something adjoined; though I still don't see how to account for it materially and I suppose we won't get anywhere if this definition we seek ends up using elements from some hypothetical extra-reality..."
For Illya the park then dropped out of consciousness. The thoughts that had ground circularly round too worn neural haunts appeared to slip outside the trammel. Tentatively, something new was happening.
"Hold on a sec—you've given me an idea. If we define 'I' to be simply the sum of all the matter composing a particular person's brain, then I think we would both agree that 'I' in the common sense will have been accounted for, absent this final awareness that you speak of. You said that maybe this awareness is just a property of brains—what if it's instead a property of matter generally, which just becomes interesting when matter forms arrangements with certain kinds of complexities, like human brains. In other words, maybe this final awareness is just how it is for the matter comprising a mind to process the data that flows through it; or rather, for that matter to exist in time(1).
"Then again, it's unfortunate—"
With quick perception Ramij saw the implications in full.
"—Oh! That's good!"
He Hardly paused before moving on to applications.
"Actually, seeing all of mind reasonably accounted for by ordinary matter, you've just given me a more satisfactory solution to the 'would I be my mind-duplicate' question than I've had before. If we take your definition of 'I' as all of the matter comprising a particular brain at a single instant of time and expand it to instead be the world line of that definition—"
"—wait, wait—world line?"
"I figured you'd know that one! A world line is an object in space and time, rather than just space. So, take a ball, say it pops into existence in 1952 and pops back out in 2005 and it stays in one place in space this whole time; its world line is a sort of cylinder with spherical ends extending from 1952 to 2005 along the time axis. Well, close enough anyway—that's a three dimensional approximate visualization of a four dimensional object. If you take a two dimensional object, say a circle, and extend it through time, then you actually get a cylinder.
"Anyway, with the world line definition of an 'I,' whose implications I think form a complete correspondence with our common understanding of the notion, it becomes very clear that duplicating a mind would create a new world line, hence a new 'I.' Awesome."
For Illya however, the discovery was not made without misgivings; it may have been, technically, a new region for his thoughts to roam, but the new land appeared as barren as the last.
"I'm glad you can feel good about it; I think its a depressing confirmation of the idea that the self is insignificant; it's just a matter aggregate with enough similarity through time for human abstraction to call it the same object now and ten years from now. It's unfortunate to have a material account of experience—if all it is is some configuration of matter 'being,' I'm tempted to say that experience doesn't exist after all; if data in the brain essentially dies after being consumed by consciousness, I don't think it ever does anything useful at all. I have a kind of longing for there to be something there that actually experiences—whatever that means; and I know that's useless: nothing material will satisfy me, and I'll never be convinced of the non-material..."
Illya's head drooped slightly; his boredom was forgotten.
Ramij could empathize with Illya, but the new notion had struck him from another angle. He shrugged, "I feel differently about it—I think we've arrived at a good definition for 'I' in the way that it's traditionally used, but I think the more interesting question, which we originally set out to answer, is a little different; that was the question of identity in the deepest sense, really of how an 'I' relates to the rest of existence. This greater question we can form as 'what is self?' for convenience. I became curious about self after noticing that I'd been answering the question with 'self is "I",' which of course isn't really answering it at all. So yes, I agree with you that the 'I' is far less significant than it's been considered in the past, but the question of self still has potential.
"We see the 'I' as less significant because it's material; it doesn't differ in any essential way from any other object in the universe(2). This makes the 'I' a much more arbitrary construct than it's traditionally been held to be; it doesn't make as much sense for our existential identity to be so strictly bound to it. If experience is just what it's like for matter to exist in time, then the essence of our selves is just being matter, not being the matter that our bodies comprise, but just generally being matter. That being the case, and since the universe is the only source of matter and nothing but matter, I feel a deeper identity with the universe as a whole rather than with just my body. "Matter" of course is slightly inaccurate, but by it I just mean "fundamental universe parts." Follow?
Illya considered, then gave a minor nod, not indicating his comprehension so much as his desire for Ramij to continue.
Ramij considered: his words were accurate, but their import significantly compressed; a new approach was required. A demonstration.
"There's a way of visualizing the universe that will help to make the notion more concrete. In actuality the universe has some extents in time and spatially, and perhaps along other unknown dimensions as well, and these extents may or may not be infinite. In order to hold some concept of the universe in my mind, I strip it down—it becomes finite in all of its extents, it now has two spatial axes and one time axis which behaves exactly as the spatial axes—the whole universe, throughout time mind you, then becomes one massive, luminous glass cube with the most intricate conceivable patterns filling it. Since we started with two spatial axes only, from outside the cube we see all the objects within as their three dimensional world lines(3).
"Now lets say this cube is actually glass—the material doesn't really matter, just that it's homogeneous, as the actually universe is in the sense that it's matter everywhere, or even better, rules everywhere—we can peer into it and see the full life of some two-dimensional being before us, one branch of a massively networked glass sculpture. When I contemplate the life of this being and ask myself what it is essentially, the only answer that comes to me is, 'part of the sculpture.' The only way that it differs from any other part of the sculpture is that it is in the space that it occupies—and its boundaries are extremely arbitrary: its only a consequence of my own mind's pattern forming routines that it can be called a separate object in any sense at all. Since the only boundaries between parts of the sculpture have a subjective origin, objectively there is just a single whole.
"When I add back on to this glass sculpture each of the pieces I originally stripped out, making it matter again rather than just glass, giving it infinite extent and all of the dimensions it deserves, but pausing after each facet I rejoin to ask whether my conclusions about the object and its parts have changed, I must answer 'no,' even when the universe is whole again. And for that reason I think the universe is the most sensical source of identity for anyone in it. 'I's have no objective significance; your mind is how it feels to be the universe in one particular area, the same way that the sensations from a patch of skin on your arm are how it feels to be you in one particular area."
Content that he'd made his case, Ramij leaned back, placing his hands with interlocked fingers behind his head.
"The only question remaining then is whether it's any better to be the universe rather than some person in it. My answer to this is that although the glass cube approximation is a miraculously wondrous thing in itself, the true universe is still incomprehensibly grander. I think I would not have felt this way in the past, but the more I learn about the universe the more incredible I find it; and it doesn't hurt that it's probably infinite and eternal. I think even man's earlier overblown conceptions of the 'I' are meager next to this self I see."
Illya had listened closely, and caught the spark of something in the proposition, but held on to reservation. His suspicion that reality was a disappointment still lurked nearby, hardly budged; but the prospect of a potential fatal flaw within it inspired a little cheer.
Unfortunately, now that I am done writing this, I realize that I'm actually uncertain on the existence of qualia (the stuff making up "final awareness," the way it "feels" to process the symbol "red")—I've got doubts. And I've expressed the doubt before: "A complex self-monitoring system would have the illusion of a meaningful interpretation of its own data." Fortunately the main thesis is untouched if they turn out not to exist (it'd be quite a lot stronger in fact). The material account of qualia I gave was only to give a fully material specification of mind; if the mind does not include qualia then its specification was already completed before broaching the subject. Ramij gets excited when qualia are accounted for because it troubled him before as a potentially non-material aspect of mind, but his important insight about self is due only to the fact that the mind had been fully materially accounted for; if Qualia is stripped out as part of the description, as may be appropriate, the mind remains material and the argument stands.
I see the most basic constituent of the universe as being the actual laws that govern it. My understanding of the modern view of fundamental particles, in physics, is that "particle" is really just a convenient way of referring to something which in fact doesn't represent a physical object at all, but is something closer to a consistent behavior. Now I say the universe is homogeneous because its laws appear uniform throughout. And even if there were more variation in its fundamental behavior than I've described, it's still just a bunch of rules being carried out; I don't think someone would find the essential character of the universe as one thing under A, B, C and another under D, E, F. The only thing which could make the character of these rules different, that I can conceive of, is if they were embedded in some kind of infinite nesting doll of meta realities—which is absolutely impossible to determine. So if nothing else, our universe is a homogeneous locus of rule application. (Later edit: interesting seeing this serious and detrimental error in thought here: the idea that the universe IS rules; clearly mistaking a system of description with the thing being described, mistaking the "finger pointing for the moon itself" as it's sometimes said.)
I think some would object to viewing the universe in this crystallized form even in principle due to a supposed lack of determinism in reality, the idea that what will happen next isn't actually determined until the current instant occurs. Perhaps that's the case—but I think we lack a reason for thinking it is. The idea of this non-determinism comes from quantum physics, which is non-deterministic; but quantum physics is not a direct description of physical reality, but a modeling of our knowledge of physical reality instead. So, just because this system we've invented for making approximate determinations of certain physical quantities (granted, with great precision) isn't deterministic, it should not be taken as an indication that the system it approximates is itself non-deterministic. The non-determinism in physics comes directly from the fact that its statements are in terms of probabilities, which are a result of speaking of our knowledge rather than the system itself—this should have no bearing on the qualities of the system itself.