Thursday, 4 January 2018

Principle of individuation (reconsidered)

I might not have existed, everything else remaining the same.
     My mantra. Or first principle, axiom, 'clear and distinct idea'. Call it what you will.
     I don't know why it is true. All I know is that, looking into myself as deeply as I am able to do, I find the principle impossible to deny. I might not have been here.
     Every night, I surrender to sleep, without fear or anxiety. Non-existence is a familiar state for me. The only difference is something that may or may not happen in the future ('waking up').
     (Then there's the argument that death is impossible, because you can never rule out the possibility of 'waking up' at some point in endless future time, c.f. my YouTube video What is death? The flip side of which is that I 'die' at every moment, the self does not persist through time — see below.)
     The problem — this is actually a crushing objection — is that when I imagine/ conceive of the possibility of my non-existence 'everything else remaining the same', there are uncountably many 'I's that might have existed in my place. Here, Leibniz's 'identity of indiscernibles' is unstoppable. If you can't count them, then there is no 'them'. You are not dealing with distinct existences.
     However, the thought occurred to me this morning that there is a simple way to do this.
     Start with the familiar idea of the multiverse. Not 'all possible worlds' whatever that would mean (again, the objection over identity, cf. Quine: Questions about the One) but rather worlds produced or created in the form of a tree of alternate possibilities, consistent with a given set of laws of physics. In QM, for example.
     A similar tree can be constructed of the self. The moments in my life are countless (you can divide them as finely as you like) but the conscious decisions I make are not. Writing these words, my fingers automatically find the right keys (I learned to touch type years ago). So I don't have to make the 'decision', e.g., to put my right index finger just here in order to type the letter 'u'. On the other hand, I did have a decision to make about whether to write a post in my journal today.
     Am I in the right mood or frame of mind to make a serious effort, and not just spout the first words that come into my mind? Do I have anything to say? And so on.
     As F.H. Bradley remarks in Ethical Studies, many of the decisions we make are predictable for good reasons, because, e.g., that's what would be the decent thing to do, and I am a decent man. But many other decisions are finely balanced. There are 'good' reasons on both sides. And in that situation (and only in that situation) we can posit the creation of two selves — two entire universes, in fact — the self who decides to do A, and the self who decides to do not-A.
     How many 'alternate selves' are there at any given time? The number isn't actual but potential. It all depends on how many finely balanced decisions 'I' have still to make. (Or not so finely — it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a scoundrel would for once do the decent thing.) But that's OK. I remember arguing for a similar view of personal identity in the case of thought experiments of 'splitting': Retrospectively, we deem that there were two Smiths, the Smith who later became the 'Smith on the left' and the Smith who later became the 'Smith on the right'.
     Unlike the case of QM, I am not saying the every decision must necessarily create two I-worlds. I can't say this, because then there is no way that I might not have been here now. Something contingent had to happen, an act or rather series of acts of free will, in order for me to be here. This makes sense. After all, how finely do we define 'finely'? Are we to say that because a decision is 'logically possible', one of my alternate selves must make it? To me, that sounds excessive and absurd. (Pity all the poor alternative GKs who die in the most ridiculous ways, or commit mass murder, or etc.)
     Contingency, that's the key.
     I will never get to know what happened to the 'GK' who decided not to write a post today. The term 'I' necessarily refers to one particular path through the 'tree'. Which path? That's something I can only discover in retrospect. There is no 'soul substance' that goes forward into the future, only a succession of conscious decisions that cumulatively create the 'I' who is 'this' GK.
     'I might not have existed, everything else remaining the same,' means, simply, that the series of conscious decisions stretching back six decades that led to my writing these words now might not have led to the decision I took this morning, to write rather than not write. (Ditto, with particular decisions about what to say, how to say it, etc.)
     THIS self (there is no past or future 'I' only the I-now) might never have been. I cannot speak for 'myself' yesterday, or a year ago. (Could there still be a noumenal subject? Say this if you like — the underlying 'reality' that accounts for the appearance of a 'self', or whatever.)
     — Do I believe any of this? That wasn't the question. I am drawing a picture, maybe just for my own amusement, nothing more. There was an objection about identity to a picture I drew earlier, but that objection can be met with a bit more colouring in. I am not looking to persuade myself of anything, or persuade anyone else.
     What is not up for discussion is that something is the case. There is Reality. Existence exists. Whether or not these speculations will ever get close to capturing it is moot. But I shall just continue exploring anyway.

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