The Ship of Theseus: Or, What Makes You, You?

This post is a response to the following May 2018 article at Tor.com: The Ship of Theseus Problem Reveals A Lot About SciFi. (And by the way, good job, author Corey J. White, for getting “a lot” correct!)

The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:


The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this:
A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced.
Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship?
Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?

Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com

The Essence of a Thing – Or Person

White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”

Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.

Changes to the Body

I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.

Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)

Cloning

It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.

A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness

I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.

White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.

The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.

Would it Work, Though?

It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.

This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.

Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.

If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.

Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.

Some people agree with me. The theory is called embodied cognition. In fact, AI developers are finding that maybe they have to give their robots the ability to move around in their physical environment in order for the robots to learn certain things and develop anything approaching common sense. (Not that I am an advocate for this either, but that’s another post. Total Luddite, that’s me.)

When Your Mind Changes

Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.

This is a great mystery.

On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.

I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.

To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:

“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”

When Life Organizes Itself Thematically

Another WordPress blogger, BlackSheep, was posting last week about “weird coincidences.”  He posed the question, “Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”

When I thought about this question, I realized that such coincidences happen to me regularly.  This is especially strange because I don’t believe in them.  

In fiction, I expect thematic unity.  If coincidences happen, I expect there to be a good narrative reason for them and I expect them to move the story forward.  But this is not fiction, this is real life.  Coincidences don’t happen, and events don’t organize themselves according to theme.

Except that they do, and … they do.

I have come up with the following handy taxonomy of weird coincidences for your enjoyment.  Afterward, we’ll talk about possible causes.

1. Striking But Trivial

Often, like BlackSheep’s example with the pizza, coincidences might be striking but they seem trivial and they lead nowhere in particular.

For example, once I was passing through Yellowstone and I knew I’d be seeing my sister soon.  On a whim, I bought her a stuffed raccoon.  There was absolutely no history involving raccoons between her and me; I just thought it was cute.

When I saw my sister, I said to her, “I have a gift for you in the car.”

And she said, “Is it a raccoon?”

You can’t tell me that wasn’t weird.

Nor could you convince me that it means anything. (Other than that maybe my sister is a mind reader.  But why did she read my mind about that, and not about much bigger things that I’d rather have had her instantly understand? Who knows?)

2. Foreshadowing Life Events

Perhaps, while reading above, you objected to the phrase “trivial.”  “How can we know which events are trivial?”  you ask.  Well, good point.  Sometimes a seemingly minor coincidence looks more significant (though still kind of baffling) in retrospect because of how things turn out.

When I was young and eligible, I met this guy.  He heard I was from Idaho (a relatively rural state with a relatively low population).  He said, “Oh, you’re from Idaho?  Do you know ____________?”

And just as I was preparing to say, “Not all Idahoans know one another, you know,” he said the name. 

And it was of a writer I admired and had actually met.

Furthermore, I ended up marrying the guy who asked the question.

And his first name is the same as my father’s.

Now, the tricky thing about these foreshadowing coincidences is this.  They don’t tell you as much as you’d think.

They don’t serve very well as guidance from God, at least not if they are your sole source of it, because they don’t happen often enough to guide you through every important decision in your life.

They are not a substitute for wisdom.  You still have to take into account Reasons.  I’d’ve been a fool to have married the guy on the spot. 

Sometimes these coincidences do, along with a host of other factors, seem to confirm you are taking the right path. But even then, it is possible to start down the right path and at the same time be making serious mistakes that will come back to bite you later.  And the stupid coincidences don’t give you any warning about your blind spots.  At least not in any form that you can use.

So what are these foreshadowings for?  I don’t know.  Perhaps their occurrence is not intended but is more of a natural law analogous to the laws of physics … “Future events cast backward shadows” or something like that.  But that’s getting into causes, and I’m getting ahead of myself.

3. When a Theme Emerges (over a short period of time)

This is when your attention keeps getting drawn to a particular theme, but it’s coming from different sources that are unrelated to each other.  For example, you are reading (or writing) a novel that has a particular theme, and then you also hear a radio broadcast on the same topic, and a friend also brings up the theme over lunch.

Granted, you are the missing link between all of these.  Maybe the reason the theme keeps coming up is that you keep bringing it up, or seeking it out.  But I think we’ve all had experiences where the theme keeps pursuing us, as it were, from the outside.  

Christians will tell you that this happens a lot with Scripture.  The Bible has a lot of verses and a lot of themes, as anyone who studies it knows.  So it does seem striking when, say, you have been memorizing a passage with your kids one week, and then on that Sunday, the sermon includes a quote from that very verse.  But this happens often.

The Psalms, by the way, are great for this.  There are 150 Psalms, most of them short.  This means that if you read five a day, you can read through all of them in a 30-day month (skipping most of Psalm 119, the really long one).  And I can tell you that if you do this, on about 25 days of that month (or possibly all 30), one of the Psalms you read will have a direct bearing on a situation you are in.  And this is not because the Psalms are filled with a lot of vague language that could be applied to anything.  I mean, some of them are worship, some are laments, some are imprecatory (calling down vengeance on one’s enemies), some are historical or prophetic.  Many are cries for help.  But these different types are not evenly distributed throughout the book in such a way that you’d be sure every day to get one of each. 

4. When People Become Magnets for Certain Events

This can be a really tragic one.  We’ve all heard anecdotally that once someone is struck by lightning and survives, they are more likely to get struck again – and again.  I don’t know whether that’s been verified, but I do know of two families each of whom experienced two or more horrible, life-changing car crashes within a few years.  And it wasn’t because they were drunk driving or anything like that. And they lived in rural, non-high-traffic areas.

You often hear about this phenomenon in cases where someone repeatedly runs into abusive situations – say, at home, then in another home, then at church, then at work.  Or at job after job.  The temptation is to seek the reason for this recurrence in the behavior of the victim: to say “She keeps marrying the same kind of guy” or “He has problems with authority.”  And there might be something to that, sometimes, sure.  But after looking at the families with the car crashes, I think there might be more going on.  It’s as if there is such a thing as a luck switch, and God help you if yours gets flipped in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, all the examples I could think of for people being “event magnets” were bad ones.  Does anyone know of a case where a particular person seemed to attract a particular kind of event that was either good, neutral, or just funny?

Causes for Weird Coincidences

Ok, now back to the question asked by BlackSheep.

Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”

Mathematical Odds plus Pattern Recognition

We all know that the human mind is predisposed to detect patterns.  This is useful, as patterns occur in the actual world and we couldn’t act if we couldn’t detect them. In fact, experts on culture crossing will tell you that it is difficult to really see an object unless you know what you are looking at, and it is difficult to repeat back a string of sounds unless you know what they mean.  Our very perception is tied up with patterns.  We literally can’t function without them.

But equally, we all know that this urge to detect patterns is so strong that it sometimes leads us astray.  Every pattern that we perceive also forces us to ignore data that don’t fit it.  Everyone has heard of Confirmation Bias.  Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that even scientists, supposedly very data-driven, will not give up on a previous theory unless they have been presented with a compelling alternative.  In other words, we’re not willing to say “there’s no pattern here” once we have seen one.  Instead, we will refuse to abandon a previous pattern unless there is a new one for us to hang our data on.

In some cases, our expectation of a pattern will actually cause us to perceive data that isn’t there, simply because it fits the pattern.  This is especially true when interpreting our spouse’s tone of voice.

I think pattern recognition plus mathematical odds might account for some of the weird coincidences we’ve discussed, particularly the thematic ones.  Once our minds have been awakened to a topic, we start to notice it more often, or even read it into things that are only tangentially related to it.  Perhaps such “coincidences” were happening around us before, but we didn’t perceive them. 

Pattern Recognition Ain’t the Villain, Though

However, let’s not go crazy with assuming that pattern recognition can only serve to deceive us as to the nature of the world.  It can start to sound like this whenever people get talking about Confirmation Bias.  It’s as if this weird quirk of the human mind keeps us from seeing the world “as it really is.”  But actually, pattern recognition often helps us to perceive things, as when we notice that our kid is always grumpier when he’s hungry or that the sun always rises in the East.  Just because the drive to perceive patterns sometimes deceives us, does not mean that the world does not operate according to regular rules.  It is not a completely random world we live in.  So, our pattern-recognizing minds are not alien to this world, but are designed to operate well within it.   

Also, despite our strong predisposition to see only what we expect and understand, we also have minds that are designed to meet and grapple with the unknown.  (Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about this. According to him, the left brain basically handles the known, and the right brain the unknown.)  We know that we are capable of learning surprising new facts, and sometimes we even seek out this experience.  In fact, that is almost the definition of the “weird” in “weird coincidences.”

The Universe is Mind, Not Matter

Let’s review two facts: our minds are capable of moving out into the unknown, and our minds are predisposed to seek patterns.  This opens up the possibility that our experiences, including weird coincidences, might represent previously unknown patterns.  That is, patterns not coming from our own minds but from somewhere else.

Now, this will be hard to swallow if you believe that the only real thing is matter.  On this view, all of matter is controlled by random movements at the quantum level.  On this view, the universe really is a random place and patterns are not real EXCEPT in the human mind.

All of us who have received a modern Western education believe that at some level.  That’s why I said above that coincidences happen to me “even though I don’t believe in them.”  I got a normal public-school education, so there are some materialist assumptions baked into my thinking. 

So that’s one level of our thought.

But on another level, none of us really believe the materialist/randomness/mathematical odds explanation.  We know that minds are real.  This is confirmed by our daily experience. 

If this is a universe in which human minds exist, then it must be a universe in which mind is a real thing.  Therefore patterns are real.  Therefore themes are real.  Even if they exist “only” in human minds, they are still real.  They are in the universe.

I would go so far as to say that the basic unit of reality is not molecules, but mind.  (That alliterates, which is why I chose it rather than “not atoms but mind” or “not quarks but mind.”  Or whatever tinier thing down from quarks has since been discovered.)

In the video below, you can see Stephen Meyer make this case to Ben Shapiro.  (It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. If you don’t have the time, he makes his point about mind in the teaser in the first few seconds of the video.) Our genes are, essentially, extensive libraries of information, digitally coded.  In all our experience, nothing has ever produced a digitally coded message – let alone a library’s worth of messages – except for a mind.

Now, Christians would say that the ultimate mind – the Mind behind all minds – the medium in which the universe exists – is the Mind of God.  I think, for many different reasons, that this is a better explanation than trying to say that “the universe” itself has some kind of emergent mind.  But for the purposes of our discussion about coincidences, it’s doesn’t really matter whether you call the Mind God.  It’s enough that you accept that mind is a real feature of the universe. 

Because if you accept that, then it follows that embedded in the universe itself could be things like: themes, goals, purposes, design, patterns, intent. Stories.  Maybe even jokes, which is what some of these weird coincidences resemble more than anything. 

I said above, “This is real life, not a novel.”  But – surprise! – real life is actually a lot like a novel after all.  It has mind and meaning. It might even be one big story, too big for us to perceive.  So maybe that’s why things sometimes happen to us that, if you saw them in a movie, you wouldn’t believe them.