Thursday, 17 January 2013

Identical Intuitions part II

Having looked at our concept of identity and reduced it down to two types, we are able to look at how there are certain presumptions made when we identify things. If you remember, we got down to to either identifying with the functional role of an object, or with its matter.

We introduced the problems with the Theseus case in part I, and much subsequent philosophy of identity has been based on trying to fix these problems. If you remember, we had established that no chain of reasoning was sufficient to establish when a change in identity occurs, when we are talking about changing physical matter around. 

We also introduced the difficulties of identifying something by its functional role. I will now turn to these and introduce the quagmire we generate, and then demonstrate how the human brain has developed a clever work around to beat the limitations of this system.

So, to start us off we can ask how does our attribution of a concept work in practice?

In the Ship of Theseus example, we were applying a name to an object. This time round we are going to come from the opposite angle and see if our object is of a sufficient kind to fit the category we are imposing upon it. To keep things simple we will use a 'car' analogy. 
I have found people do mix these conceptions of identity up, particularly before they even entertain the LOOKing process, but usually it is simple to scythe the two apart upon a quick examination. What I want to show you is how to avoid making this mistake, and also a more devious yet ingenious one, that arises from the brains natural tendency to structure experience in a familiar way.

Firstly, we could try to find a point where we can remove the cars identity, to the point where we can no longer class it as a car. If I remove the battery so it cannot receive any power, intuitively we want to say it is still a car, because it simply requires that a new battery be connected to the terminals, and then it will resume its functional role. We are not particularly inclined to remove the identity of the car just because it has no battery.

Imagine you went to the garage and the mechanic replaced the battery...

Would from the moment he removed the battery, until he connected the new one mean it was not a car during this time?

To say it was not a car for this period would be very counter intuitive, and it seems safe to say that by removing a small component, it is not going to affect its identity. This is how we intuitively feel about identity.

Another example to contrast with this could be a battery drill that has multiple functions. I can change drill bits, screwdriver heads, and even put a food mixing attachment on it if I really wanted to. In these cases, it suggests that there is some kind of continuity of identity despite the physical make up being changed.

What we are saying really is that the drill itself is unchanging, it is performing its functional role by rotating the chuck. Any attachments do not constitute the drills continuing identity, although we may call it a screwdriver, or sander instead just for convenience temporarily, particularly when it is set up in a particular way.

If I am on a contract sanding down the walls say, and my drill has been configured to have a sandpaper disc on it, I will be less likely to call it a drill and would probably hear “Can I borrow your sander please mate?"
By naming it something else, we are not suggesting its identity has fundamentally changed, but we are using the role it is performing to identify it.

However, we seem to think that there is some unchanging essence about the drill, and from the sum of its parts, arises some new property which we use to identify it, such as sander, screwdriver, or even food mixer. (Try not to imagine someone mixing a cake with a drill ;)

Intuitively it seems that changing a small part of something does not consist in changing its identity. However, there is a relevant difference between the car battery and the drill cases we looked at above. In the former instance, by removing the car battery I was interfering with the cars ability to perform its functional role. 
Without the battery the car cannot start the ignition circuit, and it would be sat there until this was remedied. In the latter instance, I was adding a utensil to the drill and changing its functional role. We agreed that by addition or removal of something small we are not changing its identity but what we have done is come round full circle.

We can introduce a range of cases where we take away 1% of the parts all the way to 100% of the parts. Like the Theseus example, when we try to establish an argument about how many components we need to remove before it is no longer a car, we find that any figure is arbitrary and thus we cannot establish any chain of reasoning.

Does this still hold for the drill case though, surely we can simply swap out attachments and change its identity?

Photo by M. Quinn Sweeney

The problem is, we denied earlier that the drill changed its identity when we put different attachments on it. We still wanted to claim it was a drill that's identity was abiding throughout the transitions in to egg whisk and screwdriver. We merely named it by its functional role to make things easier for ourselves at times, but we would want to deny its identity changes.

When we look at our comparison again, it seems clear here that we are trying to have our cake and eat it. Our intuitions seem to be when I am adding parts on to the drill, I am not changing its abiding identity. When I subtract parts from the car I am not changing its abiding identity. 
At some point in our additions or subtractions, we would intuitively say, there must be some point at which it no longer holds its identity, although it admits of controversy in trying to attribute a chain of reasoning for describing this change with our range of cases. 

In both cases, however, we are changing the functional role of the object in question and this seems like a logical candidate in which to attribute identity to.

However, this leads to consequences...

If we try to use a functional role method of identifying, this means that while the mechanic is changing the battery in our earlier example, when a component is removed that means the item fails to realise its functional role and as a consequence, the car is no longer a car.

By opting to choose functional role for attributing identity, we have the consequence that when something loses its functional role, it loses its identity. This would make the attribution of identity unsatisfactory. When the attachment on our drill is changed at a whim, we would also be changing its identity each time. 
This seems deeply counter intuitive even though we admit that we call it a different name depending on its functional role. Identifying with functional role is not something we can adhere to strictly in practice, so we... umm... don't.

As a convenience of language we dispense with the 'broken car' and just call it a car. With the drill, it does not matter too much if we call it screwdriver or drill, we are referring to the same thing. Imagine if something had a slight change and we had to be so pedantic as to refer to its new functional role each time, this would cause a lot of unnecessary use of language.

Do we have concepts for describing the functional role of a car without a battery?

No. None spring to mind, perhaps 'broken' could suffice and usually it does. The way in which we practically avoid this functional role conundrum, is by utilising the same concept and annexing a property, such as “not working”, or “broken” to an object.

Notice here, that our very propensity to do this gives us the notion of the same object persisting as an unchanging entity over time. If we use physical matter, no argument is sufficient to establish when a change in its identity occurs.

If we use functional role to identify things, this provides us a very accurate way of providing an objects identity, although we find many objects undergo various changes as to render their identity non-existent permanently or temporarily. The upshot is that when the cars functional capacity is removed by removing its battery, it necessarily loses its identity.

This would make any identity attribution impractical for human purposes, but what we have done is found a work around solution that allows us to treat this transitivity as the same object that persists over time.

How is this done?

We mix both the concepts of functional role with physical matter. What we actually do is switch between these two modes of identity. In the first instance, I may use the concept car to describe the functional role of a collection of parts configured for a particular purpose. 
When this functional role can no longer be realised, instead of sticking to our rigid conception of identity when I remove the battery, we simply switch to the idea that the physical matter that consists of the bulk of the machine, is actually what constitutes its identity.

With the drill case, our propensity to attribute this identity to physical matter means we can add attachments to the drill and then attribute a new name for its functional role, but still claim the drills identity is abiding.

Essentially, the brain uses a bait and switch method to iron out the inconsistencies in both approaches.
What the brain is really doing behind the scenes is flitting between these two modes of identity and using them in tandem. 
Since both are problematic, we have to switch between the two in order to deceive ourselves in to believing there is a coherence to the world made of identity concepts, which we seem to think translates in to abiding identity over time.

So in our car case, we attribute a functional role to it and when its capacity is diminished, we annex another concept to it such as broken, or we switch to identifying to the physical matter itself. 
With the drill, we are happy to name it by the functional role it is now performing, but the conflict and counter intuitions we had about changing its identity, is simply our propensity to give the drill an abiding identity as an unchanging piece of matter that persists over time, and thus we treat the attachments as augmentations of the drills original identity.

This is just one of the ways in which we are deceiving ourselves about the stability and permanence of the world around us. On the contrary, identity is a useful illusion and it bears testament to the brilliance of the human brain, in that we need to deal with chunk level phenomena and it uses the resemblance of patterns in the world to save us a whole bunch of unnecessary language, processing, and allows us to essentially makes short cuts which make our lives easier on the whole!

So, do we need to get rid of identity, should we need to rid ourselves of this illusion?


That is not the point because it is a very useful illusion.

What we should do is start to investigate how we apply identity to things and start to question the way in which we attribute it. Since we are living through a representational construct that uses identity as a given for our mental map, we can start to pick apart how we are flitting between these modes in our experience. The key really, is start to look at our assumptions and look at the way in which our experience is built.

Just to recap then, we have seen how we attribute identity in the real world and demonstrated how we change between both identifying with temporal-spatial objects as matter, or identifying with the functional role they perform. We have seen that we also annex concepts that appear to give these objects stability as things that persist over time in our experience.

We are starting to see how we attribute these shifting default modes of identity, and demonstrated how it appears to give a a coherence and abiding permanence to the world. We live our lives structured around this idea of permanence and identity provides one of the building materials of the brains mental map. 
However, if we are living purely by this map, we are living a representational construct that is  often incoherent with reality itself. The point is not to eliminate this representational construct altogether, I mean this is part of the glue that holds communication, science, industry, relationships, and society as a whole together.

But to see right through it and see the light of reality illuminating it...

Now, that also has powerful uses too. Once you see how the brain works with these unchallenged generalisations, you will have gone at least a small way in to seeing through the brains mapping process a little and this may give you some traction during the LOOKing process.

To put it simply, before we look we are engaged in generalising and trusting an inaccurate representational map, relying on notions such as identity which seem unquestionable to us. 
When we are looking, we are trying to see through the generalisations that the mind throws up and discard the map to see what really exists. Of course, the how to LOOK part is inexplicable, but trying to see through these patterns and trying to see if they are coherent with reality is on the right track.

By seeing the layers of illusions you are subject to... That is how you start to expose the fiction and start to get those honesty muscles working.

You need to LOOK at the way in which reality is constructed, and that is the right track as opposed to conceptualising about it. This blog post is a conceptualisation but hopefully it will help you to focus on getting some traction in the LOOKing process and give you a shove in the right direction.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Identical Intuition

Firstly, a happy new year all! Been a while since I had time to post, so as the new year highs fade, it is time that I get motivated while I have a hiatus between studies.

The purpose of this post is an investigation in to our notions of identity, where we can check out if there is any real substance to them. One of the things any fair enquirer needs to do is make a distinction between what is real and what is simply conceptual. 
For instance, if you pick an object where you are now, such as the table leg, evidently you can look at it and say it exists and is made of a substance such as wood, metal, or plastic.

Then, we can make another distinction and point to certain objects and the way we actually categorise them. For instance, a car is made up of complex components such as chassis, engine block, axles, wheels, pistons, microchips, exhaust, seats and whole other multitude of things. 

Rather than list the individual components out each time we want to talk about it we look to the functional role of the machine and apply a concept that captures its description. The term 'car' is a convenient label that represents the machines functional role and is used in our everyday conversations as a label of convenience.

Here, we have two types of identity that we use interchangeably, and this can cause us to flit between the two while conducting first person enquiry in to the nature of what exists. What we really need to do is highlight the differences between these two ideas and look at the intuitions we have regarding the matter. 
Identity is a notoriously troublesome topic in contemporary philosophy, and aside from using a lot of algebra and tedious explanation, there is no real consensus and fractured positions on what constitutes identity. 

For our purposes though, we can simply look at our basic intuitions, and extract some key principles that we can employ to focus on LOOKING. There is no substitute for LOOKING, however, it seems to me that what gets people free is that they do the work themselves and smash the shit out of their own concepts of reality to test them for coherence.

A break down of some belief is useful, but represents only part of the way you need to go to see the fiction of 'self' in real life. For this reason we can start to flush out some of theses preconceptions we have about identity and hold them up to scrutiny in the LOOKING process, which you should ideally have started or are about to embark on. This kind of explanation will not free you and should be used as a guide on how to test a presupposition, rather than instructions for LOOKING itself.

Why is identity so troublesome?

Surely, it is simple to say “I am this body, or I am me”?

Before we can give an answer to this question we have certain presuppositions in place that must be challenged, and for this we require a thought experiment. The most famous example of identity in philosophy is known as the “Ship of Theseus” case.

In this example, the ship of Theseus was preserved over time and as each timber started to decay, it was carefully restored with a new piece. After many years, eventually none of the original parts were left as they had all been replaced, and the question we ask now is whether or not what we see before us is still the ship of Theseus?

"The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."

Of course, it seems right to say either “it is”, or “it is not” the same ship, simply because it is contradictory to suppose it is both the Theseus and not the Theseus at the same time.

Which is the correct answer?

The answer is not apparent immediately and we must explore the consequences of each answer to see where it gets us. Firstly, if you have ever seen the television show “Only fools and horses”, you may remember the broom sketch.

'In this classic scene, Trigger claims that he's had his road sweeper's broom for 20 years. But then he adds that the broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

"How can it be the same bloody broom then?" asks Sid the café owner. Trigger produces a picture of him and his broom and asks: "what more proof do you need?" (uktv gold)'.

It is evident then, that the same principle applies to both examples and we could provide a range of cases such as a spade comprising of three parts: handle, stem, and metal plate, all the way up to a ship consisting of many parts. What is true of one of these cases is also true of the other, where all the parts have been replaced, this causes us a problem in how we attribute identity.

Bearing this in mind, with the ship of Theseus case you may have been inclined to say it was the same ship regardless of whether it was made from different material. The new Theseus, even though it has been replaced with new timbers, occupies the same spatial position and has the same name. However, this intuition seems a bit harder to hang on to when we consider the case of Trigger's broom. If we hung up the broom and swapped the head two days later, and then the handle a few days after that, can we still maintain it is the same broom so easily? We will consider this in greater depth later.

Secondly, to make things even more interesting, Thomas Hobbes' alternative thought experiment utilised the same principle as the ship of Theseus case, only this time, he suggested that if he was to collect each old part of the Theseus as it was scrapped, and then he reconstructed the Theseus out of the discarded wood, which one then would be the real Theseus?

Would it be the restored version made of new wood?
Would it be the antique built from the scraps of old wood? 

In this case it seems absurd to suggest that the one built from the scrap components is not the Theseus, while its modern counterpart is actually the real Theseus. This faces a damaging objection because how can the original parts organised in exactly the same original manner no longer be the Theseus?

If we held our intuitions steadfast against this objection and stuck to the claim the ship made from the new components was the Theseus, it's identity would consist for us in the functional role of the Theseus. We would be denying that its identity was reliant on it's actual physical matter.

If we take the opposing view and deny the new ship is still the Theseus once its components have been replaced, we also run in to difficulties. If we take our two ships constructed from new wood and the old scraps, one could commit to the idea that the ship built out of old components is the real Theseus and its modern counterpart is not the real Theseus.

Let us then suppose that the modern Theseus is a sea faring vessel and we are the captain of that ship. As we go through our life we witness each part of the ship is replaced until eventually, we have none of the original components remaining. 
It would seem absurd to suggest to us that it was not the same ship that we had sailed countless times around the world on, we could even provide the legal documentation, insurance certificates, and log book to show our claim that our ship had always been the Theseus, and this claim would have legal weight in the courts. 

In the case of the ship being built out of all the old parts, is it realistic to deny that is the Theseus though? Even though legally speaking the new ship is the Theseus, can we ignore our intuition that the same matter provides its identity?

In the instance we denied that the ship made from new wood was the Theseus, we would be denying that the functional role of the ship constituted its identity. We would be looking to the physical components themselves that manifest an objects identity.

If we were to stick with this physical matter position we face a fatal objection which consists of this challenge. At what point does the Theseus change identity? If we are willing to conjecture that the new ship stops being the Theseus at some point, then we need to be able to explain exactly when this is. In philosophy we cannot use vague concepts to gloss over our problems.

We need to provide a solid chain of reasoning to demonstrate exactly what this change consists in. So, lets try and pick a figure, perhaps when 50% of the original material has been swapped out? Why not 49%, or 25% though? 
The trouble is we cannot provide a chain of reasoning here to distinguish between any percentage and therefore any number we choose is simply arbitrary. 

Consequently no chain of reasoning is sufficient to establish an argument and we are unable to say when this change occurred. If we cannot say when or how this change occurred, then how can we claim there even was a change in the identity of the Theseus?

So, let us sum up where we are at so far. We can either point to the functional role of an object as constituting its identity, or the physical components themselves that constitute identity. 
If we choose one we must necessarily deny the other and we have discovered that if we choose either one we run in to a paradox, which means our simple preconceptions about identity are incoherent with reality. Therefore, we can point to the fact that our notion of identity is inherently flawed somewhere along the line.

From this point, we can start to point out that our life is based on these notions of identity, and as humans, we have built castles in the sand right from the very start of our lives. Hopefully, this will be illuminating for you if you have worked these ideas through and checked their integrity, however, it is not enough to show this paradox alone to dismiss our notions of identity. 
We need to be able to show further problems with our notion of identity and demonstrate how this obtains to ideas about what makes us numerically identical (one and the same thing) over time.

Before we embark further, if we imagine that an object changes its material over time, can we say it is still the same thing? This of course, depends on the position you took in the Theseus case. What relevance has the ship of Theseus to a biological organism?

Part II Here

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