Plurality and Complexity

Richard Ghia-Wilberforce and Noel Dawkins, 2010 [edited 2016 to remove potentially disablist language]

[The genesis of this post is manifold: one of us (R G-W) recently had a conversation with someone in another system regarding personhood and plurality, and a similar topic was brought up in a post on our Livejournal, and explicated by ND.]

Plurality and selfhood

Plurality, as experienced by this system, is the subjective phenomenon of discrete, self-aware complex structures that have a concept of “I”, and share a brain with other entities that have similar self-perceptions. That is, these entities perceive themselves as individual persons, and parse other entities within the same system as “not me”.

Each person within this system has their own way of interpreting information, environmental stimuli and abstract concepts, and has the capacity to grow, learn and create, in the same fashion that separate-bodied individuals can. For example, when Kerry joined this system, they considered themselves rather apolitical and had a more conservative worldview, but as they matured, they became acutely aware of global politics, and developed a more inclusive, progressive worldview. The ability to learn, develop and process information is a hallmark of intelligence, and is a significant criterion for personhood*.

Each of us also has our individual concept of an “I”—that is, we are all capable of self-reference. Self-awareness, even more than the capacity for learning, is a sign of sentience. From a young age, intelligent beings are able to distinguish themselves from entities which they perceive as “nonself”, and think self-referentially. “I” is a self-sustaining idea, constantly looping on to itself with experiences, thoughts and self-observation (with apologies to Douglas Hofstadter). In plural systems, there are numerous sets of these “I” feedback loops. Each of us is a self-perceiving, self-analysing, self-referential entity; those of us given to metacognition are certainly capable of doing it. There are consistent patterns, leitmotivs, running through each one of us. Motivations, goals, dreams, aesthetic sensibilities, philosophies, emotions. When our neurones fire in a certain pattern, the result is each one of us, with each of our multifarious differences. For example, Lilly views herself as a separate individual, and is an internally consistent complex structure. She perceives others in the system, like Hess and Yavari, as separate entities from herself, similarly to how she would perceive someone who does not occupy the system’s shared brain. The same applies to the authors, Kerry, Hess, Yavari., mutatis mutandis.

The argument from complexity

The human brain is inherently given to complex structures, so it would not be much of a stretch for any given brain to support a plural system. Even non-plural individuals can harbour mixed feelings and complex states of mind, and may see themselves as being different people at different stages in time. We believe that plurality lies on a spectrum, so why can there not be several levels of separation? The idea that a brain must absolutely contain one conscious, self-aware identity is more Western cultural trope than scientific reality, and this oversimplification of cognition is pernicious. It delineates, rather unfairly, whose brains are “correct” and whose are “pathological”. Assuming that plurality cannot exist, and must be delusional, presupposes that human brains must essentially be simple structures. The argument that “simple is better than complex” makes little sense where humanity is concerned; human brains have evolved to be complex structures.

The argument from the memetic school of thought

There is also the idea that a contiguous, single “self” is an illusion in the first place, and that thoughts are composed of varying patterns that arrange themselves according to both internal and external factors. Susan Blackmore posited this idea in her book The Meme Machine, which combines a novel interpretation of Richard Dawkins’s concept of the “meme”, or a unit of socio-cultural transmission, with her own views on the idea of “self”. While we do not agree with Blackmore’s repudiation of the concept of self in and of itself, her idea that people’s thoughts are largely influenced by cultural elements, and are collections of competing ideas, may be relevant here. In “typical” brains, collections of memetically transmitted ideas may compete against each other in an “evolutionary arms race” of ideas that results in a clear winner (or winners), and in “plurally inclined” brains, those collections of ideas may live in mutual co-operation. The “memetic view of plurality” is rather reductionistic, and we ourselves—with the possible exception of Kerry, who does view the existence of subjective space as an element of subconscious memetic transmission—do not adhere to it to describe our own experiences, as we find that personhood is more complex than competing memes, but those who prefer reductionistic models of cognition may find this explanation appealing.


There is no logical reason why people should have such a visceral reaction to plurality as a philosophical or cognitive concept. We should have the right to revel in our personhood as others do, rather than having to sublimate it for the benefit for those who cannot, or choose not to, understand us.

* This is not to say, however, that those who have difficulty parsing certain types of information should be denied the right to personhood; we believe that members of sentient species should be automatically accorded personhood.

Further reading

I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (specifically the chapter on memetics)
The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore