Personhood and Identity [Guest Article]

Nathan Day of the Desired Constellation system has kindly allowed us to mirror his excellent essay on personhood in plural systems here on Ex Uno Plures. –Kerry

The problem, and the solution, is “I.” I keep coming back to that. How do I know I’m multiple? What is multiplicity? How do you determine if there is an “I” there? I love Descartes’ maxim, “I think therefore I am.” I keep centering on that. It’s really the beginning of all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. What, at the end of the day, can you say is real? This desk? Neurons pulsing running through my body, plugging into a portion of my brain that puts together the physical object I sense with the subjective category of “desk?” The idea of a “desk?” This isn’t a desk. It’s a construct of processed particle board, plastic, metal, and paint. In fact, those are just categories we use to define assemblages of molecules that we’ve processed into familiar forms. What’s a “desk?” It’s all just words, all the way down. The only thing that we experience consistently as having any intrinsic meaning is the ultimate subjective and singular category: “I.”

I feel like “I” break down sometimes. I blur, I blend, I move and change. My “I” gets wrapped up in this mood, that sensation. I feel the moment. I feel a memory. I feel anxiety or hope. I’m not even consistently connected to a “now” except that I eventually must keep coming back to it. When am “I”? Where am “I”?

And yet, in all of this, I keep finding one strand through it all that is a consistent “I,” and it just happens to not be alone. I’m interconnected to other strands calling themselves “I.” Sometimes it’s a tangle, sometimes it’s hard to see where strands are separate, sometimes they’re far apart and clear as day. What is this mess? How do I know that these other “I”s are really separate and not, when seen as a whole, a singular “I” in separate parts?

We’re gifted among animals, having an “I.” The majority don’t seem to really have a sense of self, just a set of basic instructions on how to live, eat, and reproduce. And we’re doubly gifted to have the ability to see other “I”s in other forms outside ourselves. It’s a rare thing, actually, from the standpoint of biology and psychology. It’s a messy thing, too. We’re notoriously bad at using this capability. Who knew that dark-skinned beings from “primitive” tribal societies could truly have selves? Could actually be people? Could actually be fully equivelant people, as much “people” as light-skinned people from “advanced” societies? We’re notoriously bad at fully realizing the selfhood of others, as distinct and different selves with different constructions made of the same base essence of selfhood. How could anyone possibly be (Republican/gay/Muslim/racist/a country music fan//whatever) and not be deluding themselves? How could any mind be so different from my own?

What’s amazing and awe-inspiring is how we’re now at the point in our history as a species that we’re about to finally and truly transcend the mentality of being the only self-realized beings. We’re so used to seeing “people” as beings having faces like ours, made of tissues and organs and skin (even if it’s a different colour), that we’ve confused the form and the function. Can we see personhood in a different costume? If you’ve been following technology for the last few years you’ll see that we’re about to make that leap. Already we have machines that can learn like we do. We’ve hotwired neurons to microchips. We’ve created new synthetic creatures of extraordinary complexity. I was astounded when the first terabyte hard drives hit the common market- one terabyte is sufficient to store all of the data representing all of the connections of all of the neurons in a human brain. You’d fit in that thing of spinning magnetic disks, your mind and all of your DNA too. But it’s not the people we can put into them that’s really astounding, it’s the people we might get out of them. Artificial intelligence isn’t really an “if” anymore, it’s really just a matter of “when,” and it seems to be a “soon.” Will we see the “I” when it emerges? Who knew that skinless beings from “primitive” silicon microchips could truly have selves?

But really it’s no surprise. Prog would say that we’re all artificial intelligences, singulars and multiples alike. We just happen to run on “wetware” instead of hardware. In fact, when you think about it, it seems absurd to say that a machine made of neurons cannot run multiple operating systems the same way that a machine made of wires can. Why only “I” and not “us?” Where did “I” come from, that I can put my foot down and say, “no one else comes from there”? Why should I be so arrogant? Especially when those other strands step up and say, “I am Ian,” “I am Ronin,” “I am Prog”? Selves delight in naming others, but only selves can name themselves.

I don’t know my origin, any more than any singular can recall the details in the maternity ward on the day of their birth. Were we always this way? Did we originate long ago as a result of some childhood trauma? Did we orginate a year and a half ago as the result of iatrogenic conditioning? Does the origin explain the reality? Myself, I’ve reached a place of agnosticism. Maybe multiplicity is a culture-bound thing. Maybe we’re multiple because we picked up suggestions from our culture that explained multiplicity, that drew out a niche that we could find ourselves in if we looked hard enough. Are we less multiple as a result?

Either way, look inside this wetware and you’ll find an explanation. This gland, that cluster of neurons, those neurochemicals. Surely there’s some explanation, something sitting inside there that goes “tick” and spits out another action, another emotion, another thought. It might be an explanation but it’s not really an answer. What neuron is “I”?

I don’t know. In the end, I’ve got a set of options: I can become one again, as I presumably once was, either by tearing down the iatrogenic curtain or integrating my “parts” (one wonders what would really be the difference of technique between the two). Or, regardless of how, when, or why I’m multiple, I can simply continue to be so. Why not? Is my multiplicity a lie if I subconsciously brainwashed myself into being multiple according to the rules of my culture? Am I somehow more multiple if I was abused as a child? Is there an intrinsically greater truth at work if I was born multiple?

We say demonic possession was an iatrogenic, culture-induced phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel real to the people who suffered through it. And yet we still beatify those who hear the voices of angels, speak in tongues, and go into fits of religious ecstacy. To an observer outside our culture the symptoms would probably look pretty much the same.

Depending on your beliefs, you might react differently to a friend who claims that God has called him to ministry. You might pat him on the back and congratulate him. You might roll your eyes at the superstitions of believers. Either way, regardless of whether there is a God, your friend recognizes that she has fallen into a niche in our culture, a separate category we have created, a role that is there to those who feel called to it. One hopes that those who fall into that role use it to lift up those around them.

If multiplicity is simply a creation of our culture, who cares? Whether we intended to or not we have created a new niche, a category that people do not chose to belong to but may find themselves in anyways. Maybe it’s best if our collective cultural subconscious accidentally made this niche. If so, maybe we can chose to define it for ourselves. Maybe we can hope that our stories add something to humanity, whether they’re stories of survival from horrifying circumstances or new perspectives on who we are and why we do the things we do.

And at the end, I don’t know, and all I can definitively tell you is that I think, therefore I am, and I have to go from there.