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  Excerpt from Permutation City

Self as Ideas

The idea I want to present here is another one I got from Greg Egan. I don't think it is quite complete or correct, but I do think it's worth knowing about, regardless.

In a nutshell, the idea is to think of the collection of one's thoughts, ideas, and beliefs (i.e., memes) as not only part of one's identity, but as the whole of it.

At first sight, this seems crazy, because we normally define identity by physical continuity, and this is the exact opposite. However, the idea of “self as ideas” does have points to recommend it. For example, think back to what you were like when you were much younger. Do you have more in common with yourself as you were then, or with someone otherwise unrelated who has the same beliefs you do?

As an aside, this reminds me of an extremely funny story, The Seventh Voyage from The Star Diaries.

I carried [the empty spacesuit] inside the rocket like a sacred relic, my heart full of boundless gratitude for those brave lads I had been so long ago!

As another aside, physical continuity isn't quite as simple as it seems. I don't remember the exact numbers, but the actual atoms we are composed of are always turning over and being replaced by others. On the other hand, even though it's not as simple as it seems, physical continuity is still pretty simple.

So much for my clumsy explanation of the idea; now let me point you to some other sources.

Like I said, I got the idea from Greg Egan. It appears in one form or another in most of his works to date, but is most prominent in Permutation City. (I've quoted a key passage as a subessay.) There is also a particularly clear form of the idea presented in one of the stories in the collection Axiomatic.

Although I can't remember that he's ever talked specifically about the self as being ideas, Douglas Hofstadter does sometimes bring up the idea that there may be more to the self than just physical continuity, notably in the postscript to Who Shoves Whom Around Inside the Careenium? and in several places in Le Ton beau de Marot.

Of course, the idea that there may be more to the self than just physical continuity is a very old one, but I am primarily interested in versions of this idea that have some basis in physical reality.


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@ March (2000)