log (2010/06/18 to 2010/06/24)

I am once again on a train, going from one place to another!

(I was thinking that there ought to be a longer form of "train", like "airplane" or "aeroplane" is a longer form of "plane". I guess it would be "railroad train", as distinct from "wagon train" or "mule train". I am on a railroad train!)

If I were less lazy, I could look it up and see if I've previously observed here that every time I leave Newark Airport I find myself leaving by a completely different path. Either there are some vast number of different routes between the Newark parking lots and the Garden State Parkway, or they change them regularly.

(The problem is compounded by the fact that all of the signage around Newark Airport is regionally idiosyncratic. Rather than saying pedestrian things like "Grand Central Parkway East", the words on the signs are based on regional knowledge, or on some particular favorite small town or fond childhood memory of the signmakers. So you get "Grand Central Parkway -- Long Island", or "Fibbstown / Chutney", or "Aunt Dot's", or "Route 95 -- that burger joint where I met Marie".)

I mention this, not because I've been anywhere near Newark Airport lately, but because the same sort of "different every time" effect occurs at the Penn Station station in the New York City subway. Usually when I get off at that stop I find myself in Penn Station (a different part of Penn Station every time, but at least recognizeably Penn Station). Other times I find myself on some New York City streetcorner within sight of Penn Station.

Today, though, I found myself on a streetcorner apparently nowhere near Penn Station. In fact, from the amount of wandering about I did subsequently while looking for Penn Station, a streetcorner not even in the same borough as, and perhaps not in the same state as, Penn Station. Good thing I had plenty of time until my train.

It's theoretically hard to get lost in Manhattan, 'cause of all the streets run either north-south or east-west, and they're numbered with consecutive small integers. So with just a couple of exploratory one-block walks to get the direction of the axes nailed down, it should be possible to figure out where just about anything is.

But that's only in theory.

Finding myself on I think it was Sixth Avenue, and having some reason to think that there might be a Penn Station entrance on Eighth Avenue, I went a block in the east-west direction, figuring that I'd either come to Seventh Avenue and know I had to continue one block to Eighth, or I'd come to Fifth Avenue and at least be confident that I could turn around and walk three blocks to Eighth. So I approached the next Avenue-axis sign with a certain amount of optimism.

Unfortunately what it said was "Greeley Square", which was less than helpful.

Eventually I relented and, after walking some distance in a more or less straight line in a vain hope of encountering something enlightening, I asked someone waiting for a light to change (or, this being New York, for the traffic to clear).

"Excuse me," I said, "do you know, where is Penn Station?"

He pointed back the way I had come.

"Just go straight," he said.

And I did, for quite several blocks, and eventually there was a corner with a Penn Station entrance on it. So that worked.

It would be good if they would paint, on the pavement or even the sidewalks themselves, Helpful Directional Indications, like "8th Avenue This Way", or even "Penn Station".

Unfortunately they probably don't have the money to do this. And if they did, half the Helpful Directional Indications would probably say things like "Greeley Square". And perhaps "Aunt Dot's".

Last night I attended the first part of a group discussion of the philosophical problem of personal identity. But I didn't stay long; I made a quick excuse and flew up into the air and teleported away.

Yeah, this was in Second Life, so I could fly, and the moderator was an Amazonian woman wearing nothing but holstered weapons belted around her thighs, and one of the latecomers appeared as a female Green Lantern who twirled on her head for a few seconds before transforming into a small pink snail and sitting on a tree stump. But none of that is why I left (those were all reasons to stay, actually).

I left because (there were other things I druthered be doing, and because) I don't really think there is any philosophical problem with personal identity.

Am I the same person today that I was yesterday? For legal purposes, certainly. For some other purpose, well, I dunno. Is it important?

If what makes me the same person that I was yesterday is mostly continuity of memory, what about when I come half-awake for a moment in the middle of the night, not awake enough to remember anything, or to remember in the morning that I wa awake. Is that still the same person? Well, for legal purposes, almost certainly. For any other purpose, I dunno; does it matter?

If we have a super-scientific process that separates all the molecules of a person's body, evenly distributed from all over the body, into two clouds of molecules, and then fills in the missing halves from a molecule-store, and that results in two apparently identical people, both with all the memories and behaviors of the original, and equal numbers of the molecules of the original, are they both the same person as the original? Or neither? Or somehow one and not the other?

For some reason these don't strike me as particularly interesting questions. At least no more interesting than the question of whether, if you replace the blade of an axe one year, and the handle of the axe the next, it's still the same axe. For legal or ownership purposes, I guess it probably is. For any other purpose, it doesn't matter; it's just a question of what form of words to use in an edge-case that isn't all that interesting.

Even the question of what it would be like, subjectively, to be one of those two people technologically conjured from one person, doesn't seem to me any more interesting than the question of what it's like to be me, right now. Presumably (if the technology actually works as advertised), what it's like is that you go to sleep for a little while, and when you wake up there's someone over there who looks and acts just like you.

Which would be weird, but I don't see any big philosophical implications.

It's sort of like the question of whether a big pile of sand, when divided in half, yields two big piles of sand. I dunno, sometimes, often, it depends what you mean by "big"; whatever.

There are lots and lots of practical problems around personal identity in these hypothetical cases, of course; and to a lesser extent in some real-life edge cases.

If Fred is duplicated, and there are now two people who look and act just like Fred, what is his wife Mary going to do? Presumably she will find them both equally lovable and/or annoying, and they will feel the same way about her. Could get awkward; or not. But is there a deep philosophical problem? Not seeing it.

If Fred was guilty of some crime and supposed to be incarcerated as a result, what do we do now? Put them both in jail for that same amount of time? (Probably.) Put them both in jail for half the time, or put one in jail and let the other go free? (Probably not; but really if you have some reasonably complete theory of incarceration, you can probably read the answer off pretty directly.)

In real life, if someone serving a sentence for a crime has a stroke and suffers actual amnesia, is he now a different person who should no longer be punished? His lawyer is free to try to convince a judge of that, and if you have a good theory of incarceration you can again probably just read of an answer, but is there some deep philosophical problem? And the same for milder questions, like whether promises made before the stroke are still binding.

Subjectivity, consciousness as viewed from the inside, is deeply mysterious in these cases, but then it's deeply mysterious in all cases. Fred's consciousness before and after the duplication seems no more, and no less, mysterious than my consciousness right now. Since I don't understand how matter and subjectivity relate at all, it's not any more mysterious how consciousness gets duplicated when you duplicate Fred.

Of course if it turned out that when you duplicate Fred you always get one Fred and one inanimate body, that would be very interesting. Or you get one Fred and one body that mostly acts like Fred but insists that it has no soul and no inner subjectivity, that would also be interesting. But we're very far from being able to perform that experiment, and what little evidence we do have so far suggests that in fact we'd get two fully-functional and conscious Freds.

So I dunno, maybe I'm overlooking the interesting questions here, but I don't see the question of personal identity as usually construed to be any more interesting or philosophically important than the question of sand-pile bigness.

Explanations of what I have overlooked are most welcome. *8)

Now, about China!

China is, potentially, becoming really strange. The One-Child Policy officially restricts more than a third of the population to having no more than one child (per couple). It was put into place, apparently, for relatively simplistic population-control reasons, but the potential implications are much wider than that.

Most of the people covered by the policy live in cities. The policy has been in place for a bit over thirty years. So a big chunk of the urban workforce that is coming into middle management and significant technical positions in China are only children.

Imagine! *8)

We only children tend to be smart, and spoiled. While we do play well with others, we also tend to be loners. And apparently we tend to like the idea of having only one child ourselves; or at least many of the only children in Shanghai feel that way.

What does it do to commerce and industry when enterprises tend to be run, at least at the day-to-day level, by only children? What does it do to education, to society, to politics?

What, one especially wonders, happens when an aging Communist bureaucracy is faced with a population heavily salted with smart spoiled loners?

It's going to be an awfully interesting experiment...