I notice that I am confused about Identity and Resurrection

I’ve spent quite a bit of time try­ing to work out how to ex­plain the roots of my con­fu­sion. I think, in the great LW tra­di­tion, I’ll start with a story.

[Edi­tor’s note: The origi­nal story was in 16th cen­tury Man­darin, and used pe­cu­liar and es­o­teric terms for con­cepts that are just now be­ing re-dis­cov­ered. Where pos­si­ble, I have trans­lated these terms into their mod­ern math­e­mat­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal equiv­a­lents. Such terms are de­noted with curly braces, {like so}.]

Once upon a time there was a man by the name of Shen Chun-lieh, and he had a beau­tiful young daugh­ter named Ah-Chen. She died.

Shen Chun-lieh was heart­bro­ken, moreso he thought than any man who had lost a daugh­ter, and so he strug­gled and scraped and mis­ered un­til he had amassed a great for­tune, and brought that for­tune be­fore me—for he had heard it told that I was could re­s­ur­rect the dead.

I frowned when he told me his story, for many things are true af­ter a fash­ion, but wis­dom is in un­der­stand­ing the na­ture of that truth—and he did not bear the face of a wise man.

“Tell me about your daugh­ter, Ah-Chen.”, I com­manded.

And so he told me.

I frowned, for my sus­pi­cions were con­firmed.

“You wish for me to give you this back?”, I asked.

He nod­ded and dried his tears. “More than any­thing in the world.”

“Then come back to­mor­row, and I will have for you a beau­tiful daugh­ter who will do all the things you de­scribed.”

His face showed a sud­den flash of un­der­stand­ing. Per­haps, I thought, this one might see af­ter all.

“But”, he said, “will it be Ah-Chen?”

I smiled sagely. “What do you mean by that, Shen Chun-lieh?”

“I mean, you said that you would give me ‘a’ daugh­ter. I wish for MY daugh­ter.”

I bowed to his small wis­dom. “In­deed I did. If you wish for YOUR daugh­ter, then you must be much, much more pre­cise with me.”

He frowned, and I saw in his face that he did not have the words.

“You are wise in the way of the Tao”, he said, “surely you can find the words in my heart, so that even such as me could say them?”

I nod­ded. “I can. But it will take a great amount of time, and much courage from you. Shall we pro­ceed?”

He nod­ded.

I am wise enough in the way of the Tao. The Tao whispers things that have been dis­cov­ered and for­got­ten, and things that have yet to be dis­cov­ered, and things that may never be dis­cov­ered. And while Shen Chun-lieh was nei­ther wise nor par­tic­u­larly coura­geous, his over­whelming de­sire to see his daugh­ter again pro­pel­led him with an in­ten­sity sel­dom seen in my stu­dents. And so it was, many years later, that I judged him fi­nally ready to dis­cuss his daugh­ter with me, in earnest.

“Shen”, I said, “it is time to talk about your Ah-Chen.”

His eyes bright­ened and he nod­ded ea­gerly. “Yes, Teacher.”

“Do you un­der­stand why I said on that first day, that you must be much, much more pre­cise with me?”

“Yes, Teacher. I had come to you be­liev­ing that the soul was a thing that could be con­jured back to the liv­ing, rather than a {com­pu­ta­tional pro­cess}.”

“Even now, you are not quite cor­rect. The soul is not a {com­pu­ta­tional pro­cess}, but a {speci­fi­ca­tion of a search space} which de­scribes any num­ber of similar {com­pu­ta­tional pro­cesses}. For ex­am­ple, Shen Chun-lieh, would you still be Shen Chun-lieh if I were to cut off your left arm?”

“Of course, Teacher. My left arm does not define who I am.”

“In­deed. And are you still the same Shen Chun-lieh who came to me all those years ago, beg­ging me to give him back his daugh­ter Ah-Chen?”

“I am, Teacher, al­though I un­der­stand much more now than I did then.”

“That you do. But tell me—would you be the same Shen Chun-lieh if you had not come to me? If you had con­tinued to save and to save your money, and craft more des­per­ate and ea­ger schemes for amass­ing more money, un­til fi­nally you for­got the pur­pose of your mis­er­ing al­to­gether, and aban­doned your Ah-Chen to the pur­suit of gold and jade for its own sake?”

“Teacher, my love for Ah-Chen is all-con­sum­ing; such a fate could never be­fall me.”

“Do not be so sure, my stu­dent. Re­mem­ber the tale of the but­terfly’s wings, and the storm that sank an ar­mada. Ever-shift­ing is the Tao, and so ever-shift­ing is our place in it.”

Shen Chun-lieh un­der­stood, and in a brief mo­ment he glimpsed his life as it could have been, as an old Miser Shen hoard­ing gold and jade in a great walled city. He shud­dered and pros­trated him­self.

“Teacher, you are cor­rect. And even such a wretch as Miser Shen, that wretch would still be me. But I thank the Bud­dha and the Eight Im­mor­tal Sages that I was spared that fate.”

I smiled benev­olently and helped him to his feet. “Then sup­pose that you had died and not your daugh­ter, and one day a young woman named Ah-Chen had burst into my door, fling­ing gold and jade upon my table, and de­scribed the car­ing and won­der­ful father that she wished re­turned to her? What could she say about Shen Chun-lieh that would al­low me to find his soul amongst the in­finite chaos of the Nine Hells?”

“I...” He looked ut­terly lost.

“Tell me, Shen Chun-lieh, what is the mean­ing of the parable of the {Ship of Th­e­seus}?”

“That per­sonal iden­tity can­not be con­tained within the body, for the flow of the Tao slowly strips away and the flow of the Tao slowly re­stores, such that no sin­gle piece of my body is the same from one year to the next; and within the Tao, even the dis­tinc­tion of ‘same­ness’ is mean­ingless.

“And what is the rele­vance of the parable of the {Shroed­inger’s Cat} to this dis­cus­sion?”

“Umm… that… let me think. I sup­pose, that per­sonal iden­tity can­not be con­tained within the his­tory of choices that have been made, be­cause for ev­ery choice that has been made, if it was truly a ‘choice’ at all, it was also made the other way in some other trib­u­tary of the Great Tao.”

“And the parable of the tiny {Parame­cium}?”

“That nei­ther is the copy; there are two origi­nals.

“So, Shen. Can you yet ar­tic­u­late the dilemma that you pre­sent to me?”

“No, Teacher. I fear that yet again, you must point it out to your hum­ble stu­dent.”

“You ask for Ah-Chen, my stu­dent. But which one? Of all the Ah-Chens that could be brought be­fore you, which would satisfy you? Be­cause there is no hard line, be­tween {con­figu­ra­tions} that you would rec­og­nize as your daugh­ter and {con­figu­ra­tions} which you would not. So why did my origi­nal offer, to con­struct you a daugh­ter that would do all the things you de­scribed Ah-Chen as do­ing, not ap­peal to you?”

Shen looked hor­rified. “Be­cause she would not BE Ah-Chen! Even if you made her re­spond perfectly, it would not be HER! I do not sim­ply miss my six-year-old girl; I miss what she could have be­come! I re­gret that she never got to see the world, never got to grow up, never got to...”

“In what sense did she never do these things? She died, yes; but even a dead Ah-Chen is still an Ah-Chen. She has since ex­pe­rienced be­ing worms be­neath the earth, and flow­ers, and then bees and birds and foxes and deer and even peas­ants and no­ble­men. All these are Ah-Chen, so why is it so im­por­tant that she ap­pear be­fore you as YOU re­mem­ber her?”

“Be­cause I miss her, and be­cause she has no con­scious aware­ness of those things.”

“Ah, but then which con­scious aware­ness do you wish her to have? There is no copy; all pos­si­ble trib­u­taries of the Great Tao con­tain an origi­nal. And each of those origi­nals ex­pe­rience in their own way. You wish me to pluck out a {con­figu­ra­tion} and pre­sent it to you, and de­clare “This one! This one is Ah-Chen!”. But which one? Or do you leave that choice to me?”

“No, Teacher. I know bet­ter than to leave that choice to you. But… you have shown me many great won­ders, in alchemy and in other works of the Tao. If her brain had been pre­served, per­haps frozen as you showed me the frozen koi, I could pre­sent that to you and you could re­con­struct her {con­figu­ra­tion} from that?”

I smiled sadly. “To cer­tain de­grees of pre­ci­sion, yes, I could. But the ques­tion still re­mains—you have only nar­rowed down the pos­si­ble {con­figu­ra­tions}. And what makes you say that the bound­ary of {con­figu­ra­tions} that are achiev­able from a frozen brain are cor­rect? If I smash that brain with a ham­mer, melt it, and paint a por­trait of Ah-Chen with it, is that not a {con­figu­ra­tion} that is achiev­able from that brain?”

Shen looked dis­gusted. “You… how can you be so wise and yet not un­der­stand such sim­ple things? We are talk­ing about peo­ple! Not paint­ings!”

I con­tinued to smile sadly. “Be­cause these things are not so sim­ple. ‘Peo­ple’ are not things, as you said be­fore. ‘Peo­ple’ are {sets of con­figu­ra­tions}; they are {speci­fi­ca­tions of search spaces}. And those bound­aries are so in­dis­tinct that any­thing that claims to cap­ture them is in er­ror.”

Now it was Shen’s turn to look an­i­mated. “Just be­cause the bound­ary can­not be drawn perfectly, does not make the bound­ary mean­ingless!

I nod­ded. “You have in­deed learned much. But you still have not de­scribed the pur­pose of your bound­ary-draw­ing. Do you wish for Ah-Chen’s re­s­ur­rec­tion for your­self, so that you may feel less lonely and grieved, or do you wish it for Ah-Chen’s sake, so that she may see the world anew? For these two pur­poses will give us very differ­ent bound­aries for what is an ac­cept­able Ah-Chen.”

Shen gri­maced, as war raged within his heart. “You are so wise in the Tao; stop these games and do what I mean!”

And so it was that Miser Shen came to live in the walled city of Ch’in, and hoarded gold and jade, and lost all mem­ory and de­sire for his daugh­ter Ah-Chen, un­til it was that the Tao swept him up into an­other tale.

So, there we are. My con­fu­sion is in two parts:

1. When I imag­ine re­s­ur­rect­ing loved ones, what makes me be­lieve that even a perfectly pre­served brain state is any more ‘re­s­ur­rec­tion’ than an overly so­phis­ti­cated wind-up toy that hap­pens to be­have in ways that fulfill my de­sire for that loved one’s com­pany? In a cer­tain sense, avoid­ing true ‘re­s­ur­rec­tion’ should be PREFERABLE—since it is pos­si­ble that a “wind-up toy” could be con­structed that pro­vides a su­per­stim­u­lus ver­sion of that loved one’s com­pany, while an ac­tual ‘re­s­ur­rec­tion’ will only be as good as the real thing.

2. When I imag­ine be­ing re­s­ur­rected “my­self”, how differ­ent from this ‘me’ can it be and still count? How is this fun­da­men­tally differ­ent from “I will for the fu­ture to con­tain a be­ing like my­self”, which is re­ally just “I will for the fu­ture to con­tain a be­ing like I imag­ine my­self to be”—in which case, we’re back to the su­per­stim­u­lus op­tion (which is per­haps a lit­tle weird in this case, since I’m not there to re­ceive the stim­u­lus).

I’d re­ally like to dis­cuss this.