Thursday, September 6, 2012

More on the philosophical underpinnings of movie “Total Recall”

or -
Ahnuld, Thumb drives, Souls and the Memory Theory of Personal Identity

Keep in mind; This thought experiment is aimed at students in my philosophy class at the Naval Academy. That fact forms the context of the story below, which is similar to the story in "Total Recall."  Both put some pressure on the conceptual apparatus we use when we consider the problem of personal identity.

‘Personal identity’ is a term of art in philosophy. The ‘problem’ with it finds its roots in the fact that we have several different things we rely on to identify and re-identify people. For each of these criteria, there is a corresponding ‘ontological’ or ‘metaphysical’ position as to what constitutes sameness of person (quite apart from what we think or feel about any particular case).

For example, consider this simplified case: I haven’t seen Little Enos Burdette in 15 years. One day, I am at the county fair and see a short guy in a powder blue western suit, sporting a matching 10 gallon hat. I move closer, and see facial features I remember. I take note of his stature, the facial features, and conclude that it is indeed Little Enos. I have used a criterion of identity that relies upon the continuity of physical features, in particular, physical features of the human body.

Corresponding to this is the ontological reading of that criterion. That reading has it that what really makes Little Enos the same little guy over time is that there is one human body existing continually over that period of time. (Note; it could be the case that this condition is satisfied even if no one at all recognized Little Enos as being Little Enos over that period of time. It would still objectively be the case that the one human body has persisted over that time. That simple fact constitutes identity of person, according the straightforward reading of the bodily theory of personal identity.)

Similar things can be said about another theory of personal identity, the “memory theory.” I might find myself unsure, in a given situation, whether the person I see at the fair is Little Enos. Maybe it has been 40 years since I had seen him. Maybe the person in question isn’t wearing the trademark dapper powder blue western outfit. To resolve things, I might ask him if he’s Little Enos. I might doubt him when he answers in the affirmative. So, I might grill him, and ultimately become convinced after he has answered enough questions.

In this case, I am relying on Enos’s reports of his own history, obviously, his memory. The ontological partner for this criterion is the ‘memory theory’ of personal identity, according to which, the feature that literally constitutes Enos’s being Enos over an extended period of time is the mental continuity and connectedness of memory that he relied on in answering my questions. His remembering his 10th birthday, and other events from that time, is what makes it the case that 70 year old Enos is the same person as the 10 year old.

There are some subtle nuances involved in each of these theories that I’m not going to get into, but that quick review should give the basic idea.

I pose this hypothetical in class discussion when we discuss Ahnuld’s campy 90s Sci-Fi film “Total Recall.” It engages these two views, plus (tangentially) another theory of personal identity, the ‘soul theory,’ which is in a way, similar to the bodily theory. Both theories claim that it is an underlying persisting substance that accounts for personal identity. In the body theory, that substance is material (the human body, or brain); the soul theory maintains that it is not a material substance, but an immaterial soul or spirit.

" Total Recall" engages the memory and body theories, but doesn’t really directly touch on the soul theory, save by extension of the discussion. The following story is designed to facilitate exploration of the logical consequences of the body and memory theories. Some questions at the end of the tale prod for those explorations:

Put yourself in the shoes of someone like Quaid in "Total Recall." Suppose you have been kidnapped, and your brain has been mentally formatted, and a set of memories have been put in place that are different from those that were erased, so that you are convinced you are Joe College, a student at the University of Delaware (who happens to be a dead ringer for you).

One morning (it's actually the morning after this kidnapping but you don't know this), you find yourself waking up. Actually, that is not quite the right way to put it. You do not ‘find yourself’ in any unexpected situation. You simply are Joe.

You wake after having had a strange nightmare of being at some military school, and having to memorize menus of the day every day of your freshman year. You remember something about “Plebes.”

You are Joe in the UD dorm. As you wake, you think 'weird dream', and go about your business, just another day at UD. You give the folks a call (more accurately, the people you TAKE to be your folks. It's all a very elaborate hoax), attend classes, etc. Life goes on, for four years.

In fact, what has happened is you have been the subject of an evil experiment. What the mad scientists had done the day before was to upload the info from Joe's brain into a very large capacity storage device, designed and owned by Google. The next day they downloaded it successfully into your brain, but only after killing and destroying Joe in an incinerator.

So, you (or your body/brain) go on like this for 20 years, with nary a suspicion. You finish Joe's (or rather, your) college career and live the typical life of a successful advertising executive in NYC. You have that occasional weird dream about that military school, but no other 'info' about your days before the memory wipe leaks into your consciousness. (Just that one insignificant speck, every once in a while; maybe twice a year, a dream about that strange military academy. Some years, you don’t even have one dream about this. Nothing truly telling. Hey, it's just a dream, right? We all have recurrent dreams like that. No big deal.)

Now, look at things from the 'outside' so to speak. What you have are two very separate lives going on in the biological life of one human body. One life takes up, or rather begins, after the termination of the other. There is a 20-something year life-train, it abruptly ends that night of the kidnapping, formatting and reprogramming. As that life terminates it is replaced by another. It is a life that contains a memory store just as rich as the first. In fact, it also took about 20 years for Joe's life to build those Joe memories, and, upon installation in your brain, the evil experimenters have actually replaced 20 years worth of memories of your life with the corresponding 20 years of memories of Joe's life. All of this has been carried off without your being at all suspicious. Neither you nor Joe has any idea what has happened, and you both count your lives as quite ordinary.

All this has gone on in one human body. Assume this could actually happen, and consider these questions:

What does this say about the memory theory of personal identity? What does it say about the relationship between bodies and persons?

Are Joe v2 (that's you) and Joe v1 (the vaporized guy) the same person?

Has Joe v1 been resurrected?

Would Joe v1 consider himself to be resurrected if he were told before vaporization what was about to happen? Is this a sort of afterlife for Joe v1, or is he right to complain that he is being killed?

Now, consider things from your (pre formatting) perspective, that is; your perspective as a student at the military academy:

  There is a part of the story I held back. The experimenters did not just do away with your memory/info data. That has been uploaded into the same storage device that once housed "Joe". Consider what could be done with that data, in terms of future 'downloads, installations and activations.' This operation could be done again, using your uploaded information, and some other poor victim, perhaps a student from DU.

Remember, as well, the mad scientists could choose to reverse the process; uninstalling 'Joe' and re-installing that person you now refer to with the word “I”

Consider this also: The stored information IS NOT you in the sense that, unlike YOU it doesn’t live. It doesn’t experience and act. It has no self-awareness, in fact this data set is not aware of anything at all. It is just a bunch of stored data in a big fancy equivalent of a thumb drive.

Have the experimenters killed you by uploading your info into the storage device? Will they kill you only if they also destroy that info?

Does that info, that complex package of data have moral status, given that it WAS you, and COULD BE YOU again, if re-installed?

In what ways does this scenario analogize the positions and arguments concerning abortion?

The basic ontology or metaphysics of this case is materialistic. That is; it takes the position that ultimately the only things that truly exist are material things and features of and relationships between these physical things. Persons are features of biological material things on this view. These can be “freeze-dried” into mere information, and reconstituted, but in either state, they must have a material substrate in order to exist: Either the fancy thumb drive or a human brain.

Now, let's try something just a bit different, considering the other theory of personal identity; the soul theory:

Assume that the downloading does not involve information being installed in a brain or any other material thing, but in an immaterial soul. What does this say about the relationship between personal identity and souls as substances? If something like this information storage and installation can occur with souls, as immaterial substances, it would seem to follow that coupling that view with the memory theory (or with our story at any rate) has the result that we, as persons, can be outlived by our souls, just as on the materialist point of view our bodies can outlive our persons when we die. What is more, the information or data that is ‘reconstituted’ or incarnated, to use a more familiar term, can exist outside the soul. If so, can it exist independently of any and all substances, or does it need some immaterial analog to the materialist’s big fancy thumb drive?

If this picture of the soul theory is true, what exactly is a soul minus the person-making information? A featureless mentality? Does it have self-consciousness, or is this a feature that it loses when it loses the person-making characteristics? Does a ‘formatted’ soul have awareness, or does it need that installation of information to get that sort of capacity rolling?

Some questions that come up when considering Total Recall.