Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Phoenix View of Identity

In what sense am I the same entity as the I that existed fifteen years ago? My cells are different, my shape is different, I have different thoughts, I have different values, I am regarded differently. What similarities exist?

I say that I am the same in this way: I am the latest in a lineage of selves that all emerge from a previous self. What ties us together is this lineage. I am not the same, but if you scarred the younger me, I would continue having being scarred today. I am tied to that past, although I only exist in the present. Eventually something else will emerge from me, a me with maybe a slightly altered value system or a slightly different point of view or a blank space where a limb used to be.

If you take a man and you extract a single drop of blood from him, he is one drop of blood different from the man he was a moment ago. Much of him remains the same, but there is a difference. Likewise, when a man comes to a realization, he is one realization different from the man he was before. But the new man was still derived from the old one. He emerges from the previous man as the present gives way to the present.

You exist in constant flux, but you do not change all at once. You are flowing in and out of your environment, you are flowing in and out of your headspace, you are making internal changes. To say that you are completely different one moment from the next is false, but to say that you are completely the same is also false. And because all change occurs gradually, there is a sense in which you can say that an infant and an old man on the death bed are the same person. It is this lineage of gradual change.

I imagine it this way: every moment is a birth, an immolation, and a gathering of ashes. Imagine the phoenix. The new you emerges from the ashes of the previous self every moment. You can only exist in the present, as soon as you are past, you do not exist. But the present you is composed of the stuff the past you left behind, changed by the foreign debris left in the ashes and the altering positioning of the burnt ashes.

For now, I call it a Phoenix View of Identity. You are only equal to you, now. But the sense in which you are identical with past and present incarnations of yourself is this lineage of material, thoughts, and (this part is removable according to your philosophical inclinations) spirit.

The Ship of Theseus was a different ship by the end, but it was still the Ship of Theseus by virtue of its lineage. If they had just sailed a different ship in its place, there would be no lineage.

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