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I have recently been thinking about a comment that one of my philosophy

I have recently been thinking about a comment that one of my philosophy professors made in college that has been causing me a great deal of distress. He said "If you have a problem that you don't want to deal with, go to sleep and let someone else deal with it." meaning that the person who wakes up in the morning is not the same as the person who went to sleep the night before. Is there any validity to this claim? Does our consciousness continue while we sleep or does it stop and then restart? Is the person typing this question the same person who will wake up in my bed tomorrow? If we were replaced each morning by a person with identical memories, wouldn't it appear the same from the inside and the outside? And finally, is this worth getting worked up about? thanks

As I posted this, I saw that Donald had offered a similar reaction. But since I'd already written this up...

It's a very interesting topic you've raised, and one on which philosophers have written a great deal. My view fall into the blunt, even philistine category, but I'll point to other views as well.

Let's begin with your final question: is this worth getting worked up about? My answer is that it's not. What's at stake is whether some highly abstract, theoretical, and hard-to-settle metaphysical claims are true. Even if they are, life will go on as usual. You'll still experience things, remember things, look forward to things, make plans, carry them out, and in general live a human life. If there's some sense in which there isn't a single "person" that lives this life, the most psychologically healthy response is probably a shrug.

You ask whether our consciousness continues while we sleep, or whether, on the other hand, it stops and restarts. One way to read that (probably not the best way) is whether there's some mental "thing" that exists continuously throughout our lives. If that's the question, the best answer is that there's no good reason to think so. But unless we work ourselves into a philosophical lather, there's also no good reason to think that there has to be such a thing for you to be the same person who went to sleep last night. On another, probably better reading, the question is whether there's always some sort of conscious experience going on inside us (I'm treating dreams, for example, as conscious experience for this purpose) even when we're deeply asleep. Though I don't know for sure what the answer is, my impression is that there isn't. But it's not clear why I should care. Why think that for me to persist, there must be an unbroken stream of experience?

People are complicated. We have bodies with brains. The brains, it seems, are what lets us have thoughts, feelings and experiences. The goings-on in our bodies (brains included) fit together in ways that are deeply fascinating. We've learned a lot about how the more straightforwardly biological aspect work, and also how the minds that our brains give rise to work. Some of the things we learn lead us rightly to think of ourselves differently. For example: we know that we're neither as rational nor as psychologically unified as we might have thought we are. That's interesting and important. It also may be better for some purposes to think of ourselves as a complicated set of processes than as "things," but even if it is and even if we do, life goes on.

The Buddha taught a doctrine of "no self," which seemed to mean that there is no persisting inner object worth being called The Self. That's quite plausibly true. And Buddhism's view that we get out of whack when we get attached to the passing show of experience, wanting to control it and bend it to our will, is in my experience a wise teaching. Matters of living wisely aside, many philosophers have offered views of personal identity that have a lot in common with the Buddha's; the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume ad contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit are two notable examples. But very few of our human concerns call for getting the right take on tricky matters of metaphysics. When you think about it, that's a very good thing.

As I posted this, I saw that Donald had offered a similar reaction. But since I'd already written this up... It's a very interesting topic you've raised, and one on which philosophers have written a great deal. My view fall into the blunt, even philistine category, but I'll point to other views as well. Let's begin with your final question: is this worth getting worked up about? My answer is that it's not. What's at stake is whether some highly abstract, theoretical, and hard-to-settle metaphysical claims are true. Even if they are, life will go on as usual. You'll still experience things, remember things, look forward to things, make plans, carry them out, and in general live a human life. If there's some sense in which there isn't a single "person" that lives this life, the most psychologically healthy response is probably a shrug. You ask whether our consciousness continues while we sleep, or whether, on the other hand, it stops and restarts. One way to read that (probably not the best...

Two weeks ago, a caterpillar wove a chrysalis, and turned into a butterfly.

Two weeks ago, a caterpillar wove a chrysalis, and turned into a butterfly. There was no butterfly two weeks ago, only a caterpillar. Nonetheless, can I still point to the butterfly and say "that buttefly existed two weeks ago"?

This is one of those cases where as long as we're clear on what we mean, there's not much of an issue. It would be perfectly in order to say "that creature existed two weeks ago; it was a chrysalis then." It's like saying that you existed lo so many years ago, though you were a toddler at that time. Leaving aside more radical doubts about identity over time, there's no problem with talking this way. If you say "that butterfly existed two weeks ago" and you mean something like "that creature, which is now a butterfly, existed two weeks ago" then there's nothing to worry about. But obviously if you mean "two weeks ago, this butterfly was around, as a butterfly," then you'd be saying something false.

There are more subtler issues that a philosopher might raise, having to do, for instance, with whether the butterfly (or you, for that matter) is present at any one moment (as opposed to being a 4-dimensional being whose time-slices are present at various instants). But that question would come up even if the butterfly had not, as it were, changed at all over the two weeks.

This is one of those cases where as long as we're clear on what we mean, there's not much of an issue. It would be perfectly in order to say "that creature existed two weeks ago; it was a chrysalis then." It's like saying that you existed lo so many years ago, though you were a toddler at that time. Leaving aside more radical doubts about identity over time, there's no problem with talking this way. If you say "that butterfly existed two weeks ago" and you mean something like "that creature, which is now a butterfly, existed two weeks ago" then there's nothing to worry about. But obviously if you mean "two weeks ago, this butterfly was around, as a butterfly," then you'd be saying something false. There are more subtler issues that a philosopher might raise, having to do, for instance, with whether the butterfly (or you, for that matter) is present at any one moment (as opposed to being a 4-dimensional being whose time-slices are present at various instants). But that question would come up even...

My younger brother, who is 13, is arguing that he will not go through any

My younger brother, who is 13, is arguing that he will not go through any drastic changes in personality and mannerisms from now until the future and therefore a child is no different from an adult. I argued in the contrary stating that he will go through a lot of changes that might radically alter his outlook on life and personality. Is this correct or does it vary from person to person?

If I have it right, your brother thinks he won't change much, because he thinks that people in general don't change much from teen years to adulthood. He then goes on to draw a conclusion: children (or at least, teenagers) aren't really any different from adults. So we have two questions. First, is the premise true? Is your brother really right when he says that people who have reached the ripe old age of 13 are pretty much as they will be as adults? That's not a philosopher's question as such, though I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that many people change a good deal after they get past their teen years. But there's another question: even if we granted your brother his premise, what about his conclusion?

It would depend, wouldn't it? It may be that people's basic personality (cheerful or prickly or inclined to fuss-budgetry...) is set by the time they reach their teen years. And it's pretty plausible that mannerisms are laid down early. But I'm guessing your brother thinks his argument gets him quite a bit more: the right to adult privileges. That's not so clear. Even if thirteen-year-olds are in many ways like the adults they will become, there's something else we can say: the parts of the brain that govern decision-making and planning (the frontal lobes) aren't ready for the corner office and the keys to the liquor cabinet. If you click here or here, you can see a couple of the many hits that a bit of googling will come up with on this topic.

This won't come as a surprise to anyone who's spent a lot of time around adolescents (not least the parents among us!) or has a good memory for their own teen years. The science is simply giving us the "why" behind something we already knew.

There are exceptions, of course. Some thirteen-year-olds are remarkably mature. Maybe your brother is one of them, though the fact that he thinks so doesn't exactly distinguish him from his peer group. But his rough-and-ready generalization doesn't get him where he wants to go, as he'll likely agree himself in 20 or 30 years.

If I have it right, your brother thinks he won't change much, because he thinks that people in general don't change much from teen years to adulthood. He then goes on to draw a conclusion: children (or at least, teenagers) aren't really any different from adults. So we have two questions. First, is the premise true? Is your brother really right when he says that people who have reached the ripe old age of 13 are pretty much as they will be as adults? That's not a philosopher's question as such, though I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that many people change a good deal after they get past their teen years. But there's another question: even if we granted your brother his premise, what about his conclusion? It would depend, wouldn't it? It may be that people's basic personality (cheerful or prickly or inclined to fuss-budgetry...) is set by the time they reach their teen years. And it's pretty plausible that mannerisms are laid down early. But I'm guessing your brother thinks his...

The concept of a homunculus suggests that there is an inner core in each of us,

The concept of a homunculus suggests that there is an inner core in each of us, a "self" that makes functional and moral decisions. The emerging sciences of complex adaptive theory and network theory suggest there is no homunculus in complex living systems (from cells to the global economy). An identifiable self has not been located by neurobiologists and may never be located. The self appears to be a composite of many internal systems that interact with many external systems. If we cannot locate the self, if there is no homunculus to point to as the agent of a "good" or "bad" decision, if people are more than the sum total of their parts and cannot be reduced to a single part (such as the self), does morality still exist? That is, does the concept of morality exists if there is no concept of the self?

Suppose there were a homunculus. Would it be like me? That is, would it have conflicting motives? Foggy beliefs? Occasional weakness of will? And while we're at it, would it make any difference if the homunculus were located in one compact region of the brain? Or woud it do just as well if it were distributed over different parts of the brain, and perhaps not even clearly confined to the brain alone? What would the homunculus have to be like to do the intellectual job that's at issue? And do we really need a lot of science to know that whatever we are, we aren't simple unities?

An utter disunity isn't an agent. But think about the difference between my academic department and a random collection of professors. My department is made up of diverse individuals who don't always agree. But the department has a plan of organization, it deliberates and it acts. The members of the department co-operate to get things done, and the dissenters accept decisions of the department, once they're made, even if they aren't pleased about them. We can't say anything like this about a random collection of professors. For many purposes, my department is an agent, and it can be held responsible for what it does.

Christine Korsgaard (See her "Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency" in Philosophy and Public Affairs 18:2, 1989) argues that the unity of an agent isn't metaphysical; it's practical. We count as unified agents because we actually do manage to get past the conflicts among our motives and act one way rather than another, and because we can look at our actions from a unified standpoint. That includes things like acting on the basis of reasons and principles. This seems right quite apart from whether there's a homunculus hidden somewhere within us.

I'd add that part of what you say already gestures toward this picture. You talk about "complex living systems." We are, indeed, such things. A system isn't just a haphazard collection of processes. Systems are self-sustaining complexes that, as you point out, are more than the sums of their parts. But why isn't that good enough? Why can't the right sort of system be an agent? The homunculus wouldn't really add to the story. Indeed, as my comments above suggest, even if there were a homuculus, we might well have to tell a systems story about it anyway.

Suppose there were a homunculus. Would it be like me? That is, would it have conflicting motives? Foggy beliefs? Occasional weakness of will? And while we're at it, would it make any difference if the homunculus were located in one compact region of the brain? Or woud it do just as well if it were distributed over different parts of the brain, and perhaps not even clearly confined to the brain alone? What would the homunculus have to be like to do the intellectual job that's at issue? And do we really need a lot of science to know that whatever we are, we aren't simple unities? An utter disunity isn't an agent. But think about the difference between my academic department and a random collection of professors. My department is made up of diverse individuals who don't always agree. But the department has a plan of organization, it deliberates and it acts. The members of the department co-operate to get things done, and the dissenters accept decisions of the department, once they're made, even if they...

Does the individual consciousness depend on the actual atoms or only on the

Does the individual consciousness depend on the actual atoms or only on the configuration of the atoms? Suppose we have mastered cryo-freezing and atom-manipulation technology. We can freeze and unfreeze people at will. We freeze Sarah. We replace Sarah's atoms one by one. With all atoms replaced, we wake her up. Is it the "same" Sarah? (the same to herself, not just to us). Thanks, Mario

Let's call the being that results from all this replacement Sarah2. We can ask a pair of questions that seem different. One is whether Sarah2's conscious states will be like Sarah's. I agree with Mark that the answer to that question is yes; at least, it's hard to see why it would be no. But we can ask another question that seems to a different one: is Sarah2 the same person as Sarah? That's a lot more controversial.

A comparison, based on an example by Peter van Inwagen: Suppose little Johnny builds a house from a small number of blocks and leaves it in the middle of the floor. And suppose that I come in and clumsily kick the house over. If I re-arrange the blocks in exactly the same way, then the house I assemble will be indistinguishable from the one Johnny built, but it's not so clear that it's literally the same house. And if I actually replace the blocks with new ones that are just like the old ones, then it's even less clear.

So if we cryo-freeze Sarah, interrupting her normal biological and psychological processes, and then perform this massive replacement, there's at least room to wonder whether it's literally the same person. Sarah2 will no doubt think she's Sarah, but she could be wrong for all that.

This is part of a big debate, of course. One good collection that provides a wide range of background readings with a nice historical introduction is Raymond Martin and John Barresi's anthology Personal Identity, published by Blackwell.

Let's call the being that results from all this replacement Sarah2 . We can ask a pair of questions that seem different. One is whether Sarah2's conscious states will be like Sarah's. I agree with Mark that the answer to that question is yes; at least, it's hard to see why it would be no. But we can ask another question that seems to a different one: is Sarah2 the same person as Sarah? That's a lot more controversial. A comparison, based on an example by Peter van Inwagen: Suppose little Johnny builds a house from a small number of blocks and leaves it in the middle of the floor. And suppose that I come in and clumsily kick the house over. If I re-arrange the blocks in exactly the same way, then the house I assemble will be indistinguishable from the one Johnny built, but it's not so clear that it's literally the same house. And if I actually replace the blocks with new ones that are just like the old ones, then it's even less clear. So if we cryo-freeze Sarah, interrupting her normal...