Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Life exists as a succession of identities

November 18, 2017

Life is an abstract concept manifested as living things. The thread of life has no discernible beginning.

Life – to be life – must be manifested in an entity capable of reproduction. The elements displaying life either continue or come to an end. The thread is carried as a possibility by every sperm and every egg but the sperm and egg cannot themselves reproduce. Most of these possibilities come to an end before the two combine. If – and only if – a sperm and egg do combine, then life continues as, and within, a unique identity created by that combination. It is the creation of the identity – at conception – which continues life. About one in 300 billion sperm survives to combine with about one in 200 eggs to create an identity. It is a unique genetic identity. That identity, first as a fetus may end before birth. Or it may continue after birth as a child. It may grow to be an adult human and give rise to further sperm or eggs before itself coming to an end. When that identity qualifies to be considered a human entity and protected by society is a choice for the societies and the individuals concerned. Most societies start assigning the identity some rights and protections before birth but only after about 20 weeks of life as a fetus.

There is little doubt, however, that a unique genetic identity is created at conception, whether in a test tube or in a womb. At what stage of development that identity achieves consciousness and then self-awareness is not certain but almost certainly only after a rudimentary brain has formed. That would be some weeks after conception but probably some little time before birth. At what point that identity is to be afforded legal “rights” is then a matter for the surrounding society to determine.

Until the identity reaches birth – whether by natural or by artificial means – it has no options and no choices to exercise. Whether self-aware or not, its existence is in the gift and the power of others. It starts acquiring choices and freedoms of action only after birth, as allowed or constrained by its own development and the rules of the society it finds itself in.

Life then only exists as a succession of identities.

To trace the beginning of life would require going back from identity to identity to the specific cells some 3.7 billion years ago. A collection of sperm and eggs may contain the elements for life to continue but do not in themselves constitute life. The beginning of an identity is not the beginning of life. But the act of conception brings a unique identity into being and it is surely the beginning of a specific new life.

Life may be continuous as a concept but can only be realised and manifested as a succession of unique, discrete identities.


 

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The Ship of Theseus paradox is no paradox

July 12, 2017

A dictionary definition would define identity as the characteristics uniquely determining what makes a thing, whether living or inanimate. Consider what is necessary and sufficient to define an identity.

Inanimate things can have identity. The Great Pyramid, or the Empire State building or even that particular, nondescript boulder just there, has an identity. That particular boulder, with that volume and that physical composition and which now is located in my garden in Sweden, may have been formed when it was ejected after a volcanic eruption on Gondwanaland some 500 million years ago. Or it may have been formed 100 years ago when rocks in this region were blasted to build a road. The key point here is that this particular thing had a beginning on the time line of the universe. This beginning, this begin-time, is inextricably tied to the identity of this boulder. This identifiable boulder may have lost some mass by erosion over the years or it may have (though much less likely) grown in mass by accretion. Its mass may have changed over time and its shape and volume may have changed. Even its composition may have changed somewhat as chemical reactions with the surrounding atmosphere slowly occurred. At any given time however, the thing having identity uniquely occupies a physical space.

The Ship of Theseus (see Theseus paradox) had an identity.

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

I now borrow the concept of a control surface from fluid dynamics

In an inertial frame of reference, a control volume is a volume fixed in space or moving with constant velocity, through which the fluid (gas, or liquid) flows. The surface enclosing the control volume is referred to as the control surface.

Analogous to a control surface, I define an identity control surface. It is abstract (no mass, no thickness, no volume, no energy) but it is definable in 3-dimensional physical space at any instant of time. Unlike in fluid dynamics, this control surface does not enclose a fixed control volume, but physically encloses that which has identity. Whenever that boulder was formed, it was physically enclosed within an elastic identity control surface. The identity control surface is dynamic, elastic and permeable. It is not however fixed in space along the time axis. Its permeability allows the flow of material in both directions, but the integrity of the identity within is not compromised as long as the flow is small relative to the material enclosed. The elastic identity control surface maintains the identity enclosed as it accommodates gradual growth or a shrinkage of the enclosed physical material. The dynamic ability of the identity control surface maintains the continuity over time of the identity enclosed. An identity control surface may be embedded within another identity control surface as would happen if our boulder was used in a building which had its own identity.

This now gives me the two characteristics necessary to define identity. A thing has an identity if it has:

  1. an identity control surface which is physically definable at any instant of time, and
  2. a discrete beginning for that identity control surface on the time line of the universe (a history)

Both are necessary and are together sufficient to define the identity of an inanimate thing. The Great Pyramid and the Empire State Building comply. Their identities will end when the identity control surface is breached sufficiently to create a death on the time line of the universe.

With an identifiable identity control surface and an identified begin-time, Theseus’s ship no longer presents a paradox. As long as the replacements to the ship are small relative to the whole, its identity continues. Even if 100% of the original ship’s timbers are eventually replaced it retains its identity. However another ship gradually built up from the original (discarded) timbers would have a new beginning and a new identity surface and a new identity. Note that each timber as it was discarded would no longer be a part of identity that was Theseus’s Ship. The rebuilt ship would be a reconstruction, albeit with the original materials, of Theseus’s ship but it could never have the identity of Theseus’s ship. There is no ambiguity about identity.

It seems to me that these two characteristics would also be necessary and sufficient to define the identity not only of inanimate things but also of all living things including humans.

For all living things the identity control surface would come into being when the unique genetic make up of that entity was established. For a tree it would enclose the seed or enclose the fertilised egg for a chicken or for a human. For humans, conception or the point at which a fertilised egg embeds itself in the uterus, would seem to be appropriate as the begin-time of that identity. Initially the newly created fetus identity would be enclosed within the identity control surface of the mother and would separate at birth. As humans grow, the elastic identity control surface expands to accommodate that growth. At any time this control surface can be physically defined. The identity within remains continuous, from its begin-time till that identity control surface ceases to exist (and of course that could be some little time after death). Suppose bodies could be put into cryo-storage. Mr. X’s frozen corpse would retains its identity (as Mr. X’s body), even if Mr. X was long since dead, until decomposition destroyed the identity control surface. There is no contradiction here. The fact of being alive or not is then merely a characteristic of the identity.

The brain is not then necessary for an identity to exist. After a brain transplant – if such was possible – the identity continuing would that of the person receiving the brain. Neither is a soul a necessary condition for an identity though that does not say anything about whether a soul exists or not. The identity of each living thing, and that includes the 7 billion humans on the planet, is each uniquely characterised by its identity control surface and its begin-time. This does not address what makes a living thing human, and that would surely involve the brain and whatever one may define as being soul.

There have been suggestions that identity is virtual and based on information (Budimir Zdravkovic in The Oxford Philosopher):

….. when an entire individual is cloned; not just their DNA but their memories and experiences, too. If we assume that a person’s memory and experience is just information stored in the human brain (and the rest of the human nervous system) then in theory it should be possible to completely clone an individual with all his or her experiences, habits and memories included, providing we can reconstruct their body and nervous system.

The concept of complete human cloning is very much in line with the idea that biological identity consists in virtual information as opposed to material constitution. Since information is virtual, a person can be reconstructed eons after his death and still continue to live his life. The person’s identity becomes a function of all the information stored in his DNA, brain, and the rest of the body. After we have sufficient knowledge of the entire human brain and nervous system, in principle we ought to be able to achieve immortality via this complete human cloning.

But this is about creating replicas and not really about identity. You may be able to create an identical, cloned human, but the clone would have a different begin-time and a different identity control surface. A clone might be identical to an original but would have a completely different identity. The clone and the original would have both different begin-times and different identity control surfaces. As identical twins also have completely different identities. Even if their begin-times are identical, they occupy separated physical spaces and different identity control surfaces.

So, the reconstruction of Theseus’s ship would give rise to a new identity with a different identity control surface and a different begin-time.


 

 

When a foetus is no longer an unborn child – just a toe-nail?

April 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton has been criticised for calling a foetus an “unborn person”. The pro-abortion movement in the US finds this beyond the pale. They find that the use of the words “unborn person” implies that the foetus is an “unborn child” which of course is unacceptable.

So is a “foetus” not an “unborn child” and of no greater significance than an overgrown toe-nail or unwanted hair? To be cut off as and when desired?

NYMagazine: Hillary Clinton drew criticism on Monday after referring to the unborn as a “person” in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press. “The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights,” she said, before adding, “that doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possibly can to help a mother who is carrying a child and wants to make sure that child will be healthy to have appropriate medical support.”

As might’ve been expected, both abortion-rights advocates and abortion opponents quickly seized on Clinton’s remarks. “Usually when you hear her talk it’s about the fetus,” Tina Whittington, executive vice-president of Students for Life, told the New York Times. “To acknowledge it’s a human person, a human child, to us it’s huge.” Other activists condemned her use of the word “person,” saying it implies the fetus is an “unborn child” — rhetoric the pro-choice movement opposes.

I don’t dispute a woman’s control over her own body. But equally she must take responsibility for her own actions. The question becomes one of liability and to whom. And when does a foetus gain an identity and become a “who”? I find that the current practice of banning abortions after a foetus is about 20 -24 weeks old (as the point when it is independently viable) somewhat illogical since the alternative to an abortion is not a premature birth.

Immortality of Identity:

So why should it be that preventing an egg being fertilised, which would otherwise go on to become a foetus, causes no moral qualms but aborting that same foetus after it has been conceived is so disturbing to some? Extending that thought, what is it that makes aborting a foetus and preventing a child from being born much less disturbing than terminating the existence of that same child after birth?

I suspect that it is our concept of “identity” rather than “life” which determines. ……

… Many societies set a limit of 22 or 24 weeks after conception as being the point when a foetus acquires the “right” to live but this boundary is irrational. This time is based on when a foetus – if born prematurely – is considered to be viable. I don’t find this very useful since the alternative to an abortion is not usually a premature birth. I note also that the probability of a foetus reaching full term changes very little after the first 10-12 weeks of a pregnancy. A 12 week old foetus has almost the same chance of being born as a 30 week old foetus. An abortion at any time after about the first 12 weeks effectively eliminates a birth which – with a 90% probability – would otherwise occur. After birth, infant mortality rates today are generally around 5% (ranging from close to 15% in the poorest parts of Africa to less than 2% in well developed societies). …..

….. A unique identity is recognisable first when an egg is fertilised. That identity cannot be foretold but it may be remembered long after the individual dies. It may in due course be forgotten. But whether or not it is forgotten, the fact of the creation of that identity remains. Forever. It is identity, once created, which remains unique and immortal.

The winner spermatozoon – image Gabriel Sancho


 

Immortality of identity

February 26, 2015
The winner spermatazoon - Gabriel Sancho

The winner spermatozoon – Gabriel Sancho

The human reproductive process is remarkably inefficient. A male produces sperm throughout his life from puberty on. The quality and quantity deteriorates with age but he probably produces between 500 billion and 1 trillion sperm during a lifetime. Most get nowhere near where they are supposed to go, are very badly directed and eventually die. Unexpelled sperm are reabsorbed. Some few tens of millions find their way into a female reproductive system but the vast majority of these never meet a mature egg and wander around aimlessly until they die, unrequited and unfulfilled. On average a male fathers between 2 and 3 children. Each such instance requires just one sperm. There is little evidence to suggest that the successful sperm is the “best” of the bunch. It is more a case of which lucky one was at the right place at the right time. The “hit rate” for male sperm is thus – quite pathetically in process terms – around one in 300 billion. Things are much more focused on the female side. The success rate for mature eggs is very much higher than for sperm, but still quite low. A woman has a total of some 400 – 500 mature eggs, released singly during each menstrual cycle over a child-bearing period of 30 – 40 years. Of these, on average, with widespread contraception, between 2 and 3 will be fertilised by a sperm to result in a child. A hit rate of around one child for every 200 eggs. Perhaps twice that without contraception.

The inefficiency of the process is a commentary on evolution but it is still sufficient to produce more births than the replenishment rate needed to keep the total population stable. (Evolution never looks for “excellence” since it is always satisfied with what is “good enough”). In fact the resultant population growth rate has been so high that humankind has had to apply methods to further restrict the already low hit rate. In the last 100 years, globally, fertility rates have declined from over 6 to the current 2.5 per woman. Contraception, sterilisation and abortion are the methods of choice (and infanticide is now very rare but not unknown). Contraception has had the largest impact on this decline in fertility rate.

I was listening to a politician recently spouting politically correct platitudes about abortion and got to wondering how to describe the various human attitudes, in spite of a commonality of purpose (the avoidance of a child), between contraception and abortion and, by extension, infanticide.  It would certainly be incorrect to claim that a sperm or an egg are not “living”. They show in fact that “life” is a continuum from the parents, and then through their eggs and sperm to the fertilised egg, its birth and then its life as an independent individual. So why should it be that preventing an egg being fertilised, which would otherwise go on to become a foetus, causes no moral qualms but aborting that same foetus after it has been conceived is so disturbing to some? Extending that thought, what is it that makes aborting a foetus and preventing a child from being born much less disturbing than terminating the existence of that same child after birth?

I suspect that it is our concept of “identity” rather than “life” which determines.

Contraception and sterilisation prevent conception. Prior to that we cannot attribute any clear identity to one sperm within a swarm of millions. An ovum is much closer to having identity but it still only has the identity of a “component part”. In fact the sperm and eggs live under the umbrella of the identity of their originating individuals. Only one sperm in 300 billion and one egg in 200 succeed in combining and developing into a child. All the rest die unrequited. But when they die or produce a fertilised egg, they do not diminish the identity of the individuals they came from. The component identities cease when the sperm or eggs cease to be. About 70-80% of all foetuses conceived would normally come to term. After about 10-12 weeks of pregnancy this is closer to 90%. (Currently around 20 – 25% of conceptions are aborted globally). The moment of conception is unique in that it is when a new identity is formed. It is a discontinuity in the playing field of identities. It is an additional identity, connected to but separate from the identities of the parents. There is a strong case, I think, for considering the fertilised egg as the start of a new, recognisable, unique human identity even though the life of that identity is not (yet) independently viable. Many societies set a limit of 22 or 24 weeks after conception as being the point when a foetus acquires the “right” to live but this boundary is irrational. This time is based on when a foetus – if born prematurely – is considered to be viable. I don’t find this very useful since the alternative to an abortion is not usually a premature birth. I note also that the probability of a foetus reaching full term changes very little after the first 10-12 weeks of a pregnancy. A 12 week old foetus has almost the same chance of being born as a 30 week old foetus. An abortion at any time after about the first 12 weeks effectively eliminates a birth which – with a 90% probability – would otherwise occur. After birth, infant mortality rates today are generally around 5% (ranging from close to 15% in the poorest parts of Africa to less than 2% in well developed societies).

Looking at probabilities, and based on all the sperm and all the eggs that are produced by humans, contraception halves what is already a very low chance of conception. The probability of an egg being fertilised reduces from about 1:100 (1%)  – of an unidentifiable egg being fertilised by an even less identifiable sperm  – to be about 1:200. Abortion however terminates a 70-80% probability of an independent, identifiable entity coming into being. Infanticide eliminates a 95-98% probability of an independent human life continuing. Could it be that our sense of outrage is related to the probability of an independent entity coming into being? When the probability is very low we see no great harm in reducing it still further but when the probability is high we feel it “unnatural” and “immoral” to intervene?

It is possible that we intuitively assess probabilities but I don’t think that we connect “morality” to probability. I suspect that it is primarily identity and the point at which we are prepared to recognise or assign an independent identity that is the key. It is probably the same cognitive process which leads to our lack of engagement when many thousands of people – but without recognisable identities – perish in a tsunami and the close emotional engagement when somebody known suffers harm. And why it is said to be emotionally easier to drop a bomb on an unknown, unidentifiable mass of people than to be a sniper who can see his target in his sights.

A unique identity is recognisable first when an egg is fertilised. That identity cannot be foretold but it may be remembered long after the individual dies. It may in due course be forgotten. But whether or not it is forgotten, the fact of the creation of that identity remains. Forever. It is identity, once created, which remains unique and immortal.

 


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