Death, Life and the Question of Identity

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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Christianity is the religion most obsessed with death and the afterlife, its alleged aftermath. While churches encompass inlaid graves and cemeteries, both Jews and Muslims regard the flesh of corpses as a source of ultimate contamination. In various belief systems, the dead are either holy or repugnant. But, what exactly is death?

A classical point of departure in defining death, seems to be life itself. Death is perceived either as a cessation of life - or as a "transit area", on the way to a continuation of life by other means. While the former approach presents a disjunction, the latter is a continuum, death being nothing but a corridor into another plane of existence (the hereafter).

But who does the dying when death occurs?

In other words, capturing the identity of the dying entity (that which "commits" death) is essential in defining death. But how can we establish the dying entity's unambiguous and unequivocal identity? Can this identity be determined by using quantitative parameters? Is it dependent, for instance, upon the number of discrete units which comprise the functioning whole? If so, at which level are useful distinctions and observations replaced by useless scholastic mind-warps?

Example: can human identity be defined by the number and organization of one's limbs, cells, or atoms? Cells in the human body are replaced (with the exception of the nervous system) every 5 years. Would this phenomenon imply that we gain a new identity each time this cycle is completed and most our cells are replaced?

Adopting this course of thinking leads to absurd results:

When humans die, the replacement rate of their cells is null. Does this zero replacement rate mean that their identity is better and longer preserved once dead? No one would say this. Death is tantamount to a loss of identity - not to its preservation. So, it would seem that, to ascertain one's identity, we should prefer a qualitative yardstick to a quantitative one.

The brain is a natural point of departure.

We can start by asking if one's identity will change if we were to substitute one's brain with another person's brain? "He is not the same" - we say of someone with a brain injury. If partial damage to the brain causes such a sea change in the determinants of individuality - it seems safe to assume that replacing one's entire brain will result in a total change of one's identity, akin to the emergence of another, distinct, self.

If the brain is the locus of identity, we should be able to assert that when (the cells of) all the other organs of the body are replaced (with the exception of the brain) - one's identity is still preserved.

The human hardware (body) and software (the wiring of the brain) have often been compared to a computer (see: "Metaphors of Mind"). But this analogy is misleading.

If we were to change all the software running on a computer - it would still remain the same (though more or less capable) computer. This is the equivalent of growing up in humans. However, if we were to change the computer's processor - it would no longer be the same computer.

This, partly, is the result of the separation of hardware (the microprocessor) from software (the programmes that it processes). There is no such separation in the human brain. The 1300 grams of grey matter in our heads are both hardware and software.

Still, the computer analogy seems to indicate that our identity resides not in our learning, knowledge, or memories. It is an epiphenomenon. It emerges when a certain level of hardware complexity is attained.

Even so, things are not that simple. If we were to eliminate someone's entire store of learning and memories (without affecting his physical brain) - would he still be the same person, would he still retain the same identity? Probably not.

In reality, erasing one's learning and memories without affecting his brain - is impossible. In humans, learning and memories are the brain. They affect the hardware that processes them in an irreversible manner. Still, in certain abnormal conditions, such radical erasure does occur (see "Shattered Identity").

This, naturally, cannot be said of a computer. There, the distinction between hardware and software is clear. Change a computer's hardware and you change its identity. Computers are software - invariant.

We are, therefore, able to confidently conclude that the brain is the sole determinant of identity, its seat and signifier. This is because our brain is both our processing hardware and our processed software. It is also a repository of processed data. A human brain detached from a body is still assumed to possess identity. And a monkey implanted with a human brain will host the identity of the former owner of the brain.

Many of the debates in the first decade of the new discipline of Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolved around these thought experiments. The Turing Test pits invisible intelligences against one another. The answers which they provide (by teleprinter, hidden behind partitions) determine their presumed identity (human or not). Identity is determined merely on the basis of the outputs (the responses). No direct observation of the hardware is deemed necessary by the test.

The brain's status as the privileged identity system is such that even when it remain incommunicado, we assume that it harbors a person. If for some medical, logistical, or technological problem, one's brain is unable to provide output, answers, and interactions - we are still likely to assume that it has the potential to do so. Thus, in the case of an inactive brain, the presumed identity is a derivative of its potential to interact, rather than of any actual interaction.

Paleo-anthropologists attempt to determine the identity of our forefathers by studying their skulls and, by inference, their brains and their mental potentials. True, they investigate other types of bones. Ultimately, they hope to be able to draw an accurate visual description of our ancestors. But perusing other bones leads merely to an image of their former owners - while the scrutiny of skulls presumably reveals our ancestors' very identities.

When we die, what dies, therefore, is the brain and only the brain.

Death is discernible as the cessation of the exercise of force over physical systems. It is the sudden absence of physical effects previously associated with the dead object, a singularity, a discontinuity. But it should not be confused with inertia.

Inertia is a balance of forces - while death is the absence of forces. Death is, therefore, also not an entropic climax. Entropy is an isotropic, homogeneous distribution of energy. Death is the absence of any and all energies. While, outwardly, the two might appear to be identical - they are actually the two poles of a dichotomy.

So, death, as opposed to inertia or entropy, is not something that modern physics is fully equipped to deal with. Physics, by definition, deals with forces and measurable effects. It has nothing to say about force-less, energy-devoid physical states (oxymora).

Still, if death is merely the terminal cessation of all impact on all physical systems (the absence of physical effects), how can we account for memories of the deceased?

Memory is a physical effect (electrochemical activity of the brain) upon a physical system (the Brain). It can be preserved and shipped across time and space in capsules called books or or artwork. These are containers of triggers of physical effects (in recipient brains). They seem to defy death. Though the physical system which produced the memory capsule surely ceases to exist - it continues to physically impact other physical systems long after its demise, long after it was supposed to stop doing so.

Memory makes death a transcendental affair. As long as we (or what we create) are remembered - we continue to have a physical effect on physical systems (i.e., on other people's brains). And as long as this is happening - we are not technically (or, at least, fully) dead. Our death, our destruction are fully accomplished only after our memory is wiped out completely, not even having the potential of being resurrected in future. Only then do we cease to exist (i.e., to have an effect on other physical systems).

Philosophically, there is no difference between being influenced by a real-life conversation with Kant - and being effected by his words preserved in a time-space capsule, such as a book. As far as  the reader is concerned, Kant is very much alive, more so than contemporaneous people whom the reader never met.

It is conceivable that, in the future, we will be able to preserve a three-dimensional facsimile (a hologram) of a person, replete with his smells, temperature, and tactile effects. Why would the flesh and blood version be judged superior to such a likeness?

There is no self-evident hierarchy of representations based on their media. Organic 3-d representations ("bodies") are not inherently superior to inorganic 3-d representations. In other words, our futuristic hologram should not be deemed inferior to the classic, organic version as long as they both possess the same information content and are able to assimilate information, regenerate and create.

The only defensible hierarchy is of potentials and, thus, pertains to the future. Non-organic representations ("representations") of intelligent and conscious entities - of "organic originals" - are finite. The organic originals are infinite in their potential to create and to procreate, to change themselves and their environment, to act and be acted upon within ever more complex feedback loops.

The non-organic versions, the representations, are self contained and final. The organic originals and their representations may contain identical information. But the amount of information will increase in the organic version and decrease in the non-organic one (due to the second Law of Thermodynamics). This inevitable divergence is what renders the organic original privileged.

This property - of an increasing amount of information (=order) - characterizes not only organic originals but also anything that emanates from them. It characterizes works of art and science, or human off-spring, for instance. All these tend to increase information (indeed, they are, in themselves, information packets).

So, could we say that the propagation and the continuation of physical effects (through memory) is life after death? Life and memory share an important trait. They both have a negentropic (=order and information increasing) impact on their surroundings. Does that make them synonymous? Is death only a transitory phase from one form of Life (organic) to another (informational, spiritual)?

However tempting this equation is - in most likelihood, it is false.

The reason is that there are two sources of increase in information and what sets them apart is not trivial. As long as the organic original lives, all creation depends upon it. After it dies, the works that it has created and the memories that are associated with it, continue to affect physical systems.

However, their ability to foster new creative work, to generate new memories, in short: their capacity to increase order by spawning information is totally dependent upon other, living, organic originals. In the absence of other organic originals, they stagnate and go through an entropic decrease of information (i.e., increase of disorder).

This is the crux of the distinction between Life and Death:

LIFE is the potential, possessed by organic originals, to create (=to fight entropy by increasing information and order), using their own software. Such software can be coded in hardware - e.g., one's DNA - but then the creative act is limited to the replication of the organic original or parts thereof.

Upon the original's DEATH, the potential to create is passed through one's memory. Creative acts, works of art and science, or other forms of creativity are propagated only within the software (=the brains) of other, living, organic originals.

Both forms of creation (i.e., using one's software and using others' software) can co-exist during the original's life. Death, however, incapacitates the first type of creation (i.e., creation by an organic original, independent of others, and using its software). Upon death, the surrogate form of creation (i.e., creation, by other organic originals who use their software to process the works and memories of the dead) becomes the only one.

Memories created by one organic original resonate through the brains of others. This generates information and provokes the creative potential in recipient brains. Some of them do react by creating and, thus, play host to the parasitic, invading memory, infecting other members of the memory-space (=the meme space).

Death is, therefore, the assimilation of the products of an organic original in a Collective. It is, indeed, the continuation of Life but in a collective, rather than individually.

Alternatively, Death could be defined as a terminal change in the state of the hardware. Segments of the software colonize brains in the Collective. The software now acquires a different hardware - others' brains. This, of course, is reminiscent of certain viral mechanisms. The comparison may be superficial and misleading - or may lead to the imagery of the individual as a cell in the large organism of humanity. Memory has a role in this new form of social-political evolution which superseded Biological Evolution, as an instrument of adaptation.

Should we adopt this view, certain human reactions - e.g., opposition to change and religious and ideological wars - can perhaps be regarded as immunological reactions of the Collective to viral infection by the software (memories, works of art or science, ideas, in short: memes) of an individual.


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