Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Disconnected bodies and lives

We can imagine what it is like for a living to have a spatially disconnected body. First, if we are made of point particles, we all are spatially disconnected. Second, when a gecko is attacked, it can shed a tail. That tail then continues wiggling for a while in order to distract the pursuer. A good case can be made that the gecko’s shed tail remains a part of the gecko’s body while it is wiggling. After all, it continues to be biologically active in support of the gecko’s survival. Third, there is the metaphysical theory on which sperm remains a part of the male even after it is emitted.

But even if all these theories are wrong, we should have very little difficulty in understanding what it would mean for a living thing to have a spatially disconnected body.

What about a living thing having a temporally disconnected life? Again, I think it is not so difficult. It could be the case that when an insect is frozen, it ceases to live (or exist), but then comes back to life when defrosted. And even if that’s not the case, we understand what it would mean for this to be the case.

But so far this regarded external space and external time. What about internally spatially disconnected bodies and internally temporally disconnected lives? The gecko’s tail and sperm examples work just as well for internal as well as external space. So there is no conceptual difficulty about a living thing having a disconnected body in its inner space.

But it is much more difficult to imagine how an organism could have an internal-time disconnect in its life. Suppose the organism ceases to exist and then comes back into existence. It seems that its internal time is uninterrupted by the external-time interval of non-existence. An external-time interval of non-existence seems to be simply a case of forward time-travel, and time-travel does not induce disconnectes in internal time. Granted, the organism may have some different properties when it comes back into existence—for instance, its neural system might be damaged. But that’s just a matter of an instantaneous change in the neural system rather than of a disconnect in internal time. (Note that internal time is different from subjective time. When we go under general anesthesia, internal time keeps on flowing, but subjective time pauses. Plants have internal time but don’t have subjective time.)

This suggests an interesting apparent difference between internal time and internal space: spatial discontinuities are possible but temporal ones are not.

This way of formulating the difference is misleading, however, if some version of four-dimensionalism is correct. The gecko’s tail in my story is four-dimensional. This four-dimensional thing is connected to the four-dimensional thing that is the rest of the gecko’s body. There is no disconnection in the gecko from a four-dimensional perspective. (The point particle case is more complicated. Topologically, the internal space will be disconnected, but I think that’s not the relevant notion of disconnection.)

This suggests an interesting pair of hypotheses:

  • If three-dimensionalism is true, there is a disanalogy between internal time and internal space with respect to living things at least, in that internal spatial disconnection of a living thing is possible but internal temporal disconnection of a living thing is not possible.

  • If four-dimensionalism is true, then living things are always internally spatiotemporally connected.

But maybe these are just contingent truths Terry Pratchett has a character who is a witch with two spatially disconnected bodies. As far as the book says, she’s always been that way. And that seems possible to me. So maybe the four-dimensional hypothesis is only contingently true.

And maybe God could make a being that lives two lives, each in a different century, with no internal temporal connection between them? If so, then the three-dimensional hypothesis is also only contingently true.

I am not going anywhere with this. Just thinking about the options. And not sure what to think.


Russell Jones said...

Sorry, this is unrelated to the blog post, but I noticed that your personal site ( is down. I would be happy to host the site for you for free on some seriously awesome hardware :-) I'm a fan of your work and it seems like an easy thing to do. Let me know if you are interested (rjonesx[at]gmail[dot]com)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for catching that and thanks for the generous offer. Currently the hosting is coming out of my research budget, which is larger than I need anyway, and so for now I may stick with it. I contacted Arvixe tech support, and they made some changes that required an update of the DNS records or something like that. I wish they had contacted me about this themselves.