Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Psychological identity and faster than light causation

In 2010, data from your brain is scanned and recorded in duplicate on two hard drives, while the original is destroyed. One hard drive is sent off to a station in orbit in the alpha-Centauri system, and it arrives there within ten years. The other remains on earth, in a special vault. An automated process in the vault is guaranteed to grow a new brain in 2050, and imprint the saved data on that brain. If that is the whole story, then according to materialist psychological identity theorists who ground personal identity in chains of (quasi-)memories, you will thereby be resurrected.

But now consider this oddity. Suppose that at the same time (in respect of some reference frame—it shouldn't matter which one), the scientists on the station around alpha-Centauri happen to grow a brain and imprint your data on it. Then you have undergone fission: there are two copies of you. The standard resolution of fission cases is to say that you then do not exist—all the other options are more absurd. This means that the scientists on the station have it within their power to prevent your being resurrected on earth, simply by imprinting your data on a brain at the same time as the machines on earth are doing so. And this ability of theirs is not limited by the speed of light. In fact, in some reference frames it will be true to say that because they imprinted your data on a brain shortly after the vault on earth has done its work, you weren't resurrected in the vault on earth (but instead were the victim of fission). This may well seem absurd.

The scientists near alpha-Centauri, then, have counterfactual control over whether you're resurrected on earth. Is this counterfactual control a form of causal control? Well, on theories of causation on which counterfactual dependence between wholly distinct events (the scientists' pushing of buttons is wholly distinct from your resurrection, it seems) entails causation, the answer will be affirmative. So, materialist psychological identity theorists who accept accounts of causation like that seem to have to admit that faster than light causation is physically possible (I say "physically", because no part of my story seems to violate any law of nature).


Anonymous said...

Wouldn't this be incompatible with any causal theory whatsoever, when combined with the idea that in this case the person wouldn't exist? I mean to say that, this seems like a clear case of causation, so any theory that failed to account for it, assuming that persons fail to exist in these conditions, would be an inadequate causal theory, given that an adequate causal theory would account for cases of causation.

I admit that I have no clear argument fleshed out along these lines at the moment, however. Nor do I have talent enough to scratch one out in under a decade, so I'll let my minimalist suggestion stand or fall as it is.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's the question, is it causal.

A psychological identity theorist could say that the case is like one where George, who is traveling far out in space and has accepted the post ahead of time should he be elected, is elected President of the San Antonio Chess Club. The members of the club have counterfactual control over whether George is President of the SACC. He becomes President instantaneously in their reference frame. But this counterfactual control does not appear to be causal.

To my eye, the difference here between the club president and resurrection cases is that George's being President of the SACC is not an event wholly distinct from his being elected as such--indeed, his being President is partly constituted by his bein elected. However, that you exist seems wholly distinct from whatever the scientists around alpha-Centauri are doing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alexander.

I'm certainly not ignorant of the fact that whether it is a genuine case of causation would be argued. It seems to me, though, that it is a case of causation.

I typed out a lengthy reply and realize that it was pretty vacuous. I can't come up with anything else worth saying here yet. So I'll just say that I'm pretty fascinated by this. Thanks for this post.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it comes down to whether a body's constituting you can be partly property relational to something far away...