A puzzling question I sometimes hear is, “What would you do if you knew you were going to die in two months?”. A closely related admonition is, “Live each day as if it’s your last”. Presumably, these sorts of statements are an invitation to live life to the fullest, “Carpe Diem” or something like that.

But these statements don’t make any sense to me. Knowledge of our mortality is omnipresent, and we only seize the day by living in denial and pretending that our lives will endure or have any significance in the cosmic scheme of things. Everyone already lives their lives as dead men walking. That’s what it means to be mortal.

The far more revealing question is, “What would you do if you knew you were immortal?”. Imagine that some sort of “fountain of youth” were discovered, which was not too difficult to reach, and which would grant true immortality to the first 12,000 people to reach it.

What sort of people would compete most fiercely to reach that fountain, and what would their motivations be? Which motivations would you judge to be good versus bad, and what would the ratio be? Of the 12,000 people who made it to the fountain, how many would you be comfortable with having as immortal?

I have no idea what the answer is, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than wondering what people do when they know they are going to die. We already know that answer.

Reverse Solipsism

In the previous post, you were challenged to convince yourself that real people are imaginary. But most people would rather do the opposite. Most people spend a lot of time convincing themselves that imaginary people are real.

The imaginer mistakenly imagines that his imagination is fully under his control, so he assumes that imaginary people will be more pliable and pleasing than the pesky people of the real world. Even if he knows the imaginary people aren’t real, he wants the imaginary people to seem as real as possible, because he can get almost the same feeling as if they were real.

This is the basis of Harlequin romance novels, porn, and all sorts of other fantasy. But for at least 4,500 years, we have realized that reverse solipsism is self-destructive. The Epic of Gilgamesh introduces Lilu and Lilitu, who symbolize the temptation and consequences of replacing real human relationships with the imaginary. The very best modern telling of this story, in my opinion, is “Descent Into Hell“, by Charles Williams.

Of course, for people with means and a modicum of wits, there is a way out. You simply need to imagine the sort of people you want in your life, and then find an efficient way to filter through the 6 billion candidates on the planet to surround yourself with real people who do exactly what your imagination wants them to do. You want them to have the same hobbies as you? No problem. You want them to be supportive of almost everything you do? No problem. The numbers are large, so it’s simply an assortative matching game.

Everyone plays this game. If you’re in relationships with people who do mostly what you would have wanted imaginary people to do, then you’re probably skilled at the assortative matching game. And if you’re not, you’re probably playing the assortative matching game, but just not winning.

There is something repugnant about this game, though. Is it really any less self-destructive to seek out and use real people, rather than imaginary, to incarnate your fantasies? In fact, it seems that this game is just as self-destructive, and commits double harm by harming the other person. It’s reverse solipsism with massive collateral damage.

Some amount (maybe a very small amount) of assortative matching reverse solipsism is healthy and defensible. But my intuition is that excess and harmful assortative matching is endemic to human nature, and that it is worthwhile to consider countermeasures to guard yourself from falling into the trap. When it comes to countermeasures, I don’t have the answers. One tactic is to sabotage your own assortative matching process at times, so that you’re left to deal with people who most definitely do not incarnate your imaginary ideal. Another tactic is to fix your imagination so that it doesn’t require you to filter out so many people. But who knows?

Puzzling About Solipsism

I’m not sure how to frame this.

Imagine that you’re talking to someone about imagination, and you exclaim, “I’m not even convinced that you are not a figment of my imagination!”. Now, it is easy to imagine saying something like this. But can you imagine saying it convincingly?

The best way to sound convincing is to be convinced. And since you’re simply trying to convince yourself and the listener that solipsism can’t be ruled out, it ought to be easy. And perhaps it is easy. Most people can probably imagine it being easy.

But you would also be able to easily tell the difference between rehearsing the statement to an imaginary person and making the statement to a real person. That is, you wouldn’t feel any urgency to also convince yourself that you were unable to tell the difference between the two activities, while convincing yourself that solipsism can’t be ruled out.

This itself is not very puzzling. Rehearsing and performing are two separate things, whether your target is an imaginary person or real. And you can rationalize the difference in other ways. What is puzzling is the fact that people so naturally straddle this fence. It’s practically automatic.

I want to get a firm grasp of that process. What happens in our brains that allows us to so easily hold conflicting public and private truths while being convinced of both? What is the mechanism? And why is it so natural? What are the factors that might cause this split to be more or less easy to achieve?

Maybe it’s linked with the way that our mirror neuron system is able to tell the difference between our own face in the mirror and the faces of others. Or maybe it’s linked with the way the frontal lobe continuously inhibits mimicking behavior. We probably just don’t know.


To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them.

This is from Laws of Form. I was reminded of this quote by Mike Travers, who recently quoted the part that precedes the part I quoted:

We find systems of education today which have departed so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt.

Spencer-Brown here is saying that knowledge should be relatively lower status, while ignorance should be relatively celebrated. But he is not advocating against a search for truth. To the contrary, he suggests that the contemplation of truth should be something that ought to be so driving as to cause one to deceive and ignore others.

I can empathize with Spencer-Brown’s thesis. When I understand something, it’s dead to me. It’s boring. And there are perhaps three “big problems” (which might turn out to all be the same project) I’ve held in my mind for decades, always chewing and sometimes chipping off bits of bone, but not yet getting to the marrow that I know must be there. Nobody knows what my real project is, because I don’t talk about the object of my contemplation. Conversation and collaboration are useful, but only at the periphery, where problems are still real and relevant, but indirect.

Of the thinkers I admire the most, I am convinced that many also have a “real project” that they are gnawing on, and I sometimes imagine that I have caught a glimpse of what their real project is.

But one doesn’t talk about these things, and Spencer-Brown’s advice is terrible advice for the majority of the population. For more than 99% of humanity, it is proper to esteem knowledge and discourage the vain contemplation of “truth“. Given the constraints that Spencer-Brown puts around contemplation, the risk of encouraging crackpots is high, and we don’t need to that, do we?


One of my favorite poems about the intersection of memory, identity, and death is “Remember” by Christina Rossetti:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

The poem starts out like the typical sentimental lover’s poem. But it veers breathtakingly with, “Yet if you should forget me for awhile…”.

The typical poem about death focuses on the transition between building memories with the beloved, and the point when new memories of the beloved are impossible. But Rossetti suggests a more important transition that might take place after the transition to the “silent land”. To paraphrase, “If you fail to remember me unceasingly after I’m gone, it is better to not remember me at all”. The treatment in Tuesday Morning is not as explicit, but could be interpreted the same way:

Turn your face from me
And I will cover myself with sorrow
Bring Hell down upon me
I will surrender my heart to sorrow
Bring Hell down upon me
And I will say goodbye tomorrow

But I knew that you
With your heart beating
And your eyes shining
Would be dreaming of me
Lying with you
On a Tuesday morning


This post is a rough sketch, triggered by a recent conversation with a friend about continuity of personal identity. Speculations about personal identity are typically triggered by the death of a loved one, or by some other intense damage to a relationship. Some of the issues involved are well-tread and boring, while others are more interesting.

1) Regarding the question, “What constitutes personal identity?”, the arguments are relatively boring to me. IEP outlines the basic arguments nicely. Parfit tries to sweep them all aside in one particular way. Nagasena and the Buddhist concept of Anatta try to sweep them all aside in an entirely different way. All of them are boring.

2) When people are contemplating these things, they are usually concerned with two completely separate but related questions: A) Is there a mechanism by which my consciousness might always be permitted/forced to awaken from sleep, or must/might my life eventually be extinguished forever? B) Between the periods of sleep, what constitutes and shapes who “I am”?

3) In my experience, most people place the highest priority on question “A”: Can/must the personal identity survive indefinitely? Some people want their personal identities to persevere forever (e.g. perhaps going to heaven, or perhaps cryogenically freezing their brains in hopes of eventually becoming uploaded to new computerized bodies), while others find hope in the concept of eventually extinguishing their personal identities (e.g. escaping the cycle of Samsara and attaining Nirvana). In my opinion, this question is quite boring, though. You don’t get much say in the matter, and if you do, your only influence over the matter is by answering question “B”.

4) We know a lot about question “B”, and we know that memory has a huge role to play. This side of the silent land, who you are is largely a function of your experiences and how you remember and interpret those experiences. Who you are is determined by (to use Rossetti’s metaphors) the people who held your hand, the people who told you of the future they’d plann’d, and the times you’d half turned to go, yet turning stayed. Regardless of how you answer question “A”, it’s how you answer question “B” that determines who you are when you cross the boundary into the silent land.

5) Based on the conclusions of #3 and #4, I think it is a mistake to focus on question “A”. However, some might protest that question “A” is the question of paramount importance, because they imagine that a specific answer to question “A” (e.g. uploading your brain to an immortal machine; or conversely, a perpetual transmigration of souls) would render irrelevant any concept of a transition to the “silent land”. In other words, they imagine that if they are immortal, then they always have the chance to reverse whatever course they are on and move their identities in a positive direction. This seems intuitively plausible, since we wake up fresh each morning and can choose each day to move our lives in a positive or a negative direction. To such people, it is absurdly arbitrary to posit a day when you awake and “it will be late to counsel then”. However, I find this argument to be likewise boring. Regardless of whether you wish for the singularity and whole-consciousness uploads, eternal transmigration of souls, or simply hope for life extension that allows you 10,000 years of new days rather than 100 — it is probably wishful thinking to assume that no persons will be trapped in local minima. If the answer to question “A” wants to render question “B” inferior, a lot of work needs to be done, and nobody has done that work.

6) While some questions are more interesting than others; all of these questions are relatively boring to me, and seem to be fueled by wishful thinking and narcissism. The more unique and interesting question is that posed by Rossetti’s second transition. Regardless of the mechanism of personal identity, let us assume that some persons get stuck in local minima or maxima and cannot budge their identities from a sticking point. Is this the end of the story? Or is there another factor in play? Once the person has been sucked into the stable state, can a moment of forgetfulness change the state? And whose forgetfulness, and whose state?

I don’t intend to explore that question here. Books could be written about question #6 alone. Books have been written about each of the other questions, too. My purpose here was just to explain the way I frame these issues in my mind, and where I see the most interesting puzzles to be.