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.