Identity Confusion Syndrome

If you’re interested in issues to do with personal identity, and the conditions under which it does or does not endure, then you may want to check out:

You’re Being Tortured In The Morning

another new interactive activity at my Philosophy Experiments web site.

This one is (sort of) based on a journal article titled "The Self and the Future", by Bernard Williams, which first appeared in The Philosophical Review in April 1970. It also references, Stephen Coleman’s, article, “Thought Experiments and Personal Identity”, which is well worth checking out.

As always any feedback about the new activity much appreciated. I read everything, even if I don’t always respond. The logic of this one is a little tricky, especially in the context of an argument I call “The first objection”, so hopefully you’ll let me know if you spot any obvious (or not so obvious) mistakes.

(Apologies if you’ve seen this before.)

Leave a comment ?


  1. Cool as always.

    I had a problem at the stage where The Evil Dr. Coine told me that my mind was going to be wiped. While part of me was tempted to say I was reassured by this fact, I was held back from saying I was reassured because this is tantamount to him saying that he’ll be killing me. Hence, I thought of all my unfinished projects, the people I care about that I’d be leaving behind, etc., and I was hardly reassured at all. Regardless of whether or not the post-mindwipe person is Me, I am not reassured.

    I think I would click “I am reassured” if I survived in some other form — say, a robot body. And that my life in this robo-body wouldn’t impact the sorts of things I want to do with my life.

    Alternately, I might click “reassured” if, despite my mindwipe, my projects and things I care about were all magically satisfied. So that novel I wrote in high school turned into a bestseller, my random notes on Berkeley given approving nods at Oxford, my parents consoled and my cats taken care of, etc.

  2. Thanks Ben.

    There is that difficulty with the first scenario. Williams, of course, recognises that there are good reasons to be fearful in the Dr Coine scenario which don’t have anything to do with the prospect of torture (as you say, as it is presented, you are effectively being killed).

    Thing is, I tried to make it clear I wanted people to focus only on the torture aspect of the reassurance. Of course, in reality, you can’t separate out stuff like that (and maybe not conceptually either), but I hope that most people will make the distinction anyway! 🙂

    It is an issue, though. Unfortunately there isn’t really anything I can do about it without giving the game away from the beginning.

  3. Aw, nuts. I was hoping for a robot body!

    -[:( ]=|=8

  4. Tell you what, Ben, I’ll take a note of your IP address, and next time I put one of these things together, I’ll make sure you – and you alone – end up with a robot body. 🙂

  5. Well – I’m not 100% sure this is rigourously logically or: Not.

    In scenario 1 – beyond effectively being killed there’s always the chance Dr. Evil could be wrong, foul up the swap and then it will hurt – a lot.

    In 2 – I’m no longer home having gone to the USVI’s with my cool million and maybe even a new hot bod and it didn’t hurt a bit!

    kidding aside – a good experiment.

  6. Thanks Dana. Dr Evil would never mess up, though. Yeah, I could do with a new hot bod. To hell with the other guy getting tortured, I say! 🙂

  7. Jeremy,

    I think you’re a little too hard on me for saying I feel reassured by Dr. C’s promise to make me not remember, at the moment of torture. On the first page it says “significantly” reassured, but on the next pages it just says “reassured.” That’s what I went with.

    I think it’s reasonable to have a small reduction in fear, because if I won’t remember I’m going to be tortured until the torture starts, it could very well be because memory erasure is going to take place in the next few minutes. So I’m not going to have to have a sleepless night, dreading the torture. He’s telling me I (at least might) have fewer hours of misery ahead of me than I first thought.

    So: the memory erasure does make my fate slightly better, and it’s reasonable for me to feel a little reassured. Of course that doesn’t mean I think the actual period of torture will be any different than I first thought.

    If you don’t want the reader to think at all about the period preceding the actual torture, maybe you should flat out say that. Nothing in the intro. seems to say I shouldn’t take it into account.

  8. Thanks Jean. Ralph – who comments here occasionally – made the same point.

    I’m not sure I buy it! 🙂

    Don’t you think that if this were a real situation then any reassurance one might experience as a result of the knowledge that one might not have anticipatory fear would just be swamped by the fear that would occur because one knows one is going to be tortured?

    Certainly, Coleman takes it as a given that you’re not going to get reassurance at that stage (even though he disagrees with Williams about what the thought experiment will show).

    But having said that, I’ll probably alter that beginning bit. A big enough percentage of people have said they’d be reassured at that stage (though still only a small percentage) to suggest it’s not obviously a non-starter.

    Also, I think I was intending that the “significantly” bit on the first page would function to define what I meant by “reassurance”. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but I think that was the idea. But maybe it wasn’t clear.

    Thanks again!

  9. I suppose my only objection is that since I am still connected to my thoughts and I still recognize “myself” I would still “remember” the body that use to be mine and in “my mind” it is still “my” body and I can do what I want with it.

    Recognizing that, if I tortured my old body, it wouldn’t matter much to me because the other person’s thoughts are not connected to it either so why not reap the rewards?

    After all, I wouldn’t feel a thing and isn’t that always the most horrifying circumstance of being tortured, feeling the pain?

    Unless I read it all wrong…

  10. but, Jeremy: per your 8:44 above re: S-2 fallacy –
    “To [hek] with the other guy getting tortured…”
    …it’s actually “you” getting hurt, which is altruistic – isn’t it? =D~

    Also – as an applied scientist I happen to know that there’s no such thing as a no-fail process… so I believe Dr. C. could potentially foul up, point finale. So I guess my objection to S-1 is similar to Ben’s.

    Identity and belief – interesting.

  11. Jeremy, It seems to me that an hour of torture really is better than an hour of torture plus 12 hours of dreading it. Both awful, but the second worse. Even the hour itself could go worse because of all the anticipatory dread. (Then again, some might say knowing it’s going to happen gives you a chance to read up on Buddhist pain-control techniques…)

    Maybe the “significantly” helps. Then again, the people who feel reassured by Dr. C’s telling them ALL their memories will be lost are not really “significantly reassured”. After all, it’s a very bad thing to lose all your memories, even if (some think) that would make being tortured not as bad.

    Tricky how to word these things…

    But on the whole, fun quiz. I managed to escape with my self-esteem not too badly scathed. I’m among the 27% who favor the original brain, not the brain loaded with their memories.

    Actually, I think the best theory about these things says in the final scenario, the erased brain is not me, and neither is the brain loaded with my memories. They’re both not me, but still I might rather give the better fate to my brain, for old time’s sake. (That’s what I said.)

    Or I might rather give the better fate to the other brain that has my memories, because I generally feel more kindly to people a lot like me. I think the choice you make does not necessarily reveal which individual you believe is you–you could have a preference, yet think neither is you.

  12. @Dana, so are you taking into account the “phantom limb” syndrome? That although the body is not physically attached to your mind, you are still likely to be tortured based on the recognition of your body?

    People who have lost a limb say that they can still ‘feel’ it.

    Fascinating! That is perplexing.

  13. Jeremy,
    I’m still of the opinion I expressed earlier about the first stage of the experiment which Jean agrees with for the same reason.
    I read Coleman’s article and even Williams’ (interesting to see he only was offering 100K) and what bothers me, and which I gather Dana deals with above is that it’s assumed if amnesia and foreign memories and thinking abilities, and whatever else are transferred to the brain, the person in question no longer exists, or perhaps resides now in some other person’s body and has no connection to the original body. This is certainly not perfectly obvious to me. Aside from some social scientist’s hand waving, is there any evidence this would be the case?

  14. Ralph

    The 100k – don’t forget the original article was written nearly 40 years ago.

    Well, there can’t easily be empirical evidence – for obvious reasons! But it’s not really a matter of assumptions here. These thoughts experiments are (partly) designed to mine our intuitions about these issues.

    So if you think the psychological continuity is key, then you’re going to think that amnesia, foreign memories, etc., mean the death of the self (because there is no psychological continuity). If you think that bodily continuity is key, then you`re not going to think ammensia, etc., mean the death of the self.

    Part of the point of Williams’s article is to show that we have both these sorts of intuitions (though I agree with Coleman that actually his reworking of the standard thought experiment doesn’t show what he thinks it shows).

    And, of course, it’s possible that neither of these things – psychological or bodily continuity – are enough on their own for personal survival (which is Jean’s point above, I think).

  15. yet [Per Jean} “which either is you.”

    [per Sandra] $Million plus please, ma’am. Phantom limb – no. Per the criteria of Dr. c. I’m enjoying the sunshine and surf.

    It’s me but not me. =D

    Actually – you’re right – I’d be bummed for the rest of her life… or his life… seesh – never thought of that…
    oh -Shi!$%^

  16. “Professor Coine tells you that when the time comes to torture you, he’ll ensure you have no memory of having been told in advance you were going to be tortured (it’ll be a surprise that the torture is about to occur).”

    I don’t think that’s clear. At what point do I lose my memory? Do you mean:

    Professor Coine tells you that at the end of your conversation with him, he’ll ensure you have forgotten it, and will have no memory of having been told in advance you were going to be tortured (it’ll be a surprise that the torture is about to occur).”

    Or do you mean, “Professor Coine tells you that shortly before the time comes to torture you, he’ll ensure you have no memory of having been told in advance you were going to be tortured (it’ll be a surprise that the torture is about to occur).”

    I’m assuming the first, but it really isn’t clear. And if it is the first, your claim that is “inexplicable” that it makes no difference to your fear is, well, inexplicable! You say “It suggests you think it wouldn’t be a problem if somebody turned up at your door right now and announced they were about to torture you.” Of course it doesn’t! The question was whether “it significantly reduces your fear levels”, not whether it would make the whole thing “no problem”.

    It’s also weird later that you say “It’s hard to make sense of that response”, that response being the one that one is not reassured by the loss of self implied by brain-wiping. The trouble here is that two very different things are competing: it may be reassuring to be told you won’t remember but it is troubling to be told you will no longer exist. So on balance, one may be not reassured.

    Overall, this is really interesting but your analysis is very opinionated – i.e. it relies on you taking positions which many philosophers would think odd and problematic, rather than simply pointing out inconsistencies or tensions.

  17. @Julian – I’m remaining true to the original presentation, where it isn’t specified at what time one will lose one’s memory that one has been warned.

    But, as I’ve already said in this thread, I just don’t buy the argument (it’s also been made by Jean and Ralph here) that there would be any reassurance on hearing that one won’t be having anticipatory fear.

    I think one’s reaction to hearing this news would be – “What the hell do I care about that, I’m still going to be tortured!?” In other words, I think fear of the torture would simply flood any reassurance – which I’d argue one couldn’t really suppose would be *significant* even if one did think the absence of anticipatory fear was relevant here – one might otherwise get as a result of knowing that one (possibly) wasn’t going to be up all night worrying about being tortured.

    Of course, I understand that you guys think otherwise! 🙂

    but it is troubling to be told you will no longer exist. So on balance, one may be not reassured.

    Yes, I know. But the instructions are very clear that we are only talking here about reassurance vis-a-vis the torture (for precisely the reason you give). See my first response (to Ben Nelson) in this thread.

    I’m not sure about the “opinionated” thing. You’d have to say where you thought it was opinionated, rather than just me telling people what Williams and Coleman had to say.

  18. One more point: Don’t forget, the questions here aren’t asking whether you’d have lower fear levels in total. They are asking whether you’d be reassured on being told some information x about what is going to happen.

    So, it’s entirely possible that one would not be reassured on hearing that one is not going to have anticipatory fear, but that actually one would have less fear in total (across the whole experience) as a result of the absence of anticipatory fear (how much less fear depending on when your memory of having been told in advance you were going to be tortured was wiped).

    The questions here aren’t asking about total levels of fear. They’re asking about how you’d react to each piece of news as you heard it.

  19. And just in case people are interested:

    16.46% of the 3246 people who have so far completed the activity state they would be reassured on hearing they weren’t going to have anticipatory fear (for at least some portion of time).

    So it’s a small, but not insignificant, proportion.

    I’m probably going to alter the way the game responds to that choice (though maybe not – I do like to keep things a bit… feisty).

  20. Jeremy,
    When I know something “bad” is going to happen to me in the immediate future the foremost feelings of fear, anxiety, anger and whatever else are directed toward the event itself, but there is also a part of what I feel that has to do with the time that has to be endured with this knowledge. Proportionately it might be tiny, but it will be some relief to know I don’t have to agonize over it until the actual event. People put off going to doctors all the time partly because they don’t want to be told about something serious they might have. Do they think “it’s” going to go away? I suppose partly, but also they don’t want to have to spend time enduring the knowledge.
    Maybe it has to do with the degree of stoicism one is capable of.

  21. Ralph

    Sure, I accept that point (it’s part of what drives my hypochondria: I don’t so much dread pain, death, etc., but rather the fact that I suspect I’ll become consumed with the anticipation – for non-rational reasons, given that I don’t actually much fear pain and death).

    But there are two points here:

    1. The “proportionately it might be tiny” is significant because the activity defines reassurance as a “significant” reduction in fear levels (though I accept Jean’s point that there might be some ambiguity here):

    2. I think the dynamic changes with the immediacy and severity of the threat. Anticipatory fear is proportionately much more significant if we’re not talking about something such as being tortured (i.e., having extreme pain inflicted upon us) tomorrow.

  22. “The questions here aren’t asking about total levels of fear. They’re asking about how you’d react to each piece of news as you heard it.”

    But also: “You should treat the things you’re told as being cumulative. At each stage, you should indicate whether you’re feeling reassured in light of everything you’ve been told, not just the latest piece of information.”

    It’s very hard to keep in mind all the “rules” of this one! Given that, it’s then very tough to analyse people’s results as though they really should have memorised (because once past the first page you can’t check them) and followed the rules precisely. You say “the instructions are very clear” but there are lots of them, and it’s asking a lot for people to read, remember and note the implications of the precise wording. (And they’re not always very clear, otherwise you wouldn’t be getting comments by people who are clearly not thick!)

    You also say: “I’m not sure about the ‘opinionated’ thing. You’d have to say where you thought it was opinionated, rather than just me telling people what Williams and Coleman had to say.”

    Well when you just state that a response is “inexplicable”, when many philosophers think quite the opposite, you’re being opinionated – even if that is also the opinion of Williams and Coleman, which if it is, isn’t made clear when you issue the judgement.

    It’s no good just saying: “I just don’t buy the argument”. It’s not about whether you buy it or not! The very fact it;s contentious shows that your analysis is based on one of a number of possible readings, and is not just pointing out something “inexplicable”.

  23. @Julian

    Sure, but those two things aren’t in tension (or at least the point I was trying to make doesn’t contain a tension).

    I was just trying to say that it’s asking whether one feels reassured about the prospect of being tortured having just been told something (in other words, whether any new piece of information will make you feel less fearful there and then about what’s going to happen). It’s true that you should treat the information as being cumulative, but it’s still only asking about the prospect of torture (not anything else you might be worried about).

    But yes, the instructions are quite complicated. But it isn’t true that people always have to check back. Exactly because the instructions are complicated, etc., the activity reminds people of what’s required as they go along (if it thinks that some response doesn’t quite make sense).

    It’s not about whether you buy it or not!

    Oh sure. It is opinionated as it goes along. But it’s much more neutral when it actually gets to the analysis stage. It’s done that way intentionally.

  24. @Jean

    Then again, some might say knowing it’s going to happen gives you a chance to read up on Buddhist pain-control techniques…

    I had a thought about this point while I was running today. If one were actually in that situation, it’s possible that the knowledge that one was not going to remember having been warned might be profoundly disturbing. The reason is broadly as you suggest: it would mean that you’d know that the moment your memory of having been warned was erased, you’d have no chance of avoiding your fate, no chance to plan, to anticipate, etc.

    I think even if we “knew” that we couldn’t avoid our fate, it’s sort of hard wired into us to cling on to the hope that maybe we can do something about it (until “learned helplessness” kicks in, at any rate).

  25. Okay, in line with popular demand, I have tweaked the activity so that it is less sceptical of the response that people would be reassured if they knew they weren’t going to remember having been warned they were going to be tortured.

    I have also added in a further reminder that by “reassured”, we’re talking about a significant reduction in fear.

    And to think there are people out there who think I’m not reasonable! Tsk! 😉

    Thanks guys. Your feedback is useful even if I don’t always agree.

  26. I wasn’t out running Jeremy, but I too thought about this whole thing a bit off and on through the day (the first Christmas party of the season after-effects not with standing)…

    per ‘the Buddhist pain-control techniques’ sub-thread, agency and learned helplessness.

    I was wondering what the Buddha or a Gandhi would *do* faced with these dilemmas…

  27. Dana – I think the logic of Gandhi’s philosophy would require that he willingly submit to being tortured in order to awaken the humanity in his adversary through his suffering:

    …if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man. Suffering is the badge of the human race, not the sword.

    Trouble is, it wouldn’t do any such thing.

  28. @ Jeremy per Gandhi’s “Suffering is the Badge of the human race…”

    and you did say Coine had a barely functioning conscience…

    so – the approach you suppose Gandhi would take might actually prevail… too late for Gandhi – but not for the rest of us.

    My thought was that Gandhi – or the Buddha; would refuse to cooperate and effectively transfer the choice to annihilate, or torture, one person or the other, fully to Coine. They would neither fear nor duck fate and their identities, in their view, would be intact.

  29. Jeremy,
    One last question. In all of this the thought and other mind operation switching seems to be limited, i.e. it doesn’t extend to complete consciousness swapping of the sort one might expect if brains and spinal cords are switched. Rereading the way Coleman sets up the experiment seems of the former type. I assume if he did it the way I’m reading it, it’s because he doesn’t want to worry about impossibilities. Am I wrong? If not, then the limited switching around of brain functions shouldn’t substantially reduce anyone’s dread of the forthcoming torture. Even if there isn’t absolute certainty that the original owner of body A still is in possession of that body and will feel any pain administered to it, it’s at least highly questionable. Questionable enough to keep a person terrorized.

  30. I lost it when we had to do the Pussy Eating again – been there, done that.
    And “they” didn’t like it when I wanted to kill my old body. I think my mind is me, not my body. I mean, if you said I had to transplant my mind into a 80 y o woman I may have a problem with that – there’s a lot my younger body wants to do, and I’d like to have those memories of those experiences, but if its mind life or body death, then I’ll risk senility and all the other old age issues – hey it may not be a woman! – can you put me into a dog? I’m always wondering what the hell my dog is thinking about… or a man!! Ick. At least I’d be able to clear up Elaine’s observation “I don’t know how you guys walk around with those things”…

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