Theories of What Makes You, You

by Tim Sommers

One time, this guy handed me a picture of him and said, ‘Here’s a picture of me when I was younger.’ Every picture is of you when you were younger.Mitch Hedberg

There’s synchronic identity, what makes you, you at a particular moment in time – say, now. And there’s diachronic identity, what makes you, you over time. For example, why are you now the same person as when you were twenty-five years old or five (if you are)? These two perspectives – synchronic and diachronic – are deeply interdependent, of course, but philosophers tend to focus on diachronic identity since what is essential to you being you is, presumably, whatever it takes for you to continue to exist. Here are some theories.

You are your soul.

The trouble with this theory is not that it usually has a religious basis. That might be trouble later, but initially the trouble is that it is not very helpful. I am my soul. So, what’s my soul? Is the soul some mysterious, ghostly thing or a Platonic form or is it just whatever is essential to who I am? If the answer is that the soul is whatever is essential to who I am, this seems like just a restatement of the question.

Keep in mind, the great innovation of Christianity was not the soul, an idea that’s been around at least since Plato and Aristotle (who thought we had three souls). The Christian innovation was bodily resurrection.

You are your ego.

The ego may just be the secular soul. Descartes’ version of the ego theory, the most influential, is that a person is a persisting, purely mental, thing. But like the soul it’s hard to unpack the ego in an informative way. It is whatever unifies our consciousness. We survive as the continued existence of a particular subject of experiences, and that explains the unity of a person’s life, i.e., the fact that all the experiences in this life are had by the same person. This is circular, of course. Further, on this view, what happens if I fall into a dreamless sleep? Or get hit on the head and black out? Go in and out of a coma? Am fully anesthetized? When I wake up and start having experiences again, how do I know I am the same ego? How do I know that the ego is a persistent thing at all? Later, we will see what Hume has to say about this.

In the meantime, we are going to need a better theory of the ego or soul before either is going to be useful as a theory of personal identity. Read more »

What are the odds?

by Jonathan Kujawa

In 2016, here and here at 3QD, we talked about some of the inherent paradoxes in democratic voting [1]. We discussed Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, along with related results like the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem. They tell us that there is no way to convert the individual preferences of the voters into a single group preference that doesn’t also conflict with some simple, commonsense guidelines that we can all agree are reasonable. Things like “No dictators.” And “If everyone prefers Candidate X to Candidate Y, then Candidate Y never beats Candidate X.”

Certainly, voters are sometimes irrationally motivated. I know of an otherwise reasonable mathematician who asked a colleague to vote on their behalf in a departmental chair election. Above all else, this mathematician did not want Faculty Member Z to be elected department chair. They gave their colleague two lists of all the eligible faculty in the department; each list was in a very carefully chosen order. The first list was ordered by the mathematician’s actual preference for who should be elected chair. This list was to be used only if Faculty Member Z wasn’t on the ballot. The second list was ordered according to the mathematician’s best 4D chess assessment of who was most likely to beat Faculty Member Z in a head-to-head election. That list would be used if Faculty Member Z was on the ballot. In the ideal election system, there should be no need for the second list. But strategic voting is very much a thing in elections.

You might assume such paradoxes are due to the vagaries of humanity. From what I can tell, most human minds are filled with a circus of chaos monkeys that are impossible to predict. Imagine describing the here and now to a 2016 version of yourself. Read more »

The case for American scientific patriotism

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Hans Bethe receiving the Enrico Fermi Award – the country’s highest award in the field of nuclear science – from President John F. Kennedy in 1961. His daughter, Monica, is standing at the back. To his right is Glenn Seaborg, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

John von Neumann emigrated from Hungary in 1933 and settled in Princeton, NJ. During World War 2, he contributed a key idea to the design of the plutonium bomb at Los Alamos. After the war he became a highly sought-after government consultant and did important work kickstarting the United States’s ICBM program. He was known for his raucous parties and love of children’s toys.

Enrico Fermi emigrated from Italy in 1938 and settled first in New York and then in Chicago, IL. At Chicago he built the world’s first nuclear reactor. He then worked at Los Alamos where there was an entire division devoted to him. After the war Fermi worked on the hydrogen bomb and trained talented students at the University of Chicago, many of whom went on to become scientific leaders. After coming to America, in order to improve his understanding of colloquial American English, he read Li’l Abner comics.

Hans Bethe emigrated from Germany in 1935 and settled in Ithaca, NY, becoming a professor at Cornell University. He worked out the series of nuclear reactions that power the sun, work for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1967. During the war Bethe was the head of the theoretical physics division of the Manhattan Project. He spent the rest of his long life working extensively on arms control, advising presidents to make the best use of the nuclear genie he and his colleagues had unleashed, and advocating peaceful uses of nuclear energy. He was known for his hearty appetite and passion for stamp collecting.

Victor Weisskopf, born in Austria, emigrated from Germany in 1937 and settled in Rochester, NY. After working on the Manhattan Project, he became a professor at MIT and the first director-general of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory that discovered many new fundamental particles including the Higgs boson. He was also active in arms control. A gentle humanist, he would entertain colleagues through his rendition of Beethoven sonatas on the piano.

Von Neumann, Fermi, Bethe and Weisskopf were all American patriots. Read more »

Gerrymander Unbound

by Jerry Cayford

Avi Lev, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A friend of mine covers his Facebook tracks. He follows groups from across the political spectrum so that no one can pigeonhole him. He has friends and former colleagues who, he figures, will be among the armed groups going door to door purging enemies, if our society breaks into civil anarchy. He hides his tracks so no one will know he is the enemy.

That trick might work for the humans, but artificial intelligences (AI) will laugh at such puny human deceptions (if artificial intelligence can laugh). When AI knows every click you make, every page you visit, when you scroll fast or slow or pause, everything you buy, everything you read, everyone you call, and data and patterns on millions like you, well, it will certainly know whom you are likely to vote for, the probability that you will vote at all, and even the degree of certainty of its predictions.

All of that means that AI will soon be every gerrymanderer’s dream.

AI will know not just the party registrations in a precinct but how every individual in a proposed district will (probably) vote. This will allow a level of precision gerrymandering never seen before. There is only one glitch, one defect: with people living all jumbled up together, any map, no matter how complex and salamander-looking, will include some unwanted voters and miss some wanted ones. To get the most lopsided election result possible from a given group of voters—the maximally efficient, maximally unfair outcome—the gerrymanderer has to escape the inconvenience of people’s housing choices. And since relocating voters is not feasible, the solution is to free districts of the tyranny of voter location. The truly perfect gerrymander that AI is capable of producing would need to be a list, instead of a map: a list of exactly which voters the gerrymanderer wants in each district. But that isn’t possible. Is it? Read more »

What Art Can Do

by Christopher Horner

Grasmere (Photo by author)

Why do we value art? I am going to suggest that a large part of the answer is to do with its unique power to disclose and convey areas of our lives unavailable to us though other means. Art, on this account, is a kind of communication, and kind of act: something performative – a communication that makes something happen, in a way that eludes ordinary discourse. 

By ‘ordinary’ here I mean the kind of communication delivered by language when it is used to convey concepts: ranging from the most banal everyday speech to the most rarefied theory. Of course, ordinary speech acts themselves have a performative quality too – we don’t just communicate information through language, but make things happen, make requests, (‘shut the door’, ‘the meeting is over’ ‘help me!’). Moreover we use our bodies, tone of voice, emphasis and more: and the conceptual content may not even be what matters, especially when something isn’t banal, but matters greatly: moments of grief or joy, for instance. A gesture, a tear, or just silence may be more eloquent than words. It is this ‘beyond’ in our imperfect communications, that hint at what art can do. Art aspires to a more perfect communication: one that takes us beyond the confines of the lonely self.  Read more »


by O. Del Fabbro

If a city could be an organism, then Kherson in Eastern Ukraine would be a sick body. For eight months, between March and November 2022, Kherson was occupied by Russian forces. Kidnapping, torture, and murder – in terms of violence and cruelty, Kherson’s citizens have seen it all. Today, even though liberated, the port city on the Dnieper River and the Black Sea is still being regularly bombarded: a children’s hospital, a bus stop, a supermarket. Even though freed, how could this city ever heal?

One of Kherson’s citizens is Andryi. As soon as the Russians left, Andryi and his friends started with humanitarian work. For months the former car mechanic had no job. He rather helped others. When the pastor of his church found out about Andryi’s skills to repair roofs, he gave him some money and assignments. “My friend and I started with a house in which an old grandmother and her son lived.” Before Andryi and his friend started their work, three different groups looked at the roof but did not dare to repair it, because the Russians were only four hundred meters away, on the other side of the Dnieper River, waiting to kill humanitarian aid workers. “We decided to do it, and we did it. Praise the Lord, nothing happened.” Three days later, the roof was finished.

While repairing roofs Andryi has been exposed, both indirectly or directly, to a variety of weaponry: mortars, snipers, rockets, you name it. “When we repaired roofs, artillery fire was constantly active. Once, we saw phosphorous bombs in the near distance, then we hid in the basement.” The last roof was the scariest experience. Some of the material that Andryi and his partner use is a plain white awning, easily detectable by the Russians. Being only one kilometer away, the Russians bombarded Andryi and his friend with mortars, but luckily, they missed. “That was scary, but they did a bad job in trying to hit us.” In total, Andryi counted twenty-six explosions. “It was frequent, loud, and very close.” When talking about his war experience, Andryi has, as many Ukrainians, a dry and succinct way of expressing himself. “You realize that you can get hit, when you hear the bomb exploding.”

Friends, family, donations via social media, the pastor, and the members of his church helped to buy materials such as nails, wood and so on, but at some point, Andryi and his friend ran out of money. He then simply helped the military by using his skills as a car mechanic. He built a heavy machine gun on the back of an old Rada, or repaired the sewage system of a village in the countryside near Kherson. Read more »

Exile + the Full Moon

by Ethan Seavey 

Exile is on my mind and there’s a large full moon above my head I cannot see through the clouds. 

I am part of a family of three exiles who are doing it again, recovering after exile, and working hard to stay together. Our shared communities have dropped us for the third time and it feels like I finally recognize the pattern we’ve always fallen into :

1) Find a community that embraces us because it excludes others; and 2) get rejected when we grow to learn that we have become the others.

When I came out as gay in 2015 my family stopped going to Church, specifically the one where we had been attending weekly (with few exceptions) for somewhere around a decade.

It was a personal decision for each one of us. It was an effort to support me. It was also a social decision. While this Church was more progressive than others, it was still a Catholic Church. It seemed to me that priests were required to spend a Sunday sermon every year talking about how being gay is a sin; sometimes hiding it behind the idea that being gay was not a sin so long as you never acted on it.

Many people within that Church remained close friends. They’d ask why we’d stopped attending and I was the reason. It didn’t distance most of our friends, but I remember my younger sibling was forbidden from spending time with one of their friends outside of the friend’s home, because the friend’s mom saw me as a bad influence. Read more »

Sapolsky vs Mitchell on Free Will

by Oliver Waters

Two popular books released this year have breathed new life into the ancient debate over whether we have free will.

In Free Agents, Kevin Mitchell argues that we do, and in Determined, Robert Sapolsky argues that we don’t. To be blunt, on the big issue at hand – Mitchell is right and Sapolsky is wrong.

Despite this, Sapolsky does make a compelling case however for not excessively condemning or praising people for their decisions. The sections of his book that focus on well-evidenced pathologies that drive criminal behaviour and why policymakers should take these into account are insightful and engagingly written.

The problem is that Sapolsky extrapolates from this to an outrageously untenable position:

“We are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment.”

Sapolsky mistakenly infers that because there are many factors beyond your control that influence your decision-making, those factors entirely caused your decision. But all that is needed for a reasonable concept of ‘free will’ to get off the ground is that part of the decision was within your control. This of course begs the question whether a meaningful entity called you actually exists, which has causal power beyond the sum its parts. Read more »

Ad Astraesthetics

by Nate Sheff

We all naturally take an interest in the night sky. Just last week, my fiancee and I attended an event put on by the Astronomical Society of New Haven. Without a cloud in the sky, near-freezing temperatures, and a new moon, the conditions were ideal for looking through telescopes the size of cannons. To see anything, you had to stand in line, in the cold, for your opportunity to look at something for a minute. 

A surprising number of people turned out for this opportunity. By the time we left, there had to be about a hundred people (and more likely arrived later), making up a good cross section of society. And they all enjoyed themselves. The most memorable attendee was a woman in front of us in line to see Jupiter. The astronomer at the telescope told her to look at the dark bands that are the eternal storms in the planet’s atmosphere.

“Wow,” she said, stepping away.

The astronomer asked, “Did you see the moons?”

“The moons?” She looked again. We could see them through the binoculars we brought: four points almost in a line near the planet, glittering in the dark.

“Those are moons?

That one piece of information transformed the appearance of the planet from a lonely island to a tidy neighborhood.

Immanuel Kant’s tombstone has a line from the Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Whether or not you agree with him on the moral law, you can’t fault him for his view of the stars. Read more »

Life In Lists

by Mary Hrovat

Image of columnar basalt at Devils Postpile National Monument, California
Columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument, California. Photo by Eric T. Gunther; shared under a Creative Commons license.

The other day I was looking up an anthropological discovery I’d seen mentioned online someplace. The discovery seemed a little dodgy upon closer inspection, but in my search I found the Wikipedia page List of places with columnar jointed volcanics. I wasn’t looking for information about volcanic rocks that have undergone columnar jointing, but I was happy that this wonderfully browsable list exists. 

When I hear the word lists, I tend to think of the kind that are perhaps necessary but rarely enjoyable: the shopping list (often incomplete, seldom structured well with regard to the layout of the grocery store) or the to-do list (possibly a bad idea altogether). There are also lists that make me feel like I’m being forced down the neck of a narrow funnel with small benefit to myself: anything that begins “Your application must contain the following” or “You may be eligible for this tax credit if any two of the following are true (but see also the table on page 129).” 

I’m also not fond of the lists encountered when seeking healthcare, although on rare occasions I’ve found them mildly entertaining. Once I was going down a list of symptoms to identify the ones I’ve experienced, and I asked my companion the difference between anxiety and nervousness. “If you have to ask…,” he said, smiling. “Oh yes, I’m going to check both boxes,” I said. “I was just curious.” A little further down the list, we puzzled over whether “dry mough” meant dry mouth or dry cough. In short, this list seemed a bit slapdash. Technical checklists should be the clearest and least ambiguous of all lists, but at least this one’s ambiguity was amusing. (Besides, it was an eye doctor’s office; if they really cared about my mough, they would have corrected that error long ago.) Read more »


Ron Amir. Bisharah and Anwar’s Tree, 2015. From the exhibition titled Doing Time in Holot.

C print.

“The work of Israeli artist Ron Amir exposes complex social situations that tend to stay outside our field of vision. Between 2014 and 2016, Amir photographed African asylum seekers living in the Holot Detention Center in the Negev, and this important project of politically engaged photography was the subject of his first solo exhibition at the Israel Museum. The publication accompanying the exhibition presents an album of Amir’s images and an analysis of his work by curator Noam Gal. Texts by Reut Michaeli of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Israel and by the eminent social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai extend the discussion to address the project’s national and global aspects.”

More here and here.

Fish’s Grief

by Mike Bendzela

The greatest of stories has no proper beginning, at least none that we can yet discern, but proceeds from a warm, shallow shore some 375 million years ago.

There a lobe-finned fish found a way to use its bony limbs to stand up under water. It was thus able to lift its head out of the murk and gaze upon new shores that its descendants would populate.

Down through seemingly endless iterations of change, these fins were further exapted for such tasks as slogging through mud, scurrying through grass, clambering up trees, plucking fruit, scribbling letters.

The story continues on a cool, northern island, in a place called Downe, in June of the year 1858. There one of this fish’s descendants, Charles Darwin–a travel-weary, physically ill, gentleman scientist–holds in his hand an envelope addressed from the island of Ternate in Indonesia. The enclosed missive will change his world–and everyone’s–forever.

Darwin is not ready for this blow. His infant son, Charles Waring Darwin, born with Down syndrome, is not doing well: the boy is infected with the bacterium that causes scarlet fever, the same disease that killed his older sister seven years ago.

After this girl, Anne, had finally succumbed to the disease, Darwin wrote that his wife Emma and he had buried “the joy of the household,” and he settled into a long sadness.

And now it is happening again. Read more »

“Your Ideals are a Luxury”?: Right-Wing Anti-Establishmentism in a mass society

by Mindy Clegg

There is an XKCD for almost every occasion!

In recent years, some of the most powerful people in our society have claimed to be beleaguered outsiders. The former president is just one of the many powerful, wealthy, privileged people who declared themselves victims of a society out to destroy them and their way of life, which we’re meant to understand represents that of “real” Americans. Despite experiencing an incredibly privileged life, they claim to be the ones who are victims of jackbooted leftist thugs. There seems to be a whole cottage industry of people who rake in money by the bucketload while claiming to speak truth to the oppressive liberal/marxist power structure. They claim to be the authentic voice of the American working class, unlike the coastal elites who have no understanding of “real” life, but of course, despite their obvious privilege, they do understand the struggles of the common man. How did we get here, where men who benefit most from our social structures, position themselves as the little guy? This comes from a longer history of political shifts in America and of the rise of mass cultural consumption as a means of political expression. As culture came to stand in for political rebellion, the far right sought to weaponize mass culture to sneak in far right, reactionary ideology via the back door. But their ability to embrace an outsider status is evidence of their own privilege, as being an outsider has a strong cultural cache in our current mass mediated environment. Read more »