Re: PHILOSOPHY: It's All Shifting Patterns

Hal Finney (
Tue, 28 Jan 1997 10:29:34 -0800

David Musick, <>, writes:
> There are aspects of ourselves which change very quickly, such as the sounds
> we hear or the sights we see; colors and tones rise and fall, shifting with
> each moment; thoughts come and go, emotions surge and fade. But there are
> other aspects which change more slowly; our personalities develop into
> somewhat stable habits of thought and action, changing, certainly, but
> changing slowly. The basic patterns of human thinking and culture have
> persisted through many generations, our language and customs being passed from
> parent to child, maintaining their *basic* forms, even as they mutate in
> important ways. Other aspects, such as the chemical processes of our cells;
> the duplication of DNA, the formation of protiens, the constant metabolism;
> these processes change *much* more slowly; the same basic *pattern* has
> spanned millions of generations. Even slower to change is the behavior of our
> atoms; they've been doing the same familiar dance for billions of years,
> altering their pattern of action very little, if any, since they first formed
> and settled into their habitual ways. The Deep Regularities of Physics, so
> deep and so regular that we call them Laws, seem to change the slowest of all,
> if indeed *at* all, the slow background pattern underlying all the other,
> dancing patterns we call our universe.

This is a poetic picture but I think it brings in too many layers to be
useful in thinking about what our identity is and what it means to die
or stop. Changes to atoms, changes to the way DNA duplicates itself,
changes to the designed metabolism of cells, changes between generations,
are not relevant to my identity. It does not matter in any way whether
an earlier generation (or another person today, for that matter) used
the same rules as I do. These changes are of another type than the
changes which take place within my brain and body as I go through life.

> So perhaps it *does* make some sense to say that there is someone *having*
> experiences, since our slower changing aspects, like our personalities,
> *persist* as the momentary sensations and thoughts flutter around them like
> flies around elephants. Is the personality the same pattern as the momentary
> experiences? Not really. There is no clear *division* between them, but they
> change at different rates; they live on different scales of time. They
> interact and shape each other to some degree, and they are part of the same
> overall pattern of existence, but they each have their own distinct features.
I think it's interesting that you don't mention the one mental
aspect that many people have focussed on as the be-all and end-all of
identity: memory. I have heard it said that as long as my memories
of the present day are preserved, I can be said to retain my identity,
even if my personality and my sensory organs change radically. Memory is
not exactly a process. It is more like a database which the processes
within our minds can access. It doesn't really fit into this model
of the brain being composed (solely?) of a range of fast-changing and
slow-changing aspects.

> But what about death? What happens to us *then*? Much of the complex pattern
> that we are disappears, patterns which rose and fell, like our momentary
> sensations and thoughts. To the slower-changing patterns, such as the
> personality, the rising and falling of sensations and thoughts is commonplace
> and hardly disturbing. To even slower-changing patterns, such as culture and
> the basic metabolism of humanity, the rising and falling of personalities and
> individual bodies is common-place and rarely disturbing.

Culture and basic metabolism do not experience emotions! They are not
conscious actors. Here is another way I think your model breaks down.
You are trying to see a continuum of phenomena when in fact there is
a sharp dividing line between human consciousness and these larger
scale phenomena. So of course the basic metabolism of humanity is not
disturbed by the rising and falling of personalities. It isn't disturbed
by anything; it is not an agent to which the notion of "being disturbed"
can apply.

> Our personalities, of course, want to persist as long as possible. They do
> not want to die. Of course, they will inevitably change over time, and given
> enough time to change, they may become transformed into something quite
> *different*. This type of steady changing is not really all that troubling to
> the personalities;

(Actually a lot of people are very troubled by steady change if it goes on
long enough. Just yesterday we had a posting suggesting that sufficient
change was tantamount to death.)

> There are only patterns, shifting. Some change faster than others, dancing
> upon the underlying slowness. The patterns relate to each other, forming new
> patterns, often growing in complexity, often shifting suddenly into other
> patterns. We, ourselves, are shifting patterns, a part of the whole,
> elaborate, interconnected pattern. Certain aspects of ourselves are transient
> and ephemeral, while the deeper aspects are more lasting. The constant flow
> of patterns; existence

Again, this is poetic and valid in a vague way, but I don't think it is
that useful. There may be patterns at many levels, but I can still draw
a line which separates the patterns that make up my identity from those
which represent culture and metabolism. Likewise even within my own
mind I don't think there is necessarily a continuum of changing patterns.
It could be that there are several distinctly different rates of change
for each of the different functional components of the mind. Each one
would be tuned by evolution to that rate which is most appropriate to
that kind of functionality. My introspective skills are not perceptive
enough to be sure, though!