Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The "You are Here Conundrum"

The gears are still turning after the Large-Scale Structure post.  And since my blog is maxed out on paradoxes for the moment, I'm not calling this a paradox, but the "You are Here Conundrum."  

It's probably Philosophy 101 material (included in the second semester mind/brain mid-term) but I still find the following question to be fascinating and worth some chin scratching.

The conundrum is this:  At what scale do you become "you"?  Or, rephrasing, is it ever possible to point and say with certainty, "You are here"?

Keeping in mind the discussion of pixels and photomosaics , follow me in this thought experiment.  First, look at your finger.  Now look closer...closer...closer!  Look close enough so  that you're on the atomic scale and can see a hydrogen atom within your finger (OK, use a scanning tunneling microscope if your eyesight is poor.  But don't get whiny with me if you don't have an STM.  Remember this is a thought experiment. Just make one.   Also remember I'm not a philosopher, so follow at your risk.)

Alright, so now you're looking at an individual hydrogen atom in your finger.  I ask the question, "Is that atom you?"  Clearly you would say, "No, that's not me, it's just an atom.  I could easily loose that atom and I would still be me."  I would say, "Correct."

Now reverse zoom* a bit and look at the organic molecule which that hydrogen atom is part of.  I ask the same question, "Is that you?"  Certainly not, it's just a molecule.  It's in you but it is not "you".

Reverse zoom to the cellular level.  That single cell is not "you" either. 

Now get rid of the STM, and reverse zoom to the view where you can see your entire finger.  That finger is still not you.  You're starting to feel it is a part of "you", but you could loose that finger in  a vicious opossum attack and still consider that "you" are "you" because "you" are not the finger.  

Now zoom out to where you can see all of you and the people around you in the Starbucks** in which you're now sitting***.  Take a picture of the scene.  Look at the picture and point to yourself.  You are clearly in the cafe.  I can easily say, "You are here" and you would agree.

Here's where the conundrum rears it's ugly (?) head.  Somewhere in between the finger level zoom and the Starbucks level  zoom  "you" become "you".  But where and what is the boundary between you'ness**** and not-you'ness?  

Zeno might be making a cameo again (curse him!) because as you reverse zoom from the atomic scale through microscopic scale to macroscopic scale you first must reverse zoom half way between "not you" and "you".  Then you must reverse zoom half way again from "not you" to "you".   Yet at some point, you cross a boundary and you say, "this physical stuff definitely contains me" and "I am here!"  And I could point and say, "You are here!"

People familiar with mind/brain philosophy will probably pipe up right now and say, "Why not run the experiment starting with a hydrogen atom within the brain instead of the finger? Afterall, that is most likely where your personality resides."  And I say to them, "Excellent idea!  Why didn't I think of that?"  Then they would say, "Because I'm a philosopher and you're not!"  And then I'd hang my head a bit.  Fearing my new conundrum is doomed. [Hey!!! It's not polite to cheer wildly at this point.  Stop it!!  I'm bummed out.  Sheesh why not rub some lemon and salt on that wound while you're at it!] 

But then I throw my chest out in renewed hope, because the same problem exists even if you use the brain as the starting point for your reverse zoom.    Whenever one says, "I am here", I'm going to say, "OK, but let's zoom in just a tad."  And if there is still confidence, I'll suggest zooming in a bit more, then more, then more, until you say, "Nope, that neuron is not me.  You've zoomed too far in." 

Then I'll zoom out, just a touch.  And repeat.   

Fortunately, the zoom control in this thought experiment is infinitely accurate and we can zoom at just the tiniest increment if we've gone too far in or out.  And as we get closer and closer to the boundary, you're going to eventually throw up your hands in the air***** and proclaim with a very frustrated shout, "You want to know where I am??  I'm at the end of my dagnabbity rope!!!"

And then I'll buy you an imaginary double tall carmel latte in the imaginary Starbucks because you are here, just as confounded as me.

The Fine Print
*For reliably thought-provoking comments, Rocket Scientist is now officially dubbed "Lady Blog Fodder" by TSON.   Her response to the Large-Scale Structure post sparked this reverse zoom conundrum.  This honorarium typically carries with it the right to learn the secret of Newton, but she has found the very idea to be not even remotely interesting.  So the offer is rescinded.  But her blog is remotely interesting (no, wait, that doesn't sound right)  and well worth your time.

**Thanks for the sponsorship Starbucks!

***Thought experiments are great because teleportation is easy.

****Not to be confused with Enos on The Dukes of Hazard.

*****Or just throw up.


  1. It's me of the remotely interesting blog again.

    This is a blog of an old question (sorry, you can't have this one): how much and what makes one an individual? In many ways, this very question is at the heart of the question on abortion (just to give you an idea of the can of worms you started) because, if a single cell isn't "you" or not enough braincells to be self-aware isn't "you", then the argument against the morality of abortion loses it's strength. (I'm pro-choice, by the way, and completely immaterially).

    It's because we can't define that point that this is interesting as an exercise much like those math postulations where every distance can be subdivided "infinitely" and then leading to different sizes of infinity (for instance, there are twice as many points in the infinity of whole numbers vs even numbers and an infinity times more numbers in real numbers than whole numbers). But that's another discussion, too.

    The difference with this discussion is that there are real life implications and a great deal of reasonable questions and potential issues involved with this one. If someone has brain surgery that alters his personality, is he still him or someone else? What if there's no appreciable difference in personality but difference in capability? Where's the line? What about the guy who forget overthing in a couple of minutes?

    This question can go so many different directions, the mind boggles. And all of them are dependent on self-awareness (not just intelligence) as well as awareness by others. Because self-awareness can't tell you if you're the same person you always were - and neither can anyone else. At least not until we find a definition of each person's individuality.

    Alright, I've done my part in providing blog fodder (and feel free to return the favor).

  2. GK Chesterton has a great analogy that I'll borrow because it fits so well with my "discovery" of this conundrum. It is like an early European explorer who sets out to discover the new world, but gets turned around in a horrible storm, looses his bearings and ends up landing in Liverpool, England and planting his flag where thousands have trod for thousands of years.

    I hadn't thought as far ahead as you on this, Stephanie, but I can see where this is not just a can of worms, but the Costco 24 pack carton of worms! (Which is actually a really good value if you have room to store them somewhere).

    Your reference on personality and self-awareness seems to be the heart of the matter for me. Certainly in regards to the abortion issue, but also in regards to biotechnology. "That Hideous Strength" is an excellent book by CS Lewis where, in part, the severed head of a dead scientist is brought back to life in an type of incubator with tubes and wires for "life" support. The head "wakes" up and realizes that he is just a head. It is on the creepy side, but very interesting in terms of where the personality or "self" resides. I imagine that it will not be too long (within the 21st century?) where a brain is fully integrated and supported artificially, outside of a body. At that point the can of worms becomes a shipping container of worms I suppose.

  3. You'll be *stunned* to know I have a short story pertinent to this discussion, too, that happens to be on the net already.

    Getting spooked yet? *eyebrow wiggle*

  4. [Hoisting jaw from floor after hearing about the short story...]

    Actually it's not spooky. Because I get the impression you write and have written a truckload. In fact, I'll be stunned if you don't have a short story about my next post: genetically engineered broccoli crossed with a skink. Well?

    OK. Now I'm stunned.

    The Rachel/Steven story is interesting and displays well the frustration that humans have putting personalities into machines. Because human personalities aren't programs, any program will fail to be human-like.

    Going back to your point about abortion (with wild, shot-in-the-dark abandon you might have guessed that I'm "pro-life") the question seems to be changed from "where are you" to "when are you". In the "You Are Here" consideration it is a spatial boundary that is fuzzy in pinpointing one's location. With the question of fetal development, it is a temporal boundary that is difficult to pin down. In determining one's location for "You are Here" it helps to have a reverse zoom that is infinitely sensitive. But for the question of "when do you become you?" it would help to have a time machine where you can go back and forward in picoseconds increments to determine the boundary in time in which "you" pop into existence and begin. Got one in NASA by any chance? Of course you'll say no, because if NASA did then you couldn't admit it to the general public. I guess it is your secret and we're even.

    Let's trade You find out the secret of Newton and I get a tour of the NASA time machine.

  5. Don't be silly. If NASA had a time machine, they'd go back in time and pump von Braun's brain. Or bring him here.

  6. [Googling "von Braun" so I can sound intelligent when I make a quick retort].

    Ah yes! Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr[1] von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) would be a terrific addition to NASA. Because he's a German rocket physicist and astronautics engineer, who became one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the United States. Wernher von Braun is sometimes said to be the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century.

    [Any resemblance this post has to Wikipedia could be strictly coincidental]

  7. (Psst. I already knew who he was. You forgot to add something clever or a propos so I'd be impressed with your retort.)


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