This post was very helpful to me. Thanks, Robin!

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I find people interesting, when they are unpredictable. Sure there is some common interest involved, that forms a relationship, but it is important to me to be surprised each time I talk to a friend. Why have friends otherwise?

Making explanatory stories about anyone (including yourself) is a highway to hell attachment. There is a whole "Zen Buddhism" about going in the opposite direction. To quote some more pop: "Self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is the answer."

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I was blown away by this post. Not because it was provocative but for the hubris. "A Theory of Identity" implies something unified, that draws fully on research and which answers existing questions in a coherent manner. You make a small comment about identity, one that barely touches on the vast body of knowledge about the subject. "Theory" is hardly the right word. Hubris.

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I’m very impressed with Robin’s theory of identity (good to see it being developed further!) and I too have come to similar conclusions, that consciousness is the ‘narrative center of gravity’.

I am known am an ‘eccentric’, and true to form, I have come up a theory so astounding you could put a strait-jacket on it and call it insane ;) In fact my theory is so astounding that I dare not post it anywhere, least I face instant moderation and risk being labeled crazy forever.

But I will say this. There’s anthropic considerations at work; I think there’s just a bit too much which is too convenient about everything that’s happened in transhumanism. And then we see three geniuses (Hanson, Yudkowsky, Bostrom) each with three different identities or ‘characterizations’

R.Hanson is obsessed ‘who we really are’ (our current human identity) – Symbolic Logic

E.Yudkowsky is obsessed with ‘the means to go where we are going’ (our decision making powers) – Bayesian Induction

N.Bostrom is obsessed with ‘the map of where we are going’ (the narrative of our purpose) – Analogy Formation

3 levels, 3 geniuses. Strange? You bet!

Then there is this bizarre piece of trivia: Research shows that references to the number ‘27’ are inexplicably popping up in narrative fiction and films far beyond the chance level, relative to other numbers (perhaps this is most vividly demonstrated by the big police car in the sci-fi classic ‘Blade Runner’ with the big ‘27’ on the front). Why?

Something is seriously frigging weird with the universe man! I shall say no more. Except that my time on internet message boards taught me my real identity - not that of a scientist, but of a science fiction writer ;)

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Great discussion.

I would recommend reading Joyce's Ulysses

IMHO, it is as profound of study of "identity" as any.

Also, I would suggest approaching this matter from a biological perspective.

In particular, I believe much of what shapes one's disposition in life is the genetic/chemical concoction we are "blessed" (or cursed) with from the beginning.

But also, as we progress through life, these levers of emotion can change dramatically from external and internal forces alike, including some of which are quite natural and highly evolved.

For instance, Robin notes this concept of "story" or narrative we project onto ourselves and others. I would argue this narrative can be quite fluid, accidental, and often "irrational/illogical". There is a reason (biologically) most people do not have perfect, video recording-type memory.

Anyhow, Human Culture is one gigantic collective identity. ;-)


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"Finding yourself" is a preoccupation of some eastern cultures as well, but they tend to go about it differently. There is more of an emphasis on fitting in and on finding a role in society that fulfills both your own needs and society's expectations.

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Tim Tyler, good call. With Professor Hansen, I often start any topic of his by looking up the wikipedia entry and doing a google search for who the actual experts on the topic are. In Prof. Hansen's style, he shows an interesting lack of appreciation for prior bodies of thought and the existence of experts in an area where he has an epiphany. Not that the world would be a better place if he showed that appreciation, but it's helpful when commentors like you help fill in that gap, treating these comment threads as wikis.

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Very interesting and convincing theory of identity.

How severe is individual identity influenced by social phenomena like the Rosenthal effect?

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I can't think of any platitudes, but I think that some of Aesop's fables involve one animal copying another unsuccessfully. The moral being "don't try to be something you're not", which contradicts the "you are what you make of yourself" line.

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This post apparently proposes a redefinition of the term "identity". Conventional usage is different - and embraces things like "identity theft". Social science usage is different too - see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wik...

I don't see much of a case for such a redefinition. Perhaps "public persona" could be used to refer to those aspects of people's identity which they broadcast to others.

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I wonder if it is this fixation with predictability is what causes problems for some many with people who change their sex. Anecdotal evidence is that gender changers loose most or all of their old friends and end up in a kind of demi-monde with others like themselves. Surely gender is the most important of all the predictable traits (well, apart from dead/alive).....and when that one is broken or changed people just cannot cope.

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Superb post Robin! But now let me: Are you sure your identity is really Bayesian? You may tell yourself:

(Story 1)‘I should make Bayesian Induction the rationalist ideal’

(Story 2)‘I should use Bayes justify my decision to tell story 1. But I cannot, since any consciously understandable justification I could tell myself is just another story ( Consciousness is the PR department, narrative). ‘


(Story 3)‘My decision to tell Story 1 is a story that Bayes cannot justify. But I realized this by telling story 2. This shows that there are decisions that narrative can justify (e.g. telling Story 2) that Bayesian Induction cannot’.

And narrative seems to be categorization...you said yourself that narrative is a ‘smoothing over the details’, the very definition of a category. Categorization also seems equivalent to analogy formation, because it is just a mapping between one thing and another… a ‘degree of similarity’.

Ergo, Bayesian Induction cannot completely capture rationality, but categorization (analogy formation) can. Ergo, Bayesian Induction is merely a special case of the real basis for rationality… analogy formation! A true story? Are there plot-holes?

Based on this idea I’d like to present three fantasy endings (the writers ‘1-2-3 punch’), which hopefully most blog readers will agree would be deliciously climatic and shocking, if, you know, the universe really did run on narrative casuality rather than Bayesian causality ;)

Fantasy ending 1:

‘A former student accosted the professor in the hallway. ‘You still a Bayesian?’ Professor Hanson suddenly gave an impish grin and ripped off the garb of the mild mannered economics professor to reveal the super-hero costume of a flamboyant story teller. ‘I realized that categorization (analogy formation) and the creation of narrative was the real basis for rationality’, he explained. ‘I no longer call myself a Bayesian’. It was the one big change in his identity. ‘

Fantasy ending 2:

‘The final battle of rationalists was swift and decisive. The vanquished master ambled through the woods until he came across a young girl sitting on a rock who was a student of his.

She looked up at his dazed expression, ‘Noooooo way… not the unspeakable morality!’

‘Yes way’, said the Bayesian black belt Yudkowsky with a wry grin. ‘He spoke it. The narrative arts of mjgeddes mastered my Bayesian arts as easily as one would master a child’

Fantasy ending 3:

‘The grand hall of post-human historians waited as professor Bostrom walked up to the podium. ‘I will tell how I realized that we were but a story within a story, and how we engineered the great escape from the lesser one. And then he told the greater one’.

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Interesting post.I'm also interested in looking at forms of identity as algorithms competing for us as constituents, and the role of getting people to identify with a person or a subpopulation as a form of legitimization of power or status.

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Some part of identity is surely a means of signaling affiliation/loyalty to a certain group(s), no?

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I was going to make the same recommendation. Velleman's new book, How We Get Along is great and very accessible to non-philosophers. You can buy the book or find a full draft on ssrn.

Here's a highlight from his discussion of the pressures of cognitive economy of self-perception and self-presentation.

At one extreme, I have a way of interpreting myself, a way that I want you to interpret me, a way that I think you do interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of wanting you to interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of thinking you do interpret me, and so on, each of these interpretations being distinct from all the others, and all of them being somehow crammed into my self-conception. At the other extreme, there is just one interpretation of me, which is common property between us, in that we not only hold it but interpret one another as holding it, and so on. If my goal is understanding, then the latter interpretation is clearly preferable, because it is so much simpler while being equally adequate, fruitful, and so on. (Lecture 3)

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I know some of the comments here are knocking Heidegger, but Robin's theory of identity sounds surprisingly like something Heidegger himself would recognise (bottom of the page and onto the next):


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