Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Monsieur Poincare

Just like having a good sneeze, it's an enjoyable act to entertain a conspiracy. Actually, it’s a form of thought experimentation. Here's a good one to try. Apparently it came from the French mathematician, Poincare. He wondered: what if one night while everyone was asleep the universe became a thousand times greater in size?

No one would be able to tell the difference, he surmised. People would wake up and blindly go about their business as usual. No one would know, because how could they? Their instruments and scales would have increased in size too. Well, that idea disturbed me when I read about it, because got me to conjure up a notion of my own. 

What if every day we wake up as different person?

We touched on this earlier in this book where I invited you to step into my shoes. Just as you wouldn’t register a change in size, you wouldn’t know if you’d become another person, not if the procedure involved the complete deletion of your previous memories and the uploading of new ones. You’d wake up with your whole new history in mind, and this would be just another day of the person you now remember being. Oh my! The reason that this idea freaked me out was how could I be sure that it wasn’t already happening?

Consider: we awake into another body. We enter into another life by forgetting the old and assuming the new. We come to consciousness inside another life with its background intact, every episode of all previous seasons. The yesterdays that we recall are its yesterdays, its events and its birthday parties. What a conspiracy that would be, to be forever leaping into new continuums.

I guess you could call it quantum jumping. To all intents and purposes, you become another person with every leap. It stands to reason. That’s more or less how we define selfhood. If a person suddenly occupied another head with exactly the same genes, upbringing, environment, circumstances, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes as that entity—absolutely everything—then they would act and make the very same decisions and choices as he or she. 

I’m talking exactly the same here. If you retained any inkling of your former self, would ruin the effect, but without such an inkling—if your brain was well and truly washed—then there’d be no way to tell you had changed hosts, now would there? You wouldn’t know that you were no longer ‘you’. How could you?

Your day would seamlessly ensue from the background of all that had gone before. In every respect you would be who you’d always been. Without the memories and self-awareness of a previous self, you would not miss your earlier existence. It would be like being born again in a sense. We’d be unaware of it having happened because all links would be lost. We’ve reincarnated. Incarcerated. At most there’s just the ghost of déjà vu. 

Why could this not be true? It makes such sense that it must be true. This is how things work; that’s how the world is. I’m telling you . . .

No, I shouldn’t be telling you. No-one likes to be told what to think. Okay, please, bear with me. Hear me out. Po statements, remember? These are just fleeting butterflies. Don’t rip their wings off, weasels!


  1. I'm starting to think the whole matter of identity is illusion. To take an extreme example, an electron cannot have identity, because there is no way to tell the difference between one electron and another, is there? As I commented earlier, I could be someone completely different every day and would I be aware of it? in such a thought experiment, the idea of "different" seems to lose its meaning

  2. So really, 'Malcolm' and 'William' are just names.