Fringe Identity

Recent episodes of Fringe have integrated some interesting philosophical ideas about identity into central plot points. Viewers predisposed to introspection will likely watch these shows and come away with questions about what defines them. If you’re not familiar with the series, my condensed description may read like a show where it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief. It is not such a show. Fortunately for science fiction fans, the multiverse described in Fringe has enough integrity and solid story-telling to be one of the best shows on television right now.

Warning: contains spoilers for Fringe, season 3, through episode 9.

Relevant plot summary.

There are two parallel versions of earth. The first version is essentially the world the viewer lives in. The parallel earth is so similar that it has alternate versions of most of the characters. It exists in the same space as our earth, but in a parallel dimension. Because these dimensions were bridged 20 years previous to when the show takes place, the parallel world has some problems. Parts of it seem to be disintegrating. Some of the characters believe the parallel world is under attack from, and at war with, our world. In this parallel world, technology is far more advanced, and there are a number of historical differences. For example, the twin towers are still standing, and they have something closer to fascism as a response to problems they are experiencing.

These differences create believable scenarios where one character plausibly does things that would be considered “evil” from our world’s perspective. Parallel characters in both worlds have backgrounds different enough to justify the decisions they make in similar situations.

One of the main characters, Olivia, and her parallel earth twin, switch places for several episodes. The Olivia from our world gets stuck in the other world and is injected with something that contains the memories of the parallel earth Olivia. She starts to believe she really is the parallel Olivia, that her memories from our world are delusional. Eventually she comes around, but while she is on the other side, her mother and coworkers are completely convinced that she is the same Olivia they have always known.

Meanwhile, the parallel world Olivia has surreptitiously taken Olivia’s place in our world, impersonating her in an effort to carry out a plan that could lead to the destruction of our world. Her motivation is that she believes these actions will help to save her own world. She goes to great lengths to conceal her identity, killing or ordering the deaths of shape-shifting soldiers from her side, and sleeping with a man just for the mission, even though she has a boyfriend in her own world. These are actions that Olivia from our world would almost certainly not take – given her history.

In the most recent episode, the Olivia has returned to find that her love-interest, Peter, has slept with the parallel world Olivia. He had believed the duplicate was her. She feels extremely violated because this imposter had taken her place and no one had noticed. The last episode ends with her suggesting that Peter should have known that the imposter was not her and ends their budding relationship. She believes that he somehow should have sensed whatever is unique about her by looking in her eyes. This accusation is made even though she nearly lost herself and started to believe she was someone else after the other woman’s memories were injected into her.

Questions of Identity

This is the acting out of a philosophical thought experiment illustrating questions around what makes you who you are. It examines these questions from both objective and subjective perspectives.

If someone with a nearly exact duplicate of your body were to take your place, would anyone notice? If you had memories of a doppelgänger implanted in you, would you believe they were memories of your life? Fringe tackles these identity questions deftly in the context of the story.

This is one of the great things about science fiction. It allows for the illustration of ideas in a way that could not happen in the world as we know it, yet the assumptions we have about answers to these questions influence our everyday lives and the laws governing our world. These assumptions dictate what we believe about personal choice and responsibility. This line of thought deserves a more thorough description, but I’ll leave that for another time.

So what defines the identity of a person?

Is it the environment that shapes us? Are there no underlying values that would hold true, regardless of what situation we were in? I think most of us intuitively revolt against this idea, wanting to believe that there is some moral essence of who we are that would remain the same if circumstances were different. Since we don’t have the luxury of shifting between parallel worlds to find out, we can’t really know for sure, but the answer is far from certain.

Is it our genetic makeup that define us? The existence of twins negates the possibility that our individuality is shaped by our genetic code, so that cannot be the sole defining factor.

Discussion and argument continues in the scientific community about what the balance is between nature and nurture relative to the definition of a person. Whatever the balance is, both factors are external. They are aspects of ourselves that we can observe , so to speak, and imagine being different even while the subjective experience if “me-ness” remains the same. Change a few things in either your history or your genetic makeup and it’s likely that you would end up making different decisions in a given situation than you would now. That, for me, gets close to the root of these questions. Is there anything there at all that is unique to you as an individual? What truly defines you?

Fringe is not the first show to present the idea of swapping identities with another person, but it does a better job that most at presenting scenarios where the characters have plausible back-stories that would lead them to make different decisions in similar situations.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas, Fringe is well worth watching. It’s also just plain good science fiction.

In Descartes’ Time

The following text is an edited transcription of  the first several minutes of instruction (after admonitions not to plagiarize and basic class information) given by John Joseph Campbell in the Nature of Mind course.

Before Physics:

Descartes lived in the early 17th century just as modern physics was being born. It is with the birth of modern physics and the idea of a mathematical science of the world that the problems of the mind first come clearly into view.

Before physics, people didn’t have a sharp differentiation between what was mental and what was part of matter. A mideval peasant had never heard of the atomic theory of matter, had no idea that matter is made of atoms, had no idea that there might be a mathematical description of the world.

The basic mental model was that the colors, smells and shapes where out there in the “medium sized” world and your mind just encounters some of it. Your mind encounters the same sectors of the world that my mind encounters. We’re really having the same experiences. Experiences are just connections between you and the ordinary, world, and everyone has the same kind of connection to the same kind of ordinary world.

After Physics:

What’s really out there is whirling masses of atoms. Desciples of Newton were fond of pointing out that most of the universe is empty space. f you could see the world as it really is, as described by physics, you would not get the people, colors, and shapes. You would get quantum mechanical particles. You’d get the fundamental physical forces, and that’s it. It is a strange and alien world in which everything you care about has been erased. The other people are not there. Just congregations of atoms floating in the void. So what happens to your experiences of things like flowers? All that’s out there in the real world are these configurations of atoms, or as we know now, quantum mechanical particles described by mathematical physics. It’s generating experiences in you.

There are two components in reality. Basic physics and consciousness. That’s all there is. And the world as described by basic physics is not a bit like the world of ordinary common sense. That’s just a kind of illusion generated by our conscious experiences. Colors and smells are not really out there. They are in us. And that raises a basic puzzle because there is this configuration of atoms generating experiences in you, but is it generating the same conscious experiences in other people? Well, for all you know, it might be generating quite different visual experiences in the people sitting next to you, in the other people you know. You may all have quite alien color experiences from each other. In fact, for some people, the physical world may not be generating any experiences at all. It may be just doing something to the brain in that body that makes the body move and talk. Maybe there are no conscious experiences being generated. Maybe some of the bodies around you are just configurations of atoms, mechanically moving like human beings but with no associated conscious experiences. You don’t really know.

Once you say there’s nothing there but the world as described by physics in the material world, then the problem becomes: what is this stuff, this visual experience? What are these conscious states? What’s really there in the world? Physics describes the whole world. And the whole world is not like other people, flowers, friends. All that’s really there is empty space and moving particles. A fully explicit characterization would be a set of mathematical equations. Nothing recognizable, nothing you could really care about.

The world as described by physics is bleak, impersonal, alien, terrifying. And there is little question to what the right reaction is to this picture of the world. Is it abject terror? It would not be unreasonable to have a kind of metaphysical scream in reaction to what science is telling you about the world.

If the physical world is all that’s really there, where do conscious experiences fit in? How does the mind fit in? You seem to be having conscious experiences and other people seem to be having them as well, but they do not seem to be mathematically describable. They are not quantities like length or mass, or charge. Experiences don’t seem to be made of atoms. How would you quantify, how would you measure these experiences?

That’s the basic problem.

Intertemporal Trade-Offs

Know Thy Future Self

Professor Dan Bartels research often explores the psychology behind intertemporal trade-offs — how people weigh smaller, immediate rewards against larger, long-term rewards. Working with Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago, Bartels conducted a series of experiments, manipulating the degree to which subjects felt connected to their future selves. The researchers hypothesized that people who believe they will change significantly in the future — people who feel less connected to their future selves — will not think about their future self as fully themselves in the same way people with high connectedness think about their future selves, and expected low-connected people to be more likely to make impatient, short-term decisions.