mbd_map 19: A Dedication homepage homepage forum lectures 1: A Word of Encouragement 2: Dar al-Hikma 3: Proclus' Elements 4: Reversion in the Corporeal 5: Mathematical Recursion 6: Episodic Memory 7: Mortality 7 Supplement: Classical Mortality Arguments 8: Personal Identity 9: Existential Passage 10: Precedent at Dar al-Hikma 10 Supplement: Images of Dar al-Hikma 11: Passage Types 12: A Metaphysical Grammar 13: Merger Probability 14: Ex Nihilo Probability 15: Noetic Reduction 16: Summary of Mathematical Results 17: Application to Other Species 18: Potential Benefits 19: A Dedication appendices works cited

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A Word of Encouragement


Dar al-Hikma


Proclus' Elements


Reversion in the Corporeal


Mathematical Recursion


Episodic Memory




Classical Mortality Arguments


Personal Identity
1   2   3   4  


Existential Passage
1   2   3  


Precedent at Dar al-Hikma


Images of Dar al-Hikma


Passage Types


A Metaphysical Grammar


Merger Probability


Ex Nihilo Probability


Noetic Reduction


Summary of Mathematical Results


Application to Other Species
1   2   3   4  


Potential Benefits


A Dedication


Works Cited

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Chapter 9
Existential Passage

continued, Section 2 of 3

Let's bring to mind again our extended version of the story of Peter and Paul.  In that final version Old Paul loses all memory during sleep, due to a stroke.  He wakes amnesiac as a new man; as New Paul.
       Now we can compare this story with the Aegean idyll.  Specifically, we will compare the subjective conditions of Old Paul and New Paul to those of the deceased Nicos and the living Thanos.

First, comparing Thanos to the new Paul:  how does Thanos' subjective condition compare with New Paul's?

  • The infant Thanos is amnesiac, in that he remembers no past.  The same is true of New Paul.
  • Thanos is gifted with a body and subjective awareness that are new to him.  The same is true of New Paul.
We can see that Thanos and the new Paul experience the same subjective conditions at the start of their respective lives.

Now, comparing Nicos to the old Paul:  how does Nicos' subjective condition compare with Old Paul's?

  • Nicos has lost all memory during sleep, irretrievably.  The same is true of Old Paul.
  • Nicos encounters an unfelt time-gap following the loss of memory.  The same is true of Old Paul.
  • Nicos' subjective awareness is suspended in the time-gap.  The same is true of Old Paul.
We can see that Nicos and the old Paul experience the same subjective conditions at the end of their respective lives.

Perhaps the ontology of the "two Pauls" is more tractable than that of Nicos and Thanos.  We do not fail to grasp that the new, waking Paul is a continuation of the old, forgotten Paul.  The new Paul cannot know this, as his subjective vantage restricts his view to the stream of thought continuous with his new memories of self.  But from our objective vantage we see enough to understand that the old Paul has passed through an instantaneous amnesia to the new.
        The passage is simply an unfelt time-gap.  The time-gap has begun with Old Paul's injury, and it has ended with New Paul's recovery.  Consequently, the amnesiac New Paul lives unknowingly as a continuation of the life of Old Paul.
       The same conditions afflict Nicos and Thanos.  Here the details of Nicos' subjective condition correspond with those of Old Paul.  His mortal amnesia is just as irreversible as the amnesia which the old Paul has suffered during his injurious sleep.  Similarly, Thanos' birth corresponds with New Paul's awakening in all its subjective details.  His infantile amnesia[7] is as complete as New Paul's own amnesia.
       The underlying time-gap conditions also correspond.   Nicos' death — a cessation of subjectivity — is the beginning of an unfelt time-gap; and Thanos' birth — subjectivity's restoration — is the very condition whereby any unfelt time-gap ends.
       What can we infer from these similarities?
       The direct inference:  Nicos' supposedly interminable time-gap has actually reached its end with Thanos' birth.  Nicos has passed, imperceptibly, to Thanos; and the amnesiac new man who is Thanos lives unknowingly as a continuation of the life of his father Nicos.
       I'll record this transmigration by marking it on the timeline illustration in red.

Figure 9.4 Fig. 9.4
Transmigration of Nicos to Thanos

Keys spin.  Tumblers drop.  And the ebony wall dissolves to smoke, curling away on a zephyr.

We have reached this essay's first novel result.  The result may surprise some readers, and in some quarters it may be unwelcome.  Even so, readers who've followed the argument thus far can grant that the transmigration is neither a spurious assertion nor a gratuitous conjecture.  We find it instead to be a direct application of this essay's theory to those specific conditions which have been written into the Aegean idyll.  As such it makes sense.
       This result — Nicos' passage to Thanos — is our point of departure into Metaphysics by Default.  What can we see of the metaphysics now, at the outset?  We return to its metaphor.  In our mind's eye the ebony wall is gone.  Where it once stood now runs the river Lethe; the river whose clear waters, once drunk, cause forgetfulness of the past.  We stand on the river's near bank, at the end of this life.  The river's far bank is birth into the next.  In the spirit of the metaphor we can say that Nicos has dipped into the river, emerging at the far bank as Thanos.
       Which is all very archetypal and literary — but here I should restate the idea plainly, lest metaphors obscure my meaning.  The literal truth of the passage mechanism is that the passage is understood as nothing more than an unfelt time-gap.  It's a purely subjective event — a natural relocation of the awareness of existence.
       This passage mechanism is a modern novelty.  But there is more to Metaphysics by Default than the passage mechanism itself.  There is precedent to consider, as well as a distinctive set of properties unique to this new metaphysics.  If I might set the passage mechanism within a pedagogic structure (allowing myself imagery once again), I'd like to think of it as a philosopher's first "stepping stone" across the river Lethe.  There will be four more stepping stones strewn out beyond the first:  we should take each in turn.  When we've tested all five stepping stones Metaphysics by Default will extend beneath us as a completed philosophical path across the river.

I will invoke this philosophical simile periodically as we progress through the remainder of the essay, working through chapters as across stepping stones.  But the first step on a path is always the hardest.  We need to be more certain of this first step.  Once we've secured it we can move on.  What is to be done?
       First off, we should consider some objections to the transmigration philosophy.  Any number of objections are possible at this early stage of development, but with an eye towards relevance I'll focus on those objections I think readers are most likely to encounter hereafter.  I will present and answer just three potential objections within the confines of this chapter.
       My philosophical macrame may yet grow tedious.  To relieve the tedium I will wrap up this chapter's argument with a final metaphor, a narrative.  This concluding narrative will release the passage mechanism to its more proper visual setting, which is inherently fluid and boundless.  I hope the narrative suggests to the reader a thoroughly naturalistic vision of passage.  This vision can justify the mechanism at a level of high intuition, intuition which tedious argument informs but cannot by itself attain.
       Now on to the three potential objections, and replies to same.

In this chapter we have compared the conditions of existence encountered by the participants of two different stories.  Thanos and New Paul were shown to experience equivalent subjective conditions.  And Nicos and Old Paul were also shown to experience equivalent subjective conditions.  These equivalences made the passage of Nicos to Thanos tenable.
       There are some differences between the two stories.  The argument de-emphasized them, but they cannot be ignored.  Let's call up the characters again and see how they differ:
       The most notable difference may be found in the premise that Old Paul and New Paul share the same, common body, whereas Nicos and Thanos do not.  Nicos and Thanos are entirely unique individuals:  they have separate bodies.  In the idyll this difference is a given — but would this difference present difficulties in the real world?  Might it, in some way yet unstated, block passage?  Many readers may find inside these questions some fragments of an objection to the new philosophy, so the objection deserves consideration:
       To begin with, we know that the bodies of Nicos and Thanos must be different.  The objective reality of this difference is beyond dispute, but its relevance to the passage event is not.  Let's think back to James' original story, wherein Peter and Paul awake and "reach back" to their respective streams of thought.  As James surmises the process:
When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought which were broken by the sleeping hours.  As the current of an electrode buried in the ground unerringly finds its way to its own similarly buried mate, across no matter how much intervening earth; so Peter's present instantly finds out Peter's past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul.  Paul's thought in turn is as little liable to go astray.[8]
As I've noted earlier in this chapter, James' understanding of the physiology of sleep is not entirely correct.  Thought continues during sleep, if only in a mode of passive somatosensory awareness.  The stream of thought is not broken or halted by sleep, contrary to James' conjecture.  His introduction of the electrode metaphor only confuses matters.  As no "break" actually exists to be mended, the electrode metaphor is devoid of explanatory value.
       So what is actually happening to Peter?  We're closer to the truth if we say that Peter wakes as Peter because his stream of thought has persisted all through the night.  As it happens, that stream of thought has remained all night within his own body — specifically, within the neural structures which remain active during sleep.  These structures are inclusive of the cortical episodic memory structures essential to self-knowledge.  Consequently Peter wakes, as himself, in his own, familiar body.
       Likewise with Paul, who also wakes to his own body.
       This is the most direct explanation of the gentlemen's "unerring" ability to wake to their correct bodies.

So true breaks, or unfelt time-gaps, are easier said than done; hence the need for Old and New Paul.
       As I have modified James' story, Old Paul suffers a stroke during the night.  The injury destroys his long-term memories, and he wakes amnesiac, as New Paul.  But why exactly do we think that Old Paul must pass imperceptibly into the new?  The stream of thought concept helps us here again:
       We may suppose in this case that Old Paul's stream of thought has been disrupted momentarily — in toto — by the stroke.  We take it to be an extreme situation, one in which a complete break in thought can be hypothesized to occur during life.  The break throws Old Paul into a deep, utterly unfelt time-gap until the damaged brain can restore its swirl of neural current.  When the restoration is finished he can awake.  He wakes as the amnesiac New Paul.
       In this story Old Paul's stream of thought has halted momentarily within his body.  Shortly thereafter New Paul's stream of thought has commenced within that same body.  Subjectively, an unfelt time-gap begins when Old Paul's stream of thought halts, and it ends when New Paul's stream of thought commences.  These two terminals[9] of the unfelt time-gap (its beginning and ending coordinates) define the time-gap uniquely.  Between the terminals lies a period of inactivity:  a full cessation of thought.
       In this story both terminals are found down inside the single body of "all-Paul."  Since both terminals are located within that one body, we conclude that the thoughts of Old Paul must merge across the time-gap into the thoughts of New Paul.  Any other conclusion would contradict our common understanding of the psychological events described.
       The story of Nicos and Thanos matches the story of Old and New Paul in its temporal, functional, subjective details.   The only significant difference is that the time-gap fashioned by Old and New Paul had its terminals inside a single body, whereas the time-gap fashioned by Nicos and Thanos has its terminals inside two different bodies.
       Focusing on this new time-gap:
       Nicos' stream of thought halts — permanently — inside his own body.  Hence Nicos' body is the location of the beginning terminus of his unfelt time-gap.  The only ending terminus available thereafter is the one located in Thanos' body.  We find it there because Thanos' stream of thought commences inside Thanos' body, rather than Nicos'.
       Now, we have no reason to deny Nicos access to that ending terminus.  Indeed, James' stream-of-thought paradigm offers the insensate Nicos no alternative to Thanos' terminus — it is Nicos' only subjective option after death.
       We should not expect Nicos to resist Thanos' terminus from within death's unfelt time-gap.  Such an expectation would be, as James unintentionally suggests, like "expecting the eye to feel a gap of silence," or "the ear to feel a gap of darkness."  These are impossibilities:  an organ of perception cannot escape its essential function.  Likewise, an unfelt time-gap cannot escape the terminals which define it.  Whenever two terminals delimit a period of complete inactivity, they define an unfelt time-gap — one which would seem to operate without regard for irrelevant particulars, such as the name assigned to the subjective function at either terminus.
       Of course, each particular body is unique, hence named.   Subjectivity, however, is a universal:  a ubiquitous and purposeful neuropsychological state.  (This understanding is supported by the functional knowledge I've cited in the previous chapter.)  Subjectivity comes to fruition always by common means and with common traits, as any universal must.
       In daily life subjectivity's universality is entrained continuously within the particulars of an individual:  subjective awareness brings to mind the individual's unique thoughts, such as the events of episodic memory. Each subjective time-gap is felt by the individual, and each pertains to the unique individual only — in daily life.
       Now in extremis — at subjective terminals demarking the beginning or end of complete inactivity — the individual's unique particulars are inaccessible.  At death the requisite neural continuity is disbanding; at birth, banding together.  At these extreme terminals individual uniqueness cannot pertain:  the thalamocortical subjective state is at such transitional moments isolated from, say, the hippocampus and its unique content of memory.  Subjectivity in extremis lacks the continuity and content of individuation.
       Yet the terminals remain, and although extreme terminals may be thought effectively indistinguishable in their universal subjective aspect, each terminus does retain one distinction:  its unique spatio-temporal coordinates.  Each terminus still exists, uniquely in space and time.  Only individuation is lost here; a loss rendering infeasible the individual's felt time-gap.  The terminal pair does still satisfy the temporal and functional conditions of an unfelt time-gap.  Given that individuation is lost, this pairing would be an unfelt and divided time-gap.  (Divided in the sense of antonym to the individuated case.)
       So.  Old and New Paul have jointly defined one divided, unfelt time-gap.  Nicos and Thanos have defined another.  Under the postulated conditions Thanos' ending terminus presents itself as an adequate match for Nicos' beginning terminus.
       We can conclude that the ending terminus of Nicos' time-gap will be located within Thanos' body.  Consequently, Nicos' thoughts can be expected to merge imperceptibly across the time-gap into those of Thanos.  As was the case with Old and New Paul, any other conclusion would contradict a straightforward reading of the psychological events described.
       This reasoning answers the first objection.  The answer is minimally sufficient as it stands, but the stream-of-thought reasoning will be strengthened by the reply to a second objection.  This reply will tap the concept of personal identity in order to build a more encompassing argument.

A second and similar objection concerns the slippery transfer of thought between lives.
       The "transfer" of Nicos' thoughts (and, by inference, personal identity) to Thanos seems in a way too easy.  If we grant that a subjective passage from Nicos to Thanos is possible, it remains to be demonstrated that Nicos' passage to Thanos is the only one possible.  Why should Nicos not pass to Casta, for example?  Or to some person who might walk into their idyllic cosmos some hundreds of years hence?  This objection asks for a justification of the claim that Thanos, in particular, must receive the passage.
       We can build a reply to this objection by making use of a prior result, in which we found that personal identity is fashioned out of the three Great Criteria exclusively:  emerging through the bodily dynamics of continuity, subjectivity, memory — and nothing else.  Insofar as personal identity appears to be wholly dependent upon those corporeal criteria for its being, it must follow those criteria where they lead.  If the three criteria operate within a particular body, personal identity adheres faithfully to that body:  it has no choice but to do so.  If the three criteria should fail in one body and emerge anew at a later time in another, the experience of personal identity would then have no choice but to transition from one body to the other.  This is only a consequence of the supposed primacy of the three criteria.
       In the Aegean idyll Thanos is the first and only person to begin life after Nicos' death.  It is for this reason that Nicos is thought to pass specifically to Thanos: not because of the filial relation, which is irrelevant, but only because Thanos is the first.  As reasoned previously, Thanos' terminus adequately satisfies the temporal and functional requirements for an ending to Nicos' unfelt time-gap.  More generally we might say now that Thanos' new personal identity criteria are naturally sufficient to continue the old personal identity criteria of Nicos.  Thanos' birth, the first restoration of subjectivity, is also the first restoration of personal identity.  Said either way, the meaning is much the same:[10]  Thanos' appearance as the first newborn after Nicos' death is the temporal condition which must be met if Thanos is to be the recipient.
       Being first, Thanos is naturally positioned to receive the passage.

It is important to state again that no incorporeal substance is posited as transferring between Nicos and Thanos.  Any suggestion of incorporeality would be duplicitous at this point, in light of what has been said heretofore.  So incorporeal transfers are not to be inferred.
       Much the same restriction must be placed on physical transfers.  Thanos is Nicos' posthumous son, but this filial link is not relevant to the metaphysical event.  Nicos' spermatic seed conveys no memory of Nicos' life to the newborn.  We still assume Nicos' memories to have been lost irretrievably at death.  No "thing" is imagined to have transferred any memory, or personality, or soul, or any psychic entity whatsoever from Nicos to Thanos.
       The passage is understood as unfelt time-gap, with nothing superadded — rather, and critically, with individuation subtracted.  All that has "passed" is a shift of perceived existential "moment" — a natural relocation of the awareness of existence.  It is in this sense an "existential passage" which Nicos encounters, and I will refer to it as existential passage in subsequent chapters of this essay.

Perhaps it would be helpful to contemplate awareness again:
        Living minds exhibit subjective awareness of existence.  This awareness is attained by thalamocortical mechanisms such as those sketched in Chapter 8.  We'd invite confusion were we to assert that Nicos' awareness could in any way persist apart from his living body.  Such an assertion would not make sense, given what is known about the phenomenon of awareness.  As life generates awareness, that awareness exists only where life makes it be.  Likewise the individuation attendant awareness.  And so if, following Nicos' death, awareness should first come into being again with Thanos, it is metaphysically parsimonious to infer that Nicos would then be where Thanos is — an amnesiac, relocated.
        Contrary assertions do invite confusion.  How after all could awareness or individuation persist apart from the living body?  How could awareness or individuation command the ontologic issue at those times when they do not exist?  I think they cannot.  No, such assertions, when made explicit, seem always to confuse themselves.  To clear the confusion one must posit additional, unjustified metaphysical entities or assumptions:  an unavoidable "multiplication beyond necessity," subject to Occam's Razor.  The parsimonious reasoning of existential passage fares better on this score.

Awareness folds into personal identity as subjectivity.  Considering now personal identity after Thanos' birth:  any person born into the idyll after Thanos' birth must be denied the possibility of receiving Nicos' existential passage.  Nicos would by that time have passed already to Thanos.  From the time of passage onward Thanos would maintain the continuity, subjectivity and memory which guarantee that the resumed personal identity stays with him, defining him, for life.
       This last point also explains why Nicos' wife Casta is not thought to participate in the passage.  Displaying the timelines again:

Figure 9.5 Fig. 9.5
Transmigration of Nicos to Thanos

We see again in Figure 9.5 that Casta has lived throughout the story.  She has maintained her own personal identity — before, during, and after the existential passage of Nicos to Thanos.  Being thus continuously individuated and self-contained, Casta cannot receive a passage which requires, by the nature of passage terminus, that the recipient lack such continuity and individuation.  A recipient must be new to the world; new in the sense that the criteria of personal identity find in the recipient a ready apparatus which has not cohered continuously before.
       This reasoning is reply to the second objection.

A third objection can be raised, and this objection is unlike the previous two.  It is built along the lines of a skeptical argument, and it asks:
How can we know that the three criteria of personal identity, as stated, are the only three which exist?  What assurance do we have that others will not appear in future to cast doubt upon existential passage?
This objection raises the possibility that some additional criteria may be involved in personal identity; criteria which, should they exist, might invalidate the original deduction that Nicos passes to Thanos.
       Of course, any criteria found to be even partially corporeal add their weight to the case for existential passage.   Moreover, a historical review of the concept of personal identity[11] assures us that the three Great Criteria from Chapter 8 cover the subject as it is known today.  But even so, the skeptical argument cannot be rebutted with complete certainty, simply because our knowledge of abstract concepts will always be less certain than our knowledge of concrete tangibles.  Perhaps in this context it would be helpful to imagine some of the changes which our knowledge of a tangible object might undergo, over the course of civilized time.
       Consider a stone:
       Some three thousand years ago a gray metallic stone enters the civilized world as a farmer's talisman.  In time that talisman finds use as a tradesman's magnetic lodestone.  Later on, a naturalist recognizes it as a meteorite.  And thereafter a geologist determines that the meteorite is actually a Martian soil sample.
       Here our understanding of a stone has matured, transmuting the stone with each twist and turn of thought along the way.  And who is to say that our understanding will not continue to mature, someday transmuting that stone yet again?  We cannot rule out the possibility.  By this example we see just how provisional our knowledge can be, even for a concrete tangible such as a stone.
       Abstractions suffer more frequent transmutations than tangible objects.  That metallic stone may have undergone four transmutations at the hands of man, over the course of, say, three thousand years; but how many times has the abstraction known as "democracy" transmuted in just the past three hundred years?  There have been many experiments and amendments:  republic, slave state, theocracy, commune, military-industrial complex, the fourth estate, electronic town hall — the list of named changes goes on and on.
       This history of change supports the skeptic's objection.  It suggests that the obsolescence of personal identity, as an abstraction, is somehow inevitable; and this skepticism discourages us from thinking seriously about the metaphysics implicit in personal identity.

But the skeptical argument claims too much authority for itself.  It predicts changes in a future which no one has yet seen.  As few predictions of change come true, we should take with a grain of salt the skeptic's prediction that our concept of personal identity will change markedly at some future time.  Not knowing the future, skeptics should refrain from disparaging what is known today.
       And there is another weakness to consider, in that the skeptical argument gives too little credit to people who've labored under concepts now outdated.  As illustration we can imagine the metallic stone again.  Changes in human understanding have transmuted that stone over time.  So, should we reprimand the ignorant farmer for handling it as a mysterious curiosity?  No, we should not.  The farmer's sense of wonder has led him to notice and enshrine that stone.  The tradesman who inherits it from him can thank that farmer for his effort, as can the naturalist and the geologist, on down the line.  Each person has made an individual effort, and the sum total of these efforts has preserved a small sample of Martian soil on Earth across millennia.
       We should measure philosophies by a similar rule.  Each philosopher who has investigated the phenomenon of personal identity has done so within the concepts possible for his or her time.  And if we read philosophical (and now, factual) texts in historical order we can see how philosophers' combined efforts have slowly improved our understanding of personal identity beyond the indistinct notions we've entertained from the ancient past.
       Moreover, the end-result of these efforts can be more enduring than skeptics would suggest.  Personal identity, as an abstraction, has evolved only slowly and with little drama over the past three hundred years.  In contrast, we recall that the abstract idea of democracy has evolved quite dramatically in that same timeframe, acquiring many new and even contradictory meanings along the way.  Personal identity weathered the storms of intellectual fashion with far less damage — a credit to its sturdy physiologic basis, I expect.
        John Locke wrote his treatise on the role of memory in personal identity back in 1694.  After three hundred years we might naively expect his argument to have been superseded by now.  But instead philosophers have only modified it so as to delineate memory types and accommodate special conditions of weakened memory.  The central pillar of Locke's argument stands today, buttressed by generations of philosophers who've chosen to reinforce what they inherited.
       I hope this view of philosophy can embolden us to reject the skeptical argument, and to persist in fording these metaphysical headwaters — testing our way across, step-by-step, stone-by-stone.  Persons looking back from the Olympian future should not excoriate us for undertaking the exploration, provided that we are not harsh ourselves in judging the imperfect maps left behind by our own predecessors.

This concludes the third of three objections, and replies to same.
       These point-and-counterpoint arguments have been necessary.  They may also have become tedious, as foretold.  I'll relieve the tedium somewhat by delivering the awaited "narrative metaphor" for existential passage.  I hope the metaphor can appeal directly to intuition and thereby surpass the careful mincing to which I've subjected the patient reader.

next    Section 3 of 3

Chapter 9, Section 2 Endnotes

[7] Fuster 212-13.
[8] James 32.
[9] Here I'm using the word "terminus" in the sense of an "end-point on a transportation line." Unfortunately the plural can also have an unintended meaning, as the "connective points on an electrical circuit."  This second meaning should not be inferred, as it brings to mind James' flawed electrode metaphor.
[10] Should Thanos have been born before Nicos' death, he would not have received any passage whatsoever; for the same reasons.  He would have been "born without a metaphysical past," so to speak.  This idea will be developed fully in Chapter 14.
[11] For historical reviews and contemporary explorations of the proposed criteria of personal identity, see Chapter 8, note 51.
Copyright © 1999

Wayne Stewart
Last update 4/19/11