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

Now we're drawing close to the metaphysical lock.  The material of this chapter will walk us right to it.

An extended quotation from William James' Principles of Psychology introduces the concept of the "stream of thought."  James will preface this germinal and perennially popular[1] concept with a treatment of "time-gaps"; first treating time-gaps which are not perceived during the conscious daylight hours, and then dealing with time-gaps which are dimly perceived upon waking from sleep.  James' recognition of time-gaps, and the mind's ability to maintain continuity in spite of them, long ago raised this treatise to the status of a landmark in the history of psychology.
       As we advance into this chapter we will orient ourselves continually by James' trusted landmark.

Here is the stream of thought, as first argued in William James' 1890 masterwork, the Principles of Psychology:
...Within Each Personal Consciousness, Thought is Sensibly Continuous
       I can only define 'continuous' as that which is without breach, crack, or division.  ...The only breaches that can well be conceived to occur within the limits of a single mind would either be interruptions, time-gaps during which the consciousness went out altogether to come into existence again at a later moment; or they would be breaks in the quality, or content, of the thought, so abrupt that the segment that followed had no connection whatever with the one that went before.  The proposition that within each personal consciousness thought feels continuous, means two things:
1. That even where there is a time-gap the consciousness after it feels as if it belonged together with the consciousness before it, as another part of the same self;

2. That the changes from one moment to another in the quality of the consciousness are never absolutely abrupt.
[In an earlier chapter] we saw that such time-gaps existed, and that they might be more numerous than is usually supposed.  If the consciousness is not aware of them, it cannot feel them as interruptions.  In the unconsciousness produced by nitrous oxide and other anaesthetics, in that of epilepsy and fainting, the broken edges of the sentient life may meet and merge over the gap, much as the feelings of space of the opposite margins of the 'blind spot' meet and merge over that objective interruption to the sensitiveness of the eye.  Such consciousness as this, whatever it be for the onlooking psychologist, is for itself unbroken.  It feels unbroken; a waking day of it is sensibly a unit as long as that day lasts, in the sense in which the hours themselves are units, as having all their parts next to each other, with no intrusive alien substance between.  To expect the consciousness to feel the interruptions of its objective continuity as gaps, would be like expecting the eye to feel a gap of silence because it does not hear, or the ear to feel a gap of darkness because it does not see.  So much for the gaps that are unfelt.
       With the felt gaps the case is different.  On waking from sleep, we usually know that we have been unconscious, and we often have an accurate judgment of how long.  The judgment here is certainly an inference from sensible signs, and its ease is due to long practice in the particular field.  The result of it, however, is that the consciousness is, for itself, not what it was in the former case, but interrupted and continuous, in the mere time-sense of the words.  But in the other sense of continuity, the sense of the parts being inwardly connected and belonging together because they are parts of a common whole, the consciousness remains sensibly continuous and one.  What now is the common whole?  The natural name for it is myself, I, or me.
       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.  The past thought of Peter is appropriated by the present Peter alone....  He remembers his own states, whilst he only conceives Paul's.  Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains.  ...[W]hatever past feelings appear with those qualities must be admitted to receive the greeting of the present mental state, to be owned by it, and accepted as belonging together with it in a common self.  This community of self is what the time-gap cannot break in twain, and is why a present thought, although not ignorant of the time-gap, can still regard itself as continuous with certain chosen portions of the past.
       Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits.  Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance.  It is nothing jointed; it flows.  A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.  In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.[2]
James illustrates with the waking of Peter and Paul a faculty of the living body which is so much taken for granted as to be almost beneath comment.  This faculty is just the brain's ability to maintain a stream of thought perpetually, through all the vicissitudes of life.
       James speaks of thoughts as "broken by the sleeping hours."  Now, in the interest of accuracy we should note that modern measurements have shown brain activity to continue unbroken during sleep.  Neural currents never halt entirely:  in sleep they only continue in a mode of passive somatosensory awareness less capable than waking thought.[3]  I interject this fact with supporting endnote as a small caveat.  James' illustration still has value for us, even with this correction affixed.
       Recovering now from the caveat:  we read in James' text his awe of the mind's ability to overcome conscious disruptions; not only the common disruption of sleep, but also the time-gaps induced by anesthesia, epilepsy and fainting.  All these it overcomes by "knitting" present and past thoughts back into a sensibly continuous whole.
       That whole, it should be reiterated, is only a subjective whole.  If I might elaborate on James' celebrated treatise:
       James understood that the time-gaps which afflict our minds mark off intervals of time whose reality is independent of our imperfect perception of those intervals.  Sleep, anesthesia, fainting and so forth — these disruptions only cause the mind to "lose track of time."  The duration of the time "lost" can be measured objectively, with clocks.  But the unconscious mind is ignorant of this objective view, having access to no clock other than the subjective, or internal one.  When a man "gets his clock cleaned," as they say, he may be unaware of the interval of time which passes as he staggers through a time-gap.  Regardless of the extent of the disruption, from his subjective vantage the stream of thought presents itself as entirely continuous and whole.
       The stream of thought perceives itself as continuous and whole just because the mind is never more than dimly aware of subconscious and unconscious states.  Its lapsing oversight is a consequence of physiologic limitation, rather than any active power — Table 8.1 [4] has confirmed this inference at a phenomenal level.  So the perceived wholeness across time-gaps is only a faculty of inactivity.  James' treatise invokes analogous physiologic limitations by way of an explanation:
To expect the consciousness to feel the interruptions... as gaps, would be like expecting the eye to feel a gap of silence because it does not hear, or the ear to feel a gap of darkness because it does not see.[5]

James' Peter-and-Paul illustration stresses the reliability of this faculty.  I'd like to revisit James' illustration and adapt it to the needs of the present thesis.
       As James drew them, Peter and Paul "forgot themselves" as they slumbered.  When they awoke, they remembered themselves by quickly restoring their distinctive psychological states (and, by inference, their personal identities).
       But what could we say of Paul were he to suffer a stroke as he slept, losing some memories as a consequence of epileptic brain damage?  Would the injured Paul wake to the same fullness of self as the uninjured Peter?  Probably he would not.  Remembrance in Paul would be weakened, and therefore he would not know himself so fully as Peter would.  Some events of Paul's past would no longer exist within his consciousness; or, to use James' preferred phrase, within his "community of self."
       Of course, Peter might thereupon choose to help Paul re-learn those memories which injury had erased.  He could re-educate Paul in the stories of lost events.  But even after re-education, Paul would not, we may think, feel a strong attachment to events now known only through stories.  Paul's regained memories would not have that "warmth and intimacy" which they had enjoyed before, when they were undoubtedly his own.  (Sadly, this hypothetical state is only a common element of the deep impairments known from clinical study to be attendant parietal lobe injury.)[6]
       But going further:  what if Paul's stroke should prove even more severe?  What if it were to entirely destroy the tissues of long-term memory during a coma blackout, and leave him unable to recall his past upon waking?  In this extreme case his power of remembrance would be helpless to "reconnect" his past:  he would wake as an amnesiac.  Upon waking he would have to discover himself anew, as a new man.  And if Peter were to relate some stories from Paul's past which seemed to the new man unpleasant or embarrassing, this new man might even be inclined to separate himself from Paul by changing his appearance and behavior, or by taking a new name.  I'll refer to this transformed man as "New Paul," in contrast with "Old Paul," who would be no more.
       Looking to New Paul's future we can see that the only memories which will hold a warmth and intimacy for him will be those memories recorded through personal experience after waking.  These new memories will be part and parcel with his new personal identity.
       Even so, we might wonder if our Old Paul yet requires something of the new:  some psychological debt to be paid, or vow to be kept.  Let's consider the question from an observer's perspective.  We, being outside observers, can still remember the man whom the new Paul has forgotten.  We know that the old Paul has passed imperceptibly into the new.  Our objective vantage allows us to see that this passage has happened.  And perhaps this inclines us to think that the new Paul must be obliged to rebuild himself in the image of the old Paul.  This, in tribute to the life that has been lost.
       But this opinion would likely be mistaken.  The subjective experience of New Paul would be no different from Adam's, really.  He would arrive on the scene ignorant of all that exists, not unlike the proverbial First Man.  Since this New Paul would be, for all intents and purposes, a new man, he would not be under any special obligation to the old Paul.  Old Paul would be to him no more kindred than any other stranger.
       By this reasoning we may decide, correctly I think, to grant independence to the new Paul.  The body New Paul inhabits should now be his own, even though it had been Old Paul's before.  Likewise, all properties and other assets should transfer free of obligation.  With these tools the new Paul can build a new life.
       Perhaps out of courtesy Peter should give this new Paul the option of living without knowledge of the old.

We'll open a broader perspective on personal identity by contemplating another, simpler story.  I'll present this new story, and then I'll return to compare it against our story of Old and New Paul.  The comparison will be instructive, I think.
       As a fresh "thought experiment" I'd like to conjure up an Aegean idyll.  The stage for the idyll will be a land set apart from the rest of Creation:  it is a quiet meadow.   The meadow is bordered by hills at left and a grove at right; just so:

Figure 9.l Fig. 9.1

I'll place some conditions on the life in this little universe.  The land provides life to plants alone, and to no animals or persons at all.  It is a vegetative cosmos — with one exception:  a small house will now open onto the meadow.  It is home to a noble Greek couple:  the veteran Nicos and his wife, Casta.  I'll add their house in Figure 9.2.

Figure 9.2 Fig. 9.2

Here the two live in calm isolation.  They enjoy life as vegetarians, and in peace.  For many years they carry on thus, living without the company of other persons or animals, for their cosmos contains no other inhabitants.
       In time Nicos succumbs to old age and passes away in his sleep.  Casta performs the rituals in his honor, and being still healthy she lives on in solitude.  This solitude ends nine months later, when Casta gives birth to Nicos' son, Thanos, whom she had conceived shortly before Nicos' death.  Casta will raise Thanos within their idyllic meadow home.

The Aegean idyll has now told a spare story of three lives involved in a death and a birth.  The illustration below abstracts those lives into timelines of existence.  Each thick white line symbolizes the temporal extent of a life in the idyll.  Time flows from left to right.  We see again that Nicos passes away before the birth of Thanos, and that Casta lives throughout the full duration of the story.

Figure 9.3 Fig. 9.3
Timelines for Nicos, Casta and Thanos

We will come across this illustration again, later in the essay.  For now, we can note that the idyll's text and imagery present only visible facts of the idyllic cosmos.  The story has not yet spoken to the subjective, interior, reality of the characters.  And this will be the next task:  to sketch some essentials of the subjective experiences of their lives.
       The sketch will incorporate James' ideas, and also the deductions we still hold as our metaphysical keys.  Again, those keys are complete mortality and the corporeal basis of personal identity.

So, peering first into the life of Nicos:
       His is a robust soul.  By day he enjoys the full powers of mind:  an unbroken stream of thought, subjective awareness, remembrance of a noble life's events, and so forth.  Each night heavy slumber deprives him for a time of these mental faculties and intersperses dim time-gaps into his rest.  Morning follows night, and the waking Nicos remembers himself by reaching back into his store of memory, re-acquainting his mind with familiar thoughts and sensations.  A sweet breeze off the meadow stirs thoughts of wife and home, and he awakes.
       This is the daily cycle of Nicos' conscious experience.  It continues without subjective disruption for the duration of his life.
       And then, on the appointed night, Nicos passes away in his sleep.  What can be said of his subjective experience on this night?  We can imagine the outline of it.  The night begins like every previous night, with a heavy slumber.  And in that slumber Nicos lives through dim time-gaps.  But this night one time-gap does not end with a restoration of consciousness.  Instead the dimly-felt, subconscious time-gap of sleep descends to an unfelt, unconscious level.  There it continues, unfelt, unperceived, into the hour of his life's cessation; wherein he dies.
       As Nicos is understood to be completely mortal, death entirely unravels his personal identity.  It empties his store of memory and halts the inertial whirl of subjectivity.  At the very end his continuous mesh of neural structures crumbles, making the loss irreversible.
       All three criteria of personal identity have now failed him.  Objectively we see that his body is no longer animate.  We say that Nicos no longer lives.

But to say that Nicos "no longer lives" is to state a purely objective, external view of his death.  Nicos' subjective, internal view would at this time be entirely ignorant of the view without.  By the understanding we have developed in previous chapters we can say with good reason that Nicos' subjective view must be quite different from the objective view — our modern understanding of personal identity requires this distinction.  The two different views, subjective and objective, do not overlap; and this fact compels us to consider Nicos' subjective view as a "thing-in-itself," knowable only on its own terms.
       So, imagining Nicos' viewpoint alone, we ignore the outward appearance of the matter and focus on the purely subjective experience which Nicos should be expected to encounter.  What can we say of the moment when personal identity finally fails him?  At that moment Nicos' subjective experience is suspended — in toto — by the functional disruption of death.  This suspension is still understood most readily as an unfelt time-gap.  Nicos' subjective experience of death is thereby reduced to an elemental, which is just this:

Subjectively, Nicos' unfelt time-gap continues, indefinitely.

No other subjective experience would be consistent with James' stream-of-thought psychology.   Nor would another experience square with the conditions of complete mortality and personal identity.
       This particular time-gap is unusual in that it is open-ended.  Nicos' inanimate body cannot restore subjectivity to Nicos in future; as a result, it cannot end the time-gap which Nicos' death has initiated.
       Hereafter I will refer to this special type of unfelt time-gap as a "mortal amnesia":  it is the forgetfulness of existence we can associate with failure of the criteria of personal identity.  By prior reasoning this amnesia is irreversible.  Having encountered mortal amnesia, Nicos afterwards lacks the means of perceiving any aspect of his condition, or of recovering in future any of the memories which death has destroyed.
       This is the deepest, most engulfing time-gap which Nicos can encounter; for here no subconscious or unconscious thoughts can persist to facilitate his recovery.  Mortal amnesia casts Nicos into a state of timeless imperception that is indistinguishable from the thoughtless existence we ascribe to inanimate matter — which, indeed, Nicos has now become.

Looking now to Thanos:
       Nine months after the death of Nicos, Thanos emerges into the Aegean idyll.  Thanos' birth is the first to grace their cosmos since the loss of Nicos.
       The newborn encounters his first experience of life:  light, noise, and a hard rush of air into new lungs.  His personal identity is still a blank slate.  In these first moments of life his only knowledge is an innate, instinctive understanding of life's basic needs.  But that knowledge is common to all living creatures — Thanos' unique memory of life will come in future, as the stream of thought deposits its silt of memories in his forming mind.

next    Section 2 of 3

Chapter 9, Section 1 Endnotes

[1] James' concept is more popularly known by its lengthier equivalent, the "stream of consciousness."  The concept's enduring popularity is reflected in its common usage.  Newman, Baars and Cho provide a salient example on page 1202 of their cited article, wherein the authors refer to consciousness as a "coherent stream of conscious representations."  For a recent (1992) multi-disciplinary defense of James' 1890 stream-of-thought treatise, see Owen Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) 153-75, Chapter 8.  For a concise evaluation of the Principles of Psychology, see Robert Wozniak's online introduction
[2] William James, "The Stream of Thought," The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) 31-33.
[3] Passive awareness of the somatosensory system persists even in deepest sleep, which is why a midnight thumbprick, or a distress of internal organs, will register in the slumbering brain and elicit groggy response. The unbroken neural currents of somatosensory awareness link postcentral gyrus and thalamus especially tightly, without interruption, day and night.  Articles exploring the neural basis of sleep have been collected by Jerome M. Siegel, and are available online.  Functional differences between the waking and sleeping brain are detailed in a good neuroscience tutorial, courtesy of Diana Molavi.  For an overview of memory-related activity during sleep, see Fuster 284-88.  For a simulation of memory recall during sleep, see Bin Shen and Bruce L. McNaughton, "Modeling the Spontaneous Reactivation of Experience-Specific Hippocampal Cell Assemblies During Sleep," Hippocampus 6:6 (1996): 685-92.
[4] The confirmation is most explicit in the listing of emergent features.  When mental function drops from the highest emergent level of the hierarchy, phenomenal experience invariably lapses.
[5] James, The Writings of William James 32.
[6] A lucid case study of parietal lobe injury can be found in A. R. Luria, The Man With a Shattered World:  The History of a Brain Wound (New York: Basic Books, 1972).
Copyright © 1999

Wayne Stewart
Last update 4/19/11