Luke Roelofs is Not a Real Individual

Yesterday I argued that human beings are not substances or ‘things’ but rather complex actions performed by matter or by ‘the universe’. This might not seem like a big deal.

After all, if might sound strange to say “the universe is Luking here” instead of “Luke exists here”, or “the universe is Luking strongly” instead of “Luke is healthy”, but don’t they mean the same thing? Isn’t this just a re-phrasing, a merely semantic or grammatical change?

Actually, I think it has some very important implications, which are counter-intuitive and even disturbing. To see this, go back to our example of a complex action, the ‘gait’ of a horse, and consider what we can and can’t do with it.

We can make some judgements about its persistence across time, its identity and distinctness from other gaits. We can say that a horse trotted for 2 minutes before breaking into a canter – one gait persisted for 2 minutes before being replaced by a different gait.

What we can’t do is expect to be able to make such judgements in all cases – sometimes questions of the form “is this gait the same one as that gait” just won’t have answers. If the aforementioned horse canters for a minute and then starts trotting again, is this new trot ‘the same gait’ as the previous one? Or is it a new gait? I don’t think there’s any fact of the matter about that.

It gets worse when we observe that to speak of gaits only makes sense within certain parameters: a stable, self-reproducing pattern of movements. If there is no such pattern, then there is no gait. But between the two cases there is only a difference of degree – how much disruption is required for a gait to stop being a gait and become merely falling with style? Or for a momentary fumble to divide the gait before and the gait after into two distinct gaits?

Moreover, the way we individuate gaits is ‘interest-relative’ – it depends what we’re interested in. If we’re horse-experts we might distinguish (as people apparently have distinguished) more than a hundred distinct gaits, whereas a casual or untrained observer might only notice three or four. All that’s objectively there is innumerable differences – we then project onto some of these our distinctions, which are just the reverse-side of our groupings.

What this is all driving at is that modes – actions, properties, relations, etc. – have only a very substandard sort of individuality. To be blunt, their interest-relative, parameter-dependent, intermittently-indeterminate individuality is just the expression of the fact that they are not individuals. Individuality belongs, properly speaking, only to substances.

So you can see that it if humans and horses are themselves modes and not substances, then that’s a rather big deal, since it implies that, in the proper sense, we (or should I say they?) are not individuals. And this is hardly a bolt from the blue – this is something that innumerable thought-experiments have inarticulately pushed on us.

“Imagine a teleportation device that would scan and deconstruct your body instantaneously, beam the information to another planet, and then re-assemble an exact replica of your body. Would it be you?”

This question is analogous to “imagine you see a wall painted a certain shade of blue, and then strip the paint of it. But you take a sample to another house and paint a wall in it the exact same shade of blue. Is it the same blueness?”

Or “Imagine that you are put in a vat of nutrients, where experts in gene-expressions use micro-electrodes and stem cells to make your body split down the middle, dividing into two indistinguishable fully-formed replica people. Which one of them, if either, is you?”

This question is analogous to “Imagine that you take a candle, set it alight, and then use that fire to set light to two other candles, extinguishing it in the process. Which of the resultant flames is the same fire as the original?”

In short, if ‘Luke Roelofs’ is not a substance but an action performed by matter, then he is not a particular but a universal, something without any real, objective individuality.

And within certain parameters and given certain interests, of course, it will be reasonable to speak of him as an individual, and with the right stipulations and conventions it’s possible for such talk to be objectively true or false, or something almost as good. But fundamentally, ‘Luke Roelofs’ has no more individuality than the colour blue does.

Next post will discuss why this feels wrong, and what individuals there might really be.

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3 Responses to Luke Roelofs is Not a Real Individual

  1. Pingback: I am Not Luke Roelofs | Majestic Equality

  2. Anonymous says:

    Erm… do you know what “semantic” means? You’ve said the change is both superficial and deep.

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