The Minimal-Mental-Model Hypothesis: Identity

What if another person were instantly brought into existence, next to you, who was identical to you in every physical way right down to the molecule? Would that be you, or just a replica of you? Would that person matter just as much as you do? Would you care as much about that person’s welfare exactly as much as your own?

What if..  there were a device that could “beam” you to another location — not by moving your atoms over to that location but by assembling in-place an exact replica, right down to the molecule, and the instant that new entity comes into existence you yourself are disintegrated into oblivion. Sort of like the sci-fi concept from the Star Trek movie series. For the sake of argument, say the new entity was created so precisely perfectly that even the electrochemical activity within your brain was duplicated at that instant in time, such that the memories and thoughts fired up in exactly the same state that your own brain was in.  You could regard this event in two very-different ways: you could say that your body was just moved from one position to the other. Or, you could say that you died, and someone else took your place and carried on.

Another aspect of our consciousness that is evidently at least partly a fiction, is that of identity. This is important for reasons that will become evident as I develop this. It took a little effort to arrive at a working implementation of this aspect of consciousness within the MindTh project.


Imagine that you have before you (‘you’ being our hypothetical animal standing in the jungle) two things. These things matter to you for whatever reason: perhaps they’re something you tend to bump into. So their location in important in your mind. Or perhaps they’re predators — in which case, their location is very important to you. To track them, your mind applies a label to each one. Let’s say the one on the left gets tagged with a post-it note with “A” written on it. The other, with “B”. Now, your brain finds it easier to think about them. One agent within your mind can call out “Watch out! A is moving nearer!”. Or: “Be is asleep. Let’s go nab an egg.”

Database-development engineers are well familiar with this concept. Many databases use tables of information, each table containing many rows of ‘records’, of – for example – books for a bookstore. A central issue is how do you distinguish one record from another? Suppose, for example, you have multiple books (that is, multiple records) that have the same name, and the same author? The designer of the database will often give each record an additional attribute: a identifier. That can be a simple number; a number which is different for every record. This number has absolutely nothing to do with the book; it exists purely for identification purposes.

That’s the concept. A more interesting example within the world of database-design is that of a table of people. You can store all sorts of traits about them, but how do you know for sure that you don’t have two records referring to the same entity? Names can be the same, dates-of-birth, even the address. In the U.S. it is not necessarily a straightforward solution to require a Social-Security Number for every person. Some don’t have one, or perhaps a given record might be for a person who is not within the U.S.

This same issue translates into our interaction with the world around us, and our mind uses an analogous mechanism to deal with it. We create an additional attribute to apply to various objects in order to distinguish them from one another.

Our mind often does this so vehemently (I’m sure a different term fits this better) that we fail to realize it. Given two things that are in front of us: suppose now that both things, are exactly identical. For every relevant property (size, color, texture, everything) they are the same. They might even be identical right down to the atom. But if at some point your mind has occasion to hear one called “A” and the other called “B”, then from that point onward that label (A or B) is pictured in your mind whenever you think of the thing that A or B is associated with. Our minds start to confuse the label “A” with the thing that is being called “A”. Absent any sort of label, your mind will hesitate for a moment. If it must, it’ll simply create a label that says, essentially, “The one on the left” and “..on the right”. If they then switch positions (and you see it) your brain again experiences a moment of confusion as it attempts to realign. But if they’re not quite identical, your brain will quickly zero-in on some feature, any feature, that appears useful to distinguish the two.

Often this is quite useful. Hence: this trait prevails in our mind. But it can lead to some misperceptions if we stick to this conceptualization without having an open mind on certain occasions.

Identity, that concept that our mind mechanically attaches to things we perceive, is largely a fiction. A construct of the mechanisms at work within our brain, implemented for purely pragmatic reasons. It is not ‘of‘ the external world: it is something we layer on top of it.

To take one example where this mechanism illustrates a shortcoming of our limited mental-model: in the most-common present-day religions, often it is a tenet that there is one “god”, and that humans are commanded to worship only that specific god. However (following a train of reasoning that presumes this to be authentic) that god is not identified, other than through the fact that there is only one. No need to apply a name, or some artificial “identifier” bit of information. Sometimes, there are no actual descriptive traits to use to identify this god: no height or weight, no address, no fingerprint or DNA sequence.  However, when you introduce the possibility of other gods – now it becomes important to assign some kind of identifier. Absent that, it becomes nonsensical to talk about “the one god”, if you have no way to identify him or her. Without, for example, a photo of how he (let’s just use the masculine pronoun for the sake of brevity) physically appears, or his Social-Security number, or a name that is truly unique (which would have to be something other than “God” one might presume) – it can be impossible to know which god you’re referring to, and thus it is impossible to know whether you are worshipping the correct one. The salient point is that the mental-model we use to think about this – breaks down.

A friend. Watching you.

A friend. Watching you.

In modeling the mind, you have to step down a bit and not try to over-philosophize this. The visual-system identifies possible “things”, and another mechanism quickly (and subconsciously) puts labels on them. The brains operates as though every thing already has an inherent identity. It depends upon it: the gears hesitate for a moment, otherwise. This is an important clue.

This is related to why the brain is quick to categorize groups, as for example races of people. It is a subconscious instinct, although this does not mean that we humans cannot manage this consciously. When confronted with a new group of people, who seem important to your world in some concrete way — you feel a sense of discomfort, like you’re failing to quite comprehend the world around you — until you give this new group a label. Imagine a mob of strange people come into a room, and an observer nervously asks “who are they?” You respond: “Oh, those. The are just blue-bellies.” Now, that observer is calmed. He perceives that he understands the intruders; his comprehension has managed the event and the source of discomfort is removed. In modeling this behavior in the computer program I am designing – it’s a very useful mechanism.


There is another, quite bizarre path down which I am presently exploring. It is possible (not possible as in physically, definitely could be the case – but rather just being open-minded to the possibility that it is plausible) – that certain of the things we are aware of as distinctly-labeled entities, are actually not distinct. That is to say: our mind regards them as separate things, but actually they’re just different views of the same thing. This may apply to regions of space, as well as to physical objects. Perhaps they ‘wrap-around’, whereby you look in one direction, and perceive something, and then you look in another direction, see another thing that looks the same as the first – and your mind gives it another label because it seems to be in a different place. But this time, that is a mistake. This might be considered analogous to standing within a hall of mirrors that amusement-parks used to have: you visually see multiple instances of you, or of someone standing near you. Your mind tricks you.

Remember, as Mother Nature brewed up your brain – it only designed it to deal with your immediate environ. Whatever is good enough for us to get by, to survive and procreate – that was enough. That applies obviously only to a very tiny scale of space and time, of speed-of-time, of scale of space, and with further substantial limitations. As we endeavor to broaden our understand of the Universe, we need to contemplate the possibility that our mental-model is a cage from which we will need to free ourselves.

Image of space with many points of light

A universe of many things


About James W Hurst

a professional software designer since the beginning days of the desktop cptr and uC-controlled avionics, I today am focusing on Java, Swift, C# and F# for building mobile and desktop and online applications under Android, Xamarin.Forms, iOS, WPF, and ASP.NET-MVC along with the requisite HTML/CSS/JavaScript/Ajax for web applications. My database expertise has covered a panoply of different database-engines and modeling approaches, and my main area of academic interest is Artificial Intelligence and vision.
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