I Am the Swampman

Donald DavidsonI have said it many times before and I stand by it, “It is more important to be interesting than to be right.” It just so happens that usually, the most uninteresting people are wrong most of the time. This is because uninteresting people just think the same things over and over. Take Dick Cheney. Did he really have to make the media rounds for us to know what he thinks of the current situation in Iraq? Of course not! He might as well be a really simple program running on a Commodore 64. But one can be completely wrong and be incredibly interesting. So keep this in mind as you read my next sentence.

The philosopher Donald Davidson was wrong. He could not have been more wrong. And what amazes me is that most people think that he was right. I am speaking, of course, about the Swampman thought experiment. Here it is:

Suppose Davidson goes hiking in the swamp and is struck and killed by a lightning bolt. At the same time, nearby in the swamp another lightning bolt spontaneously rearranges a bunch of molecules such that, entirely by coincidence, they take on exactly the same form that Davidson’s body had at the moment of his untimely death.

This being, whom Davidson terms “Swampman,” has, of course, a brain which is structurally identical to that which Davidson had, and will thus, presumably, behave exactly as Davidson would have. He will walk out of the swamp, return to Davidson’s office at Berkeley, and write the same essays he would have written; he will interact like an amicable person with all of Davidson’s friends and family, and so forth.

Davidson holds that there would nevertheless be a difference, though no one would notice it. Swampman will appear to recognize Davidson’s friends, but it is impossible for him to actually recognize them, as he has never seen them before. As Davidson puts it, “It can’t recognize anything, because it never cognized anything in the first place.”

Well, actually, in a trivial way he’s right. Because you can’t just be talking about atoms. You have to get all the quantum states exactly the same. But let’s just assume that Davidson didn’t know any better (which is probably true). In that case, he’s totally wrong.

My memory of what my mother looked like is not the result of my eyes having processed the light reflected off of her. Sure, that was the way that I got the information. But then that information was stored in the atoms of my body. Note: I don’t say brain, even though clearly that’s the biggest part. But I’m sure that we think of ourselves as beings in much more than just the brain. Anyway, the brain is hardly discrete from the rest of our bodies. But it doesn’t matter. All the atoms and quantum states and all that jazz are the same.

What bothers me about this thought experiment is that most people seem to think that Swampman wouldn’t have all the information that the original did. This implies that there is you body and then the rest is a kind of fairy dust. (Maybe a soul?) But think about it for a moment. What does it mean for my eyes to have gazed upon my mother. The eyes I have now are different. Every year, the vast majority of your body’s cells are replaced. You are not the same person you were a year ago or even an instant ago. So who exactly are “you” anyway?

This is an issue that has long fascinated me. I don’t think I exist as a going concern. Rather, I exist for an instant, to be replaced by another version of me that is very similar, but not the same. This is why humans so love narratives. That’s what keeps us going: the narrative that we are a single thing. I have in my mind that I am the same person who was playing on the sidewalk at four years old. But I’m not. I just have that memory. And I have all the memories in between and so I think it’s all me. But it is not.

(So why don’t I just kill myself? I mean, since I do nothing but die over and over again at every instant? Just because I think these things doesn’t mean it feels that way. It seems like I’m the same person who started writing this article. And even if I’m not, why should I stop future iterations of me from their instant of existence?)

Getting back to Swampman: what I’m saying is that what goes on with the creation of Swampman is what goes on with us all the time. These eyes I have right now have never seen my mother who has been dead for over a decade. And yet I recognize her when she shows up in my dreams. The people who want to say that Swampman would be different in a fundamental way are missing the nature of our existence.

But you will have to forgive me if we disagree. I understand that a lot of people think there is some “secret sauce” that makes us conscious. All I can say is that you need to read more Schopenhauer. And then you have to obsess about it for a couple of decades.

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