More on consciousness (iii).On personal identity and 'eternal recurrence'.

Nietzsche famously obssesed about eternal recurrence, the idea that everything would happen over and over again, and thus that we would live life again and again.  Indeed, he was familiar with the same idea in Schopenhauer who wrote: "Perhaps no one at the end of their life, if they were simultaneously enlightened and honest, would wish to live their life over again, in fact would much prefer complete nonexistence to it.".  But whereas Schopenhauer saw such a possibility in a negative light, Nietzsche saw redemptive possiblities in it.  Here is Nietzsche (somewhat obscurely, as usual):
"What if, someday or night, a daemon stole into your loneliest loneliness, and said to you; "This life, which you've lived up to now, you must live once again and countless times, and nothing new will come of it. Every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh, and everything inexpressibly small and great in your life must return to you, all in the same order and series. The eternal hourglass of time will be turned over again and again, and you with it, pebble of sand." Would you not cast yourself down, with gnashing of teeth, and curse the daemon who spoke thus? Or have you ever experienced one tremendous moment, which would cause you to answer him; "You are a god, and never have I heard a commandment so holy!" If such a thought were to gain power over you, it would transform you, maybe even crush you. The question put to everyone; "Do you want this again, and countless times?" would become the heaviest weight upon your actions! For how good would you have to become to yourself and your life to long after nothing more than this final confirmation and seal?"
Of course, the idea of such recurrence is also embedded in some Eastern religions: but it is also, by implication, rearing its head in some scientific discussions.  If one really does not want the universe to start along with time and space, then it must persist forever, and as a result, given an absolute infinity of time, the same state of affairs, arbitrarily close to the ones we know now, must recur over and over again.Even if the universe is infinite, an infinity of time will still allow certain subsections of it to keep coming back arbitrarily close to the same state.  Indeed, some of the superspecialists are rather keen on this idea.
It seems that we will all live forever after all, and whether this is a source of horror or joy must depend on whether you incline towards Schopenhauerian pessimism or not.  What I want to discuss here are some very strange effects that a physicalist view of consciousness and personal identity has in such a setting. 
Personal identity has been much discussed recently, with several famous thought experiments: I shall produce some of my own in a moment. Indeed, its very existence has been questioned by people like Hume (a bundle of experiences), and more recently in the weighty effort by Metzinger, Being no one.  However, I am not so sure that that first person subjectivity is so easily removed from the scene. But taking subjectivity seriously immediately means a package of bizarre problems emerge as we try to relate the subjective to the objective, as eternal recurrence brings out.
So, suppose that at some point in the unimaginable future, the world state returns to more or less what it is today.  And thus, a person abitrarily similar to me is born.  But the question is, is it me?  Will I, after my death, be reborn and experience my life again?  Of course, someone will do in this situation: someone will be born who will think just like me, have the same subjective experience and so on.  But that does not in itself make that person me. 
To make this clearer, I want to introduce a thought experiment which, like all such reputable things involves a mad scientist intent on torture (it is of course a variant on several other similar ones).  Suppose I have an identical twin.  Both of us are captured by the MS; who proceeds to make the minor alterations to my twin's brain to make it exactly like mine (lucky him).  Of course, this won't be possible at the quantum level, but by getting the neurone numbers and relationships right, the types and concentrations of neurotransmitters etc, one can surely get a prety close fit.  And now, of course, the MS locks us up and goes off for lunch, with the intent of torturing me when he returns.  Being mad, he forgets that he can no longer distinguish me from my twin.  He takes one of us out and starts to torture him horribly.
Whoever is being tortured will suffer terribly, and identically to the other if it had been him instead.   But surely, I would still rather prefer that it was my twin who was being tortured and not me; I would rather he had that experience, and not me. Now imagine it the other way round: I am altered by the MS to be identical to my twin.  Does this make any difference?  Surely not.  But this seems to show that physicalism is wrong: subjectivity introduces some element that cannot be detected by physical investigation of the world: no-one could ever tell which of the two was really being tortured
Now return to the eternal recurrence scenario: and now do we feel the same about whether or not I get to be born again?  Why is a supertwin of the distant future more likely to be really me than the one in the next room? 
Now think of another scenario, where the mechanism that keeps the universe in existence is "on the blink": the universe sometimes snaps out of existence for an instant, then comes back in the same state with no passage of time.  Am I still the same person then?  Surely the loss of consciousness is not the problem, because that happens all the time when we sleep.  Of course, this sort of problem can be solved by reference to a soul attached to a particular body. But that in itself raises a whole row of problems and I am inclined to think it is a conceptual mistake.
Personal identity, then, points to some extremely strange things about the world, once more dizzying and problematic.  Once more we should be very cautious about people who make confident claims about how the world really is.  But what surely is important is not the conceptual background to who we are: but how we respond to the existential challenge of who we are.  And that is to return to the central issues of this blog.


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