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December 20, 2004

Exploration: Ageless Being - A Thought Experiment

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

From W 09.29.04:

"The point of this essay is that it is not an essay; it is an "exploration". I don't have any outline going into this, and it's not meant to end up as something that other people will read. This is where I'll sort through my thoughts. It's like note-taking -- but in sentences and paragraphs, rather than in fragments. The idea is to just keep going forward, and not become recursive, trying to edit what I still haven't even thought through. I think I can trust that by writing "explorations" such as this one, outlines will naturally emerge -- if it turns out that I even have adequate material for an essay. [Discovering that I really don't have adequate material for an essay would be valuable in itself!]"

I had this idea sometime last year (2003), probably around March. I remember outlining it verbally to Carl Caputo at the Chez Machin creperie. I walked through it briefly when I gave my presentation on Youth Liberation at the New Year's Eve (2003/2004) party at the coast. I put the outline for that presentation online on my "Notepad" site. I've printed out a portion of that outline, and am using it as notes, to remind me what I wanted to talk about here.

1. Youth as Disability

One of the things that makes Youth Liberation a tough sell to people is the way in which I deal with youth as if they are just people. In my writings, I talk about youth as if they are essentially adults' equals -- or as if they are adults themselves. Often, this seems to rub people the wrong way because they think that I am ignoring the ways in which young people are different from adult people.

Personally, I don't think that I've ignored the differences between youth and adults. It's true that I don't talk very much about them -- but I have, in fact, developed a way of thinking about differences. It seems like my adult audiences often think about youth only in terms of their differences. Perhaps I am just counterbalancing their extreme with an extreme of my own.

Generally speaking, my approach to the differences of youth has been to compare them with the disabilities that some adults have. Among adults, there are differences in abilities: illiteracy, physical handicaps, "developmental disabilities" ("mental retardation"). Many adults, due to disability, illness, or infirmity need some sort of care -- they require the assistance of a caregiver. Youth, too, need caregivers. During the past few decades, society has made strides toward accommodating differences in ability [especially via the Americans with Disabilities Act]. Accommodating the physical and mental differences of youth also requires making changes to the physical environment.

For the most part, I see little reason why the physical and mental differences that constitute youth should not be approached in the same way that other disabilities are. It seems patently wrong to me that parents, as caregivers, should have such enormous power to control their offspring -- authoritarianism and use of violence (spanking) being condoned. As with caregiving for people with disabilities, the ideal that we should be striving for should be empowering the young person's self-determination to the greatest extent possible. [I realize that this view of how people with disabilities are treated is idealized and ahistorical.]

However, parents are not seen as being merely caregivers for persons who inherently own themselves. They see themselves as the owners of the beings that they have physically produced. I draw a hard line: a woman owns the fetus that resides within her body, parasitically subsisting off of her; but neither mother nor father own the independent (though needy) child once it has emerged into the outside world. Once a person is in the outside world, they are their own property -- caregivers can and should assist, but the child fundamentally does not "belong" to them.

Perhaps this seems callous toward the parent-child bond. It need not be so. I am a great supporter of protecting loving relationships. The principle of a child's self-possession poses no threat to the bond -- unless the parent is abusive, and the child voices a desire to separate from them.

[There may be an additional objection: that youth are far more common than adults with disabilities. Whereas "differently-abled" adults are in some sense "exceptional", the disabilities of youth are the rule. My response to this is that, first, adults with disabilities are more common than you think [partial deafness or blindness often go unnoticed by the casual observer] -- and, second, that the total disability of the newborn is relatively brief, which should perhaps lower our estimation of what percentage of the population is in this state. ...It is a mistake to reduce all minors, ages 0 - 18, to the state of a newborn. We must learn to see all the ways in which children, even young children are capable, rather than seeing them only for their lacks.]

2. But children look different!

While my audience may be able to wrap their minds around the analogy between children and adults who are in some way "below average" physically or mentally, my sense is that there will still be a sticking point: children look different!

While intellectually you might be able to make a comparison between youth and adults, when confronted with the physicality of a person who is less than 3 feet tall, the mind goes back to its old habit of seeing youth purely in terms of their difference. In order to counter this visceral sense of differentness, I've designed a thought experiment, which takes place in three parts:

I. What if minds could switch bodies?
II. What if you could construct a body and summon a mind into it?
III. What if, upon entering a body, you had amnesia?

3. What if minds could switch bodies?

Suppose that the minds that inhabit physical bodies could switch at will. On a lark, you could pop over and inhabit my body, and I would spend a while living inside of yours. A man could spend time living in a woman's body; a woman could spend time inside a man's body. A person who normally has white skin could spend time in a body with black skin -- and a person with black skin could live as a white. A person confined to a wheelchair and unable to coordinate their muscles could transfer their self into the body of an athlete, and an athlete could spend time inside a disabled body. An adult or old person could switch into the body of a newborn, a child, or a teenager -- and vice versa.

In such a world, where people could mix and match bodies at will, you wouldn't know what kind of a "soul" existed behind a person's eyes until you spoke with them, got to know them a little. [To an extent, it would be like communicating anonymously with people on the internet, where you can only evaluate the identity of a speaker based what they write.]

...How different would male, female, black, white, able-bodied, disabled, adult, old, and young souls actually sound? There would likely be tell-tale signs in terms of language-usage: complex or simple vocabularies, dialect, slang, etc. These signs would be clues as to what life experience a soul was most familiar with -- but if you could minimize "give aways", what then? Are adults so academic, political, scientific, or philosophical that they would always be obvious? Isn't the majority of conversation banal, and simple -- wouldn't most youth and adults be indistinguishable? Furthermore, how often would it be the youth that seemed wise in their perspective on the life -- perhaps seeming to have more piercing insight because they come to the world anew?

4. Caregivers in a body-switching society

Regardless of the diversity or homogeneity of minds, important differences between physical bodies would remain. Some bodies would have testicles and be able to create sperm; others would have ovaries and wombs, creating eggs and having the capacity to carry a fetus to term. Bodies would come in different colors: black, brown, red, yellow, pink, albino. Bodies would come in different heights, standing from between two and (occasionally) seven feet tall. Bodies would come in different shapes: thin or fat, curvy or sleek, wrinkly or smooth, hairy or sheer -- each uniquely proportioned in the gait, slope of shoulders, and face. Some bodies would have super-honed eyesight or sense of taste -- others would be blind or deaf, or nearly so. Some bodies would be frail, some confined to a bed or wheel chair, some unable to lift their own head, some athletic.

In a society where minds could switch bodies, one would expect that some bodies would be more desired than others. Yet, if we presume that the number of existing minds matched the number of existing bodies, and that turns were taken in this fleet of bodies with some impartiality, then we there would still be a need for caregivers.

Caregivers would tend to people either because of limitations in the physical body or limitations of the mind inhabiting it.

A) Physical limitations
In the case of physical limitations, the most profound assistance would be required for infant bodies, bodies infirm with old age, bodies with disease or structural damage that impairs movement or voluntary control of movement, and bodies that with impaired senses (e.g. hearing, sight). Caregivers in many situations would have to assist with dressing, feeding, and transporting these individuals. Where speech was impaired, assistance translating the individual's thoughts for others would likely be required.

B) Mental limitations
Mental limitations come in several varieties: language usage (learning to speak, or learning to speak English as a second language), not knowing how to navigate a society's institutions (how to acquire and use food, clothing, transportation, money, etc.), social / emotional communication (appropriateness to a given subculture's norms). In some cases a person would be permanently stuck at their particular level of neurological development, in which case the caregiver might be required to act as a sort of translator, negotiating interactions between the individual and the greater culture. In other cases, the individual would be in a process of learning how to navigate through society under their own power, in which case the caregiver would be more of a guide.

In some instances, lack of understanding might lead a person to self-endangerment, similar to stepping out into the way of an oncoming care without looking. In this situation, there's nothing objectionable about a caregiver interceding to prevent the immediate, unintentional injury. However, situations where the person is knowingly choosing a path that may cause harm to themselves, is another matter. If, for instance, a person chooses to smoke (knowing its dangers), they ought be allowed to do so. A caregiver, like any caring friend, might choose to intervene -- but it would have to be as an equal, without the force of any authority other than their own ability to be convincing.

In addition to physical and mental limitations, there is a third limitation that would exist -- even in a body-switching society -- that must be addressed: financial limitation.

C) Financial limitations
When a mind transfers into a new body, it does not necessarily come attached with a full wallet! Finding a job in order to earn money might be difficult, either due to a lack of jobs in general, a lack of the jobs that one is specifically trained for, a physical or mental inability to do most jobs, or a pressing need to deal with other activities (learning, dealing with a personal trauma, caregiving for another person, etc.). People with altruistic motives might assist in one of two ways: setting up agencies that deal with the homeless and penniless en masse, or adopting individual persons for charity.

...In adopting and individual, the caregiver would be a sort of "patron", providing either cash or tangible goods (food, clothes, shelter). What financial limitations would be placed on this relationship? Would the receiver be able to demand anything they desired? Would giving be at the whim of the patron? Would any sort of minimum requirements be placed on the patron in order to prevent neglect? Might some sort of contract be spelled out, to prevent abuse by either party? [This arrangement might be take the place of inheritance...]

At a societal level, I would think that there would be a greater understanding of the need for some socialized services. Unemployment and retirement wages, homeless shelters and hostels, public transportation, public schools, public libraries -- with a greater ability to change circumstance, I would think that people would more generally see the value of a social safety net, how that which is done to benefit and protect all, uplifts all.

[To recap the implications of this thought experiment for YL politics... I think that parents, as caregivers, are required to fulfill three distinct functions:

A) Caring for physical survival at an early age
B) Orienting youth to society, and helping them navigate its institutions
C) Providing for financial needs ]

5. Laws in a body-switching society

[Note: If minds could switch bodies instantaneously at will, it might be impossible to create laws. Our legal system is founded on identity: that a mind and a body wholisticly remain the same person over time. For the purposes of argument, here, let's presume that authorities could identify certain souls as known, unique individuals -- but that they still could not ascertain anything else about the nature of that soul, other than that which they could test for in the present.]

If minds could switch bodies, it seems to me that laws establishing artificial age lines would be particularly offensive. This does not mean that regulating society would be simple! Consider the following examples:

A) Skills required for communal safety
Issues of skill would be the easiest issue to deal with. For instance, so long as a body was able to physically drive a car, and the mind in it knew how to operate the vehicle, they ought not be prohibited from doing so. Or, if a person was physically able to open the exit door on an airplane, they should be allowed to sit in the exit row.

B) Minimal intelligence required for communal decision-making
The right to vote in elections similarly would not be constrained by the age of a body. The electorate might choose to prohibit persons who are too "stupid" from voting -- but how would you do that? By making people take the SAT vote? By imposing at least a literacy test? During the Jim Crow period, literacy tests were once used to prevent blacks from voting -- that requirement has been struck down. Consider also, the diversity of beliefs among "intelligent adults" at present -- regarding religion, supernatural beings, what makes a good political leader, etc. Within a society that has any pretenses at being a democracy, who would we have stand as arbiter of truth? If we could not distinguish between people based upon their physical bodies, the problem of "adequate intelligence" would surely become only more difficult.

C) Regulating the impact of vice
If minds could switch bodies, to what extent would society attempt to control vices -- smoking, drinking, pornography? Would we decide that these influences were deleterious to society as a whole, and thus limit access for all? Would we use a "controlled substances" approach, allowing anyone access -- so long as they went through a training on the dangers, or perhaps got a sort of "prescription" from a doctor or similar authority figure? Would all people be given full license to do with their bodies as they please?

D) Assessing responsibility for someone's criminal actions
How would criminal offenses be prosecuted? Would all people be subject to the same penalties for the same offenses? Would there be a test for mental competency, imposing less severe penalties on persons who could not understand the consequences of their actions (due to inexperience, mental impairment, or insanity)? Would there be a means for erasing one's prior criminal record -- perhaps via an adequate period of good behavior? ...If there were a competency test, how would it be designed in order to prevent people from faking incompetence? Would there be circumstances under which competence was simply assumed -- or times when incompetence was not an allowed defense? Ought some crimes be unexpungable?

E) Identifying and empowering persons vulnerable to exploitation
How -- if at all -- would government attempt to protect vulnerable individuals from sexual or labor exploitation? It seems that in an ageless society, all persons would necessarily be given the right to make a criminal complaint against another person. How would government attempt to make people aware of their rights? How would it establish a system that was friendly to people who had been victimized? How would we understand "vulnerability?" Would all physical violence be understood simply as "assault" -- would we expand our understanding of "harassment" to further encompass intimidation on the part of caregivers? Would we have a broader or narrower notion of who's likely to be traumatized by assault? In which relationships would we continue to see a power imbalance -- the employer/employee relationship perhaps? How would we distinguish persons who are vulnerable from those who are self-willed and resilient?

6. What if you could construct a body and summon a mind into it?

I suppose an assumption of this thought experiment has been that there is a constant number of bodies and minds -- that the minds are essentially eternal. If so, this assumption makes it more difficult to talk about youth issues. Perhaps, on the other hand, I haven't made that assumption -- rather, I've simply bracketed the issue of inventing new persons. Maybe what I've done is assume that from this moment forward, everyone has the power to switch bodies. If so, what I'm describing is, poetically, a sort of revolution in human existence -- or an evolution, whereby souls are suddenly make the leap (all together and at once) to being unglued from their containers, their vessels.

...Now, I want to make the move to discussing the invention of new soul vessels, after the great moment of transcendence.

Now, suppose that people in this body-switching society have the ability to construct new physical vessels. If you want, they might grow them in vats, or piece them together like Frankenstein's monster. I want to keep in place the notion that this body could be any body -- it need not be an infant's body. However, in this hypothetical society, people do not have the power to invent new souls. The best that they can do is to summon a soul into the shell -- randomly selected from the population of souls that currently exist.

In fact, imagine yourself as one of these souls, who has been torn from your previous existence, plopped down into a new container, unexpectedly looking up into the eyes of the people who brought you here without asking.

The first thing that seems obvious to me, is that the power of creation does not grant ownership. Simply because these persons transferred your soul from one place to another (involuntarily, no less), that does not grant them the rights of slave owners. A self-aware being can enter into contracts that bear similarities to slavehood -- but persons, I believe, are fundamentally unownable. Claims that one owns another are inherently invalid.

The second thing that seems clear to me is that "creating" a person in the way I've described obligates the "creator" to caregiving. Having torn a soul away from wherever they were before, and now placed them into an alien situation, the person who brought them here bears responsibility for their well-being. They must provide for physical survival, orientation to and navigation within the local culture, and financial support that gives the translocated individual some sort of independence.

The person who has been transplanted, on the other hand, owes nothing. They did not ask to be brought here, to seemingly now come into existence. Their situation has been forced upon them; it is not some sort of favor, and are not obligated to view it as such. They need not be grateful or obedient in payment for coming into existence.

The person who summoned the soul into this body is not God. They did not actually create the soul that has come to reside in the physical vessel. If they had been able to create a soul, in the sense of meticulously programming its nature like some sort of robot, then perhaps they might be able to demand obedience and servitude. However, they did not; the newly arrived soul is independent and must be treated with the respect that is accorded an honored stranger.

...Even though providing for the newly arrived person may be a burden, it is the responsibility of the bringer to do so because it was their choice that created the situation. The newly arrived may choose to assist the bringer, doing labor, obeying their will -- perhaps because they see that they will themselves benefit from doing so, or perhaps out of a sense of compassion and respect for the bringer -- but they may equally decide not to provide such labor.

[The other scenario that might obligate a newly arrived person to their bringer is if the entire situation is the will of an omnipotent God. If there is a God who exists, dictating that bringers bring, and then that the people who are brought serve them -- then one should perhaps feel compelled to be obedient... However, it remains within one's menu of choices to rebel against God, and take whatever consequences follow.

The trouble with positing a "will of God" arrangement here, is that we do not have proof-positive that God wills subservience. The more plausible explanation is that it is simply in the self-interest of the bringers to say that there is a God. Because a command-obey relationship is so much in the favor of the bringer, documents that purport to relate the will of God should be viewed with suspicion. Without a strongly convincing manifestation of the supernatural, documents that demand obedience should be presumed to be human-made hoaxes.]

7. What if, upon entering a body, you had amnesia?

What if, in the body-switching society, whenever you entered a new-to-you body, you lost all your memories? I suppose, previously I should have stressed more vigorously that one maintains all of the memories from existing in previous bodies...

Still, if we assume natal amnesia, this changes the whole scenario somewhat. It seems to imply that souls may be immortal -- which raises the question of who created them in the first place. God?

...Perhaps what we need here is to clarify that the amnesia is temporary, that the soul does not so much learn, as go through a process of remembering itself. Now that I think about it, I think that I've read that exact theory somewhere before. Perhaps in Plato? Or maybe in Saint Augustine? --That notion that we do not so much learn the world as remember it again.

Where I wanted to go with this, is to say something about how all human beings need helpful peers. Each of us at some point in our lives needs caregivers to assist with our physical survival, or social navigation, and our economic independence. Who these caregivers are, however, need not be presumed. Caregivers could be the "bringers", or siblings, or unrelated acquaintances -- age, sex, race, all irrelevant. We need to be cared for.

We also benefit from relationships that we can count on -- that are stable, and will last for years to come. We need attention; infants "fail to thrive" when left alone, and adult prisoners tend to go insane when kept in solitary confinement. We need this companionship beyond just being assisted -- we need to have relationships.

A diversity of relationships with different ages, sexes, races, classes, and ability-levels is valuable. However, I disagree with those who put too much emphasis on role models. People who say that a single mother is inadequate because there needs to be a male role model -- or that a gay male couple can't parent because they provide no female influence -- to them I say "balderdash!" In many countries, children are raised primarily by siblings. This is not wrong. Loving attention is adequate, regardless of the source. ...Furthermore, I don't think that human beings should be trained into their roles as "men" or "women" or what not. We should be human beings first of all -- "manhood" or "femininity" be damned.

I also wanted to make the point here that if a soul already exists before it is brought into the body, then caregivers should not feel entitled to "shape" or "mold" the newly arrived. If people are inherently going to become who they were meant to be, then caregivers should assist -- but attempt to not get in the way of a person's self-determination.

As I look at it now, I'm not so sure that I can easily make this point. It seems like the idea that children are merely adult souls who have forgotten who they are is a larger stretch than when I was merely separating body and mind. It's easy enough to separate the physical and mental -- but when I start talking about remembering the future as if it's a past that simply has yet to unfold -- then I'm tinkering with the fourth dimension, suggesting that there is some sort of transtemporal "essence" to a person that is more than their existence in the present.

It's an interesting notion to explore elsewhere: what if I ran time backwards, and looked at the future as if it were simply the past unfolding. It's a separate topic entirely -- but another interesting mental exercise in terms of different ways to look at children.

Posted by Sven at December 20, 2004 12:00 PM