Formal System

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Free Will Series – 5. The Self: Recognition in Fiction — September 6, 2014

Free Will Series – 5. The Self: Recognition in Fiction

The Walk: Futuristic Personal Development and Former Selves

Personal Development is a topic of interest to many people. Whether by reading books or listening to motivational speeches, people wish to change aspects of themselves. Their beliefs, personality traits and in some parts of the world, their sexual orientation. In the Walk, we are shown a piece of neuro-technology that allows the user to modify his beliefs, personality and morality. A person walks before his soon-to-be assassin and tries to convince the assassin that he will do anything that the assassin wants in exchange for his life. Instead, the assassin offers him a device that will alter the person’s view on the self.

This philosophy considers that there is no such thing as a permanent self but instead a person is made of collection of “selves” which are patterns of thought and due to this, where a particular self is defined as a set of thoughts and personality traits at a particular time. According to this view, since a self is essentially made of a pattern of information, there exists the possibility that sometime in the future, whether for a life or a second, an individual exists with the same self as the holder of the philosophy.

The person to-be-killed argues that his “self” cannot exist in the future because he is self is also made of circumstantial factors (the particular story of his life or life time-line) and thus anyone without his story cannot be him.

The assassin replies that even though he does not have the life time-line, personality traits or beliefs of his 5-year old self but he still regards that the self that existed with his body 20 years ago and the person with his body now are the same. Just like his sense of self transcends all the physical and psychological changes that all humans undergo as they mature, and he identifies himself with a 5 year old that looks and acts nothing like him, he could also identify himself with a future individual that is physically different to him but in some aspects is similar to him.

There is also a bit where they talk about surviving through their sons, the idea being that as long as a living human has a portion of genetic information similar to one (as in the case of a biological son), a person’s body dies but his “self” manages to evade death.

The story is interesting because it touches upon the fact that we can identify with humans that are physically and psychologically different to us but might or might not identify with humans that might be psychologically and/or physically similar to us. Just like due to our particular way we “recognise” our self and we don’t feel sad at the fact that our body is constantly replacing old parts of itself with new ones, or “recognise” our self in our biological descendants however physically and psychologically different they are, the technological device provides an alternative view where our view of the is self considers that our self has a non-zero probability of existing (i.e. being hypothetically recognisable by us) at different points in time (past and future), for different periods of time (lifetime, years, seconds), at varying degrees of self-similarity (individual thoughts or collection of thoughts, individual traits or collection of traits and other behavioural patterns), in different human bodies of different ages.

A Kidnapping: simulated unhappiness, simulated lover

A Kidnapping features the story of a world where individuals activate previously prepared simulations of their selves when they die. A man receives a video where his wife tied up and scared asks for his help. The help consists in paying a ransom to a particular bank account. After checking that his wife is not tied up but safe at her workplace, the husband dismisses the video as a prank. But later, considers to pay the ransom (likely to be a relatively large amount of money). He reasons that the video was an extremely accurate simulation. So accurate, that he could not tell that it was fake as every single gesture of the woman in the video he recognised as the gestures of his wife. Every single subtle aspect of his wife behaviour and physical appearance had been displayed by the woman in the video. Since he loves his wife, he pays the ransom but keeps it from his wife. When his wife discovers that he is paying the ransom an argument ensues. She argues that the one in the video is not her but he thinks she could have been scanned and thus the woman in the video was indeed his wife. His wife, after seeing the video, disagrees that the simulation is an accurate reproduction of her but his husband says something very interesting. He says that no one can reliably judge the simulation of himself. And he has a point.

Sameness and the lack thereof is in the brain of the beholder.

The pattern-recognition powers of the brain are incredibly positive to us. But anything in excess can be bad. And this power is no exception. Apophenia, as was said in a previous post, is the downside of our brain’s pattern-recognition powers. It refers to the annoying tendency of human brains of seeing patterns in random data such as a face in the moon or an agency behind atmosphere dynamics. Similarly, we can sometimes have a sort of “positive negative” and ignore the patterns just to focus on the spaces in the data with no patterns. In the story, the wife seems to do this. She ignores how much the woman resembles her and focus on extremely subtle/tiny differences that might not even exist.

Human bodies are constantly replacing their parts

On another occasion, the protagonist recalls a conversation they had about performing a simulation of her brain. She refused on the grounds that a simulation was an imitation of her “self” by a computer. He replies that life is based on imitation, that every part of her body is constantly being replaced by an “imitation” and thus, it is implied that she is already an imitation.

A meta-simulation: simulating simulations

Later, he figures out that the video is indeed a simulation but not taken from a simulation of his wife but from his simulated brain’s memories of her. The second implication being that, before sending the video to him, the simulation of the protagonist was tested on various ransom scenarios to see which one affected him more emotionally. He pays a ransom (which is actually a regular series of payments) because he thinks his simulated wife might be “conscious/self-aware” rather than a sort of tape-like record extract from his simulated brain.

What we have in our brains

The protagonist considers a hypothetical conversation (a simulated conversation, indeed) ensuing his confession of his honouring the ransom. His wife considers the simulated wife “just” a meta-simulation implying a lower ontological status. His husband considers that all they can ever have of each are the “portraits of each other inside their heads”. She dislikes the idea of him considering her just an “idea”. But he corrects her by saying that he does not consider her an idea but an idea (a simulation or model) of her is all he has and concludes that it’s that simulation in his head all he can ever love because that’s all that there is about her inside his brain. A simulation.

Change and Identity

Learning to Be Me: Who is Who

“I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to be me.” The neural implant called jewel acts as a sort of supervised neural network that is fed the data of a self and eventually, through trial and error, learns to imitate that self so that when the protagonist’s “self” dies, the jewel can continue the self’s existence. An interesting detail is that the jewel and the brain do not know which “one” is the brain and which the jewel. But when asked, he nevertheless replies that “he” is the “real” human in a rather emotional tone.

It becomes quite tricky to think of “real” and “fake” selfs when the jewel and the human receive the same sensory input and the jewel is constantly trained to act like the brain it simulates. “So as long as the jewel and the human brain shared the same sensory input, and so long as the teacher kept their thoughts in perfect step, there was only one person, one identity, one consciousness.” The story engages with the who-is-who question for a while and gives interesting opinions: “This one person merely happened to have the (highly desirable) property that if either the jewel or the human brain were to be destroyed, he or she would survive unimpaired. People had always had two lungs and two kidneys, and for almost a century, many had lived with two hearts. This was the same: a matter of redundancy, a matter of robustness, no more.” The idea is that one’s self resides in two objects instead of one so the loss of one does not affect you anymore than a loss of kidney does.

The process by which the brain is discarded and the jewel takes its place is called “switch”. The protagonist’s parents reveal to him that they underwent the switch 3 years ago, and since the jewel is a replica of the brain, the protagonist did not notice. “This is why we did not tell you. If you had known we had switched, at the time, you might have imagined that we had changed in some way. By waiting until now to tell you, we have made it easier for you to convince yourself that we are still the same people we have always been.” As was mentioned earlier, if the protagonist knew that he should expect some difference his brain could perform a sort of negative apophenia and find differences where there are none. The rest of the story continues this theme of recognition of the self in the context of a society with advanced neuro-technology and a different conception of the self.

Closer: the sense of other-selfness

“Nobody wants to spend eternity alone.” In the first story, it was mentioned how we change across time and how our sense of identity is not necessarily changed due to it. In Closer, a couple literally decides to temporally merge their selves but the result is not satisfying and the break up. The idea is that they literally got so close that they became one for a brief period of time. As consequence, this merge broke the idea of otherness between them. In the story otherness is defined as the basis of intimacy and intimacy is seen as the major drive in their relationship. “What Sian had always wanted most in a lover was the alien, the unknowable, the mysterious, the opaque. The whole point, for her, of being with someone else was the sense of confronting otherness. Without it, you might as well be talking to yourself.” The idea is that people tend to love other people where “other” refers to any self that is not one-self.

“We knew each other too well, that’s all. Detail after tiny fucking microscopic detail.” In their desire for intimacy which can be seen as a desire to get closer and closer to each other, they accidentally destroyed the sense of otherness between them, they got so close that there came a point where there was no other but only one-self. “Together, we might as well have been alone, so we had no choice but to part. Nobody wants to spend eternity alone.”

Perhaps, the question Who am I? is no different to Why does the Earth not fall? or What keeps the Earth floating in the space? Perhaps, we make assumptions about our identity. Assumptions that are not true. If we cannot recognise ourselves, how can we know that ourselves have this property called free will?

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Madoka Magica: a Faustian tale in a world of pain and selflessness — February 7, 2014

Madoka Magica: a Faustian tale in a world of pain and selflessness

I was told about this animation work by a friend who also highlighted that I should not let my prejudices kick in until I have had the chance to watch a few episodes. I was very skeptical about the possibility of me liking what seemed to be an ordinary anime about magical girls.

I don’t have anything against that type of anime but it does not fall within my preferences. And this anime where the word “cute” seems to be everywhere…well, I planned to drop the series after four episodes.


From the cover images, it would seem like the sort of anime aimed at a young female audience, right?

I was wrong.


Despite the title, Madoka Magica is not a show for kids. Yes, it might be cute. But it is not your typical show about magical girls.


The show starts with the premise that in the world there are witches that are the responsible for the existence of pain in the world and magical girls are justice warriors that destroy these ‘pain factories’. The chosen girls can make any wish they want in exchange for fighting witches. The cute white creature makes this possible for a selected number of girls. Up to here, it does sound like an interesting anime about utilitarian warriors.


Witches are some sort of monsters that drive people to commit terrible acts that cause suffering. They hide themselves inside fantastical realms.
As the kind-hearted and selfless people they are, the girls make wishes to improve other people’s lives. A boy gets his hand back, a Priest gets the attention he craves, a girl gets the friends she wanted.

But it soon becomes apparent, that while the wishes did improve some people’s lives, they also worsened other people’s lives. This is a common theme that relates to the collectivism of Japan. The blue haired girl made a wish to heal the hand of the boy she loved. But then, she decided that being selfless was the right thing to do. Because justice warriors must always work for the sake of others. Putting the sake of others over one’s own sake. Right?


Her friend also loved the boy and mentioned this to the magical girl knowing she also loved the boy. The blue haired girl was given a head start to confess to the boy before the other girl would try. But she decided not to. Why? Because it is selfish. And selfishness is not a right trait. That was her reasoning. Seeing her friend with the boy and still refusing to accept her own selfish desires, she fell into a metaphorical pit of masochism. This is very well portrayed in the fight against a witch where she does nothing to protect herself and avoid being hurt. Her response goes along the lines of her not feeling any pain and refusing others’ help in the fight against the witch.


She became full of angst but still refusing to acknowledge that it was her refusal to stand for herself what led to her suffering.


This is one of the themes of the show. The others/self dualism. When to put the interests of others over yours and when not to.

By this point, I was loving the series. Soon after this masochistic event, the girls learn that the “girls fight witches” is not the whole truth. Apparently, when girls hearts are full of suffering, they also become witches. And guess, what? Our pain-ridden blue haired girl becomes one. As one would expect, just like a happy person spreads happiness around, it makes sense to think of witches as those who spread suffering around. Taking care of a person filled with angst and pain is also a painful thing to do. This gives a whole new perspective to the role of magical girls.

Magical girls used to be the fighters of pain, reducing worldwide pain little by little. But then they understand that “she who fights with monsters might take care lest she thereby become a monster“.  Basically, being a magical girl involves a lot of suffering and it is out of this suffering that they become witches. Another way of interpreting this is that magical girls, like all humans, are not only not immune to the effects of pain, they can also become “factories of pain” like the blue haired girl did by inflicting pain upon herself for its own sake. But this is part of the job and all magical girls must come to terms with it. Like Homura says “With kindness comes naïveté. Courage becomes foolhardiness. And dedication has no reward. If you can’t accept any of that, you are not fit to be a magical girl.”. Selflessness is the basis of a magical girl. Fighting pain for the sake of others. And getting destroyed when one’s selflessness is shattered. It is kind of paradoxical that magical girls are selfless when they became magical girls by getting their own wish granted.

They also learn near the end of the series, that Kyuubei’s goal involves indirectly making the magical girls undergo a lot of suffering.
Why? Because, Kyuuubei wants to cancel out the increase of entropy in the universe, and apparently, the emotional suffering of young girls can be stored and manipulated to tackle the increase of entropy. Obviously, this makes this cute thing something of an enemy.
But Kyuubei lacks emotions. He seems to be indifferent to the pain and pleasure of the girls. Does this mean that Kyuubei is evil? It depends what do you mean by “evil”. Kyuubei’s goal is to tackle the increase of entropy and does what it needs to be done to achieve that goal. While he withholds important information from the magical girls, he never lies. And when asked, Kyuubei gives at least a partially true answer.

When questioned about his treatment of humans by Madoka, Kyuubei questioned human’s treatment of animals.

And I think that is an excellent point. Kyuubei is more powerful than humans and he could probably force all the girls to become witches. The very fact that he is up to some point giving freedom to a weaker species talks a lot about Kyuubei’s ethics. Compared to Kyuubei, we humans, as a rule of thumb, consider non-human species as means to our ends. Whether it is food, clothes, energy, company, we disregard their suffering when compared to the half truths of Kyuubei. Magical girls under Kyuubei have an option. Animals under humans do not. Madoka conveniently failed to understand Kyuubei’s argument and ignored him. Assuming that what Kyuubei says is true, Kyuubei’s help has helped humans progress socially and technologically. And like Kyuubei says, Madoka’s relatively pleasant life is only possible due to the suffering of thousands of humans that played a role in the development of the current world.

Going back to the plot,  one of the girls decide to stop the process by which magical girls become witches.

Her wish makes her able to somehow stop all magical girls from becoming witches. She rewrites the laws of physics along the way. She strips magical girls of their suffering and she takes it upon herself Jesus Christ-style. But it soon becomes obvious that even though witches do not exist anymore, people still suffer and most of the laws of physics seem to have remained unchanged. But at last Madoka managed to reduce the pain experienced by magical girls by stopping their transformation into witches.

Last movie. Madoka was supposed to have fixed most things. But instead we see fights among the magical girls themselves. And even though witches do not exist, there are other monster-like entities that magical girls have to fight.

The center of all this seems to be Homura. Just like the blue haired girl underwent suffering before her death,

Homura seems well on the same way.
When thinking about it, Homura has spent the whole series suffering.
Homura made a wish to save Madoka and Madoka made a wish to save all magical girls from becoming witches. So while, Homura’s wish became true, she was still not happy with the result. It comes back to the idea of selflessness and selfishness. Madoka’s wish erased Madoka’s existence and Homura suffers over the idea of her friend spending eternity fighting monsters to save others without getting any acknowledgement. Madoka was happy to go down the route of selflessness and became a sort of invisible deity, Homura was not. It’s important to note that here Homura was not being selfless. Madoka was her friend and she was trying to save her. Homura spends most of the series and the movies suffering over Madoka’s fate as a witch first, and as a deity that saves everybody but no one knows later. Near the end of the Rebellion movie, she learns that Madoka did not want to become a deity but did it because she thought there was no other way to save the magical girls from becoming witches. Homura knows that Madoka would always put selflessness over her own desires. So Homura decided to force Madoka’s desires and released her from her eternal witch-hunting task effectively stripping her of her divine powers. It is revealed that the suffering Homura is undergoing is actually love. This is another metaphor of the idea that love involves pain. Homura managed to steal Madoka’s powers and use them to give her the life Madoka had before the series. At this point, Homura does not seem to be suffering anymore. However, it is quite evident that Homura’s love for Madoka clashes with Madoka’s selfless desire to carry the pain of magical girls. It can be argued that Homura was willing to make others suffer if it had as a consequence Madoka’s well-being. Unlike the blue haired girl who suffered by her own denial of her desires, Homura embraces the pain as part of the love she feels towards her friend. Homura rewrites the world as it was before the series so that Madoka can enjoy a pain-less life in this illusory world. Homura also traps the other magical girls in the illusory world with their memories of past events increasingly erased. One interpretation of this ending might be that a painless life is only possible in an illusory world.