[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. I am not in or from St. Louis, but I find the Little Letter Republic quite meaningful. You can find Sebastian’s original letter to me here; A Networked Identity May Be Better. If and when Sebastian responds, I will post the link here.]
I have long held a “rolling two-year rule” when it comes to issues of identity. This simple rule states the following; I cannot be held accountable for who I was two years ago, for I am not that person.
I established this (semi-ironic) rule for two reasons. The first being that I cannot help but cringe anytime I look back that far. The more distance I can put between me and that individual, the better. The second reason is that upon reflection, there seem to be fundamental and irreconcilable differences in my values and identities over any two-year period. Simply said, I am never the same person.
So when I tell you that I am going through an identity crisis, I want to put it into the context of that perpetual identity crisis. Crisis is not the exception, but the rule (the rolling two-year rule). I am constantly changing, rejecting, and trying on new identities. It is a never-ending process which I find meaningful and important. (After all, not all change is progress, but stability never is.)
Nevertheless, I am going through a particular crisis for which I believe you might have insight. So I am quite appreciative of your letter and it’s good timing.
In regards to the content of your original letter, I believe I am 95% in agreement. I believe that appropriate identities are necessary for flourishing, and that, as you say, ‘to keep our identities small in perpetuity does violence to true flourishing.’
However, I am not convinced that anyone has found a work-around to the issues that Paul Graham raises, as those issues seem (nearly) intrinsic to what it means to have an identity. As I see it, an identity is a signal to self, and to others, of one’s dedication to certain people, principles, and/or ideas. And a signal of dedication is immediately undermined as soon as it demonstrated that someone has some other priority (such as truth) they put in front of that identity. I believe our barely enlightened monkey brains just can’t quite take an identity seriously when we undermine it too easily or too often. So to take an identity seriously requires sacrifice of other principles we hold.
As such, I do see a strong case against identity. Putting ourselves in a situation where we are putting effort into signaling our dedication, but then knowing we must undermine that identity on the regular, is too impossible a situation. What is identity but rallying around a flag because it is a flag worth rallying around? Introduce a new flag, and you very well may become a traitor.
Nevertheless, it does not seem plausible to me to abandon identity altogether. So I am forced to engage with questions of identity.
I believe the model you bring forward of a “network identity” is a good starting point, but I think more work needs to be done. A network is an approach to modeling, but it isn’t itself a model. Since networks are made up of (1) nodes and (2) the relationship between those nodes, I believe that leaves us with two questions if we are to develop a truly prescriptive model of identity.
The first question is this; which identities are worth adopting? i.e, which nodes are worth adding to our network?
This question is of primary importance. What is worth dedicating ourselves to? Which identities lead to personal and societal flourishing? In short, who is it worth being? Should I define myself by my moral philosophy, the institutions I belong to (which institutions?), my fandoms, my music tastes? Through out my life, I have identified with all of these things, and it’s still not obvious to me what things are worth identifying with.
What is clear is that often my identities choose me, more so than the other way around. The identities I adopt (or which adopt me) seem to answer a question of the soul I had at the time, or facilitated me becoming who I wanted to be. What am I to make of that? Should I judge these identities through their roots (how I came to adopt them, and the solidity of their epistemological foundation), or by their fruits (how they affected me)?
I do not have an answer.
The second question is how those identities relate to each other, or rather, what the connections between those nodes look like. And this is where my current crisis comes into view.
Your own approach is that of a sort of Gestalt. Where others see trees, you see a forest. And while to the tree, its own birth and death are rather significant events, to the forest they are barely worth noticing. Indeed, you are a walking, talking ship of Theseus. Over the course of your life all your identities could be exchanged for different ones, and you would still be you.
But this is more like a level of analysis than it is a description of the relationship between nodes.
My answer has, so far, followed my epistemology. A (relatively new) core belief of mine is that the world is just too complicated to understand, and that all we can do is build models which asymptotically approach truth. As a result, if there are multiple conflicting models which cannot all be true, I adopt the conflicting models anyways, and try to act in ways that all models would endorse (For example, my career is meaningful to me regardless of whether or not there is a God, whether there is an essential human nature, or which ethical theory is true).
This multi-model “Fox” approach, largely inspired by Phil Tetlock’s Superforecasters (who in turn gets the framework from Isaiah Berlin, who in turn gets it from Archilochus) has served me well when it comes to models, ideologies, and worldviews. It has allowed for a sort of internal dialectic, an “Internal Wisdom of the Crowds”, which I believe makes me a better thinker. Combined with Bayes, it is extremely powerful.
But can you do the same with identities? It is on this point that I would be most appreciative of insights you might have.
Adopting conflicting ideologies and worldviews is surprisingly easy. But in so doing, they can only become “identities held lightly”. You cannot be fully Republican and Democrat, but instead you become weakly supportive and weakly condemning of both (though not equally). This is great epistemically, as it allows for a sort of internal “cross cutting cleavage” that is quite fulfilling to experience and play around with. And to this day, it is the best answer to Paul Graham I know. I highly recommend you at least play around with the idea.
But I think there are other identities for which you need to be all in. Some identities for which holding too lightly is to lose the value all together. After all, a husband who is only 90% dedicated to his wife is barely a husband at all. The value is in the full dedication.
In the network of my identities, I have identities which are connected in an antagonistic fashion. Other identities which are mutually supportive. And yet other identities which barely interact at all, if ever. Mostly I believe that this mix is rather good and healthy, but sometimes I worry about those antagonistic identities. Is it better to admit I do not know the truth, and stay in the hazy gray area of embracing neither identity fully? Or, must I sometimes leave behind Bayes and adopt a Frequentist view where I reject (or fail to reject) one identity, and take a leap of faith? And if the latter, what is the criterion for such a decision? What are the p-values of my soul? How could I possibly know?
As with the first question, I have no answer to the second. I do not know exactly how all the nodes in our network should interact.
In regards to both these questions, I think there are correct answers, or at least there are answers which are more correct than others. But, as I have said, I think it might only be possible to approach truth asymptotically. And when it comes to something like identity which is so embodied, I wonder if it is perhaps through experience, and not from reasoning through first principles, that we begin to approach that truth? Like riding a bike, it cannot be learned from a letter, no matter how well written. Instead, you play around with different configurations, always trying and searching for something which brings a little more balance to your soul.
I believe it is so. After all, what is flourishing but an active process of change? This is the point that reflecting on identity has forced me to realize; complacency is incompatible with flourishing, they are opposing states of being. Flourishing is an active process of change, of burning away the chaff and being born again as something new, whereas complacency is stagnation. Complacency with your identities is like chaining yourself to your cringe-worthy past, when instead you need to chain yourself to your ever evolving understanding of the Good. So while I am pessimistic about our ability to truly come to a full answer in regards to what identity should be, I am quite positive that we can flourish anyways. A perpetual identity crisis is a small price to pay for a flourishing soul, especially when that crisis gets spread out over a couple of years such that you barely notice until you look back.
So consider this the third aspect, and thus the third question, of a prescriptive model of a network; how does the network change over time? This is the only question for which I feel I have any kind of answer.
May this letter find you well,