Philosophical Intuitions for Internet Personhood
June 16th, 2022

The vast and wonderful knowledge of this marvelous universe is locked in the bosoms of its individual souls. To tap this mighty reservoir of experience, knowledge, beauty, love, and deed we must appeal not to the few, not to some souls, but to all.

– W.E.B Du Bois, “Of the Ruling of Men” (1999: 84)

A healthy democratic society entails a just and rigorous definition of the person and the empowerment of the person with political agency via voice and exit.

The success of progressive politics throughout the 20th century was in broadening the definition of citizenship and enfranchising every citizen. But in the online social spaces that have become crucial to public discourse in the 21st century, there is a noticeable absence of an enforceable definition of personhood or citizenship.

I see basically three philosophical approaches underlying a project of personhood on the internet: psychological, physiological, and sociological.

A Physiological Approach to Identity

One approach to identity, which can be termed animism, defines a person as a human animal that survives across successive physical stages. The verification approach includes trying and match a person to a physical body.

This approach gives us an intuitive “numerical” identity for a person that enables a pragmatic approach to verification – for example, by scanning an eyeball or a fingerprint.

Philosophically, the animist approach to identity is deeply unpopular. Olson (2002) reminds us that the Western philosophers Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel all denied it.

Conceptually, as it is a materialistic view, it is vulnerable to Hobbes’s Ship-of-Theseus style attacks. I have an operation that transfers cells from my body to another, at what point does my “self” transfer?

I think this has all sorts of other problems, like literally purchasing eyeballs. But most importantly, I don’t think it survives in our inevitable posthuman future.

A Psychological Approach

Another way is to tie a person’s identity to psychological characteristics, like memories. If someone remembers all the critical things in the right sequence, that makes them the same person.

The psychological approach has more philosophical support (from Locke to Nagel), and at a basic level allows us to verify identity with passwords.

In this “psychological continuity” approach to identity, it’s the succession of memories and their connecting narrative that defines who I am. But defining identity by the causal relationship between psychological states is challenging in terms of practical verifiability, and has its own conceptual critiques. Conceptually, a psychological basis for identity isn’t actually well-supported by modern neuroscience. In experiments with “split-brain” patients, for example, subjects can demonstrate two streams of consciousness. These patients’ left and right hemispheres interpret the world differently and each hemisphere tries to influence the body in its own way. Each stream of consciousness might have its own succession of psychological states, but we don’t think of them as constituting two different people (Parfit, 1987).

Both the psychological and physiological approaches to identity might exclude digital-only entities like an AI, which may have neither physical bodies nor a humanlike subjective narrative. Perhaps animism would grant identity to “synthetic organisms” or “living machines”, as described by Deplazes and Huppenbauer (2009), but since we cannot scan the eyeballs of an AI that does not have a body, this will be problematic for both the posthumanists and transhumanists discussed further below.

A Sociological Approach

A third approach is sociological. The sociological approach focuses on the relationship between self and society. The self is viewed as always acting in a social context with others and it’s the patterns of interactions that can be used to construct identity.

The self in this context is reflexive because we create society and in turn society “creates us”. The mind develops through social interaction.

Social interaction happens when we use symbols to communicate, so this can be called a “symbolic interactionist” view of self – pioneered by American sociologist Sheldon Stryker.

When we communicate with others we point out who we are, and we appraise others; through mutual appraisal, we refine our view of ourselves.

When we interact, we don’t usually interact as a “whole person”, but as an aspect of a person – with a role like that of a mother or colleague. We play out our roles in society, and these roles are compossible, subjective and we move in and out of them fluidly.

So the self is differentiated by the groups, institutions, and individuals we interact with (our social structure) and the contents of those interactions.

I think this is the right type of personhood for the internet.

We can at least rule out the other approaches. The physiological approach does not allow for AIs to be considered people. I think this is a problem because soon AIs will be capable of social and political engagement.

So we should make internet personhood compatible with Posthumanism (though we aren’t forced to accept everything about this movement). I should point out that Posthumanism is different from Transhumanism, which is about the advancement of human capacities. Posthumanism rejects the hierarchical boundaries that exclude non-humans from political life whenever those non-humans demonstrate political agency.

This indicates that we want some kind of “capabilities” approach to identity – perhaps even drawing from Martha Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach, which has been used to argue for moral rights for animals. The basic capabilities would have to do with social interaction – for example, for a person to express common sense in a social context and influence others. Hannah Arendt is another relevant thinker because she warned that common sense, thinking and judgment are all necessary for politics.

In light of this, the psychological approach mentioned earlier (e.g. via memories) also doesn’t seem like it could be a necessary or sufficient condition for internet personhood. A posthuman person might be able to think and express political agency, but also control their memories – removing some memories completely and manufacturing others in a way that disrupts continuity. This person might even have multiple streams of conscious input while still expressing a single character identity outwardly.

So it really comes down to the patterns of social interactions. Blockchains are well suited to recording many of these patterns formally – our group affiliations, roles, language, and so on. So I think a subjective interpretation of on-chain interactions is a philosophically sound approach to online identity, and likely to be the one that succeeds our current messy approaches.

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