Hal Finney wrote:
>It's an interesting question as to how far we can comfortably 
>or meaningfully take counterfactuals.  At some level it is 
>completely mundane to say things like, if I had taken a 
>different route to work today, I wouldn't have gotten caught 
>in that traffic jam.  We aren't thrown into a maelstrom of 
>existential confusion as we struggle to understand what it 
>could mean to have different memories than those we do.  How 
>could I have not gotten into that traffic jam?  What would 
>happen to those memories?  Would I still be the same person?  
>We deal with these kinds of counterfactuals all the time.  
>They are one of our main tools for understanding the world and 
>learning which strategies work and which don't.
>Then there are much more extreme counterfactuals.  Apple 
>Computer head Steve Jobs gave a pretty good graduation speech 
>at Stanford last week, 
>He explains that he was adopted, and his life was changed in a 
>major way by the circumstances.  His biological mother, an 
>unwed grad student, wanted him raised by college graduates, so 
>he was set to be adopted by a lawyer and his wife.  At the 
>last minute the lawyer decided he wanted a girl, so Jobs ended 
>up being given to a blue collar couple, neither of whom had 
>gone to college.  They were good parents and treated him well, 
>sacrificing so he could go to college, but after six months 
>Jobs dropped out, seeing little value to consuming his 
>family's entire savings.
>He continued to attend classes on the sly, got into computers 
>and the rest is history.
>But imagine how different his life would have been if the 
>original plan had gone through and he had been adopted by a 
>successful lawyer, perhaps raised in an upper class household 
>with his every wish met.
>He would have gone to an Ivy League college and probably done well.
>But it would have been a totally different life path.
>Does it make sense for Jobs to say, who would I have been if 
>that had happened?  Or would he have been such a totally 
>different person that this stretches the idea of a 
>counterfactual beyond reason?  I think his telling the story 
>demonstrates that he does think this way sometimes.
>Yet none of the memories or experiences that he has would have 
>been present in this other version.  At most the two versions 
>might have shared some personality traits, but even those are 
>often strongly influenced by upbringing - his tenacity in the 
>face of adversity, for example, might never have become so 
>strong in a life where everything came easily.
>Probably there are many people in the world who are at least 
>as similar to Steve Jobs in personality as the person he would 
>have been if his early life had gone that other way.
>The point is that we can imagine a range of counterfactuals 
>where the difference is a matter of degree, not kind, from 
>trivial matters all the way up to situations where we would 
>have to consider ourselves a different person.  There is no 
>bright line to draw that I can see.
>So yes, if you can imagine what it would have been like to eat 
>something else for breakfast, then you should be able to 
>imagine what it would have been like to be born as someone 
>else.  It's the same basic technique, just applied to a greater degree.

Those are counterfactuals regarding personal circumstance, and do not seem
particularly controversial, even admitting that it is not straightforward to
define a single theory of personal identity that "covers all the bases".
There's a continuous, definable identity that follows a
physical/causal/genetic/mental chain all the way from when egg and sperm met
up to Jobs' graduation. It does not seem problematic to alter contingent
aspects of this identity-chain and yet insist that we retain the "same"

It is a great deal harder to see how to make sense of a counterfactual such
as "Who would I be if my mother and father hadn't had sex?", or "who would I
be if they'd had sex a day later and a different egg and sperm had met?". 

I have to disagree with you here, and state that this sort of counterfactual
seems to indeed embody a difference of kind, not just degree. We're not
talking about "imagining_whats_it_likeness". We are talking about me *being*
someone different.

Jonathan Colvin 

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