May I present a theory? The theory of intrinsicness. Or rather, the Question of Intrinsicness, because I do not have an answer to the question to propose. The question is whether things have intrinsic properties and identities, non-reductionistic ones. And whether there really are deep identities apart from surface characteristics. Consider first, the last few emails we have exchanged. Instead of creating them by reply, we copied the old message, either into a new message box or a file in an outside word-processing program, wrote our replies, imitated the typographic conventions of real replies-with-quote, pasted them back into message boxes, gave those messages the names that replies would have had, and sent them. Presto, a reply that does not appear on the history, seemingly showing that histories are more or less (no reference intended) bunk. The thing I did not expect was that the system would fall for it. I had thought that the Re and the parentheses were somehow specially coded symbols that would trigger the generator of reply names simply to advance the number one rather than tacking another re out in front. Instead, the system parses the old title, and if it finds a Re(x): out in front, it adds one to x, so that the reply to the fake reply has the same title as one to a real reply. So except for the typography (wasn't quoted material formerly in italics, not dottedly underlined?), only by consulting the history, looking below the surface, only with access to diachronic information, as they say in phonology, could the message be identified as faked.
Now, consider what would happen if you were to let an account expire, then revive it with the same name, capitalized, punctuated exactly the same. Let's say you even used the same username and password. Your old mailbox would have been deleted with your account. But let us say that someone replied to one of your messages from three weeks ago (since things would stay in his mailbox longer than that.) Would it go to you under your revived name, that being the name on the to-line? Or is your new account somehow marked -- in a way that is not visible on the surface, perhaps only in a settings file visible to the sysops or somesuch -- to differentiate if from the old one? (This might be a bit like the names of capitals appended to country names used by more than one country, as Congo (Brazzaville) and Congo (Kinshasa), or the extra initials, juniors and seniors, added to names to distinguish them from bearers of the same names.)If posts that you had written were still in conferences, could you unsend them, would your new name have the right to do so? I don't think so. Whereas the fake reply has the appearance and the functionality of the real, and could only be distinguished by consulting (a nevertheless available) past or deep data file, the new name would have the appearance but not the functionality of the old, and the past could not be consulted. Or does the system simply parse the new name as surface text and identify it with the old? When, for instance, anna moyles went off to college, did others keep her name going, like the number two in a gang keeping it going when the boss is doing time, the Frank Miller's boys kept his guns ready or Mrs. Lovett kept Todd's razors? Was it just waiting for her, complete with moderator's privileges in her conference, when she returned? Or did she have to start the name anew, and have the moderator's rights transferred to that new one? Now, I could be wrong. This would take too long to experiment with. But it would seem that each name is unique and so marked. Otherwise, there would have to be some time limit with which the rights of an expired name could be taken up again, or the system would be swamped in dead names. And people really would be claiming to be the recently expired, when usually those who let their names expire want them gone for a good reason.
But let us look at some other material for this question. If, perhaps in imagining one of my alternate universe stories, I were to ask most people if the Germans could have won WWII, they might consider and say, yes, if they had say, finished off Britain before invading Russia, or discouraged the Japanese from bringing the US into the war, or developed and used their new technologies, their rockets and jet planes, or even produced the atomic bomb, they might well have won. But they did not, of course. (Let us assume for the sake of argument history books are right.) Now, you could say that actually, they could not have. That all the above factors that lead to defeat were not random (and though the quantum basis of the universe may be random, by the time things get up to our level they have averaged out statistically) but the product of inexorable historical forces (the fact that the Allies, with the entry of the US, were simply able to marshall overwhelming industrial resources), or the nature of the German system and its leader. (For instance, Hitler himself distrusted the physics that might have led to an atomic bomb as "Jewish", and insisted that newly developed jet fighters be used as bombers.) Or, you could say, "Yes, the Germans could have won, but they didn't." For no visible reason, it had just been decided that the Germans were not going to win, by fate, as it were, so that even had they made the right decisions, they would have lost. Imagine a match, of hockey, or soccer, or baseball, in which the officials have decided in advance who will be the winner, and no matter how many points one team has scored -- they may be chalked up as scored, then ignored in the reporting of the final tally, or ignored by the scorekeeper as the game goes along. (For instance, when teams from the old Negro Leagues would play white teams with white umpires, it was generally accepted that no strike would ever be called against a white player unless he actually made a full swing.) It's not even a matter of a fighter taking a dive, knowing he is losing because he is boxing badly. This brings into question visions of fate. The Greeks did not see fate as intervening obviously from outside, but as woven into human affairs. Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad; in other words, don't just destroy someone with an inexplicable bolt of lightning; let him do it himself through his own stupidity. They were like colonial agents preferring to work through native chiefs, or NASA, trying to promote the first African-American astronaut, Ed Dwight, by bringing him up through the usual channels of astronaut training, or killing someone by giving him a small injection that will aggravate a pre-existing condition and make him appear to die of natural causes, rather than just shooting him. Skeptics could always deny the existence of these outside forces and explain it all in terms of science.
Now, let us project this into the future. It is well known in baseball circles that the Boston Red Sox will never win the World Series (as surely as it was known among mapmakers that four colors sufficed to color any map, long before it was proven mathematically in the last decade or so.) Thus, the Red Sox, if they begin well at all, collapse in August, or if they don't, blow the pennant, or the series, in some spectacular fashion such as the first basemen letting the gamewinning hit, an easy grounder, go through his legs. Sometimes, this is attributed to a curse that haunts the team due to its trading away of Babe Ruth in 1918. Other, more practical reasons given are the small size of the stadium limiting play or receipts (needed to buy more expensive players) or even the self-fulfilling prophecy explanation, that the Sox just expect to lose because they have before. But I do not think this is true. I do not think there is any particular reason that the Red Sox cannot win the Series. It is simply that they won't. In other words, if a time traveller were to come back from a century in the future and be asked if the Sox had, by any chance, won, he would answer "No", just as when I ask someone if the Germans won World War II. The future is written as surely as the past. Even if the Sox did everything that would win another team the Series, they would not win, because there is a higher, high level law, taking precedence over all physical laws, that they will not win.
We tend to think that reality bubbles up from the lowest level. There are physical laws governing the interactions of the smallest particles which result in the predictable behavior of atoms which in turn lead to law-governed patterns for molecules, and the molecules make up cells and make them work in an orderly and lawful manner and cells make up large organisms and one particular large organism makes up society which leads to history, like the horseshoe nail losing the kingdom in the nursery rhyme. And the laws become vaguer the higher one goes; a human's interaction with another is less predictable than a molecule's with another. But what if the laws were actually made at the human level, and the universe was expected to fall into place? We see this, for instance, in totalitarian countries, where the leader is by definition always right and reality is expected to conform to his pronouncements rather than vice versa. I once worked at a job where, at the end of the night, we had to fill out a sort of cash reconciliation form, at the end of which, we had to subtract one sum from another, put the answer in a box, next to which it said, "must be zero." Well, what if it wasn't? Well, then, we simply had to go through the arithmetic again until the numbers cancelled out as they were supposed to, to make reality conform to orders. There was also the temptation to simply write zero, since that was what was demanded, and ignore the arithmetic entirely. A friend of mine believes he is doomed never to be in a relationship -- even for a night, as it were. She tries incredibly hard, and is not unattractive in either appearance or personality. But nothing seems to work. It is as though she has encountered an invisible wall against which she keeps banging her head. (She keeps trying in the hope that either she may be wrong or be proved right.) Imagine walking on a road whose end you can never reach, not because it is infinitely long, not because it keeps getting longer or you keep getting pushed back, but simply because it has been defined as endless. In other words, imagine if words ruled over things, if the linguistic and metaphorical ruled over the physical, if a formula of definition easy for a human to say, and describing the human world, impossible though it might be to express physically, ruled over physical laws, which describe the lowlevel world very well, but are so difficult to apply to the human one.
Can a bad (or a terrible) person do good things? Then is he still a terrible person? I have often found myself saying, before some act of which I am not particularly proud, that I am not really the sort of person who does this, but that I am going to do it anyway. Obviously, then, I am the sort of person who does this. We are defined by what we do on the surface, not what we wish we could do (in deep structure) or by what we think we are. Or are we? Can we recognize an identity apart from conduct? Can there really be non-practicing Jews or non-practicing virgins or non-practicing homosexuals, defined only by a propensity or even less, simply by a knowledge that that is what one is? Is there really a smallest giant?
Which leads to the genotype/phenotype issue. Unless you are a follower of Lamarck and Lysenko, you will agree that nothing an organism does can change its genotype, its basic blueprint, despite any changes in the phenotype, or surface manifestation of it. Dogs whose tails are cut off produce tailed offspring, and an interest in say, art, or music, caused by your childhood exposure to them (the environment) will not be passed on to your children unless they experience the same environment. This is where the example of the emails really comes in. A man, even one who is psychologically female, who undergoes sex-reassignment surgery, may look like a woman and function as one, but every one of her cells still contains an X and a Y chromosome, and if offspring could be produced from her in some way by joining a half strand of her DNA with that of someone else, she would not pass on any of her acquired characteristics, just as the emails may look like replies and function as them but a deep-level test reveals they are not. But though sex is not changeable, are other seemingly definitive characteristics, like terribleness? If a terrible person tries very hard to refrain from terrible things, could he become less terrible by changing himself, in contrast to having it mean he was not so terrible in the first place? If a disorganized person works very hard to organize himself, can he become an organized person, or will he always remain a somewhat organized disorganized person, even if he is more organized than most organized people? If an actor, trying to get into the role of sick person, tries hard enough to feel sick, will one find the virus in his blood? Mohammed Al-Fayed is more British than most British but will never be given citizenship. The Replicants of "Blade Runner" are more human than human but will never be treated as human, not while a test can still detect them.
Anyway, I am deeply interested in this theory of intrinsicness and definition, that things have certain identities independent of appearance and function, and I enjoy applying this theory to many aspects of life on and offline.