Special Snowflakes, Just Like All the Other Special Snowflakes: A Response to Christi Fenison’s “Infinity and Identity”

by Shaun Terry

In Christi Fenison’s piece, “Infinity and Identity,” she argues for a particular conception of identity that necessarily requires infinite iterations of identity. To be clear, these aren’t infinite possible iterations of identity but necessarily infinitely many iterations of identity, as the infinite divisibility of time ensures: “[C]onsidering the possibility that a state of mind is something that we experience within a continuous time-relativized ‘reality,’ there are infinitely many moments, thus contexts, with which a state of mind may coincide. As such, identity would always be in a state of flux.”

Here, I want to complicate two points: first, it seems clear that there are limits to the amount of information that the human brain can engage with. As evidence, consider that modern cognitive science suggests that our awareness of our surroundings tends to exclude some data for the sake of processing that which is most important. It may be that we can watch an event unfold in real time, but some research suggests that the information that we take in is synthesized by way of the uptake of discrete slices of time, not unlike a film roll. When we add to that the understanding that our reactions to stimuli tend to be delayed, it seems even more likely that there is a limit to the number of thoughts we have and that the universe is limited in the number of impressions on our identities it can make.

Second, to say that our identities would always be in a state of flux seems a bit too simple. It may be true, but Fenison’s piece seems to lack strong evidence to this point. Even if it were the case that our world were always changing and that we were always being affected by the world, it does not necessarily seem to be the case that the changes in the world always change the ways by which the world affects us; nor does it seem to be the case that changes in the world would necessarily preclude reproductions of prevailing identifications.

Why might these be important? I assert that these considerations tell us something about our human identities. It seems too simple to say something like, We’re all the same, just as it seems too simple to say something like, We’re all unique individuals. The problem with a universalization of identity is that, even if we try to divide the identificatory categories into the smallest possible constituent parts that we can think of, it seems that new identities can always emerge. The idea that we are all simply unique individuals seems to present the same kind of erasure, albeit in its obversal form: some people might rightly identify themselves as like some other people in some ways, and I suggest that they should be permitted to do so, especially considering that there is likely some truth to these proposed similarities. To be clear, the problem here appears twofold: it is about allowing people to identify themselves as they wish and it is about the fact that all humans do seem to share some commonalities (if it seems too complicated to concede that we likely share some behavioral traits, we at least might agree that, as an aggregate, we share a constellation of physical characteristics).

Instead, I’d like to argue for something closer to a Yes, and approach. That is to say that there are merits to each sort of conception, but that neither is exactly true. Instead of a tempting simplification, perhaps our identities reflect an inescapably complex, adaptive reality. Here, we would propose that some of our identification might be based on patterned behavior and some of it might be based on random behavior among us. By joining these, the emergence of a conception of identity by which we see similarities and commonalities, but also by which we can feel a sense of discreteness and uniqueness in ourselves and in others, emerges.

To speak a bit more to the advantages of this conception, let us consider the structure and purpose of it. This approach might include, as a form of social evolutionary evidence, that the reason that identity might have emerged in this fashion is that: 1) in the general, complex, adaptive systems tend to be highly effective and persistent, reflecting a consistent paradigm for explaining some of that which tends to persist in our universe; 2) in the specific, human survival has, on one hand, depended on common goals and cooperation, and has, on the other hand, depended on randomness’s assistance in adaptation to changing circumstances. If people behave similarly to one another, they might more efficiently achieve goals; if people behave completely randomly, then it is likely true that, for a large subset of the possible circumstances, some of them can survive. Without patterned behavior, achieving goals becomes is likely more challenging, but without random behavior, long-term survival appears threatened.