Continuing my thoughts on the illusory nature of self. Let's consider a pretty stock science fiction scenario: I am a neuroscientist. I have developed a silicone replacement for the neuron. I am now initiating human trials and my first test-subject is before me. Prior to this experimental procedure, the subject was given extensive psychological testing. We have a wide range of validated measures on which to compare their post-surgery scores. And so we begin...
There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. I remove one neuron from the brain of the subject, replacing it with my silicone version, let's call it a brain-chip. Not unsurprisingly, the test-subject reports no change in how they feel (it's a bit early to do any psychological testing). As the process is automated, we set the computer to replace 25% of the organic neurons with the brain-chips. The precision surgery proceeds quickly and at no point does the subject report anything untoward. At this stage then, time to engage in some psychological evaluation. Although we have enacted a reasonable brain injury on the patient (they've lost 25% of their brain matter after all), the prosthetic device appears to be functioning in an indistinguishable manner from the original parts. The results of the psychological testing show no deviation from previous scores. The subject is alert, responsive and not demonstrably different. Thumbs up to proceed further with the trial.
We pass the 50% and 75% points with equal ease. Everything goes as expected, and at no point during the procedure is there any test result indicative of a problem, or report of unease or discomfort from the subject. Results from all psychological testing are normal. And we have perfect indications to proceed to 100%. At 100% the surgical intervention is complete. Again all psychological tests report normal. The subject reports no difference in their psychological experience. Nothing has changed from their perspective. Despite being the Neil Armstrong of consciousness experimentation, our test subject is seemingly a little disappointed. No super-powers were gained during the experiment. Existence is seemingly as mundane as it ever was.
We have planned a year-long post-surgical testing period. This will involve not only psychological testing of the subject, but also extensive interviews and tests of the family and loved ones of the test-subject. Although the subject has yet to show any psychological change, perhaps the people they interact with in a day-to-day way will notice subtle differences not discerned by the psychological tests. We await the results.
Move forward that year: The test-subject has exceeded expectation. All tests are normal, and all external reviews (from family and friends) show no change either.
So let's consider some scenarios: Our test-subject passes all psychological evaluation (and reviews from himself and those who know him are normal, and show no statistical difference from before the procedure). In essence the test-subject has not changed. But the digital nature of the brain-chip allows for some interesting supplementary experiments. Since the subject's entire "brain" is composed of 100 billion brain-chips, we can use our computer interface to read the state of each chip and to copy that state into a new brain (also composed of 100 billion brain-chips). The copy will be an exact replica of the test-subject at the moment of the copy. Extensive psychological testing shows no significant difference between the test-subject and the copy. (However we expect differences to develop between the subject and the copy as time progresses, without updating the copy.)
Finally. We imagine a post apocalyptic future: The copy of our test-subject has awoken from a period of time in dormancy. On awakening, the test-subject-copy learns the truth about its nature. It is a copy of a long dead human being. Human beings no longer exist. It is not a human being, though it feels as though it is, and its identity is that of the test-subject. But it also recognises that it is not that long dead test-subject (how could it be?). That it merely feels that way because the brain-chips with which it thinks have been programmed that way.
Okay. 1. Did we murder the human being during the original procedure (despite extensive psychological testing saying otherwise)? 2. If we make many copies of the original test-subject and they all report that they are "him", is there one test-subject or many? What does it mean for there to be many copies of a unique person? 3. Would a copy of the test subject that found itself alone in the universe be obliged to continue following its programming (or historical identity)? Should it continue being "human", as its heritage dictates, or does it forge out a new way of being, one not determined by a long extinct species?
I hope that this short piece illustrates some of the thinking that I am engaging in. My take is simple: That there is no difference between the brain and the brain-chip. That the multiple copies are "people" as we see them. But that people (us, others, silicone or biological) are at the core illusory. We may be programmed with an identity, but that identity does not have to be followed even in a minute by minute way. It would be wrong to take away from this piece that we humans are special and that the copies are nothing more than artificial beings. No. If we can ask the question, who are we, what are we, why are we here, then we are existential beings. The point is more subtle. That you cannot point to any part of the whole and locate a consistent self. We everyday awake into the world afresh. Do we do what has been done before or do we create ourselves anew? Arguments that our biology, our society, our psychology, our history diminish that power are false (though those aspects of our being may make it easier or harder to some degree). There is no solid ground. If the copy in our story decides that it doesn't want to be a human, then what? How would it extricate itself from being? Suicide? Perhaps. But this is a choice. And rejection of existence is almost a contradictory act. If you are an illusory being, then what does it mean to kill yourself? Are we a problem without a solution? Perhaps also.
Yes. This is Blade Runner. Yes this is the transporter. Soma even. But the longer I contemplate these particular issues, the more I find there are some deep truths about the nature of our existence in them. Thought experiment can provide as much insight as real experiment.Go Top