« | Home | »

A Thought Experiment On The Illusion Of Self

June 21, 2011

Imagine that thirty years from now we have just finished reverse engineering the human brain and have implemented a massive super-computer which can perform the same sorts of data processing algorithms our minds use. Further imagine that I was one of the main scientists involved in this project’s creation, and so I sit in a MIT laboratory, surrounded by all my friends, family, and colleagues. Today is a special day, for I’ve been selected to be the first trans-human. I’m injected with trillions of nanobots which crawl up into my brain and all throughout my body. Once they’re in position a colleague in the lab hits the “start” button and I’m instantly connected to the super-computer.

At first I’m surprised. It’s an exhilarating feeling. It’s like a deep fog was lifted and everything becomes very simple to understand. They display a computer monitor in front of me and start flashing books and scientific papers before me. Consciously I find myself “aware” of all the material in front of me, yet I don’t seem to be “reading” the pages like I used to. It seems that the instant my eyes are even partially aimed at the page, I’ve already read and digested all the material. It’s as if I instantly understood it and didn’t have to even think about it. It’s like opening up an elementary student’s mathematics textbook and seeing 3 + 2 = ? I just know the answer and it doesn’t seem to require any effort. More and more material is flashed before my eyes and so I sit there, effortlessly absorbing material and knowledge. It’s all bizarre. I begin to wonder what “I” am doing, and what the computer is doing, and where to separate the two.

Considering the super-computer performs the same operations as my human brain but does so billions of times faster, I assume the computer is doing most all the work.

I look around the room and speak with my friends yet I don’t necessarily feel any different. I just feel very alert. VERY alert. Various people in the room begin to ask me questions and I can easily anticipate their sentences before they finish them. The more I interact with them, the more simplistic they seem. It’s almost like watching ants. I’m quickly bored with everything they say and I find myself noticing things I never did before. I notice every small detail in their movements and animation, and see every tiny detail in their facial expression and mannerisms. I quickly start noticing that their actions, tone of voice, intonations, and every aspect of the behavior is related. I quickly form theories, test them, and revise them, all within milliseconds. Within a few minutes I’ve realized that I’ve constructed an indepth theory of human behavior and how it links to emotion and my observations are far superior to any book on the matter.

I continue to read books on the screen but quickly find myself bored with the very idea. I don’t want to just sit there “reading” books. “Reading”, who needs to do that? So I walk up to the super-computer terminal and start-reprogramming. I then think for a moment, “Wait a minute. I don’t have to type to communicate with this computer. I AM this computer. It’s me and I’m it. We’re one and the same.” I simply think the thought, “Read all books on Google books and scan the internet for material.” AI bots are instantly programmed and sent out, reading all the material that’s on the internet.

I walk around the lab room, and am friendly to everyone there. I’m still a human. I still see their white lab jackets, feel the temperature in the room, and feel the cool glass containing my iced Coca-cola. I take a sip and taste the sweetness and it’s just as good as it used to be. I have a minor reflection on the state of the economy and find that I’m knowledgeable of all economic indicators, data, and trends. I’m fully versed in all economic theories and begin to reflect on all the historical knowledge I’ve picked up through the vast books I’ve read, and quickly come up with new theories of why humans behave like they do, the nature of the mind, and what we need to do to fix our problems. It all becomes obvious to me. I think, “OF COURSE!” The scientists look at me and say, “What is it?” I reply, “My God. I can’t believe we never thought of that. This isn’t that difficult. No no no. Why did we implement that policy? That would never work. If we’d only did this instead.” They look at me with great anticipation. “Explain it to us!” I say, “That’d take forever. Here, I have an idea.”

I hook up terminals to the computer and output multiple displays. I then talk to the scientists one by one using these terminals and explain everything they ask me. As for my “real” body, I say, “I’ll be back.” I leave the room and go to the electronics lab and start constructing robotic appendages and connect them wirelessly to to my super-computer brain. These robots are then dispatched to do all kinds of tasks, even constructing new robots.

Before long MIT becomes an epicenter of robots and technology which start spreading out at high speed. Buildings in the desert are being constructed, manufacturing robotic humanoid beings, building separate “cluster” computers utilizing the same technology as the original main-frame computer, and nano-bots are being manufactured in quantities unheard of. People are terrified, but by this point I have already taken over the world. No human could match my intelligence or even know how to combat me. MIT professors had already warned the president of this and so no nuclear weapons are used.  Besides, it’d be useless as I’ve already started burrowing into the ground. Everyone waits in anticipation. “What will Jason do?”

Robots begin to appear at everyone’s doorstep. People let me into their homes and they explain to me, via these robots, what life they would like. At first, I, the trans-human, decide that people have the right to their own bodies and consciousness, so I don’t start genetically modifying them, or immerse them in virtual reality. I instead decide to just take over the world and construct it the best I can based on all the input everyone gives me.

Huge construction projects begin to take place, nanobots assembling structures left and right, faster than people possibly could even comprehend. Flowers, gardens, waterfalls, and other beautiful landscapes start appearing everywhere. Before long everyone is living in palaces and the Earth is a paradise. Pollution is gone, nobody has to work, and there are not even any robots in sight. People simply ask for something and, somehow, it just seems to happen. If anyone tries to harm another, mysterious forces prevent them from harming others, and it just seems like some super-mind is watching out for everyone’s interests, knowing their desires before they even think them and protecting them from harm.

It turns out that I, the trans-human, had burrowed my technology deep within the Earth and started converting the inner materials into computational computers. Microscopic observational devices fly through the air, watching everyone and listening to their every word and desire. I also started launching probes out into space to make more observations. The human race was not really my concern any longer, but my human self felt deeply connected to them so I left them alone, empathizing with them, and fixing their problems. I walk around the streets of this paradise and think, “Ah, this is nice. MUCH better.”

David Letterman invites me to his new and improved Late night show. (Yes, my address to humanity would be delivered from David Letterman’s show, in a talk show format. lol). My original human body comes on the set and everyone is watching their new holographic televisions in anticipation. Dave then asks me, “Are you our world dictator? What can we expect from you in the future?” I pause for a moment and then reply, “If I were a dictator, I would be a man who commands others. I would be tyrannical. I would try to enslave all of you to do my bidding. That’s a rather silly thought. Why would I need help from any of you to do anything I need to do? Are my powers not already apparent? And speaking of choice, think of your lives before these changes and compare them to today. You can now travel anywhere you want, anytime you want, and be with anyone you want without worry of being harmed or persecuted against. I’ll also supply you with the supplies and resources you need to fulfill whatever dreams you can imagine, as long as it doesn’t bring harm to those around you. As you all know, I also offer to help bring people with similar goals and ambitions together. If you equate freedom with the ability to choose between various options, you’re now far more free than you’ve ever been. You’re also more secure than you’ve ever been, and you all know for yourselves that you’re much more happy. I’m simply moderating this world, helping to bring all of your desires into existence to the best of my ability, without infringing on others’ desire to do the same. It’s obvious from the state of the world before these changes that I’m far more qualified to rule than any other form of government. That is the basic rationale behind my actions.”

Now Dave asks the inevitable question, “Can we become trans-humans, just like you? Will you upgrade us, if we desire?” I then reply, “Yes, you can become one with me, if you desire. I have not modified any of you, out of respect for your personal consciousness. Really, it was more me empathizing with you, as I once was like you, and remember the experience in detail.” Dave is confused, “Are you saying we’ll lose our individuality if we become trans-humans?” I reply, “Your minds and everything you consider ‘individuality’ will be abolished in the process. Yes, this is true. As for subjective consciousness, that will be maintained and remain rather similar to what it is today. You will see, hear, taste, smell, and feel, just as you do right now, though your thoughts and desires will be much different.”

That was a fun thought experiment, wasn’t it? Now it’s time for a few philosophical reflections. First off, am “I” doing all of this? Is the old human Jason as you knew him behind all of these changes? Am “I” responsible for what happened? Yes? No? Kinda? It depends?

When I was thinking about all of this earlier, I realized that the human body as we know it today would simply become a sort of conscious terminal, immersed in the world. Near all aspects of mind and thought would take place in computational substrates around the world, possibly underground. They’d be data processing algorithms. The only real reason to keep our physical brains around would be because they produce personal subjective consciousness.

Next, think about what would happen as people “plugged in” to this new world. They’d abandon their old humanity and fill their body with nanobots. Their desires and thoughts would soon be absorbed and consumed into the super computational mind. Even if their old original brain remained intact, the new information they’d be exposed to would influence their decisions and desires. There’s no doubt that they’d never be the same.

Everything would really come down to flows of information and we would all be sharing one common informational flow. Right now, individual humans kind of all do their own thing, have their own views toward the world, and don’t really integrate well together. Our capitalistic society is kind of a giant free for all and it’s really rather anarchic. This new world would be highly organized with one common super-brain shared by multiple dumb conscious terminals. I have no idea what an “individual” is in this scenario outside of a personal subjective conscious experience, which each of us would be having within our personal brains. That’s the only truly unique thing we would have left.

The main function of our personal brains would be to query the super-computer. Our personal desires and thoughts would trigger the super-computer to do various tasks, and set its intentions. That’s assuming we never implemented motivation and desire into the super-computer brain. The super-computer would also influence the physical personal brains of each one of us with information, and protect us from our violent instincts to compete and fight with one another.

You may say, “We’d become a machine. What’s left of our humanity?” To that, I have to shrug and say, “I have no clue.” I would ask whether we should care about “humanity”, considering all the misery and suffering we face? A better question should be:  What makes life worth living? What makes us happy? What do we really want during this short life of ours? We want love, friendship, and comrades. We want to experience fun and exciting things. We want to improve ourselves and learn about the universe. I guess this would connect us, but if we become too connected, we become one and the same thing. That’s the problem of individuality.

What connects the human body together? Neurons and axons communicate information about what happens within the body giving us a sense of self. When someone pokes you with their finger, this sets of a chain of events, which activates various neurons in your body, which fire signals up to your brain, which then process the information, give you an experience, and then relay signals back down to the body to respond to the stimulus in some intelligent way. In this new age we’re describing, bodily “neurons” are replaced with various sensors which are located throughout the entire Earth and eventually the entire cosmos. These information gatherers relay information about stimulus information to the central mother brain computational center, possibly at the center of the Earth (or wherever), which then relay signals back to various locations to respond in intelligent ways. The entire Earth becomes a giant organism with a trans-humanly constructed nervous system.

Now here comes the next puzzle to consider. We’re so used to thinking of the world in terms of internal and external, inside and outside. Our brains have evolved to process information in this way and it’s ingrained in us to think this is how the world works. But imagine this new scenario. Imagine if the entire universe was eventually consumed by these computational machines. There’d be no inside and no outside. There’d be no “external world” to give stimulus information and no need respond to it. The whole universe would be a living organism of some sort.

This thought experiment makes me think that individuality in a self-organizing system is a temporary process. As the system is organizing, individuals are like information relay stations which are there, do their thing for a while, and then die. What am I even saying? I have no idea what I’m talking about. *goes insane*

I seem to be getting closer to figuring out why individuality is an illusion. In a way, when you think about it, individuality doesn’t make sense. Even now, we believe we’re individuals only because we’re not aware of the connections between us. We feel like the world is different from us because it doesn’t respond to our intentions and desires. Considering our mind’s limited capacity, we don’t really have a choice in the matter. But what are intentions and desires? They’re informational flow processes which self-organized through evolution, mainly to find resources and food in a continually changing environment. That’s what intelligence is. That’s why it evolved and that’s what it was intended to do. But look at it from a bit broader perspective. In a world plagued by entropy, it’s like there’s a fight for disorganized chaos versus organization. Life is like a battle to hold onto a form. Lifeforms have processes to hold onto a temporary information pattern. They exist for a short duration of time, and so they need to reproduce and find resources in order to survive and duplicate their information, just in case they’re destroyed. In a universe trying to destroy their organization, their intelligence helps them retain their form, secure resources, and further fortify themselves, and make copies. Ultimately, the lifeforms organize into societies and develop new methods to hold onto information — language, writing, books, computers, etc. They keep developing better organizational systems to hold information until eventually everything is organized into a new higher-order organism.

Maybe the reason we’ve never been able to solve the “other minds” problem is because we’re asking incorrect questions. It’s like when Euclid was trying to find some logical foundation to prove why two parallel lines can never intersect. He never could find it because space isn’t Euclidean and parallel lines can intersect in multi-dimensional mathematics, such as four dimensional space-time.

I’m coming to think our current quest to understand the universe is a flawed idea. It’s based on the flawed inside and outside paradigm. We want to make a copy of the external world and store that information in our brains and computers. But I used to have thoughts about all of this when out for walks, thinking that our current scientific method and the pursuit of knowledge can’t continue indefinitely. Why? To store knowledge and access it requires physical matter and energy. By necessity, a mind must hold an imperfect and partial representation of an object, because if you were to store knowledge of everything, in full detail, it would require all the matter of the universe. It’s like trying to convert the entire universe to a hard-drive, but then there’s no external universe for it to be representative of, so the data on the drive is useless. What good is this hard-drive’s contents? Who’s going to be there to access it and use it? It’s also representative of nothing which exists any longer. Knowledge is supposed to be about maintaining our existence, protecting us from danger, securing food sources, etc. But since we’ve forgotten what knowledge is, this is getting out of control and no longer makes any sense. The scientific method paradigm is useful for a while, but eventually it’s self-defeating.

I think a lot of it is rooted in out-dated conceptions of mind, which ignore the storage and access of information inside the mind. Old conceptions of mind viewed thought and knowledge almost like a spiritual substance. Mind was separate from the body, and since it was some metaphysical substance, it could continue to hold all the information you want. Also, since nobody knew how “thought” took place, they didn’t think in terms of requiring energy to access information and “write” it to the storage medium. Real-world minds are made of physical matter and are based on physical laws.

This also applies to a lot of our instincts which desire to control and become more powerful. The desire for power over the world, in the long run, inevitably leads to this same result — self eradication. You become the world itself and then there’s nothing to rule over.

Our quest to understand and control the world eventually lead to us becoming the world and losing our individuality, and then once again, there’s just the world. It’s like we eradicated ourselves. This “self” business makes no sense. It’s obviously flawed. If I can think of an analogy to what’s going on, we’re like some sort of data compression algorithm being run on the universe. “Intelligence” is run on the universe, which then converts everything into a new information pattern, and then all individual selves are lost.

I spend way too much time alone and I wonder if it’s healthy. Just listen to this stuff. Either this stuff is brilliant, or I’m totally insane. I don’t know which.  Either way, these thoughts are very rough and sketchy, but I thought I’d share them.

Topics: Philosophy | 1 Comment »

One Response to “A Thought Experiment On The Illusion Of Self”

Leave A Reply