What is it that makes us who we are? Last night I watched a movie which explores that idea, and I figured I’d recommend it to all of you. It’s called Dark City and it came out in 1998. So what’s it about?
In the distant past, a group of advanced aliens called the ‘Strangers’ came to Earth and found human beings intriguing because they seemed to have some element to their nature which was beyond the physical world. Others were in doubt, so they kidnapped a large number of human beings from Earth and took them to a special world where some very interesting experiments were scheduled to take place.
Each night everyone was put to sleep and the memories and content of each of the human brains were reset and reprogrammed. For example, the main character in the movie had all of his memories wiped and then he was placed in a motel room where he had just murdered a call girl, or at least, the aliens programmed his brain to make it feel like he did.
His body was placed in a bathtub where he was cleaning the blood off of himself. A bloody knife was placed at the bedside next to the dead hooker, and there was blood on the carpet. He was also programmed with an entire set of fake memories, having a rough childhood, conflicts with his wife, etc. They even created a fake “wife” for him, and her brain was also programmed with an entire set of memories of them falling in love, living together, fighting, etc.
Here’s the experiment. Does this man’s cruel past dictate who he will become, or is there something else to him? Can he choose to change, or is his nature purely subject to his brain, his past experiences, and his memories? Everyone in the entire city was subjected to these sorts of experiments. Do people control who they are and what they do from then on, or will their programmed “natures” control them and will it dictate how things will unfold from then on out?
So we begin. The strangers watch as the man wakes up and finds the knife, the dead girl, and even reflects through his memories, but something doesn’t feel right. He has this intuitive feeling that he’s not a killer, though every bit of evidence points to the contrary. What was going on?
He runs home to his “wife” (in reality, this was the first time they’d ever met), who greets him, and he tells her about this strange feeling inside him, how he’s not a killer, that something is up, and so on. He wasn’t sure whether or not he’s crazy. The evidence seems to point to him being a killer, but intuitively he just “knew” he wasn’t a killer. His wife believes him and protects him from the cops who are after him.
I won’t ruin the rest of the movie, but I find the film to be a great example of thought experiments I’ve entertained over the years, and all of it has left me pretty confused. When I think of myself as having free will, I’m forced to conclude that I am not my body, I’m not my thoughts, and I’m not my memories. All of that is interchangable. Just like the main character of the movie, if I have free will, they cannot make me into a killer, despite how they change my brain, or my memories, or even my body. But then what am I? I don’t know exactly, but whatever that is, that’s what the Strangers were searching for.
The film makes a powerful point. If there isn’t something special to us humans (and other complex life), if it’s true that we have no free will, then there is simply this vast unfolding of the universe, a big machine following simple rules, playing out step by step. We’re puppets dragged along for the ride, and our memories and identities are just accidents, mostly due to the randomness within the universe itself.
It’s interesting to think about the Strangers. They shared memories between one another and had no individual identities, sort of like the Borg in Star Trek. If they wanted to have the memories of another one of their kind, they simply extracted them and injected the other’s memories into their own head. They could change their identities to whatever. It didn’t matter. But they also lacked any true individuality. One’s memories were interchangeable with another’s, and they passed them between each other like we do files on a computer.
What’s interesting is that if the Strangers came to Earth and performed these experiments on us, our psychologists would take that “killer” and put him in an asylum where they’d keep telling him, “Accept who you are! You killed that woman and you know it! We can’t move forward until you accept that truth.” He’d then tell them, “I don’t how to explain this exactly. I have memories of chopping that woman to bits. I have memories of cleaning myself off in the bathtub. I even remember having every sort of motivation to do those acts. But you have to believe me. I didn’t do it!”
The bizarre conclusion to thought experiments like this is that we can’t have any sort of absolute identity unless we accept that we’re not our bodies, we’re something else, and whatever that is, it’s undefinable and not subject to any observation outside of our own subjective awareness of it. Otherwise there’s just the universe, a big “thing” running its operational rules on itself. (But then again, what is the physical stuff of the universe? Physics tells us that the world is made of some really weird stuff.)
If the Strangers came down to Earth and grabbed my friend Greg, reprogrammed his genetics, body, and brain to be identical to my current body and brain, slowly changing him with nanomachines, and they did the same to me, but my body and brain were step by step made into his, and we both woke up in one another’s beds, I would be him and he would be me. “I” would then take over living his life, and “he” would be living my life.
It would be interesting to run an experiment where a successful man was “interchanged” with a homeless bum in that way by the Strangers, and then they watched to see anything changed. Would the homeless bum turn around and change everything for the better while the successful man or woman’s life begins to fall apart?
I don’t think that would happen. Take the case of Phineas Gage. He was a railroad foreman in the 19th century who had a stake fly through his skull injuring his pre-frontal cortex. Every aspect of his personality and identity changed. He could no longer restrain himself, his mannerisms changed, and he became very rude and obnoxious. This is to be expected considering that this area of the brain is where we plan our actions and rethink our decisions. It is the center of our moral awareness. He ended up getting fired from his job and the only line of work he could hold down was as a side-show attraction in a carnival. The same man with a little brain damage became a totally different person.
There may be ways to blend these ideas together in a way that would be compatible with what we observe in neuroscience, but still allow for some sort of freedom of will. Here are my own thoughts on the issue.
My best guess is that consciousness is created by specific types of information processing, specifically when that information flows in such a way that it “models” the world. At that point, that physical process “connects” to one of us, and we subjectively experience that flow of information consciously as existing in that world. How that connection takes place, I haven’t the slightest clue. I don’t know why brain activity in my head gives rise to experiences within “me” whereas your brain activity has no effect on me at all. I’m sure there are starving children in Africa right now suffering immensely, their brains flowing with information which leaves them with a dismal existence of sickness, pain and misery. I’m not experiencing that at all. I’m well fed and healthy, sitting in an air conditioned bed room, typing this post on a brand-new, fancy computer.
How would free will work? If it exists, I think it has something to do with quantum mechanics. There are states of matter which exist in a superposition of states, where different things are possible at a given time without defying the law of physics. If you look at photon say, it could take this path or it could take another path, either one being acceptable. Maybe “we” sometimes “choose” what things do in certain situations?
Then again, I’ve written posts here on my blog, pointing to research papers which indicate that our neural hardware in our brains is deterministic and quantum effects are irrelevant.
You may argue that our physics equations only model a tiny fraction of the physical stuff of the universe. After all, we don’t have any idea about dark matter or dark energy. But the problem is that neuroscientists have linked just about every aspect of consciousness to activity within our brains. So, dark matter and dark energy don’t seem to really matter.
Anyways, this is what happens when you think about anything too hard. You find yourself at the edge of a cliff, and if you go any farther, you’re falling headfirst into a pit of insanity. I sometimes risk my own sanity, slowly repelling with a rope down that cliff, seeing what’s down in this dark abyss. When I repel down too far, I can no longer breathe or think straight, and I start hallucinating. That’s about the time I chicken out and head back up.
Most people like to praise the scientist or thinker who isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions and pursue them will full force. They say we’re defined by the difficulty of our questions and the depth of our answers! What they fail to tell you is when you go too far down the rabbit hole, everyone around you just thinks you’re insane, you’re totally alienated, and before long you’re all alone.