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More Reflections on Self and Identity

March 27, 2012

I always seem to find myself thinking about the same sorts of things.  But I guess I’ll spend today further reflecting on a subject I never seem to make any real progress on – the self.  Any time I try to think about what I am, and give it an honest deep examination, I can’t come up with any satisfactory answer.

My first problem arises because I want to come to some definition of self which is unchanging.  There has to be some aspect of myself which is unchanging or else I can be anything.  Let me explain.

It’s common to associate ourselves with our bodies, and to some extent I accept that.  Then again, it doesn’t seem to capture a complete description of what the “self” is.  Let’s illustrate this with some thought experiments.  Say I built a machine filled with nanobots which disintegrate anything placed in it, copy its structure into a computer, and then reassemble it on demand.  Say I step into this machine and am taken apart, atom by atom, “I” am left there on the ground for a week or two, and then I’m reassembled by the machine just as I was when I entered.  Would the same personal subjective consciousness reside in that body?  Would I “wake up” as me, as if nothing happened?

Let’s make it more complicated.  Let’s have a lovely young woman enter this machine with me, we’re both disassembled, and our atoms are all mixed up.  Then we’re both reassembled, me using some of her atoms and her using some of mine.  Would the same subjective consciousnesses exist within both of our bodies when reassembled?

Let’s get even more inventive.  Let’s just store my pattern in the computer, but use an entirely different set of atoms.  Would I be me when reassembled, subjectively “waking up” in that reassembled body?

These questions seem impossible to answer because there’s no way to verify personal subjective consciousness.  It’s called subjective because nobody else can experience it, therefore the scientific method can never help us here.  So instead of asking impossible questions, let’s instead draw out the implications.

First I’d like to address the problem of self continuity.  I’m changing all the time, little by little, and we don’t seem to have any problem saying I’m the same person throughout these changes.  But what about an abrupt change?  Let’s say I was put under anesthesia and had a sex change operation.  This operation is so thorough that I’m genetically altered and my body is completely redesigned.  While I’m unconscious, my brain is rewired and a totally false history is implanted into my brain.  When I wake up, will I be someone else?  Will I be a woman, in love with my “husband”?  It seems perfectly reasonable to me.  With sufficient technology, a skilled surgeon could put me under and change me into whoever he or she wished.

Now let’s take another problem.  Say two of us are in a room together and a mad scientist kidnaps us both.  We’re taken to his lab and our brains are wired together, but since this scientist is demented, he leaves us conscious throughout the entire operation.  Having access to advanced nanotechnology, he wires our brains together, one synapse at a time.  Eventually your sensory organs are feeding my brain information and vice versa.  My thoughts start blending with your thoughts.  When would we become “one”?  How would that work from a perspective of subjective consciousness?

I’ve never heard anyone give answers to any of these questions.   People are so often satisfied with a reductionist worldview but I don’t think I’ll be able to subscribe to their point of view until these sorts of questions are addressed.

I find myself often asking the question, “Why am I me?  Why am I living the life I’m living?”  I feel completely lost when thinking about this question.  I’ve never been able to make any progress at all.

This may sound a little weird at first, but I think that I’m me because I have no choice of being anyone else.  I have to in some sense be constricted and limited in order to have an identity.  I’m a male so long as I don’t have access to technology which could change that.  If I lived in a future age where technology was far more advanced than it is today, I could easily imagine being able to step into a machine and step out as someone else, remade to whatever specifications I programmed into it.

Or take another similar example.  In the future I believe our brains will be filled with all sorts of augmentations and I think there will come a time where we don’t just watch movies on a screen — we’ll actually “live” as different characters.  The machines in our brains will completely simulate a different person, their thoughts, their emotions, their perspective, in its complete entirety.  It will be very vivid.  The question is, as you’re simulating being someone else, how much of your original self do you wish to remain?

I think a partial description of the “self” can be achieved by brain activity.  So if we build these machines which let you live as different people, yet you still want to remain partly “yourself” as you play the role of various characters in virtual reality, or virtual movies, or whatever, you’ll have to change brain signals in the areas you want to change.  Want a different body?  Change the brain inputs from sensory systems but leave other aspects of the mind intact.  Or if you’re wanting to experience life as laborer in Egypt building the pyramids and you want everything to be fully realistic and immersive, you’ll also want to disable your memories and knowledge that you currently possess.  They would give it away that you’re in a simulation because you’d remember, “Oh, I remember going into the virtual reality machine, programming it to take me to ancient Eygpt”, and so forth.  You’d remember your family, the futuristic society you really belong to, and all that.  You’d say to yourself, “Oh yeah, none of this is real.”

Right now I’m forced to be “Jason” whether I like it or not.  There’s many aspects of my life which I don’t like.  I sometimes get bored, sick, I develop headaches, and I don’t always wish to deal with school or work.   If I had the power, there’s a lot of things I’d change.  I think everybody would say the same.  I’m sort of forced to be the Jason I am now because I have no choice but to be me.  I’m not powerful enough, or knowledgeable enough, to make the necessary changes.  But it’s weird to think of my identity as the things I can’t change.  This aspect of myself seems more like a lifeless process.  Like being born a male.  My parents came together and a mindless process of complex chemistry whipped me up inside my mother.  It’s a complex happening.

I’ve always found it strange to see people associated with things they had no control over.  I remember in school, some people were ridiculed for being poor.  How silly.  A ten year old is being held responsible for his parents life decisions.  He can’t help it if he’s wearing old shoes and hand-me-down clothes.  It’s not like the little guy can work and earn money, or provide for himself.  There’s so many circumstances in life that people can’t control yet they’re held responsible for it all anyway.

Or take my own life.  I look at my past and things I’ve done.  There’s things I would change if I had the chance to go back.  In many other ways, I didn’t have a lot of choice.  I had to take what jobs came to me because I needed money.  I’ve worked odd jobs here and there and I sometimes wondered about people associating me with where I was.  That’s Jason.  He’s the computer guy at this company.  That’s who he is.  At the same time, I never wanted to work there and I had other passions.  It was just someplace I went to earn a paycheck.  Even so, I’m associated with “Jason the computer guy.”  It’s just weird.  Am I my passions and desires, or am I where I actually end up in life, in many cases against my will?  So many of us are pushed around by life’s currents and then everyone says, “That’s who you are!  That’s you!”  I don’t know about that.

But if you go to the opposite extreme and make me God, where no aspects of my identity are confined to my limitations, in some weird sense I cease to exist.  I have to want something, and to want something I have to be a slave to those desires.   Why should I desire one thing over another?  To be desireless is almost like ceasing to exist.  As God, I could always reform myself into whoever I wanted to be.  Don’t want to be Jason? I just change into whoever I want to be, but who would that be?  I’d have to want to be something else, but then I’m not all powerful because I’m a slave to that desire.   It doesn’t make sense.

As science progresses, and we can change our brains and our desires, I find it puzzling that mankind will be able to reform itself into something new, yet we have no criteria or direction to go in.  If we go by the common maxim of happiness as the ultimate goal, then we’re best off building robots to maintain our brains and we just place them in vats and keep ourselves indefinitely stoned on super powerful drugs until the universe dissipates into nothingness once more.  Why risk ever being unhappy?  Why risk ever experiencing pain?

People always think happiness is what life consists in.  I saw a good movie the other day.  It’s called Gran Turino and it stars Clint Eastwood.  Anyways, he plays an angry, lonely character who finds happiness helping a family of foreigners who move in next door.  But I remember a young girl coming up to him and telling him there’s no happiness or joy in his life, and we the viewers are supposed to see that as the ultimate indictment against him.  He must not be doing something right.  If you live right, you should be happy.  But when you take that sort of argument to its conclusion, as science progresses, we end up as brains in vats stoned on drugs, disconnecting ourselves from the world and any chance of pain.

Must this life have pain and suffering in order for us to have any sort of existence?  It seems to me to be a necessity.  I can’t imagine a world without it.

If you think about anything in this world very deeply, you find yourself free floating in a void of mystery and strangeness.   For example, the thought experiment of our minds being wired together by the scientist isn’t something I just came up with for kicks.  Think about the upcoming world where our brains are augmented and knowledge and memories can be directly beamed from one brain to another just like computers do with digital information.  Think about the time when I can directly beam what I’m seeing from my eyes to you all the way across the world, similar to sending a live stream from an iPhone camera.  We’re moving toward a world where we’ll be wired together, but what does that mean for individuality?  How does consciousness work when people are sharing sensory feeds?  Or what happens when various aspects of cognitive thinking is outsourced into the environment and shared between people?  Say you’re trying to solve a math problem, so your real brain contacts an artificial neural network computer, which then crunches on the problem and beams the solution back to your brain.  Further assume billions of people sharing these sorts of “cognitive servers”.   We start blending into a common organism.  Not really isolated individuals, but not really the exact duplicates either.

Something new is evolving here on Earth.  Our digital technology is greater than our iPhones, movies and music.  It’s wiring us into a new organism, but we’re just in the beginning stages so we still think we’re individuals, isolated from one another.  I don’t think humans will be in a few hundred years.  They’ll be wired up together, directly sharing experiences, knowledge, and emotions.  The computers located in the environment are the early beginnings of an extended nervous system.  They’re working their way into every aspect of our lives, and soon into our biology.  It’s something remarkable and deserves notice.  I think the internet is a form of life albeit different from the regular biological life we think of.

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