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A Clone and a Shotgun

There’s someone in the room with you; he’s unconscious, and what’s really odd is he’s identical to you in every way—he shares your DNA, your memories, your love of dubstep, Beethoven, and psychedelic drugs. He has all your scars. He’s felt all your humiliations, your embarrassments, your regrets. He is, at least from objective realities’ perspective, indistinguishable from you by every conceivable objective measure, e.g, the arrangement of his neurons, his reactions to identical situations, his thoughts in general. If you were to disappear, he could wake up and take your place, and no one, including him, would know that at some point he had an original, the he was a copy, that you had, in fact, disappeared at all. In your hands you notice a shotgun, loaded, with the safety off. By arbitrary, binary decree, one of you has to die. Do you shoot—and let’s just assume a complete lack of pain for both parties–yourself, or do you shoot your copy? What is your immediate, emotional response?

Though I haven’t done studies, I assume most “sane” people would choose to shoot the sleeping copy. That is to say, we have less of an affinity towards the version of ourselves—at least when examining these situations hypothetically—in which we perceive our personal identity to be absent, preferring to keep our egos on the safe side of the shotgun. This illustrates a certain bias that seems to be ingrained in most of us: the belief that our personal identity, our consciousness, is is irrecoverably connected to our bodies, and that it can only exist in one form. Though this seems so intrinsically right, so emotionally true on a very powerful, biological level, it is, in fact, a rather irrational assumption, or—more aptly–an odd perceptual hallucination, a form of evolved dualism that doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny. The only logical way to view personal identity is to view it as a pattern, as a self-sustaining emergent property of the brain, which is itself an emergent property of self-replicating molecules. A perfectly logical, emotionally unattached person could shoot himself fully aware that his consciousness is “backed up” in his perfect copy, that the sleeping man would wake, continuing his pattern of personal identity, negating the effect of the suicide, give or take a memory or two.

To illustrate why this is the case, let’s imagine a magic box that reduces whatever is placed within it into its constituent elements and sorts said elements, placing solids into bags, liquids into buckets, and gases into sealed bottles. So, for example, if one placed a cupcake inside the box and closed the lid, one would find upon closing and opening the box’s lid a small bag of carbon and some small bottles of hydrogen and oxygen along with similar bags, buckets, and bottles of whatever else constitutes a cupcake. Now, another property of this magic box is its ability to reconstitute these elements into their original form–if you were to close the lid and open it once more, you would find a perfectly edible cupcake identical to the one you started with.

Now let’s imagine this box is big enough to hold a perfectly average person—I’ll call him Jim. So Jim is in the magic box. The door is closed; the door is opened. And now we find bottles, buckets, and bags of Jim’s matter. The door is closed; the door is opened, and Jim has reappeared content, though slightly confused. Is he still Jim? It’s hard to argue that this he’s not. For all his matter is identical; he has the same thoughts, and he is by any measure exactly who he was before. And this includes his personal, subjective experience. Though his conciseness was interrupted, it now exists once again in exactly the same form, running—so to speak—on the exact same hardware, which is identical atom-per-atom to how it was pre-magic-box.

Now let’s close and open the box once more. Let’s look at the bags, buckets, and bottles that contain the ingredients for Jim. There’s about 120 pounds of oxygen, thirty pounds of carbon, twenty pounds of hydrogen, and ten pounds of various trace minerals and gasses. If I were to replace, say, the bag of carbon with a similar bag of graphite, would it matter? Would Jim still be Jim after our hypothetical magic box reassembled these new atoms into his form? The only logical answer is yes. To argue that the provenance of Jim’s molecules is relevant to the validity of his identity is to a postulate some form of elemental animism, the belief that matter has a memory, that Jim’s “spirit” is entwined in his “matter of the moment.”

Obviously, this isn’t very likely.

So our identity is just a pattern. Yet still we have that pesky emotional reaction when confronted with the implications: still our egos long to be on the ass-end of the shotgun. This is probably just cultural; humans have never had to deal directly with these kinds of issues. If we get to the point where copies stop being hypothetical, the culture will adapt; children born into a world with “backups” would certainly view the shotgun scenario differently, probably wondering what caused all this anxiety in the first place, perhaps thinking we should have taken a “chill pill.” There’s even the intriguing, Darwinian idea that anyone with conservative ethical and/or existential convictions pertaining to uploading or copying, will not be around long enough to perpetuate said censors, at least without becoming a do-as-I-say hypocrite.

Ultimately—of course–the cultural aspects are irrelevant; humans behave irrationally, especially when they’re in large groups, so the attitudes of a “back up culture” do not necessarily support the notion of people-as-patterns. But this does: If you reject dualism—as most scientifically minded people do–you accept that consciousness is a biologically sustained pattern. Patterns can be replicated. And this—of course—brings us back to the shotgun. Perhaps you should just flip a coin, because you’ll still be you; it truly doesn’t matter which copy gets the bullet.

Patrick Verhagen is a writer and student who resides in Victoria, BC.


  1. >> The only logical way to view personal identity is to view it as a pattern, as a self-sustaining emergent property of the brain, which is itself an emergent property of self-replicating molecules.

    So magic box is so magic that molecule are able to emerge something completely different from itself. I see many people who consider themselves transhumanists and surprisingly have this strange believe: that things are not what they are. That molecules are not molecules but also a person. Dunno… Aren’t when one see a letter “letter” and one see word “letter” he/she actually see same things? Or one see a building and bricks it made of?

    That said no one else have explained how movement of anything(including molecules and charged particles) can be contentiousness at the same time. (with bricks and building there is no such problem).

    So that’s are two of few views on nature of conciousness. Question is still open.

  2. Quantum mechanics does not allow reading exact state of any elementary particle. But that isn’t problem for magical box, right?

  3. The image is a rifle, not a shotgun.

  4. On the continuity-argument:
    Intuition tells us our consciousness is continuous, and we can’t feel the experiences of the copy.
    But what about sleep? That breaks the continuity of consciousness too. I can’t feel what tomorrow is like.

    Is the impossibility of me feeling the experiences of a copy of me the same as me not being able to experience my self of tomorrow?

    Tomorrow I will feel that I can experience my self, incl. memories of today. The person I am now though, never experienced tomorrow.
    The same happens with a copy: The copy coming out of a transporter would claim the consciousness was continuous and everything OK, while the original never experienced any moment after the copying event.

    So, maybe going to sleep is just as scary as being copied/transported…?

    • @ POP-1313

      Sleep is not a loss of consciousness, it is an altered state of consciousness. You have conscious experience during sleep (dreams). Sleep does not break continuity of consciousness.

      • @ Armand
        The notion that sleep is not braking consciousness is very arguable. One may talk that this is alternation of conscious and not a brake, but it doesn’t matter. When someones way of thinking alters so drastically as it is in dream (notably, substitution of formal logic by associations) it can be said that person itself alters to such extent that this is another person. By the way, dream occupy only portion of sleeping time, and so there are discontinuities in experience. And thus we may say that such a discontinuity means breaking continuity of conscious mind.
        It is may well be that lifetime of unique conscious mind (seen as dynamic process of definite kind) is from awakening to falling asleep (or in some incidents fading). We are not aware of it because new mind arises well after previous was discontinued. It is serial process. When we face the situation like that we see in article we have a parallel process, two otherwise identical minds (at least at start) are operating separately in different places at the same time. And only because they separated in space, not in time, we instantly see that there are TWO persons. It is not so obvious in situation of serial process of sleeping and waking.
        There must be constant flow of information between copies (as it is between brain hemispheres) so they cold remain mostly identical and can be called “one person in multiple bodies”.

  5. What about if you have sex with your clone?

    Are you having gay sex, or merely masurbating?

    • I would say masturbating… only because the alternative is incest :S

  6. Well, that’s not really correct. You want to survive, not to guarantee “patterns of your personality” will last… What do you care about a clone of your personality carrying on if YOU can’t breathe, hear, touch?

  7. I think the big issue for me is one of competition- I’m totally for the “backing-up” of one’s thoughts, emotions and memories, but I’d rather my back-up was activated when the original died or got corrupted (i.e. as a result of Alzheimer’s). If I was confronted by an exact replica of me, I would be compelled to destroy it to avoid having to compete for living space, affection from loved ones, etc.

    Also, I agree with the point made by Bevanoes above, that the individual is a continuous pattern, and I’d like my pattern to continue on. After the mind dies or decays, the pattern could be reasonably continued by a duplicate, but until then I want my own personal pattern to continue.

  8. Do you shoot—and let’s just assume a complete lack of pain for both parties–yourself, or do you shoot your copy? What is your immediate, emotional response?
    My immediate, emotional response is that it doesn’t matter. But I’ve done these thought experiments many times before.

  9. Hagelian dialectic being inculpated here. How?
    Who says it is entirely binary? What is to stop the other clone from becoming another person? How about negotiating with the clone to become another person so identity could be maintained? Why must one die at all? Why not a scenario like ‘Multiplicity’ though that example separates alter egos though physically same.

    So who adopts a system wholesale (who says there is such a rule where one must die so another can live? Who says there are rules at all? Who says we need to pay taxes or build roads to drive on? What if we want to dfrive on dirt roads but not pay road tax or toll gate fees? It is up to the voter to identify HEGELIAN DIALECTIC – binary rules can be subsets of binary rules, have subsets of binary conditions that nullify binary rules – so don’t slip in that fly in your ‘one must die/binary rule article)?

    Portions of communism are perfect, some are failures. Lew Rockwell has portions that a failure as well so no go. But we should always adopt the best and learn what Hagelian Dialectic means :

    Don’t bother recruiting people into flawed mindsets, any proponents of whatever cult of personality, this generation is one of diversity and freedom. Nothing will be taken wholesale, all abuses or laws will be dropped. Government 3.0is the future, is OPEN SOURCING from all systems.

    1.0 being Absolute Monarchy or Junta backed by military

    2.0 being Capitalism/Communism dichotomy

    3.0 Open Source

    No more cults of personality (any single government philosophy), limitless terms (monarchy in bureaucracy), much less Theocracy and Fundamentalism (Monotheism is the worst thing since Polytheism which was at least conversable between Idols, though persons will always be subject and not sovereign . . . )

    4.0 Singularity / Apotheosis of Man (Guided by conscience, awareness and consent – the education system needs to be overhauled first, it is a mere brainwash machine as of now.)

  10. Life is Consciousness.

    You and your doppleganger experience consciousness seperately. You cannot ‘see through his eyes’, or experience consciousness through him, especially if you’re dead.

    If you have two seperate consciousnesses, then you are two people, and the fact that you’re identical is irrelevent.

    You and your doppleganger are no more the same person than identical twins. Even though real twins are not as perfectly identical as your hypothetical doppleganger, to a human observer this would be imperceivable. For all intents and purposes ,a doppleganger is a twin, and just like a twin would be a seperate person from you. Most people would likely view dopplegangers as being functionally twins, but not the same person.

    I stress, you must share a single consciousness to be one person. Two consciousness= two people, even if they’re identical. If you die, you cannot continue to live on through a doppleganger, since his consciouness is not yours.

    I have a post about this called the Transporter Paradox on my blog Check it out if you want.

    • @Armand: I couldn’t agree with you more 🙂 It was a good question from Patrick, but the scenario maybe not be suitable. When one sleeps and the other one not, then they are already not the identical consciousness and their neuron arrangement must be varied regarding their different status. I think, the two identical consciousnesses must exist within the identical environment (e.g. the world). It could be a mirrored parallel universe. And now the scenario could be: There is a button in front of me the other identical me. Will I push the button which will destroy another me?

  11. At first, I went with a rational altruism approach: Having to take the action at all is a mental trauma – choosing to kill yourself or another human (regardless of whether that human is “also” you or not), and then doing so. To minimize that, I should take the option which leaves one of “me” having not been put in that position, and kill the awake me (“myself”).

    If you take that away by saying that if I shoot the sleeper I’ll be removed from the situation and have that memory erased, or if I shoot myself he’ll be moved somewhere else before he wakes, then it’s trickier. But I’d still have to go with killing the awake me – morally, I have no right to choose death for another human being, but I have every right to choose to die.

  12. You underestimate how ornery humans can be. Some of us would shoot the person telling us that only one of “me” could live. XP

    To be more serious, I have also dealt with this topic previously. It’s a common one used by opponents to “uploading”, who claim that ONLY the original has validity, and that the “copy” could NEVER be “real”. I suffer no such delusions. We are BOTH me, and I would be no more likely to shoot my copy than I would myself. You would have to rig the “test” in such a manner as to completely eliminate my self will to force me to do so. Yes, from the minute we are conscious, we are likely to diverge in our experiences, and if we had no means to “share experiences” then eventually we would become more and more independent, but we would both still consider ourselves to be the same person and, barring some radical deviation, would likely continue to seek a method to enable us to “remerge” at least our subjective experiences so that we could both “be each other” and maintain unity of self. In fact, once such technology is available, I plan to experience multiple versions of “me” with different body forms, and shared “experiences.” quite possibly even having multiple copies of me running simultaneously.

    This is not to say that I expect to be “dictator” to “slave selves”, merely that since I desire to have this range of experience, it seems only logical to assume my copies would also seek to share the experiences I have and each other has, so that we could all enjoy the uniqueness of such viewpoints. And if one of me decides to “go their own way”, while I would seek to understand why, I would respect my own free will enough to allow myself to make my own choices. (at least I hope so, not having had the experience as yet to confirm this)

    If all of this is confusing, I suggest reading Mother of Storms by John Barnes for a fictional account of such “multiplicity”

    • Agreed. Both of me would live – he who placed the gun in my hand and told me to choose, would be the one shot.

  13. I am entirely unconvinced by this. What is important to me is my subjective experience. If I am not having the subjective experience of the clone sleeping on the cot (which there is no reason to suspect i would be) then surely my experience of the universe would end if i choose to shoot myself. The rest of the universe would not care ofcourse. I do not believe this is a dualist perspective. Rather believing that i should have some connection to my clone seems to require some mystical unkown . This is ofcourse assuming that I have some connection to the me of 1 sec ago and that it is the same conciousness, which I cannot prove but seems very inpractical not to assume. So no I will not shoot myself and I am not stepping into the startrek transporter either.

  14. I’ve always shared a similar view, however I view an “individual” as a continous pattern, rather than a snapshot of one. For example, in the situation described above, I would shoot the sleeping body as I desire to continue my continuous pattern of consciousness, as opposed to the second bodies.

    While every neuron may be identical, the moment the two distinct beings in the room acquire seperate subjective experiences, they can be seen as seperate continuous patterns with a common origin, but seperate nonetheless without using any form of dualism.

    This is why i personally favour the transition to substrate independant minds by gradually replacing neurons with nanobots and backuping minds using a system like RAID rather than uploading via brain scan and backuping “snapshots” of mind patterns.

  15. There is no scientifically grounded theory for consciousness/awareness. We haven’t even devised any experiments. So any argument here is purely speculative.

    You argue that people oppose the “awareness from pattern” on gut/emotional grounds. But your only evidence in favor of it is based on your gut sense that the second Jim, and the swapped carbon Jim are the same. There’s no philosophical or scientific reason to think that.

    You’re allowed to believe what you want to fill in the gaps modern science still has. But don’t confuse beliefs with truths.

    This is all the old Star Trek debate about whether the transporter kills you. Sounds like you’re ready to try it out. Me? I’ll stick to the shuttle craft 🙂

    • There is a philosophical concept for this. Quite a frequently quoted phrase as well – “I think therefore I am”. Notably not “I can poke myself with a stick therefore I am”.

      If you read up on Existentialism, you’ll see a great many philosophers who have stated that our “soul” or “mind” or “conciousness” exist entirely seperately of the human body.

      Most ironically, the most commonly adopted belief system in the west (Christianity) is a strong proponent of this belief, but they still object to the concept of humanity re-creating conciousness. They don’t like us recreating tissue much either. Apparently that’s “playing God”. Arguably, procreation is humans creating both human tissue AND a conciousness, and they don’t seem to have too much of an issue with that. As long as you don’t enjoy it.

      • Many philosophers have _stated_ as much, yes. None have _proved_ it.

        I’m not ruling out the possibility of the “soul” being something separate from our human matter (Although there is certainly a strong relationship/link between the two…). But there’s no evidence for such a belief. And a bit of critical thinking will cause one to quickly become skeptical of the “pattern” theory of consciousness.

        Of course, there’s no evidence to believe the contrary either! I only stick to the shuttle craft because I know from past experience that will keep my consciousness in tact. Taking the transporter is a gamble.

        • Fair point, but there’s no real evidence for any philosophical thought really – once you’ve proved it, it becomes science instead of philosophy.

          Semantics aside, I completely agree. This article is interesting, but makes a lot of assumptions and flawed logical assertions.

  16. Ok Nice start and article and topic mater that need’s to be talked about more and in the various ways a mental clone can happen. First off one to think about is ghost limbs that the brain perceives in some people with amputations. Would that be considered a type of dualism? Now to take it further. Say you move to a new body ( female to male or human) to non human with a clone of the mental paths and thought cycles put into a non human species or man made species or even silicon computer. After aging in the original body and adapting to the body threw time as the person grows. Would that person not have the same phantom body syndrome or have it mess with there new structure they move to? Now lets go one more step and say you have one mental signal looping on 2 human bodies and connected so they share perspectives threw a thought sharing pipeline ( computer or biological nerve bundles) grown/wired from brain to brain. As one sharing 2 bodies that’s where I see a duality coming in and of a weird type. Now one last one for now. What about a human with part of there conscious on a computer and some in the mental structure of the brain. Or a person half way threw adapting and migrating there mind and thoughts with mimetic memory weights slowly being transferred over as they adapt and are able to use and do more. Would that be considered a duality to you? If you don’t feel like answering this, that’s fine I’m used to it from some circles. In the end it looks like a lot of us will have to do some of this on our own or DIY, to help avoid a few problems with others owning the copy or substrate that is migrated to or uploaded to or copied off to. I will not even touch the how many copies/clones are to many for one person or resources taken by a person and there clones. Or the best age to start a mental migration or upload or clone to a different substrate/body. Or mind expansions and modifications and/or a copy in a box ready to go. To balance the equation is a dichotomy few will have to face in the way you put it, and the reality we live in.

  17. this brings to mind the end of “the prestige”. i always imagined that after the first couple dozen of any big change in beings as we know them, be they genetically altered people, clones, AI lifeforms, mechanized humans, or humanoid hybrids for that matter, there will either be a revolt or a revolution in mindset.

    but either way, to eliminate any sort of being would be effectively genocide, or an attempt to fight the inevitable, because once a ball starts rolling, it takes a lot to stop it.

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