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.