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A Conversation on Consciousness: Futurism and Philosophy
Consciousness Uploading and Dualism
A conversation arose between my friend Ben and me over this article I wrote: Transcendence: The Simple Consciousness Uploading Paradox. In the article, I outline the main reason I don't think that you're you if you upload your consciousness into the cloud after you die, or even if you do it all at once via any other means. As a result of sharing these thoughts with Ben, who is passionate about philosophy, history, and social current events, we had an excellent conversation wherein several interesting points were raised. What follows is the conversation we had in condensed form, along with added notes by me based on what I've concluded or learned, or other information you might find helpful.
I also thought it would be fun to put increasingly sillier pictures of each of us beside our thoughts. You're welcome.
Ben's Initial Thoughts on Dualism
It seems like the thrust of your argument revolves around dualism, the ghost in the machine. That there is the physical self and this other "self" consciousness that is independent of the physical self and can be transferred slowly from one physical entity to another. I don't subscribe to this philosophical position because, to stick with the metaphor, there is no mechanism for the ghost to operate the machine. The immaterial cannot act upon the material. The ghost is an illusion created by the functioning of the machine.
Even if you were to supplement the organic brain with nano bots and overtime increase the percentage of the mechanical and decrease the organic you aren't transferring your consciousness from one medium to another, you are re-writing it all together. There may be a continuum of one illusion into the next, but it will not be the same illusion because it is being created by a different machine.
I might liken this to mixing colors. You start with red and add a drop of blue. You keep adding blue and you get purple and eventually you add so much blue that there is only blue and no more red. There is a continuum of the experience of color but they are ultimately two different things, you did nothing to transfer the essence of red into blue.
Teaching Jiu Jitsu With a Black Eye
My Initial Response: Gradual Change of Identity
I'd agree that you're a different person by the time you get from red to blue, using the color analogy, but if you have a single drop of blue inside your red, aren't you still just as fundamentally different? I know, you're not as different percentage wise, but conceptually, either you're a different person or you're not.
My point is that we are constantly shedding brain cells. All the time these cells are going away, and at an atomic level the majority of them will have been replaced within a year or so, and possibly less.
Does that make us different people from year to year? Sure it does. How different is up for debate, of course, but are you still you?
The same exact thing could happen with inorganic parts via transfer, couldn't it? if not, why not? What's different?
An Earlier, Trademark Mustachioed Ben
Because you are rebuilding with different parts. A brain rebuilt with new brain cells is still a brain. A brain rebuilt with computers is a computer.
I am not the same persons was a year ago, I am certainly not the same person I was as a child. The narrative of the continuum is an illusion. If the narrative is an illusion you have to ask what you mean by the question " are you still you?". The collection of my cells that form the organic machine that is know as Ben constantly regenerate and that machine is what actually experiences. As that body marches through time the moments are stitched together to form the illusive narrative of consciousness. If I slowly replaced every cell in my body, skin, bones, blood etc, with a nano bot then I don't think that you would argue that I am still me. I would be a robot version of me but not me.
The argument also doesn't address the dualism inherent in the position. Your position is arguing that consciousness is its own entity, separate from the body and there isn't evidence for that.
Me with Hallie
" If I slowly replaced every cell in my body, skin, bones, blood etc, with a nano bot then I don't think that you would argue that I am still me. I would be a robot version of me but not me. "
Setting aside the "nano bot" term and replacing it with something inorganic, I actually would argue that it is still you. I don't see why your initial statement:"Because you are rebuilding with different parts. A brain rebuilt with new brain cells is still a brain. A brain rebuilt with computers is a computer. "The parts are not the same when your brain rebuilds them. It does the best it can, but it's not the same. On an atomic level, and probably on a molecular level, just about all of the components of your brain are different from year to year. Even your neurons themselves change a great deal over time. So what if one of the neural connections was replaced with something that isn't organic? The neuron just transfers information from one place to another, albeit terribly inefficiently and slowly.
I'm not sure what you mean about the dualism in my position. Could you clarify using words a ten year old could understand? I don't want to obfuscate the issue with words like obfuscate.
Much Younger Ben
Dualism is the philosophical position that there is a "ghost in the machine". We are made of 2 separate things. The "physical" and the "spiritual". The problem with this argument, traditionally is that immaterial things cannot interact or influence material things. It's why you can't prove that there is a soul. In this case I think your argument rest on consciousness being a separate entity from the physical body, like the soul, and not an emergent property of the workings of the physical body. If it is an emergent property, which it seems to be, I would argue that by swapping out the physical body for a different one you are fundamentally altering or transforming the processes that form "consciousness" into something that cannot be recognized as the consciousness that you began with, even if they do share the same memories. It becomes the same problem you have with the teleporter. It can be an exact copy but because the processes that generate it are not the same then it is by definition not the same consciousness. This might be a definitional difference but I think it is important.
The brain is always changing but it is replaced with parts of the same kind. Perhaps a better example would be rebuilding a car. If you started with a 67 mustang and replaced each part, one by one, with the parts of a 68 mustang would you still have a 67 mustang when you were finished or would you have a 68 mustang ? I doubt many people would know the difference, myself included since I know nothing about cars, but the difference would be there all the same, even if you were able to drive the car after replacing any single part.
There might be a counter argument in here about people with knee replacements or cochlear implants, but the thrust of my argument is that over time you change the essence of what the thing is, and from my understanding that changes the nature/ essence of the consciousness. I guess it is like evolution, the difference between any neighboring stages may be indistinguishable when compared next to each other but at the "end" of the process you end up with something fundamentally different from what you started with.
Even if I grant the premise for the moment I also wonder about the argument for a slow but continuous transfer as being key to the process. How do you think this affects the status of people who have died from extreme exposure to cold and have been brain dead for hours only to be revived? - I am thinking specifically of a nurse in Norway who way submerged in a glacial lake for 4 hours after a skiing accident but was able to be revived later. If I can find the story I will send it to you, I think it might have been on a radiolab. - Are they the same people they were before they died or did a new consciousness emerge within them after they were revived?
I understand that there is an analogy if the transition to transhuman as being like growing up, there is this continuum of consciousness from kid Andrew to adult Andrew. -I personally might argue that you are in fact separate people stitched together in space time through this narrative of consciousness, but I might have to elaborate on that later-. But does it change your argument if we change the vessel that you are uploading to? If we uploaded you into a dog or a cat would you still be Andrew or would the physical processes of being a dog or cat, and what that means neurologically begin to override and alter your consciousness?
Me with My Friend Han
I honestly don't know if that nurse (I read the Wiki article, crazy story!) is the same after being very close to death for a few hours (and 57 degrees F when they brought her in). That's a great question. My contention is that she is the same person because the activity within the brain never stopped- the neurons were transmitting information, albeit at about 10% of the rate of a fully conscious person.
I don't disagree that consciousness is an illusion, and I'm actually not trying to argue that we are any different than the sum of our parts, so I think you've got me all wrong regarding dualism. However, I can't shake the idea that there is a "me" or an "I" that gets to experience things, because... well, I'm experiencing them. In fact, the only one individual fact I know for certain, beyond all doubt, is that I am here, experiencing life (or existence, if you prefer).
I know that I experience, and I don't know anything else whatsoever.
Having said that, I would like to continue to experience things, even if the nature of "me" changes somewhat. If you start with a 67 Mustang and gradually replace the parts one by one, you end up with a 68 Mustang, sure, but is it the same car? Yes. It's a system that is greater than the sum of its parts, and the book you recommended I read by Donna Summer (or Donella H Meadows) talks a great deal about this. I agree with her on this.
In the example above, a 67 Mustang can become a 68 Mustang and be the same car, just as a person can have all of our trillions of cells replaced by new ones (and we certainly will within our lifetimes), or replaced by something that isn't exactly the same cell.
Let me pose one more question for "food for thought":
Your contention is that if you replace all of your parts with inorganic ones, you are no longer "you." What if you replaced all of your parts with exactly identical ones, down to the atoms (or possibly the quantum scale, if that's possible- which we really don't know)? Suppose I have one individual cell that I replace with an identical cell we create (but it's really exactly the same in every conceivable way). I'm still me, right? How about 2 cells, then a billion, then many trillions? Still me, right?
Ben in Wales (okay, this one's not nearly ridiculous enough, but it's cool)
I'll agree that the nurse example wasn't exactly what I was remembering but the question that is sparks for me remains the same, if she had died and was revived through some future medical technology would she be the same person or have the same consciousness?
The dualism question is important to me, though I think I may not of been coherent in my last assemblage of thoughts, because it is important to define the parts of the question. Specifically, what is "consciousness" what is "me/ the self". To talk about consciousness or the self as separate from the parts that generate it doesn't work for me. The reason it matters what you replace it with is because the nature of the items converge to dictate the quality of the consciousness. A robot brain will function differently than a human brain because the input is fundamentally different. It begins to be experience and be conscious as a robot which alters the nature of the consciousness if it started as human. Again I think this comes back to an evolutionary perspective, everything is close enough to the thing next to it to be indistinguishable but there is a big difference between us and us a million years ago.
I will have to disagree about the car. At point "A" you have the original, points "B" through "Y" you have a hybrid and at point "Z" you have a replica, even if every version of the hybrid was functional and you never stopped driving it. Point "A", the original is sitting in a scrap pile in your yard. Your experience of a functional car, even the same car, may not have changed but your experience has no bearing on whether it is the original or the replica. I think that you would notice though, the knobs on the radio change, the dashboard, but everything happens so slowly that your mind smooths it over. It is the illusion, the narrative that makes the car the same to you even though it isn't.
Perhaps a important question in this is "when you say "is it me?" Who are you asking the question to, and when are you asking them the question?"
I realize that your position is coming from an internal perspective, "will I recognize me as me". My short answer is yes you will, but it will be a lie. I have been addressing this mostly from an exterior approach, but it is where the two collide that I think my comment about the kid to adult continuum might come into play. I understand your position as stating that the kid and the adult are the same person because they share a conscious narrative. However, as a counterpoint to this position, if you think about the individual characteristics or abilities of the kid compared to their adult self you would not confuse the 2 if you were given a list of their attributes. The only thing that ties them together is the internal monologue, which is handed off, not unlike being uploaded to a new physical form. This addresses your question about identical cells replacing each other. Your body does this every 7 years anyway(replaces every cell) so it doesn't matter if you generate the cell or if your body does. The kid has no recollection of his existence in the future but the adult has recollection of the past so the directionality of the transfer is a major factor in this. It doesn't matter what current human Andrew thinks about the what future transhuman Andrew experiences because current Andrew is long gone, he is only a memory in future transhuman Andrew's mind. Perhaps this is an extreme view but I hold that this is true for us now, we die and are reborn in every moment. The arrow of time keeps us from having a continuum of consciousness going forward, only looking back. We are never the same person from moment to moment we only have that illusion.
This is the point of philosophy. You know that you experience but can your experience be trusted? Experience alone is not enough to validate an argument, if it was than faith would be a legitimate means of argumentation.
In this case I don't know if it matters if you are vaporized and rebuilt from scratch or continuously uploaded the continuum looking back, the experience is the same. I don't think that there would be an internal gap in consciousness either of you were rebuilt from scratch. There might be inconsistencies as to why it is 50 years later, but your internal dialogue would be continuous, just really confused.
I don't know why I didn't think of this before but there are several episodes of TNG that deal with people taking actions within the ether of the teleporter. In one episode dealing with this Lt. Barkley's has almost this exact fear, during teleport he will be vaporized and what comes out the other end won't be him. In that episode though he interacts with several people who were trapped in the buffer signal after they tried to teleport of their exploding ship while he was in mid transport. Also in TNG, Mr. Scotty is pulled out of a buffer after 70 years following a similar incident. To me this says that they aren't simply scanning you and recreating you whole stock but are pulling your atoms apart and physically transporting them through space.
Me with a Mullet.
Just so that we're on the same page, and before we go too much further down this rabbit hole, do you believe that if you replace cells with identical cells from somewhere else, you are still you? Or are you saying that "you" from one second to another isn't "you" at all, since you're only you in the moment anyway?
If it's the latter, then transhumanism (I really hate that word) is no different than just being a person.
What confuses me is your insistence that the car is different from part to part. If you have a "hybrid" car the minute you replace the first part, then you're a "hybrid" Ben from moment to moment, because on an atomic level, you aren't the same "you" from second to second, day to day. Is it only if you notice it changing that your identity changes, or if others notice it, or either depending on your perspective?
Ben, One Tough Mudder
"you" from one second to another isn't "you" at all, since you're only you in the moment anyway
It really is definitional and evolutionary. We are having this conversation because we are looking at a small snippet of time in the evolutionary process of one creature. Not to get all lawyer-y but It becomes definitional, what is the "start" what is the "end". In this case it seems that we have started with a thing called a human and ended with a computer or robot etc that has inherited something from that human. It's just that my contention is that the thing that it has inherited is an outgrowth of the physical being itself and therefore any change in physical being changes what is being grown out.
I think your point though is more about the internal dialogue and awareness.
You are exactly right about me being a hybrid, everything is a hybrid all the time, there are only boundaries between things and no things themselves. It is like looking at a color wheel and trying to find "red" or any other color.
In regards to it identity changing it is both, they are inseparable. You can change without being aware that you are changing, ie your cells replacing themselves, cancer growing etc, or it can be a concerted effort. At what point did you stop being a white belt or start being a black belt? There is no clear cut line and there where many moments where you showed up and trained and didn't feel like you did any better than the class before but the guy you rolled with had just that much more trouble than he did before. At some point though everyone agreed that you were a black belt and your identity changed.
Ben Promoted to BJJ Brown Belt
Recap and Conclusion
Let me make sure I'm understanding your point of view:
"You" don't get to experience tomorrow at all, since you're not the same you tomorrow as you are today.
Similarly, you wouldn't get to experience a human 2.0 version of you in 40 years or so, because you're not the same you then as now.
Correct. We aren't the ones that even started this conversation, we just inherited it.
I have an idea of space time that gets into this but I might need to try to explain it in person.
Gotcha. So the replacement of parts things kind of gets in the way of this point, I think. There are two separate conversations going on here.
If you're not you from one instant to the next, it's not really relevant whether you're replacing yourself with different cells or atoms, or replacing yourself with computer parts.
Yes, that it what I was trying to get at with the interior dialogue vs exterior perception. For me at least they are linked though because I think that there might be a more drastic alteration of the conscious narrative when going for human to techno because the thing that is generating the narrative is ultimately different and that will start to factor in to the "experience". For example, you might start off remembering what it is like to be human but at some point if you don't have arms or legs then they because abstract concepts and that begins to fundamentally alter your experience and your memories of "you" the human being since memories are filtered through your present consciousness until they are ultimately overridden.