Selfness

(Page 3 of 6)

Yet we fall asleep every day, a loss of conscious continuity. People who lapse into year-long comas can emerge again with the same personality. Still better, patients in brain operations who have their heads chilled down until they are legally brain dead, with no alpha and beta rhythms at all, are still themselves when they are warmed back up and revived. Their memories and mannerisms come through intact.

Over what spans of time and condition can we keep our sense of selfness unbroken?

The bedrock issue of preserving one's selfness then intersects the increasing interest in prolonging life--if necessary by either freezing oneself after death, or even "uploading" into computers.

Making yourself into a computer file and programs fits one present picture of our Self: the mind is software running on the hardware of the brain. The Self, then, is whatever program is running on your customized operating system, one developed by the rubs and rituals of your upbringing.

Of course, such an analogy is suspect, for our brains self- program themselves, laying down memories in chemical pathways that are not simply erased, and aren't under our conscious control.

But the uploader's central point is that one can copy a mind much as a tape copies a piece of music, without knowing how music is made. The brain, they say, is the same.

Minds are self-organizing, evolving systems, however, unlike fixed musical works; but the image is striking, still. Where does it lead us?

The first novel about uploading, Charles Platt's 1991 The Silicon Man, does not directly confront a basic problem of copying, Levinson's Paradox: To the degree that a copy approaches perfection, it defeats itself. In being an absolutely perfect copy --so that no one can tell it from the original--it transforms the original into a duplicate. This means the perfect copy is no longer a perfect copy, because it has obliterated, rather than preserved, the uniqueness of the original--and thus failed to copy a central aspect of the original.

A perfect, artificial human intelligence would inevitably have this effect on its natural original. Sf author Paul Levinson pointed out this feature, hinting that it portended even deeper problems, in the 1980s. While the paradox may seem a mere logical quibble, it underlines how little we know of how much fidelity to the original truly implies that the self has been preserved.

No mere technological improvement can remove this logical difficulty. Given enough memory maintenance, we could maintain numerical versions of ourselves, assuming that the recording process would not destroy our fleshy originals.

This raises great troubles, though. Termed variously Dittos, Duplicates or Copies, these digital entities lead a tenuous existence. Real, fleshy folk would decisively reject the Copy Fallacy: the belief that a digital Self was identical to the Original, and that an Original should feel that a Ditto itself somehow carried them forward into immortality. (As long as nobody pulls the plug, of course.)

Refuting this Copy Fallacy is straightforward. Imagine yourself promised that you will be resurrected digitally, immediately after your death. Assign a price tag you will pay for that, insurance of a sort. Then imagine the guy who sells you on this notion saying that, uh, well, maybe it would not be started right away, but sometime in future...we promise. As that date recedes, people's enthusiasm for paying for Self Copies dims -- demonstrating that it is the hope of continuity they unconsciously relish.

As an identical twin, I have never bought the Copy Fallacy in any form. Though my brother and I have diverged in personality and appearance, due to differing environments and histories, for the first twenty years of our lives few could tell us apart. He and I could, though, and that's the nub of the argument: the Self is defined internally, not externally.

In the end, Copies benefit themselves, not the dead; machine immortality is more like having your twin live on, not yourself.

Some thinkers about computer identities, in the years since publication of The Silicon Man, have begun to push an agenda of Copy rights -- the expansion of classical liberty into the digital wilderness. Dittos still will be people, the argument goes, with different skills and drawbacks, rather like the "differently abled."

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