The ‘I’ in the continuity of consciousness

Sam Harris has recently become more involved in debates regarding robots and Artificial Intelligence and their places in the future. In a discussion with David Chalmers recently, they talked about how some tech developers have been thinking about the development of machine brains, or neurally integrated computers. One reason for this is that electronic computers can process information many times faster than the human brain can. Harris expressed fears that, if this technology was developed, we could have an arms-race style rush to have the most powerful computer-brains.

An interesting question came up in this discussion. Suppose they had created a robot replica of you, a ‘new’ you with the same brain as you, except it has a computer brain. all your memories, your personality, and so forth, everything which makes you ‘you’, is stored onto a hard drive. One day they say “this person is ready to be transferred over from their meat body to the computer body, to live out their life in the robot shell. The old organic body can now be destroyed”. If everything which makes you ‘you’ is now in this new robot you, is the destruction of the old organic body an act of murder?

Sam Harris
Sam Harris, philosopher and neuroscientist

Some people argue that murder would be ending a life by ending a person’s consciousness. Chalmers believes that we can test whether cessation of consciousness would occur by making the transition gradual, monitoring one’s experience of the gradual transition to test whether consciousness would disappear.

This raises some fascinating questions regarding identity. Plato had a famous thought experiment where he discusses the ship of Theseus. The ship of Theseus had travelled the seas so many times that it had to be repaired and parts replaced. First the masts were replaced. Then some decking was replaced. By the end of the ship’s days, it was still completely whole. However, every single piece of the ship had been replaced. The question is, if none of the original pieces remain, is it still the same ship? In exactly the same way, suppose our brain is integrated or replaced, piece by piece, are we still the same person?

If you’re having trouble deciding, here’s a famous thought experiment by Derek Parfit. Think of one of those teleporters from the show Star Trek. To transport you from one place to another, they scan your body and record every single atom in its exact place then pull them apart and reconstitute them in the new location with new atoms. Between places (a) and (b) in time, your body and consciousness do not exist. Does this then constitute a full death-state? Secondly, are you still the same person when you are reconstituted? Many people say yes, of course you are- you have the same memories, same body, same personality, there is effectively no difference from point (a) to point (b) whatsoever.

A Star Trek Teleporter
A Teleporter from Star Trek

Now imagine this- something goes wrong when you are in the teleporter. Instead of transporting you from point (a) to point (b), you are reconstituted at both points (a) and (b), both exactly the same, as if you had been merely moved from points (a) to (b). The big question is, are they both you? You, on the traditional view, would require continuity of consciousness. The problem presents its self readily- consciousness is a singularity, you can’t experience the world through two separate bodies at the same time; and that aside, they are both individually conscious.

The next point to make is that we could argue either that

  1. consciousness has continuity between the former you and both new ‘you’s, or
  2. your consciousness has continuity with neither of them.

You could argue for (2) because your conscious mind was broken down, ended, reconstituted, and is now recreated in two vessels. It could be said that what you have is not continuity of consciousness, but new consciousness implanted with a set of memories etc. However, if we can argue for (2) when ‘you’ is split into two, we can argue for it, no less reasonably, when ‘you’ is simply ‘moved’ from (a) to (b). Therefore, what we can conclude is that it is GENUINE continuity of consciousness, not simulated consciousness, which is important.

One problem is that consciousness is never actually constant. We shift what we are conscious of, we daydream, we consume alcohol or (hopefully not) drugs, we go to sleep, we forget things. If you are very drunk or otherwise intoxicated, your consciousness is different, quite naturally. If your consciousness is different, then how can you have exact continuity between sober you and intoxicated you? More drastically, when you go to sleep at night, you lose consciousness for maybe eight hours. What happens to ‘you’ in between being awake at 10pm and 6am? Even if you dream, the state of your consciousness is so different that it can hardly be compared to waking consciousness. One way to look at whether you have continuity of consciousness from sober-to-drunk-to-sober is this- can you genuinely remember what it is like to be drunk when not? Or are you merely imagining ‘you’ at present, but with simulated ‘drunk’ perceptions?

A diary entry

Where does this leave the ‘you’ in all this? It could be proposed that consciousness isn’t in fact a continuity of consciousness where consciousness is unbroken. Instead, it can be understood as a perceived ‘now’ state where the mind is able to recognise the prior moments of one’s conscious existence. Breaks in that consciousness could, in this model, be considered unimportant. This is because continuity from moment to moment is unimportant. what is important is that a continuity can be recognised from the point of ‘now’.

One reason to accept this is that we never truly remember an event correctly. Instead, when we try to remember something, we retrieve stored sets of details from our mind and re-imagine a memory, slightly differently each time. This means that each time we experience continuity of consciousness, each point in that continuity is in fact different. Imagine a chain of 1000 events, there is no reason why event 284 could not be re-imagined drastically differently and continuity not perceived. The brain does a wonderful job of creating the illusion that continuity is solid and unbroken.

If we are to accept this view, we need to re-evaluate what we consider to be ‘death’ or ‘murder’ in the case of the cessation of the organic body Harris and Chalmers discuss, if we believed it to be murder. We would have to accept that death was not the cessation of consciousness, but the inability to re-draw a continuity of consciousness from a ‘now’ point. The line between these two things is fine, but it’s a necessary distinction to draw if we are to engage with this debate.

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