ERE’S the plan. As a biologist his microscope or an astronomer her telescope, we’ll use commonsense logic to explore that greatest of unknowns, the mystery of ourselves— who or what we are.
We’ll employ a series of thought experiments of increasing complexity. Only by progressively building on elemental but comprehensible ideas can we hope to progress toward unraveling the most perplexing problem posed by philosophers of mind— the mechanics of human consciousness.
Let’s begin by assuming for purposes of argument that we’re entirely physical beings (as we presently understand physics), including our consciousness.
Thought Experiment #1
Assuming complete physicality, surely we could replace any one atom or electron in a given individual with a discrete but identical atom or electron, and not affect the continuity of his self-awareness. Any change process or inertia inherent in the particle would similarly be precisely replicated in the replacement particle.
(Of course in reality the inherent indeterminacy of quantum mechanics would prohibit this. But being a reasoning exercise only, we can assume possibility in noncritical details for the sake of our greater effort.)
If one such particle can be substituted, so can a second, and a third, until the entire person is effectively a new creation, identical to the old and standing at the same spot. Were this to be done instantaneously, invisibly, and painlessly his thoughts would not be interrupted.
While the new particles are in reality different from the old, being exactly identical means they should function the same, just as our bodies slowly and naturally replace old cell material with new.
This experiment suggests that preservation of types and arrangements of bodily elements, including the chemistry of all particles and inertia of all charges— rather than any particular substance or matter— is necessary for maintaining flow, or continuity, of consciousness.
Thought Experiment #2
We do the same thing we did in #1, only this time twofold, repositioning the new person three feet to the left and a second identical new person three feet to the right of the original position. At the same instant, the old person is dematerialized.
Both new people, each possessing a memory identical to the initial person, would think they were that initial person. The issue is to figure out what the initial person would feel happen to him.
If he became one or the other of the replacement people, he would experience an instantaneous dislocation left or right, a twin popping into existence beside him.
A difficulty arises over how determination is made as to which of the two new people he would become, since the distances (and let us also say, the environmental differential) are equal between the original and each of the subsequent positions.
The individual himself could not decide, since the moment he begins to react to the event it would be over, and he would already have to be one or the other.
Perhaps the distances and surroundings can never be exactly equal (a playing card on edge will always fall one way or the other).
But if the circumstances are, as in our case, close enough to make it a toss-up, the permutations would be far too complex to be reducible by non-algorithmic physical laws, and therefore would require an external being or machine, capable of operating instantaneously, to perform the necessary calculations and make the decision— all in zero time.
We seem to be at a type of impasse created by the difficulty of making a binary (either/or) decision based on an analog (gradual or sliding-scale) condition— in other words a Binary/Analog Disjunction, or BAD.
(Disjunction occurs because of the apparent lack of conversion mechanism, such as the junctional thermostat that controls a furnace, converting varying room temperatures into an on/off signal.).
The next possibility— that the original person experiences awareness in both of the two new individuals simultaneously— is more easily eliminated.
He would have to be able to see two identical translucent persons, one on either side, each one-half of himself. This would require connectivity between his two brains. Yet there are no wires or antennas linking them, just six feet of air.
This leaves only what must be the correct end-result, that consciousness is not transferred from the original person to either of the new. The self-awareness of the original person comes to an end, and the new persons will each have their own new consciousnesses.
However since each of the new persons will have memories identical to the original individual, each will believe that he was him. (Despite the fact that all of us were born with blank slates, there is no law stating that an entity or consciousness can’t come into being already possessing a memory— even that of another’s life!)
Thought Experiment #3
Since in the first experiment consciousness was not broken, while in the second it was, to better define the precise circumstances necessary to break it, let’s once more modify our scenario. Again, while this might be physically impossible it is conceptually possible, so there should be a conceptual solution.
Instead of an instantaneous split, we accomplish the same goal (two new individuals standing six feet apart), only via a more-involved process:
First, each of the subatomic particles comprising the original person doubles to form two new particles. (Theoretically this might convert the atoms these particles are part of into a new element, but everything is going to happen so fast that it will have no effect.)
So the entire individual, while appearing to be the same size and shape, has twice his normal mass. (He would not appear any larger at this point because the new material is occupying some of the enormous empty space of which everyday matter is primarily composed.)
Next, the particle pairs begin to move apart in uniform and opposite directions, so that the individual appears to morph into two; the new individuals thus separate and stand as before.
With this modified scenario, it would be hard to believe other than that one or the other of the new persons would assume the consciousness of the original person.
Maybe the question as to which of the new persons the latter becomes would be decided based on the vectors of those key electrons, or even a single vector of mental thought, that represent the heart of consciousness at the time of division.
Despite the similarity between this experiment and the previous one, the disparity in outcomes is enormous— the continuance of the original individual’s awareness in this case versus its termination in the previous, a definite either/or situation on the effect end of the equation.
On the cause end, though, things are different: if numerous test cases were to be devised to gradually make the transition from this scenario back to the last one, i.e.—
Doubled particles formed piggyback (this scenario), then formed barely separated, then formed slightly further separated... up to formed six feet apart (the previous scenario), somewhere along the line (undoubtedly much nearer the beginning than end) the change in outcome should occur— yet it seems impossible to determine where.
We are up against another binary/analog disjunction, and the only way past this one may be to allow for the possibility of a partial transfer of consciousness.
This would be hard to imagine, but it might in some ways be similar to amnesia, except that awareness (from the standpoint of the original person only) would fluctuate for a period of time before, in the cases of the stronger lock-ons, becoming fully established.
This experiment must be similar in result to those proposed by other researchers, involving the splitting of a person through his brain in different ways (such as between hemispheres).
If conscious identity is more that a mere varying point in space, as it undoubtedly is, various factors of luck and circumstance must determine if and how well transfer is made to either of the two new individuals, and the viability of any partial transfer.
Self-awareness does not automatically transfer if there is any sudden or immediate spatial dislocation, or if there is a break in the flow of time, such as even an instant of nonexistence in the otherwise-unobstructed continuity of a given consciousness.
(Electroencephalographic research shows that the living brain is continuously active, even during sleep and deep coma.)
Of course through space, any smooth motion, such as normal acceleration or deceleration, doesn’t break the thread. Likewise, through time, the mere slowing down or speeding up (but not stopping) of mental activity would still be a smooth enough progress to avert a break.
Self-awareness for any one person is a structure of active key elements in the brain which, if any are ever so stilled or scrambled, can temporarily (as in some forms of concussion-induced amnesia) or permanently (as in annihilation) cause such a break.
This seems to fit best with reality. Looking at it the other way, if consciousness could somehow bridge a gap such as we hypothesized in the space-time continuum, then:
(1) If a person’s brain activity was stopped, that person was removed, a different but identical person with identical memory put in the original person’s place and that replacement person’s brain started, the new person’s consciousness would be a continuation of the first person’s.
Again while the second person would claim to be the first, it seems more likely than not that the first person would not wake up as the second.
(2) If immediately after a person died and all his brain activity ceased, an identical person with same memory popped into existence elsewhere in the universe, then the deceased person’s self-awareness would transfer.
Yet it doesn’t seem logical to think the dead person would actually become the new person, located perhaps billions of light-years away, especially if we try to consider what would happen if two or more identical new persons were to simultaneously appear.
(3) If somewhere in the universe a being came into existence like or nearly like one of us while we were still alive, that living one of us should be able to at least detect the new creation’s tug of consciousness on his own.
Yet none are so drawn even by other similar people on earth. Identical twins, while in some cases claiming degrees of empathy greater than the public at large, evidence nothing beyond what could be explained by commonality of genetics and environment.
Perhaps it is any break of consciousness, such as sleep— not just break in brain-wave activity— that halts continuation. In that case, without some artificial means of transfer (if that was possible), we would be in effect new persons upon rising every morning.
While it could be argued that if this were the case it would be unlikely that we would be aware at the present moment (our one day of life unlikely to be this very day)—
By that same logic we would be similarly unlikely to be aware at this moment because of the temporal and spatial singularity (in the vastness of this universe as well as any other possible universes) of intelligent life. Yet we are.
Still it seems likely that at least short of complete stoppage, our continuous brain activity maintains our conscious identity through sleep and most other interruptions of awareness.