This picture shows me trying to explain my beliefs about the mind, the absence of a soul, the illusion of identity, the silliness in hoping for a future in which we will be granted immortality, and perhaps a better way to view death. It’s one of my favourite pictures because I feel like it, unlike any other picture I know, fully captures the moment: Joel trying to give me a chance and battling his impatience with my way of explaining things; and my over abundant excitement and optimism in sharing this profound idea with a friend of mine, thinking that he will instantly understand what I’m saying, and agree with me as to its obvious profoundness. In the end however, the picture below shows what came about from this conversation: Joel completely fed up with my ridiculousness, and me disappointed that I was not able to express myself sufficiently.
It is my hope, in writing this post, that I will do away with my inability to successfully express myself and actually explain what I wanted to say to Joel, oh so many years ago.
In preparation for this post, I made a previous one (Dennet’s Intro to the Mind’s I) which contains a good introduction into some of the problems involved in cognitive science or philosophy of mind. I highly recommend it if you’re new to this field.
In Dennet’s Intro to the Mind’s I, he talks about a person who gets de-atomized, and then re-atomized, exactly as before, somewhere else. Intuitively, given that people accept that this is hypothetically possible, almost everyone (I believe) would agree that, to experience this would be like being someplace at one moment (mars in this instance), and then feeling as if you were all of a sudden somewhere else (earth), instantaneously. So, in this example, it is as if your ‘soul’, or your identity, has been transported from one place to another.
Great. If it ended there, it wouldn’t really be all that interesting.
But, Dennet’s Intro goes further, and suggests a second thought experiment: instead of a de-atomizer, you have some form of super-CT/PET/MRI scanner, that enables one to scan the brain completely, and then copy it to some new home, for instance, a brand spankin’ new immortal android-thing. This thought experiment can be the same as the first: they put you to sleep, scan your brain, kill you painlessly, put the new information in the new body-double brain, and wake it up. You would feel as though you had gone to sleep and woken up. Just as the first thought experiment. Now, however, if we tweek this experiment a bit, and let the original survive – for instance we wake the original as well as the double – things become interesting.
The reason is so: in the alteration of the first thought experiment, intuitively, I believe it would feel as though you went to sleep and then woke up. Just like every night before. But, if the original survives, who do you wake up as? If the people running the experiment said to the original: “The experiment was a complete success! We’ve transferred your brain information to that immortal android! Now you can live forever”, which, surely, is how the android feels: “Holy shit! It worked! I’m going to be immortal!”, but the original would be thinking: “Wait! No! I’ve just woken back up in my old body! I’m still going to die!”, which is true…
I think what the thought experiment goes to show is that the idea of a continuous immutable Alex (I, identity, soul, etc.) is an illusion. My idea that there has been one Alex who has experienced this life is false: there have been a vast amount of them, and they’re all dead in the real sense of the word, except for the one that exists at the present moment, who ‘dies’ and is replaced by the next, who ‘dies’ and is replaced, etc.
That is: we are a different person at every instance of time than we were the instant (and instances) before. The thing that connects us to ourselves from the past are our memories, a cognitive narrative, and the sense of an identity.
To take this idea further, it means that we ‘experience death’ all the time. However, just as it was nothing to be you before you were born, it is nothing to be you when you die: we can’t experience death.
I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.
If we accept this for now, what are the consequences? Should one not still want to attain immortal life through a brain transfer? If not, then why bother trying to prolong ones current existence? I.e. why not work towards guaranteeing yourself a pleasant death (just as in the thought experiments where you willfully kill yourself with the thought that you’ll be brought back to life an instant later).
I personally don’t have a good answer to these questions. I feel as though the thought experiment makes one less afraid of death, perhaps freeing oneself with worries about mortality, and providing a positive frame of mind with which to live out their current life.
I do think that death is something that we don’t think enough about, until it sneaks up from behind and takes us without our permission. If that sounds silly, as if death always takes us without our permission, then what about suicide or voluntary euthanasia? Sadly, almost all forms of suicide that I can think of are done under unfortunate circumstances.
Unfortunately, more so than death, suicide is a much more a taboo topic of discussion. Anyone who brings it up will generate concerns from their friends who may think that that person is perhaps considering it or is crying out for help. Certainly, people reading this blog may be thinking to themselves “Is Alex toying with thoughts of suicide?”, to which I guess the correct response would be: “No, not for quite some time.” I certainly don’t want the last part of my life to be in pain or confusion or ennui or void of meaning. But then again, how could I ever look at my life from an instant that I’m happy and know that the rest of my future isn’t going to be as good as the past, and that that moment is the best time to end it?
I don’t know the answer. I probably can’t ever decide something like that. Perhaps the best course of action is just to take life as it’s given to me, and make the best of it.
Well, I’m happy that ended on a positive note…