Identity: It’s in the I of the beholder

The consciousness debate in futurey circles is a tar baby like no other. I got a little involved in such a discussion today, in reply to this article, actually a nice piece on consciousness by Robin Hanson). My position, though, is a bit odder than that of the usual pro or anti teleporting crowd. Here’s the transcript:


Oh god, the consciousness debate. Kill me now!

There is *no global solution* in the question of what identity is. I’m pretty sure it’s entirely subjective; ie: you are what you believe yourself to be. That leads to the interesting possibility that you can maximise your chances of survival by modifying your concept of self toward the most practically maintainable form that you can bring yourself to accept.

That is, it is in all of our interests to find a way to believe in uploading!

Fredrik Bränström:
What?! 🙂 That simply does not compute. My constitution does not redefine itself according to my beliefs. The placebo effect might make a difference in what I can accomplish or how well my body works, but I can’t believe you believe it somehow renders me something categorically different than what I was before. I know people who seem to get a kick out of thinking the mind is more than the sum of the parts of the body and their organization, but I didn’t think you were one of them.Only if the organization is perfectly respawned and maintained in the medium of the upload can it be considered a clone. Not that I necessarily would wan’t to shoot my biological originator when it’s done, I’d probably like having two selfs around. The upload version would be shaped by its environment and by itself, of course, so it would diverge from me as soon as it was activated. Technological enhancements being made available to entirely digital souls would probably enable even more fundamental incongruity. Not that I think it would bother either of us.


Well, what I’m talking about is the “all copies are me” people, who would happily turn off the meat version of themselves, versus the “only I am me” people, who will talk about an upload of themselves as a copy who is a different, albeit similar person. This latter is the camp that you are in, and the camp I tend toward.


The debate between these sides regarding consciousness is intractable; I’ve seen it repeat endlessly on the extropian list, as an example, over maybe more than a decade now. Both sides are convinced they are right, but somehow cannot communicate that to the other side. Which is odd, because these are highly intelligent people…

So we must come at it from a different direction, and I would do that by asking, what are you actually trying to do, when you talk about massive life extension / uploading / etc? What is it you are trying to preserve?

Are you trying to preserve your actual physical embodiment? My intuition says no; uploaders clearly don’t care, and life span extenders I think only see it as a means to an end; I think if you offered them a robotic body that was immortal, they’d go for it (with the proviso that “their consciousness” must be “transfered” into it, perhaps).

So are you trying to protect your memories? Probably that’s not sufficient, in that you would not be happy with a static dump of the neural networks which comprise your memories, archived for all time – that’s not “me”.

Perhaps you are the information pattern encoded in your brain, or the extended pattern of information encoded in your brain & body? That’s actually what some of the uploaders believe (who don’t care about subjective consciousness), although they would also argue that they need runtime, a static copy is not enough.

So the uploaders seem to believe they are the information pattern (state) plus process; algorithm + data + runtime.

And then there is the subjective consciousness camp. This camp says we are data + algorithm + process + something else, some ineffable thing, subjective consciousness. The first person sense. A thing that works in terms of qualia. (btw this can’t be the “running process”; you can suspend processes, write their state out to persistent storage, archive them, and kick them off again later, fork them; is it still you if you are backed up and kicked off multiple times on different, virtualised hardware, with a gap of years in between?)

And this camp, of course, rejects uploading / copying as useful but not sufficient; an act of procreation rather than salvation.

It seems like the compelling position, but think about the problems with it.

First, a materialistic world view admits no room for subjective consciousness. We can imagine intelligence existing and functioning perfectly well without it. It is by definition the non-functional stuff, given that a person in this camp would reject any copy only including the functional stuff, they are not uploaders after all. So this camp is stuck with requiring some form of dualism.

Second, it is undefinable. What is this subjective consciousness stuff? where is it? how does it work? How can I define it operationally in any useful way? It makes the bogometer ping uncontrollably, occam’s razor twitches in anticipation!

Thirdly, it doesn’t hold up to critical examination. If I am some mysterious runtime property, where do I go during deep sleep? Is it the same me when I wake up? What about if I am dead for a few minutes, and revived? What about if my copy was running on a von-neumann machine? I would attribute consciousness to it if it were a good enough copy, but then it is subject to virtualisation, task switching, archiving, all that stuff, so how does its subjective consciousness handle that?

To me it seems intuitive that a copy of myself, running on a digital computer, could be task switched, archived and restored, virtualised, and I’d notice nothing (except the clock jumping forward for the archive and restore).

Fourthly, increasing amounts of brain science tell us that we are not some single, indivisible being, an atomic consciousness, but a multitude of parallel parts, including some mechanism of consciousness whose job it is to maintain the illusion of control while having little or none. We make our decisions many seconds before being aware of them. Our most treasured mental events are insights, ideas of brilliance, whose origin we cannot derive, they just appear in a flash (ie: they come from a part of your mind which is not part of your subjective consciousness). We have a stream of thoughts which just seem to come to us, which we lay claim to as being a deep part of our selves, yet which again have no derivation; it is really the conscious part of ourselves is listening to a speaker, which broadcasts this stream from elsewhere. The deep, essential parts of ourselves are actually inaccessible to us. So what is our self, if it is not these things?

My point is that the subjective-consciousness-centric approach is deeply flawed. Yet it’s extremely difficult to reconcile that with how we *feel*. Warning bells yet? This is the sign of an artifact of deep evolution. It’s a thing which is the heart of our survival instinct, the need to survive, but that mechanism, however it works, is a tool of our ancient genes. The deep old things our genes tell us to do aren’t necessarily the right things to do. They also tell us to commit violence, to lie cheat and steal, to act on irrational feelings pretty much all of the time. There’s a place for all that, but you should always have a relationship of “frenemy” with your genetic programming 🙂

And, with that, is opened an incredible can of worms, which is that, if I am not the data, or the data + the algorithm, or the data + the algorithm + the process, or the data + the algorithm + the process + spooky consciousness, then what am I? For I am something, or else I am nothing.

This is the core question of identity; what is identity? People have been thinking about this for thousands of years, and we get no closer to an answer. I find that the deeper you think about it, the harder it is to escape the conclusion that identity, the most central stuff of existence, is entirely illusory.

So you can descend into a pit of nihilistic despair, but I don’t recommend that, it’s no fun at all.

Or, you can say, well, I, illusory as I am, want to be. But, being an illusion gives me a certain freedom, no? I can bind myself up in worrying about being a subjective consciousness, or I can relax and just be the pattern of myself. Either way, the universe knows I am full of shit, and cares not at all.

If you talk to the uploaders, you’ll see they *really* *do* *believe* that a copy of them *is* *them*. It is possible to hold that belief, and in the near future that’s going to be one hell of a superior memeset in terms of functionality. So you need to find a way to believe it. Just remember there is no objective truth on this one, it’ll help 🙂

Identity: It’s in the I of the beholder

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