A clone and a shotgun … a thought experiment about identity.


An interesting thought experiment presents itself in h+ magazine. The notion that personality is nothing more than the software running on the body’s hardware. That the mind – whatever that is – may be nothing more than a pattern that can be copied, saved remotely and rebooted. What does this mean? Is it accurate? The thought experiment is intriguing.

There’s someone in the room with you; he’s unconscious, and what’s really odd is he’s identical to you in every way—he shares your DNA, your memories, your love of dubstep, Beethoven, and psychedelic drugs. He has all your scars. He’s felt all your humiliations, your embarrassments, your regrets. He is, at least from objective realities’ perspective, indistinguishable from you by every conceivable objective measure, e.g, the arrangement of his neurons, his reactions to identical situations, his thoughts in general. If you were to disappear, he could wake up and take your place, and no one, including him, would know that at some point he had an original, the he was a copy, that you had, in fact, disappeared at all. In your hands you notice a shotgun, loaded, with the safety off. By arbitrary, binary decree, one of you has to die. Do you shoot—and let’s just assume a complete lack of pain for both parties–yourself, or do you shoot your copy? What is your immediate, emotional response?

Though I haven’t done studies, I assume most “sane” people would choose to shoot the sleeping copy. That is to say, we have less of an affinity towards the version of ourselves—at least when examining these situations hypothetically—in which we perceive our personal identity to be absent, preferring to keep our egos on the safe side of the shotgun. This illustrates a certain bias that seems to be ingrained in most of us: the belief that our personal identity, our consciousness, is is irrecoverably connected to our bodies, and that it can only exist in one form. Though this seems so intrinsically right, so emotionally true on a very powerful, biological level, it is, in fact, a rather irrational assumption, or—more aptly–an odd perceptual hallucination, a form of evolved dualism that doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny. The only logical way to view personal identity is to view it as a pattern, as a self-sustaining emergent property of the brain, which is itself an emergent property of self-replicating molecules. A perfectly logical, emotionally unattached person could shoot himself fully aware that his consciousness is “backed up” in his perfect copy, that the sleeping man would wake, continuing his pattern of personal identity, negating the effect of the suicide, give or take a memory or two.

A Clone and a Shotgun


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