I recently asked “Who am I?” and looked at a few claimed answers, deciding none was correct. Is it in fact possible to answer this question in a way that will satisfy us in all situations?
The question can of course be answered on many levels, not all of them very interesting. For example, if I go to the bank to complain that my bank card no longer works in the ATM, the clerk will ask me for some proofs of identity, such as my driving licence and the ability to tell him the first and third digits of my PIN. All this does is assure him that the individual talking to him is probably the owner of the bank account to which the card belongs. It tells him nothing about who I really am, the person inside my head, the one I identify as “I” or “myself”.
Perhaps we need to work out what this “I” is that I am trying to identify. I think what I mean by it is something like this: “I” am a self-aware consciousness that has a perception of being an individual self that persists through time (e.g. wakes up each morning with the feeling of being the same “I” that went to sleep the evening before) and has thoughts, feelings, plans, memories, desires, dislikes, etc. that I consider “mine”. That may not be a complete and rigorous description but it will at least get us started.
The first question that occurs to me is “How do I know there is any such ‘I’?” That may seem a strange question, especially if we subscribe to the view that Descartes solved this with his famous “I think therefore I am”. When I studied for the European Computer Driving Licence a while back, I found that in the Council’s tutorial suite, they kept an “image” of each computer’s set-up. No matter what students, accidents, electrical mishaps, etc. did to the computers, they could be restored by reloading this “image”.
Now suppose you took the image from computer number 2 (PC2) and loaded it onto computer number 12 (PC12), then, as far as PC12 “knows”, it is PC2. How do I know that there is not an “image” of the entity I call “I” that can be loaded onto any compatible brain so that that brain “knows” it is “I”? In principle you could actuate any number of instances of “I” simultaneously and each would believe it was the one and only genuine “I”. Maybe I am one such: an image that thinks it is “I”.
As far as I know, nothing like this has been done outside of sci-fi stories but we more and more often find ourselves wondering what may become possible in future.
Let’s suppose Descartes’ demon has decided to play a trick on me and on some other poor unfortunate (call him Fred). When we go to sleep one night, Demon comes along and takes a brain recording from each and then loads them back but each in the wrong body. Comes the morning and I awake. “Where the hell am I!” I wonder. You can make up the rest for yourself because it’s quite easy (especially if you are a sci-fi author). The point is what has happened to my “I”?
I suppose if the other people in Fred’s life were convinced that I were Fred, then things might become very confusing. They might try to convince me that I was hallucinating having had an attack of amnesia. They might send me to a psychiatrist for treatment and do their best to “remind” me who I was. Under so much pressure I might even begin to believe them and think that everything I remembered about my previous life was just fantasy. In the meantime, poor old Fred would be going through similar troubles.
This is an extreme case, fortunately. There have been stories of “brainwashing” and of people being “taken over” by evil hypnotists but most of the stories seem exaggerated if not downright false. Even so, they do give us a clue to what “I” might be. This is because in order to persuade me that I am someone else, you would have to destroy or at least greatly weaken all the “data” in my brain that persuade me that I am the same “I” as I was yesterday.
Is that, then, the answer to the conundrum “Who am I”? Namely that “I” am essentially all my memories and other “data” (both conscious and unconscious) that has accumulated in my brain since my birth (and even before)? This body of data is certainly unique: no one can have exactly my memories and experiences, not even my identical twin. If so, then in theory at least, I don’t even need an organic brain in order to be myself: someone could conceivably take a recording of my brain data and load them into an artificial brain. If that brain were functionally equivalent to a human brain, then it would think it was “I” and would act accordingly.
Certain consequences derive from this view which we might regard as less than palatable. For example, we often think of those we have loved and who have died as still being themselves in some sense. According to the brain data theory, they cease to be themselves at the moment of death. Worse still, in some ways is the case of people suffering degenerative diseases such as Alzheimers. We care for them, treat them with consideration, love them because of who they are. But they are no longer who they were, according to the theory. They may be somebody but they are not the person who once inhabited that body and that brain.
If I am my brain data then I am not something else. Specifically, I am not my “soul”. Forget life after death, adventures on the astral plain, thought transference and all the clutter of half-baked ideas beloved of the woo-woo brigade. If I am my brain data then these are all fictions along with Rupert the Bear and Donald Duck. (But you already knew that, didn’t you?)