Who am I (still)?

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?)


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Who am I (still)?

  1. David Dubins says:

    Wow this is a really late response to your post (if you even remember writing it). Your model of who “I” is has a flawed assumption: assuming you could erase/exchange memories with Fred, and assuming you could be reasonably convinced by a psychiatrist that you are suffering from a delusion of your past life, there is one loophole in your arguement:

    You aren’t Fred. You don’t have his brain. What makes us who we are isn’t just the sum totality of our experiences and memories, that’s just a recording of what we’ve done.

    Say for instance, YOU have a really poor memory, and FRED doesn’t. You exchange memories – true – and perhaps you could fit into Fred’s so called life, but the sheer fact that there are physiological differences in your brain will confound you behaving *exactly* like Fred would have. So you would live perhaps close to Fred would have, but then on that critical day where Fred would have remembered that the interview was at 2 pm and you forget, Fred would have gotten the job and you wouldn’t have. WHAMMO… you’ve just changed Fred’s life even though you were equipped with all of his memories. But there’s more to the brain than just the ability to remember. Sensory perceptions, logical capacity, these are in part honed by your experiences but are in a very real sense plumbing. You can’t just discount the physical. What if you were colour blind and Fred wasn’t? Now you may have Fred’s memories, but as Fred you’ll be very surprised all of the sudden that you can’t see colour, which won’t fit in at all with Fred’s persona.

    So taking you and Fred on that day – where Fred would inherit your memories and you would inherit his – would undoubtedly result in very divergent paths of your lives, meaning that you would make a different Fred than Fred would, and he would make a different you than you would because of his choices. In part, what makes you “you” are the choices you would make in a given situation.

    I am reminded of lottery winners who, within a year or two, are back to their regular bank balance. They are at that bank balance for a reason – because they manage their finances exactly the same way as they did before. One lump sum doesn’t change who they are. In fact it opens them up to be in more debt than before because they can do more damage. In order to truly make someone a millionaire, giving them the money won’t do the job, you would have to somehow bestow the proper knowledge to handle their money the way a millionaire would.

    What you would need to actually be Fred would be to swap brains with him, in which case we could no longer think Fred were Fred anyway.

    Try it with identical twins. If identical twins were to switch memories but not brains, then, MAYBE, you could have an arguement that they have switched identities, even though there would still be subtle physical differences. It’s still pretty sci-fi sounding though.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    I don’t think it matters to be honest. My memories have been transferred to Fred’s brain and that’s all I have even if Fred’s brain works better than mine. I might remember more efficiently from the point of transfer but it doesn’t affect anything as I have only my memories and experiences and none of Fred’s.

    As for losing the job that Fred would have obtained, my brain in Fred’s body is obviously going to give Fred’s body a different history from the one it would have had without the transfer, simply because “I” am not Fred and don’t possess any of his knowledge, experience and memories.

    In any case, the point of the thought experiment is to ask who “I” am: am I my body, the contents of my brain or some combination of both?

    At first sight it seems reasonable to believe that my “I” follows my brain but the mental and emotional traumas suffered by some people who have had donor limbs or faces grafted onto them suggest that the body is an important element in our perception of our identity.

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