A Christmas thought about identity

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dcrevier
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A Christmas thought about identity

Post by dcrevier » Mon Dec 23, 2019 3:29 pm

A common concern among cryonicists is that they might be revived in a manner that would somehow, and perhaps very subtly, make them different from their original selves. This would result in a new person being revived. Like the proverbial Kirk unwittingly meeting his supposed demise everytime he is beamed up or down from the Enterprise, the original person would be dead.

I beg to differ, and I would like to share for Christmas a thought that I've had on the subject, which I found surprisingly soothing. I am an engineer with little patience for long-winded philosophical arguments. This idea is thus based on a simple consideration that most members of this forum should be comfortable with: identity is not an intrinsic property, and in fact largely a matter of opinion. In everyday situations, like deciding whether we are the same person as yesterday despite the hiatus in our sleep, we have little choice. Our opinion is pretty well made up for us by survival instinct and social conditioning. In more unusual cases, as for Kirk above, there is a lot of wiggle room.

This indeterminacy follows from the materialist belief that there is no essence, soul or other abstract substance that can be transmitted from one being to another, or even that persists in the same being. Being A at time t1 is not intrinsically the same or different from being B at time t2. A and B are just what they are, and no more: bunches of atoms that stick together in certain ways and do certain things. "Same" and "different" are just labels that we mentally apply to them. When you ask yourself "What would it take for this revived person to really be me?" you are in fact performing an exercise in introspection and asking: "Under what conditions would I be willing to apply the "same as me" label to this person?" Thus the decision as to whether you would be revived or not does not belong to philosophers with abstruse arguments. In fact it is not a decision at all, as the outcome is immaterial: it is a point of view, and it belongs to you.

For me, the conditions for apposing the "same as me" label to my continuer (let's call him that) are that he should be self aware, it should feel the same for him to exist as it does to me, he should look like me, have my memories and personality, at least enough to pass for me, and believe that he is me. If these conditions are met, I don't care whether his neural connections are exactly the same as mine, whether he is made of the same atoms, whether he is made of hardware instead of wetware, or even wether he lives in a virtual or "real" world. I believe he would be me in all of these circumstances. I'm trying to leave behind enough information about me for these conditions to be met, and I'm fairly confident that they can be, even if cryonics doesn't work as well as we hope.

I wish you all a merry and worry-free Christmas.

Daniel Crevier

Frosty
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Re: A Christmas thought about identity

Post by Frosty » Sat Jan 04, 2020 8:41 pm

Hi Daniel,

First of all, merry Christmas and it is nice to see a new face around here. You have summed up the fluid nature of subjective existence quite neatly: from your own perspective (which is the only person’s perspective that you should care about on this subject) you are whomever you believe yourself to be. This is a fair description of what it means to possess any personal identity, but it is not an adequate definition of your own personal identity. We know this to be the case because this same definition of identity could be applied equally to every single person on the planet from their own subjective viewpoint, and thus does nothing to elucidate the unique objective qualities of your atomic structure that make "you" distinguishable from everyone else who has ever existed, even though you may not necessarily be aware of what all of these qualities are. And, unlike one's beliefs, these qualities are not a matter of opinion.

As you openly admit within your post, the objective definition of “you” (in terms of the specific patterns of behaviors that are encoded by your molecules and have been assigned the label “Daniel Crevier”) changes over time, and so it follows that there are many objectively different individuals that have considered themselves to be “you” throughout time, spanning from your birth up until this very moment, all of whom possessed a unique set of memories and behaviors that could have theoretically been captured and recorded as a large string of data at the moment they existed. Which of these countless objectively definable individuals should we be attempting to revive in the future to go on living as “you”? In confronting this question, it seems you have landed on the position that the most recent version of "you" is the one that should be revived (whether physically or virtually), which is a position I happen to agree with, as I would like for my future self to possess the benefit of all of my prior experiences if possible, not just some of them.

You then go on to identify a list of objective criteria that must be met for your current self to consider the revival of your “continuer” a success (i.e. the revived individual must possess the same memories as you, the same personality as you, and fully believe they are you). In doing so, you have effectively specified a minimum percentage of objective information about the contents of your current brain that must be preserved in the present and revived in the future for your current self to consider the revival a success, although the value of this percentage is completely unknown to you (and everyone else). Likewise, the quality of cryopreservation needed to meet this threshold level of psychological continuity is itself unknown, and could be very high or very low. Thus, you are professing a specific desired outcome for your revival without offering or even knowing the objective preservation criteria required to achieve that outcome. You then proceed to offer your personal opinion on the difficulty of achieving this unknown level of brain preservation fidelity by stating “I'm trying to leave behind enough information about me for these conditions to be met, and I'm fairly confident that they can be, even if cryonics doesn't work as well as we hope” without explaining why you are quite confident of this, or offering any empirical or logical support for this position. Thus, as it stands, your entire argument ultimately boils down to nothing more than a statement of your personal belief/faith that our revivals will succeed regardless of the amount of objective information about the contents of our brains that current cryonics practices are able to capture and record, and often under less than ideal circumstances. This is certainly a comforting suggestion, but is something that has little scientific or philosophical value in predicting whether or not this grand experiment will actually work.

While I share your hope that our revivals will succeed in the ways you describe, I am far more cautious and conservative in my approach to technical problems that depend on such a large number of unknowns, and so I find it very odd that you would define such a specific and high bar for the future subjective revival of “you” (same memories, personality, etc.) without coupling these goals with an equally specific and high level of objective preservation criteria that must be met to achieve the “successful” cryopreservation of your current brain so that the type of seamless subjective revival you desire is not rendered impossible by the loss of too much identity-critical information.


Frosty

dcrevier
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Re: A Christmas thought about identity

Post by dcrevier » Sun Jan 05, 2020 4:08 pm

Hi Frosty, and thanks for this thoughtful comment. If I read you correctly, your main disagreement is that, in your words "[my approach] … does nothing to elucidate the unique objective qualities of your atomic structure that make "you" distinguishable from everyone else who has ever existed."

Yes, absolutely, and I guess this is precisely the point I am trying to make. I don't believe identity depends on a unique set of objective qualities of atomic structure. Think of a shrub pruned (let's keep the Christmas spirit alive) to look like one of Santa's reindeers. It can have the same outwards shape with and infinite number of combinations of inner branches and leaves. More formally, I believe my identity resides in the information that describes me. The question is: to what level of detail must this information be specified in order to describe an acceptable continuer? In terms of the bush, should it describe every molecule in it, or just the shape of the branches and leaves, or simply the external appearance? You seem to believe it should describe molecules, whereas I lean towards external appearance. This is why I think a valid continuer can be described in terms of behaviour and phenomenology: it is anyone (or anything) that acts like me and feels like me inside.

I am keeping a diary, as well as an extensive collection of pictures, videos an recordings. Even if cryonics is a total failure, I think a valid continuer of me could be reconstructed from these documents, as well as extensive knowledge of my cultural background, of where I lived and what happened in the world when I was there. If a scan of my frozen brain can improve the accuracy of the reconstruction, fine, but I think I could live without it (pun intended).

This is of course arguable, and we could discuss it until Santa moves to a frozen over hell. Yet, and this is a corollary point I was trying to make, I believe the answer doesn't really matter because it is not the right question to ask. The problem seems to be that it is very hard for the human mind to conceive of its nonexistence. When you ask "What is the ineffable essence of me that has to be preserved in order to be my continuer?", you may well be, unconsciously, imagining a nonexistent you, sowhere in a dark corner, lamenting its nonexistence while a wrong continuer is brought into being. I can only speak for myself here, but my Aha! moment, my epiphany if you will, came about when I told myself: "This guy in a dark corner is nowhere to be found!". There is no ineffable essence, the continuer will just be a bunch of atoms doing its own thing, and whether I am now in 2020 happy to consider it a valid reconstruction, and to find solace in it, is ultimately my own decision.

dcrevier
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Re: A Christmas thought about identity

Post by dcrevier » Mon Jan 06, 2020 5:27 pm

Hello again Frosty. Here is one further clarification of my position. I totally agree that exacting standards of preservation quality are required in cryonics. In fact I contributed to the financing of Ken Hayworth's Brain Preservation Foundation, who is doing great work along these lines. If the only information you have about a person is their brain tissue, then it probably has to be preserved down to details of the synapse anatomy in order to read back that person's mind.

However I have two caveats. The first is that you would normally have much more information about a person than their brain structure: biographical information, information about surrounding culture and historical events, artistic preferences, general knowledge about the workings of the human mind and brain structure, the person's dna, and so on. These could make up for imperfections in brain preservation, or even totally replace it if they are extensive enough. How many bits of information you need for that is not entirely clear, but I and others have made some estimates. I could give you references.

My other problem is with the "Kirk suffered many deaths" kind of meme, which I think is a misplaced form of metaphysics or spirituality. I can't believe identity is related to absurdly stringent requirements like being made of the same atoms, or continuity of consciousness or spatial location, or any kind of quantum entanglement. Resurrecting a person with identical synapses is certainly a sufficient requirement for identity preservation, but not a necessary one. Like the reindeer bush, I think I could be me with a different internal synapse structure, or even a non biological substrate.

Frosty
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Re: A Christmas thought about identity

Post by Frosty » Mon Jan 06, 2020 11:28 pm

I fully agree with you that personal identity is medium-independent (that is to say it is the ‘software’ and not the ‘hardware’ of your brain that matters in preserving identity), and have shared my views on this topic in great detail on this board previously. However, I would caveat your caveat by saying that you are still making a sweeping assumption about the way the brain works that to me sounds contradictory. You have essentially defined the self as being determined entirely by one's behavior (which I agree with), and this behavior is defined by immaterial information that taken collectively can be used to accurately predict how your brain and body will respond to any given external stimuli. This immaterial information fully describes your identity at the moment it was recorded, and being immaterial, can be stored in almost any format (in theory, it could even be written down in a notebook). Some of this information is generic to all members of the animal kingdom (such as that describing basic metabolic processes), some of it is generic to all members of the human species (such as that describing the behavior of smiling), and some of it is unique to you personally (such as a particular memory you may have, or a particular learned skill you have acquired), but the only place where all of it can be found is within the nodes and networks of your brain. I personally suspect that almost all of this information will be needed to recreate a being that could be labelled ‘Daniel Crevier’ to your own satisfaction without having them feel a gaping sense of separation and discontinuity with their former self - as anyone who has experienced a significant brain injury and had to completely "re-learn" (i.e. be told) who they once were can attest. Inferring the layout of a person's brain circuits by perusing a collection of their personal mementos and writings I also find to be a fanciful notion, as the vast majority of a person's behavior (i.e. their internal thought processes, fantasies, etc.) aren't expressed externally. The fact is most of the memories and thoughts you possess will never be exhibited or otherwise communicated to anyone, even if you are deliberately trying to put them out there. Regardless, the information defining you at any given moment is what it is and no matter how it is encoded or from where it is sourced, its underlying content will not change.

What can change are the methods by which this information is processed to recreate your own subjective experience of living, and there are going to be more efficient ways and less efficient ways of doing this. Thus, when you say you believe you could still be ‘you’ with a different synapse structure, you are assuming that your synapse structure is purely an information processing component of the brain, when in fact (like almost all features of the brain) it very likely serves both an information storage and information processing role, and thus cannot be significantly altered without inducing corresponding changes in your behavior and thus your identity. It may be possible to simplify these structures in a digital simulation by stripping out redundant elements and others that aren’t needed in a simulated environment, but the basic logical relationships between the neurons and synapses will largely remain what they are, as these relationships are what define you. To me, it sounds a bit like you are claiming you could change yourself without changing yourself.


Frosty
Last edited by Frosty on Wed Jan 08, 2020 9:53 pm, edited 21 times in total.

Frosty
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Re: A Christmas thought about identity

Post by Frosty » Tue Jan 07, 2020 12:08 am

dcrevier wrote: There is no ineffable essence, the continuer will just be a bunch of atoms doing its own thing, and whether I am now in 2020 happy to consider it a valid reconstruction, and to find solace in it, is ultimately my own decision.

Whether or not you find solace in your thoughts is surely your own decision, but equally, this statement doesn't objectively mean anything. You're essentially saying "whether or not I survive being cryopreserved and revived is all up to me right here right now and doesn't depend on any conditions or events outside of my own imagination since I can always move the goal posts for the continuity of Daniel Crevier's identity to wherever they need to be for me to claim success" which is a total rejection of objectivity (that being a truth that exists independently of your own beliefs). With your current philosophy, you could just up and decide one day that you are happy with someone simply knowing your name in the future and as long as someone can satisfy that bare requirement, that would qualify as a revival of your person, and I would have no way to disprove your claim (although I could still quirk an eyebrow at it). Or you could suddenly decide that you are Saint Nicholas reincarnated and therefore have been revived once already. Clearly, not all definitions of revival are created equal.

In my opinion, the only way to really be sure that a revival has succeeded isn't by sitting here in the present and imagining some hypothetical version of 'you' in the future that meets a set of observable behavior-based criteria that you and others would recognize as being consistent with that of your current self when interpreted from the outside. This type of judgment call is very difficult to make from a third-person viewpoint, as it is dependent on the definer of such criteria having a complete objective understanding of that which they are defining, and I don't think any person living today has ascended to such lofty heights of intellectual and personal enlightenment that they can honestly say they objectively understand the nature of their own identity. With our profoundly limited intelligence and knowledge of the subject, this determination can only legitimately be made from an internal, subjective viewpoint. Thus, the only way we could really be sure whether or not a revival has succeeded is by asking the revived patient in the future if they feel like they are still the same person they were prior to being cryopreserved, and if they answer yes, then asking them to demonstrate this feeling is well founded by recalling enough specific memories from their prior life to prove that they truly do remember it (such as by identifying personal mementos their prior self placed into storage with Alcor for this very purpose and the significance of each of them). If they are able to do so, then the revival has succeeded. If either segment of this test results in a negative finding, then the revival has failed and the patient's previous identity is most likely permanently lost.

To this end, the most pressing questions we should be seeking to answer in the here and now are "How much unique information about a person's brain is required to achieve this result, and by what preservation protocol can we capture and later read out this amount?". Even with the assistance of secondary sources of information (such as an advanced knowledge of brain anatomy, biology, biographical information, etc.) the amount of additional data about your person that will be needed to infer and reconstruct a mind that can convincingly pass such a test of psychological continuity will probably still be vast, unless you believe the trillions of synaptic connections inside your head are largely the same as everyone else's, serve no identity-related purpose, or are imminently guessable from reading your diary entries.



Frosty

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