Three Dialogues on Identity

Fol­lowup to: Iden­tity Isn’t In Spe­cific Atoms

It is widely said that some prim­i­tive tribe or other once feared that pho­tographs could steal their souls.

Ha ha! How em­bar­rass­ing. Silly tribe­s­peo­ple.

I shall now pre­sent three imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tions along such lines—the com­mon theme be­ing frus­tra­tion.

The first con­ver­sa­tion:

Fool­ishly leav­ing the world of air-con­di­tion­ing, you trav­eled to the God­for­saken Out­back, and of course, got lost in the woods. A more prim­i­tive tribe than yours, the Hu’wha, saved your butt. Although the Hu’wha have told you how to reach an out­post of In­ter­net ac­cess, that is, civ­i­liza­tion, you’ve stayed with them a while longer; you’ve be­come their friend, and they yours.

One cus­tom of the Hu’wha does seem strange to you, com­ing as you do from a more civ­i­lized cul­ture: They don’t hold with lies, even small ones. They con­sider a lie as an in­fringe­ment upon the soul of the listener. They have a say­ing, “It is bet­ter to die than to be lied to.” Though this is a very strange and prim­i­tive cus­tom, you have come to re­spect it.

Late one night, the shaman calls you to his tent. His face is grave. “I have heard the most dis­turb­ing news,” he says, “from the Tribe That Lives Across The Water. They say that your peo­ple, the Peo­ple of the Net, have a most ter­rible cus­tom: they paint images of oth­ers, and thereby steal their souls, for a per­son can­not be in two places at once. It is even said that you have weapons called ‘cam­eras’, for do­ing this au­to­mat­i­cally; and that the cam­eras of your folk can be very small, or dis­guised as other things.”

“Um,” you say, “I think you may be la­bor­ing un­der cer­tain ba­sic mis­con­cep­tions. Cam­eras are not weapons; they make images, but they don’t steal souls.”

The grey-bearded shaman smiles, and shakes his head. “Young fel­low, I am the shaman of the Hu’wha, and I hold the tra­di­tion passed down from my father through many gen­er­a­tions; the true and origi­nal wis­dom granted by the gods to the first shaman. I think I know what steals a soul and what does not, young fel­low! Even to you it should be ob­vi­ous.”

And you think: Fool­ish mor­tal, how lit­tle you un­der­stand the power of Science. But this is be­yond the con­cep­tion of this man who thinks him­self above you, and so you say noth­ing.

“I un­der­stand,” the shaman says, “that your peo­ple may be so ut­terly ig­no­rant of magic that they don’t re­al­ize their cam­eras are dan­ger­ous. But that makes it all the more ur­gent that I ask you, Net-user, upon your honor: Have you by any means what­ever, in your time among us, whether your­self, or by any de­vice, pro­duced an image of any­one here? If you have, we will do no vi­o­lence to you—for I know there is no mal­ice in you—but you will no longer be wel­come among us.”

You pause. The Hu’wha set great store on the literal truth of words, as well as their in­tent. And though you have no cam­era or paint­brushes, the an­swer to the ques­tion just asked, is liter­ally yes. Your eyes, retina, and op­tic nerve are con­stantly paint­ing images in your vi­sual cor­tex.

“I haven’t made any pic­tures the way you mean it,” you say.

The shaman frowns. “I was look­ing for a sim­ple No. Why the hes­i­ta­tion?”

Oh, dear. “The knowl­edge of my own peo­ple, the Net-folk, is not like your own knowl­edge,” you say, “and you asked a… deeper ques­tion than you know, ac­cord­ing to the be­liefs of my own peo­ple.”

“This is a very sim­ple mat­ter,” the shaman says sharply, “and it has to do with what you have done. Have you made any pic­tures, or not?”

“I’ve painted no pic­ture, and used no cam­era.”

“Have you caused a pic­ture to be made by any other means?” de­mands the shaman.

Dam­mit. “Not the way you mean it. I’ve done noth­ing that the Hu’wha do not also do.”

“Ex­plain your­self!”

You sigh. “It is a teach­ing of my peo­ple, which you are wel­come to be­lieve or not as it suits you, that pic­tures are con­stantly be­ing cre­ated of all of us, all the time.”

What?” says the shaman.

“When you look at some­one,” you ex­plain, “or even when an an­i­mal looks at you, that cre­ates an image on the in­side of the skull… that is how you see. In­deed, it is what you see—ev­ery­thing you see is a pic­ture your eyes cre­ate.”

“That’s non­sense,” says the shaman. “You’re right there! I’m see­ing you, not an image of you! Now I ask you again, on your honor: Do we Hu’wha still have our souls since you came among us, or not?”

Oh, bloody hell. “It is a teach­ing of my peo­ple,” you say, “that what you call a ‘soul’ is… a con­fused idea.”

“You are be­ing eva­sive,” says the shaman sternly. “The soul is not com­pli­cated, and it would be very hard to mis­take a soul for some­thing else, like a shoe or some­thing. Our souls are breathed into us by Great Ghu at birth, and stays with us our whole lives, un­less some­one steals it; and if no one has pho­tographed us, our souls go to the Happy Gam­ing Room when we die. Now I ask you again: Do I have my soul, or not? Give me the truth!”

“The truth,” you say, “is that the way my peo­ple see the world is so differ­ent from yours, that you can’t even imag­ine what I think is the truth. I’ve painted no pic­tures, taken no pho­tographs; all I’ve done is look at you, and noth­ing hap­pens when I look at you, that doesn’t hap­pen when any­one else looks at you. But you are be­ing con­stantly pho­tographed, all the time, and you never had any soul to be­gin with: this is the truth.”

“Horse out­put,” says the shaman. “Go away; we never want to see you again.”

The sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion:

John Smith still looked a lit­tle pale. This was quite un­der­stand­able. Go­ing to a pleas­ant din­ner with your fam­ily, hav­ing a sud­den heart at­tack, rid­ing to the hos­pi­tal by am­bu­lance, dy­ing, be­ing cry­on­i­cally sus­pended by Al­cor, spend­ing decades in liquid ni­tro­gen, and then awak­en­ing, all in the span of less than 24 sub­jec­tive hours, will put a fair amount of stress on any­one.

“Look,” said John, “I ac­cept that there are things you’re not al­lowed to tell me—”

“Not right away,” you say. “We’ve found that cer­tain pieces of in­for­ma­tion are best pre­sented in a par­tic­u­lar or­der.”

John nods. “Fine, but I want to be very clear that I don’t want to be told any com­fort­ing lies. Not for the sake of my ‘psy­cholog­i­cal health’, and not for any­thing. If you can’t tell me, just say noth­ing. Please.”

You raise your hand to your chest, two fingers out and the oth­ers folded. “That, I can promise: I can­not tell you ev­ery­thing, but what I say to you will be true. In the name of Richard Feyn­man, who is dead but not for­got­ten.”

John is giv­ing you a very strange look. “How long did you say I was sus­pended?”

“Thirty-five years,” you say.

“I was think­ing,” said John, “that things surely wouldn’t have changed all that much in thirty-five years.”

You say noth­ing, thus keep­ing your promise.

“But if things have changed that much,” John says, “I want to know some­thing. Have I been up­loaded?”

You frown. “Uploaded? I’m sorry, I don’t un­der­stand. The word ‘up­load’ used to ap­ply to com­puter files, right?”

“I mean,” says John, “have I been turned into a pro­gram? An al­gorithm some­where?”

Huh?Turned into an al­gorithm? What were you be­fore, a con­stant in­te­ger?”

“Aargh,” says John. “Okay, yes, I’m a pro­gram, you’re a pro­gram. Every hu­man in the his­tory of hu­man­ity has been a pro­gram run­ning on their brain. I un­der­stand that. What I want to know is whether me, this John Smith, the one talk­ing to you right now, is a pro­gram on the same hard­ware as the John Smith who got cry­on­i­cally sus­pended.”

You pause. “What do you mean, ‘same hard­ware’?”

John starts to look wor­ried. “I was hop­ing for a sim­ple ‘Yes’, there. Am I made of the same atoms as be­fore, or not?”

Oh, dear. “I think you may be la­bor­ing un­der cer­tain ba­sic mis­con­cep­tions,” you say.

“I un­der­stand,” John said, “that your peo­ple may have the cul­tural be­lief that up­load­ing pre­serves per­sonal iden­tity—that a hu­man is mem­o­ries and per­son­al­ity, not par­tic­u­lar atoms. But I hap­pen to be­lieve that my iden­tity is bound up with the atoms that make me. It’s not as if there’s an ex­per­i­ment you can do to prove that I’m wrong, so my be­lief is just as valid as yours.”

Fool­ish child, you think, how lit­tle you un­der­stand the power of Science. “You asked a deeper ques­tion than you know,” you say, “and the world does not work the way you think it does. An atom is… not what you imag­ine.”

“Look,” John says sharply, “I’m not ask­ing you about this time’s the­o­ries of per­sonal iden­tity, or your be­liefs about con­scious­ness—that’s all out­side the realm of third-party sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion any­way. I’m ask­ing you a sim­ple ques­tion that is ex­per­i­men­tally testable. Okay, you found some­thing new un­der­neath the quarks. That’s not sur­pris­ing. I’m ask­ing, what­ever stuff I am made of, is it the same stuff as be­fore? Yes or no?”

The third con­ver­sa­tion:

Your ques­tion is it­self con­fused. What­ever is, is real.

“Look,” Eliezer said, “I know I’m not be­ing mi­s­un­der­stood, so I’m not go­ing to try and phrase this the elab­o­rately cor­rect way: Is this thing that I’m hold­ing an old-fash­ioned ba­nana, or does it only have the ap­pear­ance of a ba­nana?”

You wish to know if the ac­cus­tomed state of af­fairs still holds. In which it merely ap­pears that there is a ba­nana in your hand, but ac­tu­ally, there is some­thing very differ­ent be­hind the ap­pear­ance: a con­figu­ra­tion of par­ti­cles, held to­gether by elec­tro­mag­netic fields and other laws that hu­mans took cen­turies to dis­cover.

“That’s right. I want to know if the lower lev­els of or­ga­ni­za­tion un­der­ly­ing the ba­nana have a sub­stan­tially differ­ent struc­ture than be­fore, and whether the causal re­la­tion be­tween that struc­ture and my sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience has changed in style.”

Well then. Rest as­sured that you are not hold­ing the mere ap­pear­ance of a ba­nana. There re­ally is a ba­nana there, not just a col­lec­tion of atoms.

There was a long pause.


Or per­haps that was only a joke. Let it stand that the place in which you find your­self is at least as real as any­where you ever thought you were, and the things you see are even less illu­sion­ary than your sub­jec­tive ex­pe­riences of them.

“Oh, come on! I’m not some hunter-gath­erer wor­ried about a pho­tog­ra­pher steal­ing his soul! If I’m run­ning on a com­puter some­where, and this is a vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment, that’s fine! I was just cu­ri­ous, that’s all.”

Some of what you be­lieve is true, and some of what you be­lieve is false: this may also be said of the hunter-gath­erer. But there is a true differ­ence be­tween your­self and the hunter-gath­erer, which is this: You have a con­cept of what it means for a fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tion to be mis­taken. The hunter-gath­erer has no ex­pe­rience with other cul­tures that be­lieve differ­ently, no his­tory that tells of past sci­en­tific rev­olu­tions. But you know what is meant, whether or not you ac­cept it, you un­der­stand the as­ser­tion it­self: Some of your fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tions are mis­taken.

Part of The Quan­tum Physics Sequence

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