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    Thread: Thought Experiment Concerning the Nature of the Self

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      Thought Experiment Concerning the Nature of the Self

      The follow thought experiment is based off of a chapter from ‘Into the Silent Land’, by Paul Broks.


      Sometime in the not so distant future, we develop the ability to teleport both objects and living beings from one location to another at the speed of light. The technology works by performing a precise scan of your body, down to the atomic level, storing the information from that scan as data, and sending that data to the destination, where your body is recreated from new atoms available on site. In order to ensure that no duplicates ever exist, the instant that the scan is complete your body is vaporized (painlessly). So for a few brief moments “you” won’t technically exist, only the atom by atom instructions on how to put your body together will exist.

      The obvious question is whether or not you would make use of this technology. You can assume that countless other people have already been successfully teleported, and that they were physically and mentally the same after being re-created at the other end.

      Also feel free to speculate on any ethical issues you think that the existence of a technology of this nature could engender. And if anyone feels scientifically qualified enough to weigh in on the plausibility of such a teleportation device ever existing, I’d be curious about that as well.

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      Xei
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      If I may address an analogous situation (as it's more amenable to my point), imagine that one by one, every neuron in your head is replaced by some kind of digital device with exactly the same function. We can't resist the inference that we would not notice any change, as that would lead one to the rather absurd conclusion that it is the material constitution of the neurons - namely water, salt, protein, fats, etcetera - which is responsible for our consciousness. And in any case, the material in our bodies is constantly recycled, with no apparent change to our "selves". But now imagine that, one by one, every neuron in your head is replaced by two separate devices. When they've all been replaced, the two brains are implanted in two different bodies, body A and body B, which go off and live different lives. But by the logic of before, our "selves" have passed into body A without our noticing, and also into body B without our noticing. The two conclusions just don't make any sense together.

      What I take in general from this is that our intuitive notion of how "selves" work is just completely wrong. I doubt much more can be said.
      PresentMoment likes this.

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      I do not believe that a way will ever be found to store human consciousness within an electronic device of any magnitude. From my very limited understanding of quantum mechanics, I could imagine the possibility of being able to 'unfold' or manipulate matter to create 'black hole' type structures where something could pass through instantly from one point to another. As for whether consciousness could pass through that intact though, who knows..

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      Xei
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      Quote Originally Posted by apsinvo View Post
      I do not believe that a way will ever be found to store human consciousness within an electronic device of any magnitude.
      Why not? Do you know how neurons work? They each basically receive waves of charged particles and spit out new waves; pretty much exactly like electronic logic gates. Are you saying carbon can cause consciousness but silicon cannot? Or do you think consciousness is not dependent on neurons at all?

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      Quote Originally Posted by PresentMoment View Post
      The follow thought experiment is based off of a chapter from ‘Into the Silent Land’, by Paul Broks.


      Sometime in the not so distant future, we develop the ability to teleport both objects and living beings from one location to another at the speed of light. The technology works by performing a precise scan of your body, down to the atomic level, storing the information from that scan as data, and sending that data to the destination, where your body is recreated from new atoms available on site. In order to ensure that no duplicates ever exist, the instant that the scan is complete your body is vaporized (painlessly). So for a few brief moments “you” won’t technically exist, only the atom by atom instructions on how to put your body together will exist.

      The obvious question is whether or not you would make use of this technology. You can assume that countless other people have already been successfully teleported, and that they were physically and mentally the same after being re-created at the other end.

      Also feel free to speculate on any ethical issues you think that the existence of a technology of this nature could engender. And if anyone feels scientifically qualified enough to weigh in on the plausibility of such a teleportation device ever existing, I’d be curious about that as well.
      I wrote a paper on this. He got it from Swampman by Donald Davidson.

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      @Xei. That's an interesting point. Of course, this is my opinion and not backed by anything more..

      In science we can examine the brain. Neurones, electrical signals, brain chemistry and so on. We can perform experiments to show that when you dream, this part of the brain becomes active, when you prick your finger, that part of the brain becomes active. Science may then draw a conclusion - "When the participant feels pain, part X becomes active, therefore our study concludes that part X of the brain is responsible for pain." I believe that this is a logical fallacy. We can accurately conclude - a) The participant claims pain, b) At that time, part X of the brain became active. We can logically link the two together, but not in a cause/effect relationship - there is nothing to support that.

      Instead I argue, when pain is felt, lots of things happen that we have no knowledge, tools to measure or understanding of, and a part of that process involves part X of the brain lighting up. Both the sensation of pain AND the brain activity are related effects, with an unknown cause.

      I agree that we are carbon based life forms. I don't agree that carbon = life.

      In your example of neurones and logic gates, logic gates OR, NOT, AND, XOR are binary states of on or off, yes or not. More complicated constructs just involve more inputs and more outputs - all being 1 or 0. Even if we just accept neurones as electrical transmitters and receivers (which I don't), they are infinitely fine analog sensors - I don't believe these can be sampled even at the highest frequencies and converted to digital.

      A related question which I am undecided on.. if you do just take molecules, perfectly clone them, will the result be "alive"? I'm inclined to think no.. I believe there is a "spark" that sets things in motion - I don't believe this is an electric type "spark".

      Then we come to the age old question.. what is consciousness? We don't even know what it is, how can we even dream of capturing it? Has an inanimate object EVER spontaneously become "alive" in a lab? No - regardless of what it's constructed of. Can we take even the most basic life form, and inject it's "aliveness" into something else? Again, I am not sure that such a thing can ever be achieved by science.

      I've written this reply like it's fact.. that's just my style! As I said up top, this is all just my opinion. Ultimately there are far too many variables and unknowns still.. Please argue..

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      Quote Originally Posted by apsinvo View Post
      In science we can examine the brain. Neurones, electrical signals, brain chemistry and so on. We can perform experiments to show that when you dream, this part of the brain becomes active, when you prick your finger, that part of the brain becomes active. Science may then draw a conclusion - "When the participant feels pain, part X becomes active, therefore our study concludes that part X of the brain is responsible for pain." I believe that this is a logical fallacy. We can accurately conclude - a) The participant claims pain, b) At that time, part X of the brain became active. We can logically link the two together, but not in a cause/effect relationship - there is nothing to support that.
      Isn't there? We have a good understanding of how pain works. The pain receptor in, say, our hand, is activated, which sends signals through neurons up your arm, your spine, and into your brain, where it activates the pain region in the brain corresponding to that part of the body. A short time afterwards, you feel pain. So, calling event A the pain signal entering our nervous system, and event B our feeling of pain; event A precedes event B; whenever event A occurs event B occurs; and if event A does not occur, event B does not occur. Isn't this exactly what we mean when we say A causes B?

      There are other examples to demonstrate this relationship. A classic one is the effect of mind-altering drugs, such as LSD. It is a known fact that such chemicals have a potent effect, through chemistry, on the signals sent in our brains. We then experience a radical change in self. Isn't this good evidence that our neurons are responsible for our "selves"?

      In your example of neurones and logic gates, logic gates OR, NOT, AND, XOR are binary states of on or off, yes or not. More complicated constructs just involve more inputs and more outputs - all being 1 or 0. Even if we just accept neurones as electrical transmitters and receivers (which I don't), they are infinitely fine analog sensors - I don't believe these can be sampled even at the highest frequencies and converted to digital.
      Ah, but they are digital. Neurons either send a signal, or they do not. There are no "half" signals. The brain has gone to some lengths to evolve such a mechanism - read about "action potentials" if you would like more information.

      Even if neurons did send analogue signals, it is not at all clear to me why this should make any difference to consciousness-causing capacities. Plus, computers can be made to simulate analogue signals themselves to an arbitrary degree of accuracy.

      A related question which I am undecided on.. if you do just take molecules, perfectly clone them, will the result be "alive"? I'm inclined to think no.. I believe there is a "spark" that sets things in motion - I don't believe this is an electric type "spark".

      Then we come to the age old question.. what is consciousness? We don't even know what it is, how can we even dream of capturing it? Has an inanimate object EVER spontaneously become "alive" in a lab? No - regardless of what it's constructed of. Can we take even the most basic life form, and inject it's "aliveness" into something else? Again, I am not sure that such a thing can ever be achieved by science.
      For one thing, the phenomena of "life" and "consciousness" are quite different. It seems unlikely that living things without brains, such as trees, or something very simple like a bacteria or virus, have consciousness any more than a rock does; nevertheless they are alive.

      As to "life", certainly prior to around 1850, it was an inexplicable mystery, completely separate from our understanding of the physical world. But no longer. With the discoveries of natural selection, genetics and biochemistry, there are now no real conceptual gaps in our understanding as to how inanimate matter can become animate. We can now see perfectly well how something as lively as a bacterium or indeed a person can "spontaneously" develop and function. No spark or special element is required in this understanding. The only thing inhibiting us from creating life from non-life is technology, and even on that score, much progress is being made. Only a couple of years ago, a team created a strand of DNA from scratch, inserted it into a dead bacterium cell, and watched as it came alive.

      Once you understand what "life" is and that it is not strictly coupled with consciousness, it becomes easier to see that consciousness could arise without organic life.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xei View Post
      Or do you think consciousness is not dependent on neurons at all?
      That would imply a Creator Mind, and there's no place in science for that. Right?
      What I take in general from this is that our intuitive notion of how "selves" work is just completely wrong. I doubt much more can be said.

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      Xei
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      Quote Originally Posted by Rums03 View Post
      That would imply a Creator Mind
      No..? Why?

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      Some interesting valid points there Xei. I will reply in more detail later.. Two questions -

      "The only thing inhibiting us from creating life from non-life is technology, and even on that score, much progress is being made. Only a couple of years ago, a team created a strand of DNA from scratch, inserted it into a dead bacterium cell, and watched as it came alive."

      I've tried to search for this but not come up with anything. Can you link to a) Technological progress in non-life becoming living? and b) The team that took a strand of DNA, inserted it into a non living bacteria and brought it to life?

      I'm very interested to read more if this is the case..
      Last edited by apsinvo; 01-06-2014 at 06:02 PM. Reason: Typo

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      Xei
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      This guy does a lot of it:

      Craig Venter - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

      In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as "synthetic life".[37][38] This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell, analogous to the accomplishment of Eckard Wimmer's group, who synthesized and ligated an RNA virus genome and "booted" it in cell lysate.
      But I only mentioned that to emphasise the point. No scientist was surprised by these experiments, because we already know how life works. We've observed the constituent parts and we can see how their functions give rise to life. Actually physically building life required no new conceptual knowledge, it just requires fiddly technologies, which groups like Venter's are making.

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      I've read through those details. I can't seem to find anything about injecting DNA into dead bacteria and watching it come alive. I can see plenty about genetic engineering, inserting modified DNA into living cells and so on, this is all well known. I'm not sure that advances in genetic engineering qualify as "we already know how life works".

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      Xei
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      Quote Originally Posted by apsinvo View Post
      I've read through those details. I can't seem to find anything about injecting DNA into dead bacteria and watching it come alive.
      Ehh well that's exactly what the passage I quoted describes. The cell had no genome. It was dead. They created a genome out of raw chemicals from scratch, inserted it, and the cell started living, metabolising using the information in the genome.

      I can see plenty about genetic engineering, inserting modified DNA into living cells and so on, this is all well known. I'm not sure that advances in genetic engineering qualify as "we already know how life works".
      I did just explain this. We already know how life works because... we already know how life works. We know how DNA works, how protein synthesis from the DNA works, how proteins work, how protein catalysed metabolisms work, how life works. This all predates advances in genetic engineering; as I said, genetic engineering just emphasises our knowledge. Verner did not need any new biology to do what he did, just new chemistry techniques to create the chemical parts - chemical parts which we already know exist and how they work.

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      Quote Originally Posted by Xei View Post
      If I may address an analogous situation (as it's more amenable to my point), imagine that one by one, every neuron in your head is replaced by some kind of digital device with exactly the same function. We can't resist the inference that we would not notice any change, as that would lead one to the rather absurd conclusion that it is the material constitution of the neurons - namely water, salt, protein, fats, etcetera - which is responsible for our consciousness. And in any case, the material in our bodies is constantly recycled, with no apparent change to our "selves". But now imagine that, one by one, every neuron in your head is replaced by two separate devices. When they've all been replaced, the two brains are implanted in two different bodies, body A and body B, which go off and live different lives. But by the logic of before, our "selves" have passed into body A without our noticing, and also into body B without our noticing. The two conclusions just don't make any sense together.

      What I take in general from this is that our intuitive notion of how "selves" work is just completely wrong. I doubt much more can be said.
      I appreciate the analogy, Xei, I'm currently reading a book by Douglas Hofstadter and Emanuel Sander about just how fundamental analogies are to cognition. Anyways, I would go as far as to say the self is a complete illusion, an illusion being a subjective experience that is not on track with reality. We have an experience of being a more or less static individual, the self that wakes up in the morning feels the same as the one that fell asleep the night before, but at the level of the brain we know this isn't true, new synapses are always been formed, old ones strengthen or pruned away. And at no point in the brain do all of our thoughts, memories and emotions converge to create a unified self. It doesn't make much sense from a psychological perspective either, at every moment, we're taking in new data from the outside world, interpreting that data based on prior experience, and then incorporating some of it into memory which will in turn bias the way we see the world in the future. That's the jist of why I think the self is an illusion, and I'm curious as to whether or not you think it's a fair conclusion on my part.

      Quote Originally Posted by Spunk View Post
      I wrote a paper on this. He got it from Swampman by Donald Davidson.
      He claims to have gotten the idea from the philospher Derek Parfit, but yeah Swampman is essentially the same exact problem. I disagree with Davidson's claim that there would be a difference between the original and the copy, based on my belief that the self isn't a real thing, as explained above.

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      Xei
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      I think it's an easy idea to stumble upon, if you have an active enough imagination and are exposed to the concept of teleportation. I know I came up with the same ideas as a child, as have many others.

      Quote Originally Posted by PresentMoment View Post
      I appreciate the analogy, Xei, I'm currently reading a book by Douglas Hofstadter and Emanuel Sander about just how fundamental analogies are to cognition. Anyways, I would go as far as to say the self is a complete illusion, an illusion being a subjective experience that is not on track with reality. We have an experience of being a more or less static individual, the self that wakes up in the morning feels the same as the one that fell asleep the night before, but at the level of the brain we know this isn't true, new synapses are always been formed, old ones strengthen or pruned away. And at no point in the brain do all of our thoughts, memories and emotions converge to create a unified self. It doesn't make much sense from a psychological perspective either, at every moment, we're taking in new data from the outside world, interpreting that data based on prior experience, and then incorporating some of it into memory which will in turn bias the way we see the world in the future. That's the jist of why I think the self is an illusion, and I'm curious as to whether or not you think it's a fair conclusion on my part.
      It's one of those very difficult areas to talk about, because it's so close to the very bottom of what it even means to think and reason and speak, and you risk getting into cyclic fallacies. We have to be really careful about what we mean by our words. Is the self an illusion? The answer depends on exactly what we mean by a "self" and exactly what we mean by an "illusion". One way to phrase the same question might be: am I currently experiencing a continuity of thought? It seems hard to doubt that. In fact, one would be justified in doubting pretty much everything, even the nature of "external reality" and that our thoughts arise from a transient arrangement of matter in it, before we doubted the persistence of our own experience from one second to the next.

      I used to try to grapple with these kinds of things, and perhaps I'm simply too tired at the moment to try to really sort this one out; but these days I have a tendency to doubt that questions like these even make any sense, or that we can even think about them. Why do we think our own thought processes are valid? It's not a trivial question, especially when we're thinking about the very nature of our thoughts. How can we possibly reach any sound conclusions about our mental powers, when it requires our mental powers to make conclusions in the first place? I look at the paragraph I typed and I see words like "self", "think", "reality", "experience", "exist", and I ask myself; how, biologically, did my brain even learn those words? What do they refer to? We need only look to less fundamental terms - "determinism", for instance, or "space" - to see how the brain has been tricked into making what were only ever patterns and approximations in a limited area of reality into universal, indubitable concepts, only to find (owing to quantum mechanics and relativity respectively in my two examples) that they are after all not fundamental. What chance do we have that even grander words like those listed are sound?
      Last edited by Xei; 01-07-2014 at 03:47 AM.

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