I want to create a hypothetical situation to help us think about consciousness and identity, and to do that I’m going to have to make a couple assumptions. The important thing about these assumptions is that while we haven’t proved them to be true (otherwise I wouldn’t have to assume them), we definitely haven’t been able to prove them false. This means that it’s possible these assumptions are true. Also, the exact details of the hypothetical situation aren’t as important as the underlying idea, and I think that idea would survive quite a wide variation in these assumptions.
Assumption one: Consciousness is in some sense a physical phenomena that is created, or maintained or interacted with by a part of our brain, but not the whole brain, ie. there are parts of the brain that aren’t responsible for creating or experiencing consciousnesses.
Assumption two: Consciousness is what’s really important to everyone, not what we normally think of ‘ourselves’ – our bodies, or even a lot of our brains. We can imagine what we’d be willing to give up to maintain the ability to be conscious. People certainly give up parts of their body, and even parts of their brain if it means maintaining the conditions for consciousness. When someone loses a limb we think of it as not themselves that changed, but the body they’re in. And if someone goes blind or has some injury that leaves them unable to speak or some other impairment, it’s not “them” that’s changed, it’s the brain that connects their conscious self to their body that’s changed.
I suspect the first assumption would be the more controversial of the two, but I think the below would still work with some adjustments for many interpretations of what the underlying causes of consciousness are, and the key idea would still hold.
The Hypothetical Scenario:
60,000 years ago a small alien scouting party visited Earth and found that one species of primates had evolved to be conscious and also particularly intelligent. They also discovered during their flight through the solar system that there was a comet heading towards a collision with the planet. The aliens couldn’t stop the comet, and they couldn’t save all the animals on the planet either, but what they could do was to scan the entire planet, and everything on it, in incredibly high detail. They also took the brain of one of the early humans for further study and headed back to their mothership.
On the ship they loaded all the data about the planet and its inhabitants and environment and the solar system it was part of into their massive computer and started to make a simulation. Their plan was to run the simulation and see what would’ve become of this intelligent species and the planet they lived on if it hadn’t been wiped out by a cosmic accident just as they’d gotten to the point where they could understand their place in the world. They modeled everything nearly perfectly accurately, down to the atomic scale, including all the cells and synapses of all the plants and animals. The only change they made was to delete the comet so their simulated planet would have a long and healthy life.
While simulating the animals they realized that a relatively small part of their brain could create the phenomena of consciousness, and that the intelligent primates had evolved to take especially good use of it. They found that the brains were able to interact with the consciousness they created to process some kinds of information very efficiently. It allowed these animals to take in a huge amount of varied sensory data, and place it all in context by creating a self that understood it all in relationship to. Consciousness was also used to allow them to feel pain and pleasure as an extra layer of information on top of all this, and create and access memories nearly instantaneously. Most of their brains weren’t conscious, but the part that was turned out to be very advantageous from an evolutionary perspective and because it could process these kinds of data so efficiently it unlocked a whole new niche for this one species of intelligent primates to take advantage of. The aliens knew that these aliens made a consciousness that was slightly different than them, but all the animals on the planet made the same kind of consciousness, even though they were each wired slightly differently.
In fact, this consciousness was so efficient at the kinds of things it did that the aliens found that simulating it accurately for millions of individuals would put a huge strain on their hardware. They could simulate most of the things in the world, even cells and neurons pretty easily, but that one little piece in the middle of the brain was very difficult to accurately model efficiently.
The aliens wanted to see what would’ve actually happened on this planet in as realistic detail as possible, and they also wanted to give the unlucky animals that missed their chance at understanding a chance to truly grow and learn about themselves. The plan they came up with was difficult, but they thought it was the only way to really recreate that was lost. They took out the little consciousness making part of the brain they’d saved, and then cloned it exactly. It was just a small thing, but it did its job very well. And they cloned it over and over again creating millions of exact copies. Then they wired these clumps of neurons up in little life sustaining cubes, and plugged them into the machine they’d built to run their simulation of the planet. Their computers would handle almost everything in the simulation, and the living cells would create actual consciousness to handle that part of the world. This way they could run the whole world on their machine accurately and the animals would have a chance to know what it would’ve been like for them. This ended up working very well, and their simulation, minus the comet, ran very smoothly and accurately and things on the planet seemed to go on just as they had been before. When one of the animals died, the aliens went in and reset the consciousness that wasn’t being used anymore in that particular cube and held it in stasis until another one of the animals was born, then they’d plug the cube back into the simulation, connect it to the new baby’s part of the simulation and turn it back on, ready to start fresh. The animals did very well for themselves and their population grew and grew, so the aliens just cloned more copies of that little piece of brain, each exactly the same, and plugged more and more into the simulation, one for each conscious animal on the planet.
What does this mean?
I’ll start by saying that while it’s obviously nearly impossible that this is what actually happened, but also that we can’t currently say that it’s impossible. The fact that it’s merely possible means that it’s a useful tool to think about what it means to be conscious and how we should think about ourselves and our identity. We can imagine that that’s what happened to us. We would ended up with something somewhere between a “brain in a jar” and “The Matrix”. With the two key ideas making this scenario possible being that the technology running the simulation is so far beyond anything we know of today that it’s impossible to tell we’re inside a simulation, and that the nature of consciousness is such that even in this simulation we’d still be really, truly, consciousness. The consciousness we would experience isn’t simulated, it’s just that the information to feed those conscious experiences is coming not from the ‘real’ world, but from a simulation of the real world, and in theory at least, it’s exactly the same experiences we’d be having either way.
We usually think of ourselves as being our bodies, and even if not our bodies, then at least our brains. We need both of these things to survive, so we’re dependent on them, and they certainly shape the way we view the world, but I’d like to suggest that we move that boundary of what defines us even further in, to include only whatever part of our brain is responsible for consciousness. We know that our entire brain isn’t conscious since there’s a lot of things we’re not conscious of happening in our brains all the time. The part that causes or maintains or interacts with consciousness might even be a quite small piece, that’s a very real possibility. It’s that piece, however big or small it is that matters to every one of us. In a very real sense that piece is each of us, and I hope the hypothetical situation above makes that clear. Whatever happens in the machine’s simulation can be replaced or changed or removed and we’d interpret it as a change in the outside world, as a change in the things that aren’t us. This would go down all the way to changes in the way our bodies work, and even parts of our own brain. It’s only the tiny part in the cube that creates consciousness that we’d feel was us. Since we can’t tell if we’re in that simulation or not we should accept that there’s a chance this definition of us as being only the conscious part of us is possible.
Let’s consider the things we do consciously and the things that happen unconsciously, to see where the boundary between “us” and “everything else” might be. For example, when we learn a new language we have to think about what each word means, remember the way to use them, what they should sound like, etc. That all seems like conscious activity, whereas once we’ve learned a language and are fluent in it we’re not consciously thinking about how to speak anymore, we just speak without having to put the conscious effort into it. I’d argue that the same process happens for things as diverse as learning how to walk or learning mathematics. At first we have to think about what our goal is, remember what we’ve experienced in the past and pick actions that feel like they’d be the right choice in this situation. All those kinds of actions seem to be “us” – they’re choices we’re consciously making. Then over time we stop making choices consciously (or stop making them in the conscious parts of our brains) and other parts learn how to do those things unconsciously. Those parts might be different between different people. Through genetics or luck or experience some people might have a part of their brain that’s very good at unconsciously learning to do math, or throw a ball or speak a language. In this hypothetical situation those parts of people’s brains aren’t “them” since they’re outside the cube that represents the conscious part of their brain. Those parts are just part of the simulation and in a sense part of the environment that people are born into. We all find ourselves with a certain family in a certain place in a certain country at a certain time, and we also find ourselves with a particular body that does some things better than others, and bits of unconscious brain that help us connect with that body by processing sensory data or relying information to muscles. Those parts of our brain are important, but they’re not us. If some alien accidentally switched two cubes and you woke up in someone else’s body with new pieces of brain and nervous system handling all the unconscious stuff you don’t need to think about, you’d still think of yourself as being you. You’d still have all the same memories and identity you’d created, it would just be attached to some new bunch of unconscious cells.
The key idea though is that it’s possible that all of our consciousnesses, as described in the hypothetical scenario start exactly the same. I don’t know if this is likely or unlikely in the real world, but it at least seems possible, and even if it’s not exactly true it might be very close to true. Our consciousnesses might be nearly or exactly the same and only different in tiny insignificant ways or no ways at all, at least at the start. Maybe there’s only one way for this thing we call ‘consciousness’ to exist, we either have one or we don’t? Or maybe there’s many ways for it to exist, but it happens that our evolutionary history only stumbled onto one of them? Or maybe we really are in a simulation and it’s just a lot easier to use the same physical process to create all of our consciousnesses in that simulation and so they’re all exactly the same. We definitely don’t know enough about the way our own consciousnesses works to disprove that. Even if consciousness isn’t physical, we should accept that it’s possible that all of our consciousnesses start out, whatever they are, in exactly the same way, and it’s only our environment we’re born into that’s different.
At least consider the possibility that every person on earth, every conscious animal that’s ever lived, could essentially be an exact copy of you, at least at the level you really care about. All of us, the parts of us that matters, might be exactly the same and it’s just the environment that makes us different, we face different possibilities so we make different choices and then we have different memories and we carry those for the rest of our lives, shaping who we turn out to be. No matter how different someone else seems from me, the difference isn’t in the way they experience the world or in the kind of feelings they have or the choices they make, the difference is in their environment or in their body or in the tools their brain has to connect them to their body and their environment.
If we go back in time we could imagine the conscious part of my brain had been switched into some other body at birth, connected to the rest of that body’s nervous system (that would handle walking, keeping that heart beating, being fooled by optical illusions, being fluent in languages, and everything else the unconscious parts of our brains do). I would’ve been born in some other part of the world, and I would’ve grown up and made all the same choices and had the same feeling that other person would’ve made. We can think of it as the aliens just switching two blocks with two pieces of exactly identical brain bits inside at birth. All those cubes start out exactly the same, so it doesn’t matter what consciousness goes into what brain in what body. We all feel like ourselves, and we all have our own identity, but we could all be exactly the same, only surrounded by and shaped by different stuff our whole lives.
Maybe this isn’t how things work in the real world? But in this hypothetical scenario, it is how it works, and right now, for us and what we know about how we work, it’s impossible to tell if we’re in that simulation or if we’re in the “real world”. That possibility by itself seems like an important fact. It might be that in a very real sense we’re all exactly the same where it really matters. We should keep this in mind – as far as we can tell, it could be true that whenever we look at anyone else we’re not seeing a different person, we’re seeing an exact copy of ourselves, but just a copy that started life in a different way and had different choices to make between then and now.