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The Phantom Self – Introduction

When planning the Phantom Self project, I felt eagerness mixed with apprehension – which is one way we typically feel when future events loom in our lives. I think about other people’s futures with more equanimity. I have great difficulty feeling the same way about your future as about my own. It is like trying to imagine that my left arm belongs to someone else – a bizarre, difficult feat of the imagination – yet there are cases in neurophysiology which report that experience in otherwise sane individuals.

We are attached to the saga of ourselves as ongoing subjects of experience. We readily imagine we will somehow continue to exist, to have experiences, even after the death of our biological organisms. Many of us who do not believe in an afterlife nevertheless have no trouble imagining one. I picture myself floating up, out of my body. I see grief-stricken family and friends around the bed. I hear their conversations – I try to take part and realize I cannot be heard. Later, I leave the earth and find myself in some other place – hopefully a pleasant one – where I may again meet people who were my friends when I was alive.

Such ideas are impossible to disprove. But there is little or no scientific evidence for them. The notion of an afterlife strikes me as wishful thinking. Let’s assume I am not something that can exist independent of a living body. Then what am I? To try to answer that question, I will introduce a thought-experiment. A thought-experiment is a method used by philosophers to clarify concepts. The experimenter describes a hypothetical situation, then asks, “What would we say about that, if it happened?” As thought-experiments go, this one is plain vanilla. It does not violate the laws of physics; in fact, it is so in keeping with current technological trends that it could become reality within a few decades. And then we’ll have to decide what to say about it.

We are getting very good at capturing information about the world in electronic form. Consumer-grade digital cameras acquire images in breathtaking detail – better than my aging eyes. Digital sound and video recording are commonplace. 3D shape capture – a field I worked in for years – continues to improve. Motion capture is used to great effect by the video game and animation industries. Automated chemical analysis is another burgeoning field. And our ability to capture detailed information about the human body is improving at warp speed. From old-fashioned Xrays and EEG’s to biometrics, PET scans and functional MRI’s, we can measure countless attributes of our living organisms, not just static qualities like fingerprints but dynamic information about fleeting brain-states. The BC Cancer Agency can now sequence a person’s entire genome in about two weeks. This time is dropping by an order of magnitude every five years. If that trend continues for thirty years, we’ll be doing it in a second.

By the way, a full genome can be stored in a very manageable 1.6 Gb file.

Now suppose that in, say fifty years – by 2059 – we’ll be able to create the equivalent of the transporter technology of Star Trek. I visualize it as a scanner that can capture enough information about physical objects to allow them to be rebuilt at another location. Things transported this way look and taste the same as the originals. The technology works for animate as well as inanimate objects – living creatures continue to live after digitization and reconstruction. They know their names and addresses, recognize their friends, and can recite the same poetry or sports statistics.

Consider the advantages of information-based teleportation compared to airplanes.

First of all, planes pollute – one transcontinental flight uses up a person’s carbon allowance for an whole year. Secondly, flying is less and less pleasant. Not only are we bums in seats, we’re bums that are security risks, who must be put through the ritual humiliations of the Department of Homeland Security. Third, air travel is unreliable. Although the risk to life and limb is small, the risk of missed flights and lost luggage is huge. Fourth – going back to number one, carbon – rising fuel costs will inevitably raise ticket prices to a deterrent level. People will again decide not to fly because it’s too expensive.

Think about the convenience and potentially low cost of travelling as information. No taxis to airports fifteen miles out of town. No need to show up two hours ahead or take off your shoes. Just visit a transporter facility in your neighborhood, pick a cubicle, get scanned with all your stuff and – after a few minutes or maybe an hour to transmit a gargantuan slug of data over the internet – you find yourself in another cubicle in your destination city. If it’s in another country, you’ll still have to go through customs and immigration.

A fail-safe system with plenty of data integrity checks to ensure that big, complicated files are successfully copied without losing a single bit. If you lived in 2050, would you use teleportation technology? If other people used it, if the safety record was good, I bet you would. The alternative will be trains and ships – nice, but expensive and slow – or teleconferencing and Second Life – useful, but not like being there. And here comes the sharp point of the thought experiment. People will only use teleportation if they expect to survive it. They will use it – therefore they will expect to survive it.

If I am teleported to Australia, the living, breathing person who emerges from the terminal down under will be regarded by society as the same guy who entered the terminal in North Vancouver. Testing our concept of ‘the same person’ against the thought experiment of teleportation, I, for one, come down on the side of, “Yes, that would be me.” Being teleported is not the same as dying. Everything important about me would be preserved. This leads to the conclusion that what’s important in personal identity is not substance, but attributes.

The material substance of my physical organism stays in North Vancouver, where it may be decomposed into its constituent molecules. The organization of my organism is transmitted to Australia, where it is reinstantiated in a new substance.

The shift in thinking from substance to attributes is subtle. It is also abstract. What does it mean? Being attributes rather than substance means that we are less like musical instruments than like tunes – less like computer hardware and more like software. Beethoven’s 5th is the same piece of music when played by different orchestras and heard in different concert halls. It is instantiated in a variety of media – in sheet music, Ipods, and human memory. Firefox is one program running on millions of computers.

If we are attributes, not substances, what difference does it make?

For one thing, it changes our relationship to death. If I am a substance, then the death of my physical organism means one of two things. If my existence depends on my body remaining alive, then the death of my body is the end of me. Or, if I can somehow exist independently of my body, then death is the beginning of a radically new phase. But if I am a collection of attributes, then death is something else – it’s like a terminal hard drive crash. A nuisance, but not a catastrophe if you have a backup.

If we are attributes, then change matters. Change is a bit like death and rebirth, but need not be so radical; mostly we change gradually, preserving enough to make us recognizably ‘the same’ from one day, or year, to the next.

Am I the same person I was at age five? Certainly there are similarities. I remember thinking ahead to starting Grade 1 with the sinking feeling that I was about to lose my freedom for a very long time. On July 1st of 2009, I felt that I’d made it through. Again I have the opportunity to do what interests me. On the other hand, there are lots of differences between me at age five and me at age sixty-one. Same person? Is it a clear question?

If we are attributes, then our relationship to our future and past selves is not radically different from our relationship to other people. It is different in degree, not kind.

Each of us plays an important causal role in determining how life will be for our future selves. What I learn today may become a memory or skill I retain for a long time. If I fry my brains with crystal meth, the future Gordon may regret it.

We also affect the lives of others, and the world around us. Beethoven’s music and Shakespeare’s plays are recreated in thousands of minds, centuries after their deaths. Every conscientious parent and teacher conveys a wealth of information to the children in their care. And we all influence each other as we interact, willy-nilly, in countless ways.

I hated the third President of a company I once worked for. He was a former Xerox executive who fired a close friend of mine (the first President). I plotted to get him sacked, and eventually succeeded. A year later I was writing in my journal, and caught myself using the word, “Boom!” in the same odd way he did. I had picked it up from him. And although I tried to stop, a couple of years after that I was still saying “Boom!” in that way. A bit of his personality entered me, and stuck around. Like a tune stuck in my head. Like a software virus.

Our brains are wonderful at storing memories, mannerisms, habits, skills, emotional responses to various kinds of events – all the qualities that make us who we are. When our brains stop working properly, we may be so transformed as to be recognizable only by face, fingerprints, and dental work. The continuity that healthy brains provide lets us carry out projects that take a long time, like becoming a surgeon or raising a family. This gives us a very good reason to try to preserve the life and health of our biological organisms.

But our brains’ capacity to store information is not our only means of influencing the future. We also write things down; and what we write can be read by others. And we talk. Many tasks are too big to be accomplished by a single individual. Leaders are people who share a vision, inspire others to work towards a common goal. Asking others to support your cause is not unlike exhorting yourself to get on with some personal project.

The idea that we are attributes, not substances, casts a new light on the diversity that exists within individuals. I know a couple who fight bitterly and often when they are alone together – but can instantly transform into gracious, delightful hosts when company arrives for dinner. Voice tones change from harsh and hurtful to pleasantly modulated, light and musical. It’s as though different spirits came to inhabit their bodies – the angry ones displaced by the benign ones. But what are these spirits? Brain-states triggered by a change in circumstances. Like sad and happy tunes played on the same instrument, or different programs run on the same computer.

If we are attributes, not substances, then the immortality we can aspire to consists in our effect on other people and on the world at large. When I die, I lose the highly integrated continuity engine that is my central nervous system. If I have lived without putting my stamp on the world I lived in, without reaching out to others – then it is indeed a death, but maybe not one that makes much difference. But if I have communicated to others what I really think and feel, transformed some part of the world, those effects do not suddenly stop when my brain dies. I live on, in the only way I can live on.

And while my organism is alive, it’s more or less the same thing. My influence on my future selves is like my influence on other people. I can be helpful, or I can cause trouble. I can prudently look out for their interests, or be wasteful and short-sighted. I have an influence on what will happen both inside my skin and outside it. The skin is not such a very important boundary. It is an important boundary of the biological organism, but if we are attributes, skin does not limit us. Information can flow across skin.

I can feel a reaction kicking in – “Wait a minute! I am a biological organism! I’m a human being, flesh, bones and guts.” That idea is hard to shake, and grips us at the first hint of threat. I suspect the sense of physical self is grounded in millions of years of evolution. It’s easy to imagine a living creature without a sense of the boundary between itself and the rest of the world – the skin line. Such a creature would be at high risk of injury, and would have lost in the Darwinian struggle against other species more attuned to protecting and nourishing their bodies. Behind my sense of physical self is a major biological imperative.

The imperative applies not only myself at this moment, but myself at other times. The success of the human species depends on our propensity to worry about ourselves and our families in the future – to lay in provisions for winter, plan for our children’s education. We bound our lives with a visceral sense of self, which shapes and motivates a huge amount of what we do. A threat to self always gets our attention. Opportunities to acquire stuff are rarely ignored. Greed and fearfulness often dominate our behaviour. Some of us think that domination is excessive. But we are all subject to it.

I suggest that we acknowledge our feelings, and move on. We have many urges rooted in biology. We have learned to curb some of them. Especially in Canada, most of us are pretty good at inhibiting our aggressive impulses. We disapprove of unbridled violence; we recognize the need to suppress aggression in order to have a civilized life. We are much less likely to suppress our selfish impulses.

There is a popular idea that all actions are motivated by self-interest, including ‘altruistic’ ones. This is a reductivist notion with no explanatory power, which serves mainly to mask important moral distinctions. Yet it has currency in our culture. Why? I suspect because acting out of self-interest is so deeply ingrained in us that we have trouble imagining an alternative.

It’s the strong – and I believe, irrational – hold that the idea of the self has over us, and particularly its role in motivating action, that led me to characterize it as the ‘phantom self’. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the self has a powerful voice that demands to be obeyed. Like an amputee’s phantom limb, it is a vividly felt presence – but there is nothing really there.

This project will only succeed if it becomes a dialogue. I invite any interested reader to leave comments, particularly critical ones. Ideas thrive on argument.

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