Three Dialogues on Identity

by Eliezer Yudkowsky6 min read21st Apr 200847 comments


Dialogue (format)Anthropics

Followup toIdentity 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

Next post: "Decoherence"

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