I recently read Douglas Hofstadter’s “I am a strange loop”. Hofstadter’s Escher, Gödel, Bach reached something of a cult status in the 80’s when I was a university student. It was one of those few books that changed my outlook on life a little bit. I even claim to have understood the proof for Gödels theorem for several minutes.
I am a strange loop is not a masterpiece of the same caliber as EGB but it summarizes a few ideas that rhyme very well with my own thoughts on the subject (it’s always pleasant to read something that you agree with isn’t it?). The central idea is that “I” is an illusion that emerges from the brain’s ability to study what’s going on inside itself (hence the loop). (Sit down in silence for a while and try to catch that “I”!)
Hofstadter proposes several interesting thought experiments for looking at the issue from various angles. I’d here like to add two of my own and recommend a couple of movies to boot. (Whether my thought experiments have been proposed earlier I don’t know.)
- Suppose we could make an exact mathematical model of any neuron in the brain (This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the Scientific American’s special edition on robotics from 2008, Hans Moravec predicts that the processing power of computers will reach that of the human brain by 2050.). Let us then replace the biological neurons one by one with their artificial counterpart until the whole brain has been replaced. What happes to the “I” during the process?
- What happens to the “I” when you fall asleep? You have a strong feeling that it was you who went to sleep the night before and there is some sort of psychological continuity between yesterday and today even though the only connection to your past is your memories. Paul Verhoeven has illustrated one aspect of this thought experiment in his movie Total Recall in which memories are imprinted in the brain to leave a recollection of your dream vacation (literally) without actually going anywhere.
- In his book Hofstadter refers to some thought experiments introduced by the philosopher Derek Parfit who discusses what happens to our identity in various hypothetical teleportation scenarios. Similar ideas are central in Christopher Nolan’s Oscar nominated and somewhat disturbing movie The Prestige. Boot up the DVD player and see it!
An interesting conclusion from item 2 above is that the only difference between falling asleep and dying, provided a peaceful death in your sleep, is that when you die you don’t wake up in the morning.