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  • Writer's pictureEdgar Chicurel H

Cloning Consciousness or Maybe Dying Isn't so Bad after All

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Here are two big questions: What does it mean to be self-conscious? and, Why are certain physical systems (e.g. a living human with a brain) conscious of themselves and others, apparently, not?

We understand self-consciousness to be something that pertains to a person. Our consciousness is essentially walled in from the rest of the world. We can observe, feel empathy and speculate on what someone else is experiencing, but the emotions and thought processes are uniquely personal. Self-consciousness is consciousness of our own selves, never any other selves. But could it be possible for two copies of the exact same consciousness to exist simultaneously? And if so, what does that tell us about our concept of existence and self?

Self-consciousness is a property which we can easily understand on an intuitive level, but have great trouble explaining in terms of its origin and its relation to our physical selves, in particular our brains. Being alive and having a brain are necessary conditions for consciousness to exist, but they are not sufficient. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines the problem with unparalleled skill and a profound understanding of the brain and its activity in the book: Self comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. We lose consciousness when we sleep, we regain it when we awaken he tells us in the opening chapter. The assumption here is that something is physically different in our brains when we are asleep, thus setting the stage for the deep probing of what activities in the brain give rise to consciousness. Damasio and others have discovered a great deal about the relationship between the activity of the brain and consciousness.

One of the crucial aspects of the brain’s workings described in Self Comes to Mind in detail is its use of neural maps. Using a number of imaging techniques including varieties of Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRIs, researchers have found that brain activity appears in continuous or discrete patterns when interacting with objects, performing a certain activity, or accessing memory. These 3D patterns or maps are created and modified constantly and with lightning speed. Neural maps often mimic shapes and positions they are referencing. For example, researchers have found that the pattern of activity when a cross shaped object is viewed or recalled is often cross shaped. We seem to have our own world as it relates to us, playing out as in a theater in our brains. The map of an object may begin from looking at it. In this case light from the object striking our retina forms a pattern, which is replicated and modified various times before arriving at the visual cortex. Maps are not only about places or objects, they can be about sound for example. How is a map of sound constructed? Damasio explains that tiny hairs that respond to different frequencies are ordered inside the structure of the inner ear known as the Cochlea. Those hairs that respond to the highest frequencies can be found at the base of the Cochlea progressing to the lower frequency responders as you move toward the top. So when we listen to a piece of music, for example, different frequencies will stimulate the corresponding hairs in the Cochlea and a map is formed in our brains based on the position of these hairs. The map begins in the cochlea but is replicated various times (just as the image map is) until it forms in the auditory cortex of our brains. So now we can recall the musical piece in a similar way we recall an object we saw by “looking it up” and replaying it using our stored map which will create patterns of activity in our brain that mimic those created when we were actually hearing the piece.

Neural maps can be seen in brains of all animals, but humans have developed what Damasio calls an Extended Consciousness, or autobiographical self which is constantly involved in the creation, modification and recall of these maps. Maps are the basis of images in our mind which represent not only sights and sounds but also smells, tastes, touches, the state of our body, words, in short, says Damasio, they form the currency of the Mind. Moreover, he asserts that the Mind is actually a consequence of the brain’s mapping activity.

But can this ever-improving understanding of the workings of our brain really explain consciousness? In his book“The Astonishing Hypothesis” the famed Biologist Francis Crick certainly believes this to be the case. Consciousness, free will, and the meaning of the soul itself all stem from the activities of neurons, and the molecules that make up our brains. So, understanding consciousness is simply a matter of understanding the workings of the mechanics of the brain. But is it? Not everyone agrees. Some, like cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman argue that even if you figure out exactly what occurs in your brain when you take a bite of a strawberry, the manifestation of strawberry taste will still be as mysterious as ever. His discussions with Crick on the subject, which he describes in the book “The Case against Reality” are fascinating.

Why do we experience the taste of a strawberry? This is a hard question. In fact, why we experience any phenomenon at all has been named THE hard question, originally by philosopher David Chalmers. In contrast understanding the workings of the brain involved in creating the experience of a strawberry taste is the Quote Easy Question, but understanding what the taste of strawberry IS is the hard question. But, is it even a question at all? Some, like Antonio Damasio think not.

When questions get too hard, and science overwhelms, it’s time to turn to Science Fiction for some insights.

In the series Star Trek, one of the trademark moments in almost every show was when the crew was beamed from the ship down to a planet or some other location. Although “beaming” people exists only in the realm of fiction, teletransportation of sorts has been accomplished with a few particles. The concept is almost self-explanatory, just as you might dis-assemble a cumbersome piece of furniture before shipping it, and then re-assemble upon arrival, Star Trek crew members were dis-assembled into their constituent particles and reassembled in another location, usually with no side effects. Which leads to an interesting thought-experiment. What happens if the beaming machine accidentally makes an additional copy of a crew member? Imagine a flustered technician explaining it was a malfunction, but not to worry, one of the two copies would need to get back in the beaming transporter to be permanently dis-assembled and everything would go back to normal. The problem is, neither copy wants to be dis-assembled. Both are most probably terrified at being the one to be eliminated. But it makes no sense to be afraid, the consciousness that is you will continue if your copy is safe says the technician. No one will care or mourn you, in fact people will be relieved that the copy is removed. But I don’t want to die! Yell the two copies in unison. The technician, who also happens to have a degree in philosophy, exasperated explains, nothing to worry about, the concept of self is really just an illusion. But the two copies are not convinced, “If you dis-assemble me I will never taste a strawberry again” they argue.

Being beamed from the mother ship to a planet is fine, the crew is fearless and doesn’t mind being dis-assembled only to be re-assembled a moment later at a different location. But being duplicated and then having one of the copies dis-assembled is not acceptable. It really should not make a difference. Why are we unable to allow another consciousness, equal in all aspects to our own to replace us? Is it our instinct of self-preservation that gets in the way of a rational decision? Or is there something about self-consciousness that creates a unique phenomenon of strawberry tasting walled off from everything else?

But the story does have a happy ending. At last the technician proposes putting them both to sleep for a few minutes and randomly choosing one of them to dis-assemble. "This way", she explains, "when only one of you awaken everything will be as normal and your usual existence will continue." The copies find this to be a perfect solution. Maybe dying won't be so bad after all. After the nap when only one copy awakens he is relieved and thankful that all is well again and he will live to taste many more strawberries. Whoever actually died makes no difference at all, he thinks, no difference at all.

This may seem to be pure fantasy: obviously we cannot duplicate a person, and might never be able to. But I believe the story helps illustrate the weirdness of self-consciousness and the personal experience of things. The conscious experience of phenomenon somehow gives our existence a unique importance to each of us. Even if someone else is very similar to you, that gives very little comfort in the face of your own demise. And the possibility of cloning a consciousness might not be that far off. It is conceivable, if not downright likely that Artificial Intelligence will acquire self awareness sometime in the not so distant future. If this is the case, duplicating an AI agent will probably be feasible as well.

Perhaps the veil of mystery shrouding the concept of self and the experience of the taste of a strawberry will slowly clear as our understanding of the workings of the brain continues to sharpen. Or maybe, as Hoffman suggests, the answer to the Hard Question of Consciousness is not to be found this way at all but requires a completely different approach. We better hurry up, before an AI figures it out for us.


Antonio Damasio: The quest to understand consciousness (TedTalk)

Donald Hoffman: The Case Against Reality (YouTube interview)

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