essay Who am I + What am I

by Ray Kurzweil
June 1, 2023


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~ essay

essay title: Who am I + What am I
author: by Ray Kurzweil
date: undated

essay |

An introduction.

Maybe I’m this stuff here — the ordered and chaotic collection of molecules that comprise my body and brain. But there’s a problem. The specific set of particles that comprise my body and brain are completely different from the ones that comprised me a short time ago. We know that most of our cells are turned-over in a few weeks. Even those that persist longer (such as neurons) change their component molecules in weeks.

I’m a different set of stuff than I was.

I’m a completely different set of stuff than I was a month ago. All that persists is the pattern of organization of that stuff. The pattern changes also — but slowly, and in a continuum from my past self.

From this perspective I’m like the pattern that water makes in a stream, as it rushes past the rocks in its path. The actual molecules (of water) change every milli-second. But the pattern continues for hours, or even years.

Maybe we should say I’m a pattern of matter and energy that persists in time. But there’s a problem here also. We’ll ultimately be able to scan + copy this pattern in a at least sufficient detail to replicate my body and brain to a sufficiently high degree of accuracy such that the copy is indistinguishable from the original — that is, the copy could pass a Ray Kurzweil Turing test. I explore this scenario in my essay the law of accelerating returns.

So the copy will share my pattern. One might counter that we may not get every detail correct. But if that is true, then such an attempt would not constitute a proper copy. As time goes on, our ability to create a neural and body copy will increase in resolution and accuracy at the same exponential pace that pertains to all info-based tech.

We ultimately will be able to capture and recreate my pattern of salient neural + physical details to any desired degree of accuracy. Although the copy shares my pattern, it would be hard to say that the copy is me — because I would, or could, still be here. You could even scan and copy me while I was sleeping.

If you come to me in the morning and say, “Good news, Ray, we’ve successfully re-instantiated you into a more durable substrate, so we won’t be needing your old body and brain anymore,” I may beg to differ.

If you do the thought experiment, it’s clear that the copy may look and act just like me, but it’s nonetheless not me because I may not even know that he was created. Although he would have all my memories and recall having been me, from the point in time of his creation, Ray 2 would have his own unique experiences and his reality would begin to diverge from mine.

Let’s follow this train of thought.

Now let’s follow this train of thought a bit further — and you will see where the dilemma comes in. If we copy me, and then destroy the original, then that’s the end of me because as we concluded above the copy is not me.

Since the copy will do a convincing job of impersonating me, no one may know the difference, but it’s nonetheless the end of me.

However, this scenario is entirely equivalent to one in which I am replaced gradually. In the case of gradual replacement, there is no simultaneous old me and new me.

But at the end of the gradual replacement process, you have the equivalent of the new me, and no old me. So gradual replacement also means the end of me.

However — as I pointed out at the beginning of this question — it’s the case that I’m actually being continually replaced. And by the way, it’s not so gradual, it’s a rapid process. As we concluded — all that persists is my pattern.

But the thought experiment above shows that gradual replacement means the end of me even if my pattern is preserved. So am I constantly being replaced by someone else who just seems a like lot me a few moments earlier?

So again — who am I? It’s the ultimate ontological question. We often refer to this question as the issue of consciousness. I have consciously — no pun intended — phrased the issue entirely in the first person because that’s the nature of the issue. It’s not a 3rd person question. So my question isn’t: who is John Doe? — although John Doe may ask this question himself.

When people speak of consciousness, they often slip into issues of behavioral + neurological correlates of consciousness — like whether or not an entity can be self-reflective.

But these are 3rd person, objective issues, and don’t represent what David Chalmers PhD — the philosopher + cognitive scientist — calls the “hard question” of consciousness. Chalmers specializes in the area of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language.

The question of whether or not an entity is conscious is only apparent to himself. The difference between neurological correlates of consciousness — that is, intelligent behavior — and the ontological reality of consciousness is the difference between objective (3rd person) and subjective (1st person) reality. For this reason, we’re unable to propose an objective consciousness detector that doesn’t have philosophical assumptions built into it.

Well, you see the problem.

I believe that humans will come to accept that non-biological entities are conscious. Because ultimately they’ll have all the subtle cues that humans currently possess that we associate with emotional (and other subjective) experiences.

But that’s a political and psychological prediction, not an observation that we’ll be able to scientifically verify. We assume that other humans are conscious, but this is an assumption, and it’s not something we can objectively demonstrate.

I acknowledge that people seem conscious to me, but I shouldn’t be too quick to accept this impression. Maybe I’m really living in a simulation, and othere people are part of the simulation.

Or maybe it’s only my memories that exist, and the actual experience never took place. Or maybe I’m only now experiencing the sensation of recalling apparent memories of having met a person — but neither the experience nor the memories really exist. Well, you see the problem.


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