An Age-Old Question: Searching History’s Archives
As I searched history’s archives for information on what was the first time someone thought about these things and tried to understand what exactly is our existence and whether an exact copy of our “consciousness”, organic or digital, qualifies as being “us” or not…
…I was pleasantly surprised.
I initially thought these questions only came to the modern researchers I was mentioning, and that the first person to truly consider these ideas was Stanislaw Lem (author of Star Diaries, a Sci-Fi novel). On his novel, Lem first came up with these possible dire implications when his hero got hit by a meteorite and had to be refabricated by a machine on a nearby planet.
Was that copy still the hero?
However, I found out that these questions were bothering people back in 1775.
That’s right, people were still burning witches at the stake when this letter was sent:
I would be glad to know your Lordship’s opinion whether when my brain has lost its original structure, and when some hundred years after the same materials are fabricated so curiously as to become an intelligent being, whether, I say that being will be me; or, if, two or three such beings should be formed out of my brain; whether they will all be me, and consequently one and the same intelligent being.
— Thomas Reid letter to Lord Kames, 1775
Granted, the wording may not be the clearest but have in mind this was in different times when Philosophers were known to overcomplicate things. However, it’s clear Thomas Reid was debating Lord Kames on the implications of copying, restructuring or refabricating a person.
To think people were thinking about the implications for things we still cannot do since 1775 is mindbogglingly interesting.
To finish this story in an even more provocative note, consider our body’s cells are always replicating and refabricating themselves, are we still the same person we were at the beginning? Are we constantly dying and replacing portions of ourselves?
Finally, we go to sleep every night… what guarantees we are the same every morning and not just a fresh version of ourselves.
While these two questions are fairly easy to rationalize, they contribute to the argument on what composes our identity.
Is it mere memories?
Then what happens to people with Amnesia? Are they husks of a new person, their previous self dead?
Is it more than memories? What more?
What exactly is that defines “ME”?