Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Are You Here Or Are You There?

I first came across this analogy about 3 years ago while studying the internet for nano-technology and its possible applications for storing a human mind in a computer. Life extension was the purpose of the website, which I have since lost, however, they gave this clear, and, and for me, unforgettable, scenario about who and where we are with regard to the mind.

Imagine yourself in a locked room, you are sat in one corner on a chair, in the opposite corner is a refrigerator and on top of the refrigerator is a super- computer.

Your legs are removed, cut from your body (no pain no blood, this is imaginary) and they are placed in the refrigerator. A voice speaks out and ask you "Where are you?"

Naturally you will answer that you are still on the chair in the corner.

Next your body is removed from the neck down and placed in the refrigerator, your head sits on the chair. Again a voice asks "Where are you?" and again your answer is the same as before "I am here on the chair in the corner."

Next step, your brain is removed from your head and placed on the chair, your head is also placed in the refrigerator along with the rest of your body and once more a voice asks "Where are you now?"

Yes you guessed, you are still on the chair in the corner. You are the same person, with the same thoughts and the same emotions, the only thing that is different is that you do not have any sensory input into your brain, but apart from that you still exist, you know who you are and where you are.

Now, can we take that part which is you out of that brain and transfer it to the super-computer sitting on top of the refrigerator? If if were possible then we could put your brain in the refrigerator along with the rest of your physical body. Your body is dead but you are not.

This is where the idea begins to get complicated. You are the sum of your lifelong experiences - memories - because everything that is happening now, this split second is not yet a memory, but everything that has happened before this split second is a memory, which can be mapped and sent to the super-computer and stored on its hard drives. So we conclude this process of mapping your memories and sending them to the super-computer and again we ask "Where are you now?"

Well of course you are still in the brain on the chair in the corner - YOU are not in the super-computer, every thing about you is in the super-computer, every memory, every experience, but you are not there. So it seems we need to make one final step to get YOU out of that brain and into the super-computer.

Woah, this is where it all fails - the mind - where is it? We know it resides in the brain. The brain is part of the body, and physically at least, the brain needs the body to function, however the mind does NOT necessarily need the body to function. Steven Hawking is a fantastic example of a great mind that is alive in a mostly useless body. But if we destroy the brain the mind will cease to exist, can we say therefore that YOU, that free thinking part of you, is MORE than just the sum of your memories - even if we cloned your brain, and fed the new cloned brain all your experiences and memories and asked you once again "Where are you?" you would still be exactly where you are now, even if the cloned brain thought, acted, behaved just like you do, it would not be you.

So where does all this lead us? Not to god, neither to religion, all though many people will invoke gods and deities and magic and fantasies to explain all this, the simple and chilling answer at our moment in time is that we simply do not yet know.

The human body is certainly a marvel of biology, and its capabilities which we witness everyday in sports, dance, music, artistic achievements, etc. are truly amazing, yet it is the mind that drives the body and makes all this possible.

Science will one day understand the mind, it will not happen in the next few years though, it may take centuries - but the day will come when it may be possible to send the mind to a super-computer where it might be stored until a replacement body becomes available - perhaps some people might be happy just being a mind stored on a super-computer, the techy geeks amongst us might find that idea in itself satisfying... but is this life after death? No it is not. The body might be dead as demonstrated above, but the body is not you (it is part of you but it is not you). As long as your mind exists, you are alive.

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