Let us begin with a thought experiment. Take an arbitrary young man at random from the population, let’s say his name is Jeff. Now lets clone Jeff four times (assuming technology exists which allows us to perfectly replicate him) in such a way that these four doppelgangers are not only perfect copies of him, but they have his exact same brain, atom for atom. This means that our clones aren’t simply identical genetically but they also have his exact same memories and modalities of thought. What then do we have? Five “Jeffs”, or one Jeff split into five bodies?
Technically, given that these copies of Jeff are so exact they would all come to the same conclusions,if presented with the same scenario, each would individually carry out the same action simultaneously. However, what if the five total Jeffs were each placed in different environments and subjected to different circumstances? We as observers would have the capacity to differentiate between each Jeff given that they are all doing different things. But does that mean that each Jeff then would no longer be Jeff in the sense of Jeff? That is to say just because we could discriminate between them, would that fundamentally define them each as inherently different beings?
The real question at the heart of this question is one of memory and identity. How much of a role does memory play in defining us? Does it define us, or do our decisions define us? We can only make decisions based on circumstance, so are our identities really just a function of circumstance? Well to some degree it is clear that the answer is a little smattering of everything, our identities do depend on circumstance, are tied to the decisions we make and how we arrive at them, as well as the memories we carry. But lets push the boundaries further.
Pretend now there are only two Jeffs, each in a padded cell which prevents them from seeing outside. There is nothing in the room save the two of them and the identical clothes they wear. If both of them are indeed biologically identical then very interesting things are bound to occur. If the two begin facing each other then they likely would respond as if seeing one another in a mirror, whatever one tried to do, the other would immediately do forever and ever amen. But if they were standing perpendicular to each other at the start then each Jeff would have a different initial perspective of reality. One would see his brother in front of him, the other would see his brother to the side, given that all things are equal except their starting positions, it becomes a bit unclear what happens next. They would both obviously know they weren’t the same being, or would they? Would the fact that they had two different perspectives be enough for them to wrench apart separate identities and actions from one another? I don’t know, and that’s really scary to think about.
At least from a mathematical perspective the answer would be yes, the two Jeffs would not be trapped in an endless cycle of mirroring the same actions forever, the theory I’m invoking is Chaos Theory. I don’t know if it is applicable within this context but all in all it suggests that if all things are equal with the exception of starting conditions, an observer can expect to see drastically different patterns of behavior between two or more compared objects. If such a theory is applicable in this context, then it is clear, given sufficient time, each Jeff would exhibit behavior distinct from the other. Does that however imply that each Jeff would then each have a distinct identity, or rather a “Jeff identity relative to that context?” Still Jeff fundamentally, for if you swapped the position of each respective Jeff then you would observe the opposite Jeff carrying out the actions of the former Jeff? All very mind boggling, but absolutely sexy to say it modestly.
Enough of this Jeff business I hear you say, and I agree, we have thoroughly worn out his name so for the remainder of this discourse I will do my best to abstain from using the name Jeff not counting this sentence. So let’s shift gears slightly and ask a different question. What if you had a young woman named Lisa and again, (you are an evil genius if I didn’t mention this before so that means you can use science to do anything) you find a way to transform her completely and totally into say, Albert Einstein “in his prime.”
Well we sure as hell just shook things up didn’t we? A whole host of questions and implications stem from this thought experiment. Did we just “resurrect” Albert Einstein? What does it mean to be dead? Those are important questions but are outside the scope of this particular reflection. Let’s focus on how we define a particular human being and their identity. If we transform Lisa into Albert Einstein then what happened to Lisa? Is Lisa’s identity defined as “The girl who was transformed into Albert Einstein”? Or is Lisa still Lisa but her identity simply leaves existence the moment she is transformed?
In a limited sense Lisa isn’t really gone in either scenario though because she is remembered by the people who know her. Lisa’s identity is preserved in the sense that the person remembering her, remembers her by. And what of Albert? He could in theory visit his grave, what the heck is going on there? Are we dealing with a false Albert? But how could he be? Lisa is now atomically identical to Albert. Speculations abound in this corner of our problem…
I have one more quandary for you. What happens if Lisa’s brain is transformed into Albert’s brain? What are the implications of the identity? Do we have Albert residing in the body of Lisa? What role does the physical body play in our metaphysical identity?
Well, here I can only speculate…it seems as if we can only talk of Albert Einstein in terms of the entirety of Albert Einstein. This means that we cannot divorce his consciousness from his body because Albert Einstein is defined as “Albert Einstein” because he is the mind plus body. Lisa, while possessing the consciousness of Einstein would not have his body therefore relegating her to being a facsimile, of America’s favorite physicist. But this leaves us with a loose end. In this scenario, Lisa cannot be Lisa according to the axioms I have provided, for the vessel of Lisa lacks Lisa’s conscious mind (for the time being her body still holds Albert’s mind.) The final implications are that we either have an entity with no identity, or an entity that posses an identity that is the summation of two parts, taken from distinct beings.
These are some of the thoughts that keep me up at night.