Reconstituted People

I have a friend.

Or maybe, I had a friend.

English tenses are not really up to the job of describing the situation, because right now it’s pretty much a judgment call whether or not my friend actually exists.

This is the thing. He’s dead right now.

But he’s frozen, and after some time, when they figure out how to fix the disease that killed him and they figure out how to thaw people out and revive them, they’re going to thaw him out and revive him and fix the disease. At least that’s his plan. So he’s dead, but he hopes (or, maybe I should say hoped, depending on whether or not he still exists) he’ll get better. I’d send him a get well soon card, but obviously if he can ever read it he’ll have already gotten well.

This is a guy I have interacted with, occasionally, for over 30 years. I think when we first met, the sort of people who use phrases like “incompletely socialized” might have been talking about either of us when they did. But we both got over that, at least enough to learn to value other people and form long-term stable relationships that have helped to keep us sane. Our politics have diverged, to put it mildly, but over the years our mutual respect remained.

And now, a relentless, incurable, 100% lethal disease has intervened, and for the time being at least, he’s dead. Damnit.

A lot of the people who knew him are firm believers in this cryonics stuff and they expect that he will be back and get up and walk among them again. That’s not exactly what I expect. See, I think that version one of him is dead. And I mean dead. Gone, never to be seen again. And I expect that one day, probably, we may see version two of him – the reconstituted version.

I expect that version two will not be the same person as version one. I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt, but I expect that there’ll be a hell of a lot of shared communication and work that version two doesn’t remember, exactly because his part in it was never recorded where anybody else would have access to it. I’ll have to get to know version two without prejudice, as his own person who does not share that history. Which will be weird, because he will look and sound like version one and will remember other parts of shared history.

Here’s why I expect that. When someone has smoked a cigarette, you have a haze of smoke in the room. There isn’t enough information in the smoke to go back and reconstruct the tobacco in the cigarette. Entropy happens, and it destroys information. Entropy’s mean that way. I mean, you can tell there was tobacco in there, you can put tobacco in a new cigarette that provably could have resulted in the observed smoke, but it’s not very likely to actually be the same arrangement of tobacco that was in the original cigarette.

In the same way, I think the process of dying and having your brain frozen by the best available means probably still destroys rather a lot of information. And the process of getting thawed out and revived, unless something pretty surprising happens, is likely to destroy at least a little bit more. And you can’t directly restore information that just plain isn’t there.

So, assume you’re a twenty-second century doctor and you’re looking at this case of a frozen sleeper who’s going to be a hopeless moron with maybe a few tiny scraps of memory, because of all the missing information in his brain if you just restore the biological function. And you know – absolutely know – that that information is just plain gone, and that no twenty-third or twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth century tech is going to recover it. What do you do?

Well, the thing is you can infer a lot of it. You know when and where he grew up. You have a lot of what he wrote. You have things that were written about him. You have recordings of him. You have video. You have code he wrote. You have his FBI file. And the list goes on. You can infer a pretty darn complete picture of the memories you can’t recover, and the personality, and the thought process, and the skill set, etc, and you pretty much owe it to your patient not to leave any gaps in his mind if you can avoid it, right?

So the medical professional sets about making sure that the neurons and synapses they can see have their lost information restored in such a way that all these inferred memories and skills and so forth are recovered, as part of the resuscitation process, right?

And then who, exactly, is it that wakes up? It’s version two. It’s this guy who won’t remember the stuff we did and never told anyone else about. It’s this guy who won’t remember the shared keys to the messages we sent each other, nor in fact that the messages exist or where to find them. This … reconstituted …. version of my friend.

I don’t know… we had drifted pretty far apart for a decade or so as he drifted further to the radical right, and hadn’t talked for over a year when I heard about his illness. When I think interacting with version two of him would be hard, I guess I’m thinking of a level of friendship we hadn’t really had, as a practical matter, for a long time. But no matter how you slice it, interacting with version two of him, if there’s ever a period when we’re both above ground at the same time, is going to be weird.

And interacting with all the people who suppose he’s fully the same person as version one, regardless of his memory being more-or-less limited to the recorded material the resuscitation research team could recover, is going to be very very tedious. They’ll hold to that idea with religious faith and I will have to be very careful to avoid challenging them or pointlessly inflaming them to anger by bluntly telling them the truth, exactly the way I treat fundamentalists. On such processes as cryonics and uploading hang their own temporal claims on immortality, and their ability to see these things as continuation rather than reproduction is crucial to warding off their fear of death.

But the fact is that when you’re starting with as much recorded information as I expect the resuscitation team is going to need, and filling it in with as much extrapolation as I expect their systems are going to do, it probably really didn’t matter whose brain you started with. You could do the same process to a convicted criminal’s brain instead of executing him, changing existing information instead of changing absent or unrecoverable information, and he’d wake up as version two of my friend, curing the lethal disease just by being in a body that doesn’t have it. Would the faithful still insist that it’s the same person, if the original body and brain hasn’t even been thawed out yet?

Would they be happy to throw that still-frozen body and brain away?

3 thoughts on “Reconstituted People

  1. practicaldreamer

    ‘I am just a dreamer, you are just a dream’ – Neil Young, Like a Hurricaine.
    I’m not 100% sure that I haven’t personally invented all my friends and loved ones Ray.
    Likewise, who really knows practicaldreamer.
    This is why we have God(s)..

    Anyhow, loads of interesting stuff on your site. Keep it coming buddy.

    All the best.

  2. practicaldreamer

    Just one more thing, as I’ve been thinking about this on and off. I was thinking that ‘identity’ is fluid – so I googled it (‘identity as fluid’). It turns out that Michel Foucault seems pretty much to say what I was thinking:-

    ” We often talk about people as if they have particular attributes as ‘things’ inside themselves — they have an identity, for example, and we believe that at the heart of a person there is a fixed and true identity or character (even if we’re not sure that we know quite what that is, for a particular person). We assume that people have an inner essence — qualities beneath the surface which determine who that person really ‘is’.

    Foucault rejected this view. For Foucault, people do not have a ‘real’ identity within themselves; that’s just a way of talking about the self — a discourse. An ‘identity’ is communicated to others in your interactions with them, but this is not a fixed thing within a person. It is a shifting, temporary construction. ”

    We latch on to certain aspects of an identity at any one given point in time. Maybe we understand these aspects. We disregard others (that maybe we don’t understand so readily, or that we don’t wish to acknowledge).
    Its not to say that our we are viewing whats not there – its just that our construct can never be the whole picture.
    I suppose the interesting thing would be to understand how we each pick out these ‘aspects’ in others – and how we paint our particular picture.

    With regards people believing or not believing in the reconstituted personality. I suppose ultimately it depends on a) the nature of the reconstituted personality (mythological ?) and b) does it fulfil a need in the individual doing the believing ?

    Can’t help but think of the star system in Hollywood. What semblance to the real Rock Hudson (for eg) does the Hollywood movie studio constituted Rock Hudson hold ?
    Does anyone care ?
    Hollywood didn’t – they created the persona cos it sold to the masses.
    Did the masses care that it was someone elses construct that they were adoring ?

    All comes around to the will to believe – and I believe that your very own William James had something to say about that.

    Anyhow – don’t know if I’m going off topic or not – but I hope there is some link to article !!

  3. bear Post author

    I think Focault was right about identity being fluid. I am not, exactly, the same person I was seven years ago. I think of myself as the same person because there has been continuity. But in the case of the person I had in mind when I wrote this article, his continuity is interrupted, as all are, by death. What continues beyond, if anything, may have as much claim to being him as I have to being who I was seven years ago. But I’m a big believer in continuity. And what’s lost of his memory and identity, if I anticipate correctly, will be things that the usual passage of time and interaction with the world would not have taken away. The process of change in this case seems profoundly different, and at least to me it seems that identity is interrupted.

    At any rate; version two. A different person. A different person who is whole in himself, even if he is not the same as version one. A person who is as deserving of respect and collaboration as version one. It would be far too easy to dismiss or disrespect or even resent him for being a ‘fake’ version of my friend, when whatever his origins and whatever he doesn’t remember that version one would have, he is a real, living and capable person in his own right.

    As I say, if a moment ever comes when we’re both above ground at the same time, treating him fairly is going to be weird.

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