RE: Belief Statements

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Thu, 13 Jan 2005 17:02:51 -0800 (PST)

Stathis Papaioannou writes:
> Here is another irrational belief I hold, while I'm confessing. I am
> absolutely convinced that continuity of personal identity is a kind of
> illusion. If I were to be painlessly killed every second and immediately
> replaced by an exact copy, with all my memories, beliefs about being me,
> etc., I would have no way of knowing that this was happening, and indeed I
> believe that in a sense this IS happening, every moment of my life. Now,
> suppose I am offered the following deal. In exchange for $1 million
> deposited in my bank account, tonight I will be killed with a sharp axe in
> my sleep, and in the morning a stranger will wake up in my bed who has been
> brainwashed and implanted with all my memories at my last conscious moment.
> This stranger will also have had plastic surgery so that he looks like me,
> and he will then live life as me, among other things spending the $1 million
> which is now in my bank account.

That's an interesting thought experiment. I think the problem is that
given human psychology, any such brainwashing is almost certain to be
superficial and not to duplicate the deep mental structures which are
part of our identity. The guy who wakes up in bed is still going to be
a stranger, who merely resembles you in some ways.

If we imagine instead that we are living voluntarily as members of a
computer simulation ("uploads"), then it would be possible to actually
have the stranger's mind be an exact copy of your own. However, in
that case the copy would be so exact that there really isn't any sense
in which you have been replaced by a stranger. The "stranger" would
really be you, if he had the exact same mind and body as represented
in the computer simulation.

You could arbitrarily induce various levels of change in the copied
mind, so that you would have a continuum from an exact copy, to one with
some exceedingly small changes, to one which would be about as good as
a brainwashed human being, to some that would be entirely different.
Then I'm not sure what the sensible approach is as far as how much money
to demand in exchange for such an alteration.

After all, the money doesn't spring into existence, it is transferred
from one person to another. From the larger perspective, why should
you care about helping one human being over another? Once you start to
think of the person waking up in bed as an arbitrary human being, who
might or might not happen to resemble you, it becomes harder to adopt
the identity-centric viewpoint where you only root for the one guy who is

If you think of identity as an illusion, as many of these thought
experiments seem to suggest, all we can fall back on is a universal
altruism, where our goal is to maximize the total happiness of conscious
entities. Such a goal is largely immune to these paradoxes, although
it does have some problems of its own.

Hal Finney
Received on Thu Jan 13 2005 - 19:50:08 PST

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