Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cryogenic Paradox

The paradox I’m about to explain is one that has been literally keeping me awake at night of late. This was never intended to be a philosophy blog, but then it was never intended to be a travel blog originally either, so I’m giving up on defining what the hell my blog is about and just going with it. If difficult philosophical problems aren’t your thing, you are hereby excused. If , on the other hand, you’re game for a genuine mind-bender, read on. A warning in advance though. The stuff I’m dealing with here lies in that tricky territory of the extremely-difficult-to-talk-about-in-ordinary-language, and I’ve discovered through trying to talk friends through the problem, that the whole paradox just eludes some people, like a sort of colour-blindness. I’m reminded of the Simpson’s episode where Lisa asks Bart whether a tree that falls in the forest when no-one is there to hear it makes a sound, and Bart replies in a snap: “That’s easy! Yes!” I insist that if this doesn’t bend your mind, if the answer seems “easy”, then you’re Bart. But we could argue that one forever... Anyway, to proceed...

The so-called ‘problem of consciousness’ is one that has fascinated and preoccupied me since I was young. As a child I always felt there was something deeply problematic about the division between sentient and insentient matter. How does a brain - an assemblage of mindless atoms - become, merely through the complexity of its assembly, aware? I felt there had to be a missing ingredient, and when I was about sixteen I decided that all matter had to have some form of rudimentary consciousness, which the brain merely marshalled into the patterns and arrangements we know as thought. Otherwise, how does the brain bridge this magic gap? I simply couldn’t accept the ‘epiphenomenon’ position - that consciousness is a secondary, irrelevant froth arising as a side-effect in the brain. Surely that position puts the cart before the horse in the most egregious fashion. Likewise the ‘emergent properties’ argument, which argues that in complex systems ‘higher order’ properties may arise that transcend the properties of the parts. I can accept that the whole may have different properties from the parts, for example a bunch of heart cells takes on the emergent property of being able to pump blood when organised as a whole organ. But this type of emergent property is of an entirely different order from consciousness, which seems to involve a leap into something that is not in any way implied in the properties of the parts. Pumping blood can be seen to be a natural outcome of the arrangement of physical components with normal physical properties, such as elasticity, shape and so on - the raw elements of ‘pumping’ can be seen to be there - but awareness does not seem to be implied in the properties of the parts at all.

The paradox I’m about to elaborate deals is related to this problem, and I think gets to the crux of the issue. Before I launch into the paradox itself, however, I need to make some preliminary remarks to head off a critical misunderstanding. When I studied philosophy 101 many years ago, we were presented with a so-called problem involving two ships - let’s call one the Pierz and the other the Pedro. Gradually, planks are removed from the hull of the Pierz and attached to the Pedro and vice versa. The question is, at what point does the Pierz turn into the Pedro and the other way round? The answer of course is who gives a damn? It’s all pure semantics, a matter of how you choose to define your terms. The Cryogenic Paradox, and the related thought experiments I’m about to explain, on the surface may seem to resemble a ‘dilemma’ of this sort. However, for reasons I hope to make clear, to reduce the problem to semantics is to miss the point entirely.

OK, so here’s the Cryogenic Paradox in a nutshell. You may be aware that there were once - perhaps there still are - companies that offered people a service whereby, for a handsome sum, their bodies after death would be preserved in perpetuity in liquid nitrogen in the hope that at one time in the future, science would be able to resurrect them. Disregarding scandals whereby paying customers were found to have been allowed to defrost rather disgustingly in their time capsules, let us imagine that one day, such a resurrection becomes possible, and these people are brought back. The question is: is the consciousness of the reawakened person the same consciousness as that of the person before they died? By the same consciousness, I mean are the new experiences happening to the same locus of awareness? The question seems almost banal at first glance. The frozen brain can be likened to a computer that has been powered down for a century and has now been rebooted. Of course it must be the same consciousness, right? Certainly if the resuscitation technology is good enough, and the person has all their former memories, they will believe themselves to be this person and will be delighted that their investment has paid off. I have to agree that it seems untenable to assert that this is a new person who merely has your old memories and personality wired in. What would such an assertion even mean?

To start to get at why there is a paradox here, consider four people (excuse my toilet door characters):

I can define a bunch of properties for these people. John is tall. Jenny is a social worker. Pierz likes to swing dance. Luke is a movie buff. Etcetera. These are objective properties. You could also define subjective properties relating to their identity - John considers himself a bit of a bad boy, Jenny remembers holidays at the beach, and so on. But Pierz, for me, has one special property. He is me. He has the unique (for me) property of being the locus of my subjective awareness. This does not make Pierz objectively unique, since everybody on the list is also me for somebody (themselves), but it does make Pierz unique for me, and in a most compelling way! All the others on the list are different and have the property of being ‘not me’.

Now to get at the significance of this me-ness and its difference from any question of identity, let us imagine that tomorrow I have a car accident and suffer a terrible brain injury that wipes out all my memories and causes a personality change for the desperately worse. I commit some horrible crimes and am sent to prison. Now the person who will commit these crimes is not really me, in an identity sense. They don’t have my personality, they don’t have my memories, they never recalling having been this Pierz character at all. It’s as if all the planks on the good ship Pierz had been removed and replaced with nasty Pedro planks. And yet if I’m told about this future, I will still be afraid of those prison experiences that lie in wait, because this new Pedro-Pierz will still have that mysterious property of somehow being me. Or at least we presume he will. We presume that, because the brain and body are continuous with the pre-damaged brain and body, the ‘being-me-ness’ is not going to change.

Now let’s return to the Cryogenic Paradox. Because the brain is the same brain, and the memories are preserved, the customer who buys his place in the cryogenic freezer assumes that the person who wakes up in a brave new world will also have this same quality of ‘being him’ and not ‘being somebody else’. But what if he’s wrong? Isn’t it possible to imagine all the aspects of your identity transplanted into some new body that is in all ways identical to you but that somehow is missing that crucial property of happening to ‘be me’. Mightn’t you, in spending a lot of money on your frozen future, be buying a life for someone who will have your memories, your identity, but sadly be lacking that final magic ingredient which is required to make this a bona fide resurrection - the property of happening to be the locus of your subjective awareness?

If you’re still stuck on the idea that the memories and so on of your former existence guarantee the same subjectivity, let’s vary the thought experiment and imagine that the procedure was imperfectly carried out and you lost your memories in the reanimation process (using ‘you’ as a pronoun of convenience here!). Your whole brain is wiped terrifyingly blank and you’re reduced to the tabula rasa of a newborn baby. If you knew before being frozen that this was going to happen to you, would you be afraid? Or would you dismiss it as easily as you might dismiss such a misfortune in a stranger - someone who happens not to possess that unique attribute of ‘being you’? I think you’d probably be scared at least of the possibility that you might have to be the one to go through this horrible erasure.

This is because of the brain, the physical organ, being the same. But is the brain the carrier of the connection between this body, this awareness, and the fact of it’s also being your awareness in particular? You’d think it has to. And yet how can the brain, as a frozen chunk of ice and protein with no activity, preserve the continuity of this ‘being-you-ness’ apart from via your memories? Where on earth does this fucking being-you-ness reside for chrissakes anyway? How does my I-ness continue to ‘stick’ to a dead brain? Surely it can’t.

A related paradox is what I’ll call the Duplication Paradox. In this, a complete map of your brain is copied into a computer and then all the neural networks are painstakingly reconstructed long after your death in a new human. Again, this person believes that they are you, because they remember your family holidays, remember your friends, your life, your decision to undergo the brain copying procedure. But does this duplicated person really have the quality of ‘being you’, or are they just some other person in the future with your memories? If you know some horrid fate is in store for them, will you be afraid?

It’s hard to see how you can say that this person isn’t you, from an identity sense, since identity is only information, and they have all the information that comprises your identity. But are they you in the vital other sense? Imagine the duplication occurs again, so there are now two yous. Surely both can’t simultaneously possess the quality of ‘being you’ can they?

Note that if we ignore the whole issue of ‘being you’, there is no paradox here above the jejune level of the ship dilemma. Without this mysterious property of you-ness, you can simply dismiss the problem as a question of semantics. Who cares whether it’s ‘really’ the same person? Like the two ships Pierz and Pedro, the question of whether the copied consciousness is ‘really’ the same person can be dismissed as a matter of mere definitions. But if it’s you being frozen or duplicated, then the question becomes vitally concerning: what am I going to experience in the future?

But let’s try and define what we really mean here by saying that this person (Pierz) has the property of being me and this person (John) doesn’t. Obviously, if I imagine myself into John’s consciousness, I will find that he has the property of ‘being me’ too, once ‘I’ am inside him, so to speak! So once I stop viewing people objectively, but start viewing them from inside, from their own viewpoints, then I discover that, lo and behold, all of them are ‘me’. I can’t, once I (some meta-I that is capable of flying between heads) experience their viewpoint, actually distinguish between their ‘being me-ness’ and my ‘being-me-ness’. To determine if the amnesic subject post cryogenic resuscitation is ‘really me’, I would need to identify some marker, some point of difference between various subjects’ experiences of being a subject. Not differences in identity or quality of consciousness - these are easy to find - but differences in the essential quality of being a me (language here is a completely inadequate tool). But there is no such marker and can be no such marker. Whatever differences exist between the experience of being Pierz and the experience of being John belong to the contents of consciousness, belong to the identity, and not to the attribute of ‘being me’, which has no other qualities than exactly that.

To illustrate further, let us return to the accident scenario, where I lose my memories and my personality changes radically. Now before this happens, as I sit and imagine this future person, much as I might sit and imagine the future duplicated self, or the unfrozen self, I am trying to determine if their me-ness is the same as my me-ness. Are ‘we’ a continuous self, or is this some other person, whose experiences I therefore won’t have to go through. But if I imagine myself into his ‘me’ (and I know he will have a ‘me’), although I can see that his identity, his thoughts and memories have little in common with mine, there is no way, even in principle, to determine if this me-ness is continuous with, or the same as, mine.

In fact, whatever head I imagine myself inside, I can never determine if it is the same or a different me, self or other, and so the question of who the defrosted person is, me or somebody else, appears absurd, unanswerable, meaningless or unknowable. What the above considerations amount to is a reductio ad absurdum of the whole notion of I-ness, or of individual ‘I’s. And at the same time, our very real fear of death, our very real awareness that we have a future self, different to other selves that aren’t us, tells us we can’t simply dismiss I-ness. Nothing is more palpably real - I think therefore I am. Indeed reality can’t be imagined without a subject, and quantum physics tells us that the universe can’t even decide its state without one, but remains suspended between all the possible states it might be in.

All this relates vitally to the whole notion of personal death - or rather, of annihilation. Death we can define as the body or the brain’s death. Annihilation is the death of the subject. Annihilation or becoming-nothing is what we really fear, much more than physical death or death of the identity. We could cope with losing our ‘selves’, our identities, if we knew our deeper ‘I’ would continue, as in, say, reincarnation. Annihilation is what we are generally promised by science and the physical model of consciousness. Brain death = subject death, end of story. But for the notion of annihilation to make any sense, there has to be a subject, over and above the identity. You clearly can’t annihilate something that does not exist. And yet the Cryogenic Paradox reveals how deeply problematic such a subject is.

So what’s the solution?

Obviously if I knew, and could prove it in some kind of undeniable formalism like a maths proof, I’d have solved what is probably the deepest philosophical conundrum there is. But I’m going to look at some possible approaches, and put forward a solution that I’ll admit is speculative, and sounds radical, but to me is the most elegant and appealing.

First of all, there’s a possible philosophical objection that needs to be addressed. When we make statements about the properties of things, including people, we are making assertions about so-called ‘objective facts’. Even if such facts are relative, such as an object’s colour (in what light? etc) or when an event occurs (it depends on the observer’s motion, as we know from relativity), we can still relate these facts back to a single universal framework. We can resolve the relativity, and in fact have to, if the statement is to be meaningful. The problem is that I-ness is not such a property. As we have noted, objectively, everyone has a sense of I-ness, everyone is both a me and a not-me. So when we try to establish whether this property of I-ness holds for some particular subject other than the person we know to be ourselves, we are trying to apply a subjective category in an objective way. Therefore, like asking what was going on one minute before the Big Bang, the question is unanswerable because its premises are false.

This is probably the ‘philosophically correct’ rebuttal of the paradox, allowing philosophers to sleep again at night, at least until they get to thinking about their own death. I accept that the Cryogenic Paradox is based on a confusion of subjective and objective statements. However, this does not neutralize the potency of the problem, because we are still frightened by death, we still believe in annihilation, and the objective meaningless of self does nothing to assuage this. We are still left with an unbridgeable gulf in our paradigm between subject and object. Indeed, this so-called resolution merely hides the problem inside the problematic assumptions of objective logic. Of course the problem makes no sense objectively, but precisely that is the problem itself. What this rebuttal effectively says is that there’s no way to resolve the problem of the subject, so stop worrying about it.

In fact, we know from science that objective logic is flawed. Physicists have had to formulate a new logic to take into account quantum physics, with its intimate implication of the observer, because it turns out that the paradoxes of quantum physics can’t be resolved by objective logic — rather it’s objective logic that has to give way to quantum physics.

The classic example is the paradox that Einstein choked on. This article is already way too long for a blog post, so I’m going to summarize this in the most brutal way, and leave you to wiki Bell’s Theorem if you’re interested. Basically, the problem occurs when two particles are synchronized so that they have opposed spins, then separated by a large distance. One of the particle’s spin is then measured. We then can deduce the other particle’s spin, because we know it to be the opposite. So what? you think. It’s like having a white and a black chess piece in two hands - once the colour of one is revealed, you know the colour of the other. But the problem is that quantum physics tells us that until the particle’s spin is measured, it exists in a state of both spins simultaneously, only resolving to one or the other state when actually observed. So how does the other particle ‘know’ which spin to assume when its brother is measured a thousand miles away? Einstein came up with the thought experiment to prove something had to be missing from quantum physics, but he was wrong. Something was missing from objective logic.

OK, so let’s take a look at our toilet door for polygender groups again.

Now, with the ‘me’ bubbles, we have a representation of what is essentially our conventional view, once we accept that me-ness is real. In fact to avoid the confusion between identity and subject, let’s remove the word ‘me’ and replace it with the word ‘observer’:

Everybody has their own observer which is different from everybody else’s observer in some indefinable way that is not merely a matter of semantics, but ‘just is’. The indefinable difference of ‘my’ observer is what distinguishes me from others and what creates the continuity between my future, present and past selves. We assume the me-ness is somehow held together by the physical brain, so when someone dies:

And then when Luke is cryogenically restored:

Are you seeing the issue here? The observer’s are identical but we’re still asking if the observer that returns is the same as the one that ‘popped’.

Or let’s swap Pierz and Luke’s observers without swapping their identities:

Notice the difference? Me neither.

There is a philosophical principle called the ‘Identity of Indiscernibles’, which applies particularly in the area of the Philosophy of Science (my major, many years ago). It states that two entities with identical properties must be the same entity. Whether the principle holds or not is still moot. There’s a thought experiment known as ‘Black’s balls’ (not chocolate or salty, pace South Park) which purports to show otherwise, though then there are counter arguments and in the end, the boxers are still in their corners, sweating at the futility of it all. You can read more about it at the above link, but I warn you, it’s for real philosophers, not exactly thrilling. In the end, one starts to suspect that the problem is, like the Pierz and the Pedro, a matter of how you define things.

But let’s run with it and see what we get. If all the observers are identical, then perhaps they are all one. Perhaps there is only one observer. Of course, the observers are different in what they observe, including the self or identity through which they make their observations. So if we’re to speak of a single observer, it’s a kind of super-observer that can’t itself be observed (of course not, for that would entail a different observer, and we know there is only one). It changes our toilet door to look like this:

The difference then between identities or subjects does not lie in there being a different observer, but one observer with different perspectives.

This observer is constant and never dies, can’t be annihilated. Doorways of observation, though, perspectives, may come and go.

This resolves the Cryogenic Paradox. Both the man in the bed with no memories, and all the computer duplicates, plus Pedro, Luke, John, Pierz and Aunt Nellie’s ugly cat with the bung eye are all you. But only if you let go of the notion of identity and self, only from this super-perspective, this view of the über-observer, the Ur-observer.

It also resolves the mystery of Bell’s Theorem. If there is only one observer, then it’s no mystery that an observation in one place can affect an observation in another. There is only one observer, one observation, the two are not separate. Only the illusion of separated observers creates the appearance of a paradox here.

Imagine a form of reincarnation where you can be reincarnated in parallel as well as in sequence, so your ‘next’ life might be as your own brother or best friend. Then what’s to stop you being reincarnated as everybody everywhere everywhen? Of course that is the wildest conjecture, but in a sense, something like that is implied. If all subjects deep down spring from the same observer, then, well fuck me, but that’s the best reason I ever heard to be nice to one another! You might have to be that person you’re doing over one day. You are that person. Right there is the ultimate wellspring of moral action. If we knew this, really knew it, wouldn’t we very quickly create the most optimised society we could, one that would also take care not only of all people equally but of all the voiceless subjects out there too, the animals and, who knows, the plants too?

As long as we think we’re in silos, and I don’t care, those silos include the soul too as far as I’m concerned, just another deeper way of separating ‘me’ from all those ‘others’, as long as we credit this insupportable separation, then we’re screwed by a fundamental error that makes us believe we can profit at another’s expense.

There is a mystery though here still (well, there are many mysteries, such as what the hell this observer is, and so on, though that’s outside the scope), which is a mystery similar to the problem of time, how there appears to be a current moment, though there is nothing in all the laws of physics that refers to such a moment or indeed to the apparent ‘arrow of time’ which gives time its direction. Why the illusion of separation? Why the division into so many points of observation, multiple keyholes? I suspect that the question 'why?' is not a good one once one gets to this kind of meta-perspective level. At bottom there is always a mystery.


dnn8350 said...

Interesting blog. Your solution to the problem of observation has many similarities (as I'm sure you're aware) to the basic position of "eastern" philosophies such as Buddhism. Indeed, similar assumptions about the equivalence of "observer moments" are (at least) implicit in many physical theories, such as the many-worlds and many minds formulations. The trouble is, as you imply, that if we take seriously the notion (as, I'm told, most physicists do) that all physical state of affairs are, in effect, co-existent (the "block universe") there seems to be no rationale for "me" to be "here, now", let alone for there to be any "passage" of time. Do we need to postulate, in addition to the "objective" existence of the physical situation, some singular random process of selection of subjective observer moments (i.e. each representing a "point of view" of the system as a whole), in effect creating a species of Nietzschean recurrence of such moments? Curiously, this would seem to imply a kind of "generalised" solipsism, in the sense that, from the perspective of any given "present moment", I am definitively the only observer who is "here, now". But of course since this is true for every such moment, I also know that at "other times" I am destined to occupy the observer positions of every "other self". As you imply, this seems a good basis for a morality based on universal empathy.

Pierz Newton-John said...

Thanks for the thoughts dnn. I actually just finished reading a book called "The Physics of Consciousness" by Evan Harris Walker, which arrives at a very similar conclusion with regards to the "single observer" hypothesis. Walker uses the same idea to resolve the famous Schrödinger's cat problem.

Walker also notes that Wittgenstein argues there is no place for the concept of "I" in objective language, and makes the very same point I have that this seems to reflect a failure of Western rational philosophy to deal with consciousness. The apparent nonsense of Zen utterances points to this boundary where rational discourse founders.

I'm not sure about all of Walker's conclusions, but it's always comforting to find others thinking along the same lines. Personally I find the notion horrific of having to be every subject that is, was, or will be, and I'm not seriously arguing that - just that there must be a point at which consciousnesses converge. In this sense all "I"s must be unified.

dnn8350 said...

Ah yes, the horror, the horror. And yet, if not "you", then who, or what? But to ask that is to propel you right back into the paradoxes that troubled your sleep. I am likewise unwilling to contemplate some of the logical consequences of this kind of speculation (I was rather relying on the ultimate freedom of oblivion as my portion after death), but that in itself doesn't rule it out as a possibility.

There's a link on my blog (actually, the only link so far) to a long-standing and politely behaved discussion Google group called the Everything List on which there is frequent discussion from a variety of perspectives on this kind of topic, if the mood takes you.

dnn8350 said...


You may be interested in Matthew Donald's review of Evan Harris Walker's book (Donald is a leading "many minds" theorist):

Pierz Newton-John said...

Thanks for that. It seems like astute criticism. I was reading Walker with credulous open-mindedness (difficult to assume any other attitude when you aren't a mathematician and/or a physicist) until I got to one particular element of his theory relating to melanin in the brain, the purpose of which is unknown, and which Walker invokes as a mechanism to absorb radiation from the electrons he sees as "carrying" consciousness. Without the right amount of melanin, you'd be overwhelmed with a surfeit of thought. But then I thought: What about albinos?? Hmm, so much for that grand theory! But still definitely worth a read for the light it shines on QT, and especially Bell's Theorem, which you can actually grasp from his exposition if you take the time to read it VERY carefully.

I've just been reading your Everything List thread about "non-computability" of 1-p from 3-p (to use your terms). Does my head in reading the counter-arguments of the epiphenomenalists! Seems to me the difference between you and me is that you sensibly wait until the morning to trouble yourself with these paradoxes, whereas I stupidly try to tackle them *before* sleep!

RhythmAnarchy said...

I would like to invite you to review/comment/collaborate, on a screenplay that's in development.