What Am I?

The Experiment

Assume you can enter a machine and have a lifetime of pleasurable experiences. The catch is if you enter it, you enter for life and leave everything behind. This is Nozick’s Experience Machine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experience_machine)

Pretend all concerns are addressed. You won’t get bored, it will seem real, all your obligations will be addressed by a perfect robotic duplicate so no one will know you’re gone, it’s 100% reliable, and your memory will be erased once you enter, so you cannot pine for anything left behind.

Would you do it, and if not, why not?

Some say they would not do it because it’s not real. However this seems incoherent as they would not know it isn’t real; besides, how do we know our “reality” now is real? We may be in an experience machine right now. I therefore will simply leave that objection alone, especially since there’s a more interesting one.

Some say no because they don’t want to leave their lives, even if it means happiness. Trying to convince them that the memory wipe will take care of that, they react with even more vehemence, perhaps terror. Some might even claim the memory wipe would be tantamount to death! Why would anyone think this?

I think it’s because our survival instinct coupled with our self-image (which includes relationships, attitudes, etc…) leads us to confuse a radical psychological change with actual death. Put another way, many mistake their psychological attributes for themselves. This has important ramifications for our daily life.

The Pursuit of Happiness

As absurd as the Experience Machine experiment may seem, it drives home a lesson. We cling to things that bring us pain and may knowingly forgo happiness rather than let go of these things. Think of the things you (or someone you know) could let go of and be happier, like a bad relationship or world view. Think of how your search for happiness could change if you could let go of these things.

Many think life’s most fundamental drive is the pursuit of happiness, but as the above shows, this may be mistaken. Can this be a reason why so many people who seek happiness fail to find it? It would seem that happiness would require either a reconciliation with this “self” or an undermining of it entirely as a pre-requisite. Fortunately, we can do a great deal of undermining by simply trying to study this self.

Who or What are You

Some people say things like “I’m a different person” as a hyperbole. In reality, they are talking about a radically different personality change and not an actual one. Anyone who claims otherwise should be asked if they mind if this different person goes broke or dies. However, as metaphorical as that phrase is, at some point our mind pulls a bait and switch and treats these attributes as ourselves. So what is “me”?

To be “me”, something must remain static, otherwise I would not have existed at some point in “my” life, which is a contradiction. So using that as a metric, how do the usual suspects fare? My body has changed, so that can’t be me. My thoughts have changed, so that can’t be me. My values have changed, so that can’t be me, and so on. Eventually, I get to one thing that looks promising: consciousness.

The more I look at it, the better it looks. When I seek pleasure or avoid pain, it’s consciousness that will experience it; It’s just when I visualize or seek things, I mistakenly project all the things I think of as “me” when I visualize what I seek, rather than simply the capacity for feeling. It looks really solid, that is until memory rears its ugly head.

Long Term” Memory & Consciousness

I don’t remember anything before I was 4. So didn’t I exist? It seems silly to say I didn’t. But if I say I did, then I’m using something other than consciousness for me. I’m back to the abstraction and it gets worse.

I don’t remember much of what happened last week. Did I not exist then? What about when I fell asleep? As if that weren’t bad enough, the problem occurs in the other direction!

When I say I was conscious, all I’m saying is I have memories. But how do I know these memories correspond to anything real? No, it’s not as crazy as it sounds; we frequently have false memories and our mind screws with our memory in shocking ways, many ways that are subtle. I recommend reading “Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness_Explained ) for a disturbing look at just how our mind shams us all the time. This is bad. Of course, it gets worse.

Short Term” Memory & Consciousness

All my meandering has ignored a key assumption: that there is a difference between consciousness and memory. But this falls apart when I think about it. Let’s say I am conscious of a car driving by. This is not a present experience. Rather, I hear a sound which goes into memory, then I see some visual images which go into memory and interact with the sound and so on. The combination of memory and perception come to me (perhaps in an instant) as an experience of “car”, but at very few points is memory not in the loop. In fact, based on some consciousness studies, memory is always in the loop and what I’m aware of is an already edited memory, so I never have real time conscious experience!

Now let’s imagine that there is such a thing as conscious experience but without memory. What would you experience? Well, you’d hear a bit of sound before you forgot about it. Then another bit of sound. Then a bit of color. But at each point, there is nothing in your memory that can assemble the experience of an object. You wouldn’t even experience a jumble of sensations for you wouldn’t have the memory of previous sensations to experience a jumble of anything. When you get right down to it, you couldn’t even have a sense of self. Could you be conscious? Maybe technically, but is this anything we’d recognize as consciousness? What’s more, this ignores just what the “quanta” of real time experience would be. Would it be one second? Half a second? A millisecond?

So there is no line between consciousness and memory. Any line we draw is one of degree and not of kind and once we get into that territory, we don’t really have any solid footing. We could argue of course that consciousness is consciousness of memory…


If consciousness is tied to memory, which is mental, it suggests the possibility of manipulating it to good effect. Of course just because something is mental doesn’t mean we have full control over it, but we often have at least some control. We can focus our attention on certain events/memories which can affect consciousness by how far back they go to build objects. Think about it; an object is a temporal succession. I pay attention to the street for 5 seconds and I see a car. For an hour and I see the flow of traffic. It’s all based on how far I combine events into an object which is just a series of perceptions/memories. There’s a lot of leeway by just directing attention, to the point that we may be able to “unravel” reality via momentary awareness.

What’s more, the realization that we are dealing with mental phenomena can lead us to be less attached to what’s going on and thus less affected. Do you react to fantasies as you do to “real” things? But now that you know the status of “real” things is a lot closer to fantasy than you think, how would you react?

So What Am I?

I claimed I was consciousness only to undermine the foundation of consciousness. So what am I? I don’t think the answer matters; rather, it’s that I can’t answer without running into difficulties or outright absurdities that matters, for that indicates that the concept might be incoherent.

The issue here is to avoid clinging to “myself” to the point that it can affect my happiness by casting doubt on its existence, or at least its nature. I can still use terms like “me” and so on out of convenience; I just need to be mindful that this is a term of convenience and nothing more.

Several schools of thought exist about the status of the self.

Derek Parfit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Parfit

David Hume: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume#The_self


An Alternative view of what Buddhism has to say: http://www.angelfire.com/electronic/awakening101/noself.html


4 thoughts on “What Am I?

  1. That’s an interesting thought experiment. While once inside the experience machine, you might not be able to tell the difference between the machine and reality, for me the problem would be the choice to enter the machine in the first place. Even though I’d be consigning myself to a life of pleasurable experiences, so real that I wouldn’t understand them as fake, I still make that decision when I’m 100% conscious of the fact that what I’m embarking on is pure artifice. To me, that’s denying myself my full humanity, and that’s why I wouldn’t take the deal. There’s something inherently off-putting to me about consciously exchanging the real for the fake. I know we do it all the time in the “real,” world, but I still feel somewhat guilty about it, and I try to avoid it. True, we may never be able to know if what we’re living is truly reality, but I think it’s best to avoid what we do know is a complete simulacrum.

  2. A fascinating post, touching on many points that I like to think about. In particular, the intimate connection between short-term memory and consciousness has always fascinated me. And on that theme, it has always seemed to me that one defining feature of consciousness was the sense of a ‘now’ – a present, and hence a future and a past. From an objective point of view – e.g. in physics – there’s no such thing as a ‘now’.

    I read and enjoyed Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’, but thought it monstrously mistitled. I have just had a look to see what he says about the ‘now’ question – but he doesn’t appear to address it, as far as I can see from a quick skim. In Chapter 6, ‘Time and Experience’ he’s mainly concerned with objective questions about the brain’s handling of sensory data and how it deals with quickly moving events, and constructs a sequence. All interesting, but not enlightening on the question that I’m talking about here. Dennett, along with other eliminative materialist philosophers, never seems to me to get to the root questions of consciousness. In particular, his notion of qualia being illusory I find entirely incomprehensible, not to say incoherent.

    You initial thought experiment about the pleasure machine is a fruitful source of ideas. In particular, what it is to ‘seek pleasure’, and how far we actually do. For a start, people will obviously undergo much pain or discomfort in the pursuit of some higher goal, and achieve satisfaction from having done so. Most commonly, this might be the rigours of working very hard in order to reach some constructive achievement. So would the machine deny us this satisfaction – evidently a greater pleasure than the short-term gratification that we deny ourselves?

    Another angle is the fact that we take pleasure in vicarious conflict and adversity, often identifying with the distress of a hero or heroine – if this were not true, all films, books and other narratives would be rather pale and characterless. What it all seems to add up to is that ‘pleasure’ is a very slippery concept, and so we really don’t know what it is that the machine might be offering.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Wow, you went through some blogs!

      I agree that Dennet’s book was mistitled. I expected him to explain what consciousness was. There was another book by Penrose that did that, but I was dissatisfied with the explanation. Still a good read. It’s called “Shadows of the Mind”.

      You bring up some great points about the pleasure machine. Would pain, anticipation heighten pleasure? What if the machine provides that as well? Would we need a chance of failure? Would a perfect success rate (even if it requires striving) reduce the pleasure?

      Yes, pleasure and happiness are complex. That experiment avoided that can of worms 🙂

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