Who is Self?

Greg Egan’s Permutation City depicts a 2050 world where human beings’ mind can be run on computers as Copies.

Copies are neural networks which use ad-hoc rules to simulate human mind, but they are slower than human mind. They run at best at one-seventeenth of the rate of ordinary human beings and sometimes much more slowly, depending on the available processor power. However, Copies can have very accurate control over their mental states. Copies can control their mind so accurately that they can start to have hobbies by conscious decision and change whenever they want to and they can also adjust their emotion freely.

Although no longer flesh-and -blood, these human beings are still alive as they are able to fully control their virtual reality environment and even their consciousness. The new form of existence greatly satisfies human beings’ desire for immortality. The Copies’ only fear is the shutdown of the computers on which they are run. In the book, Paul Durham who believes in the “dust theory” tries to eliminate this fear by running some Copies on an extremely self-reproducing and expanding cellular automation through which the Copies are provided pure immortality and unlimited computing power. Another complex automation, the Autoverse is added to allow the Copies to watch the evolution of artificial life on a virtual planet modeled within the Autoverse.

Fascinating and unbelievable as Greg Egan’s idea of Copies is, the new form of existence raises some important questions about the nature of personal identity. Does our flesh-and-blood represent us more or our personality, our mind, and our memory do? Who is the self?

The idea of Copies leads us to think why the idea of soul has existed in every culture throughout human history. We all believe that it is only our flesh and blood that decay; our soul still exists when we die. I wonder if we mean our spirit, personality, and memory are still alive when we say our soul never dies. Also it seems we all believe our soul is formless; it cannot be seen and touched. So do our spirit. That might be why it is usually what a person has done to people and the world that make him or her live in people’s heart forever. It is then, I think, the memory of what we have done as a person that go by our name when we no longer have our flesh and blood. It is our minds that make each of us different. Although people’s belief in soul could be seen as a kind of self-comfort toward death, it also reveals that people believe our “self” is more represented by the none flesh and blood part of our being. This, I think, might in part explain why Greg Egan comes up with the idea of eliminating people’s flesh and blood and downloading their mind into computers to let them fulfill their dream of immortality.


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