First-Person Experience and the Consciousness Transfer Device

First-Person Experience and the Consciousness Transfer Device

TL;DR – Subjective experiences, like consciousness, are outside of what can be experimentally tested.

I was at a bar, tired from a long day, when a person started pestering me with questions: “Doesn’t the brain process electrical signals, which is ultimately explained by quantum physics?” “Doesn’t quantum physics say that things happen only because we observe them and therefore we make cats die just by staring at them?” “And therefore consciousness creates reality?” Sometimes I’d rather be unconscious.

Since the birth of quantum physics, people have started to see potential connections between its mysterious features and other open problems. Is quantum uncertainty what gives us free will? Are quantum effects responsible for the holistic nature of consciousness? It goes like this: here is something (quantum mechanics) that I don’t really understand… and here is something else (consciousness) that I don’t really understand. Since they have something in common, they are probably the same thing.

Now, clearly, once we understand how the brain works, we’ll solve the issue since consciousness happens there. Wait, how do we know that consciousness happens in the brain? Ah, yes, if we poke it we can alter how information is processed and everything. It’s like saying: if I steal your keys, you can’t use your car, so your keys are what powers the car… No, wait, it’s not like that at all. Also, what exactly is consciousness?

By consciousness we typically mean the idea that a person is aware that he is a person, being aware that he is a person being aware of it. It is the fact that we have a first-person experience. What does that mean in experimental terms? Because, and that’s the problem, if we want to study consciousness scientifically we need, at the very least, a way to tell two different consciousnesses apart experimentally. Can we actually do it? Let’s explore the question with a consciously unconscionable thought experiment.

The consciousness transfer device

You are a conscious scientist. In the sense that you study consciousness. You somehow prefer that description over consciousness scientist. You seem to like having to explain the pun every time to new people. You think it’s very clever and makes for a good story… You seem so proud of it nobody has the heart to tell you…

Anyway, you think you have identified what consciousness is. Is it a physical entity? Like the “soulon”, a hypothetical fundamental particle? Or is it merely a configuration of matter? Like the way that neurons connect with each other to form memories? Or is it something external? And the brain is simply like a radio receptor, that takes commands from a different plane of reality? Which one is it? Come on, tell me!

But you are a conscientious conscious scientist, and before blabbering your results, you want to gather experimental evidence. You have created a machine that is able to swap consciousness. And you have two “volunteers” that you pay $10 an hour.

You place a metal colander-shaped hat on each of the subjects. The idea is that, when you flip the switch, the consciousness, and only the consciousness, will be switched. That is, the consciousness of the first person will stop seeing the world from the eyes of the first body and will start experiencing it through the eyes of the second body. And vice-versa.

The volunteers wait in trepidation expecting the machine to start making sparks, and loud noises, and that the air will get wobbly or something. “It’s done” you say. The volunteers are very disappointed when they realize that machines make sparks, loud noises and wobbly things only in the movies.

You are disappointed as well because the volunteers don’t seem to see any difference. You try the machine several times, but they report no change. You pay them their $10 each and dismantle the machine.

Days later, though, you think about it again. The machine only transferred the consciousness from one body to the other. So, even if consciousness A went in body B, it would be able to access only the memories that are available in body B. It would remember always having been in that body: it would not be able to tell that it moved because it left the memories… in the other body.

When it went back to body A, it would also find all the memories that that body accumulated in its absence. It wouldn’t be able to tell that those memories where recorded when consciousness B was in that body.

So, maybe the machine did actually work. Maybe their consciousnesses are switched. But there is no way to tell.

First person experience

The problem of first person experience is that it is, by definition, subjective. Not in the sense that it is biased. In the sense that only one person can experience it. I can’t experience your first-person experience and you can’t mine. In fact, maybe you don’t have one. Maybe you are just a purely mechanical device that is pretending to be conscious. A philosophical zombie! Who knows! Well, you do… and that’s kind of the point: only you can know if you are really conscious.

To be able to study anything scientifically, we need to be able to identify it experimentally and objectively. We can tell an electron from a positron because they have opposite charge and move differently within an electric field. We can tell peanut butter from Nutella because one is delicious and just the smell of the other makes some people die of allergic reactions. But how do you tell consciousnesses apart?

We can note the color of a person’s hair, we can give them puzzles to solve, we can tell them secrets, we can give them brain scans, … But all of these are just testing physical appearance, cognitive abilities, memory and the electromagnetic response. None of these will actually identify a consciousness.

To be sure that a machine can identify consciousness, we’d need to confirm that it detects a change of consciousness when everything else remained the same. But then we have the problem of the thought experiment: the consciousness would have access to all the other features and it may not be able to tell it wasn’t in that body before. So we can’t independently confirm that our machine actually can detect a change of consciousness.

So, while I am sure we are going to be able to investigate more of the brain in the coming decades, and that we will be able to analyze conscious states much better, and we are going to be able to produce drugs that turn on and off those processes very selectively, I am also sure that we are not going to be able to answer the actual question: why is your consciousness in that particular body? And how can you move into a better one?

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