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« "Tear Down This Wall" | Main | One-Way Flow »

Who Am I?

Steven den Beste has a long essay on the nature of consciousness and identity (which I hadn't noticed earlier because it starts out about anime, a subject in which my disinterest is astronomical). In it, among other things, he concurs with my comment a week ago about the late president (not to imply that he read it).

President Reagan's heart stopped beating a few days ago, and low-level brain activity inside his skull also ceased. But he actually died long before that, from my point of view.

The problem is that we can't really say when. It is usually a very long and gradual process. How much must you lose before you no longer exist at all? At what point is an Alzheimer's patient really dead, if not when his heart stops beating?

Of course, that's not a good criterion either, since hearts can be resuscitated. I've written before that, like identity, death itself is a legal state, not an objective scientific one.

He asks an ethical question as well:

Organ transplantation is one of the reasons why medical ethics now is forced to confront the question of when someone has actually died, even though their heart continues to beat. If we conclude they are nonetheless dead, it may be possible to save other lives.

In a case like that of Jon-Erik Hexum, or someone else who has suffered severe trauma to the brain in a car accident or via gunshot, that transition is sufficiently abrupt that it's more straightforward. But should we consider the possibility of using Alzheimer's patients as organ donors? And if so, how do we know that the disease has progressed far enough so that they, too, are effectively brain dead? I doubt that anyone will ever seriously consider using Alzheimer's patients as organ donors precisely because it is such a sticky problem.

There's a corollary to this question. Suppose we had a way of preserving brains, in some kind of suspension. We don't know yet how to transplant them, or how to reverse the progress (if that's the right word) of Alzheimers, but we could remove the brain and put it in stasis in the hopes that the future will both find a cure and the technology to replace it.

If the brain is the seat of the identity and the person, why wouldn't it make sense to do such a preservation before the brain deteriorated, and the individual was lost forever to information death? Why would, or should, such a procedure be illegal (as it currently is)?

There was in fact a court case like this a few years ago. It wasn't about Alzheimers--a man with a brain tumor petitioned a court to be allowed to be cryonically suspended if his condition took a turn for the worse, before it destroyed his brain. His assumption was that as poor as the prospects might have been for a cryonic suspension, it beat the odds of having a cancer destroy his mind, a condition that no future technology was likely to be able to repair. And in some sense, he was proposing an organ donation of his brain to his future self.

The court ruled against him, on the basis that he was asking permission to euthanize himself. The irony, of course, was that he was attempting to save himself, while the court was essentially sentencing him to a horrible death. Fortunately, his cancer went into remission, so the issue became moot for him, but the general principle remains. Unless and until we resolve the issues of identity, and where it resides, and what truly constitutes death (as opposed to the current and ever-changing function-based criteria) and differentiate the concept of information death from bodily functions, such issues will continue to be troubling, and in many cases, perverse.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 12, 2004 09:58 AM
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Excerpt: Steven Den Beste has published a couple of thought-provoking essays recently on the topics of consciousness and identity. Den Beste raises a number of stumpers: At what point is it accurate to say that a victim of Alzheimer's disease has...
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Tracked: June 14, 2004 11:18 AM

One problem I have with the whole cryo-suspension thing is would it actually preserve identity? If memories/personality/identity are part of the physical structure of the brain (crevices, neurons, etc), then it should. But what if m/p/i are like RAM? Once you shut down the brain (as freezing it would do) you erase the person?

Maybe I'm worrying about a non-issue. Do we know enough about the brain to provide a definitive answer to the question?

Posted by Jason Bontrager at June 12, 2004 11:16 AM

And then there's the issue of only the rich (at least early on) being entitled to such saving measures.

There are already discussions of overcrowding issues due to our medical abilities to prolong life. How much more complicated and urgent would this matter become if people were able to simply tranfer their brains either into a host body (say someone who suffered severe brain damage in an accident) or into a mechanical home?

Posted by Tom at June 12, 2004 01:21 PM

An adult ought to be able to freeze or euthanize himself if he wants to, that seems like a basic tenet of personal autonomy, at least in cases where significant mental illness is not involved. But if you freeze your brain, and 100 years later it can be transplanted into a factory-farmed body, who will pay to do that? How can you have confidence that anyone will bother?

Once you're effectively dead, do the legal means exist to preserve your 401K until such time as you can be revived? What if you're only half-revived, with a severe mental disability, and your savings run out due to the medical care you require - then who pays?

I certainly only want the rich doing this - you should have to prove you have sufficient means to cover the worst case contingencies, so I don't wind up paying, through taxes or higher health insurance costs. This is going to cost lot more than just curing the disease, at least until the technology stabilizes.

Posted by tristan at June 12, 2004 01:50 PM

How is that an issue?

Posted by Acksiom at June 12, 2004 02:14 PM

It seems unlikely to me that something as ephemeral as electrical charges (or the like) could be the persistent store of the brain. After all, electroshock therapy (where an electrical current is passed through the brain) does not wipe out one's personality, nor does deep anaesthesia, epileptic seizures, or cooling to the point brain electrical activity ceases.

Posted by Paul Dietz at June 12, 2004 02:26 PM

It is considered proven that all the important information that makes up the self is stored in the physical structure of the brain. See:

As to who will pay to wake the cryosuspended? I will, should I live long enough, and if no-one else beats me to it. There will certainly be charitable organizations devoted to waking them - they deserve no less for taking the chance and supporting an important scientific endeavor.

Regarding the old Malthusian chestnut of overpopulation, I think this link hits all of the important points:

Posted by Reason at June 12, 2004 02:36 PM

Qouted from Tom:

"How much more complicated and urgent would this matter become if people were able to simply tranfer their brains either into a host body (say someone who suffered severe brain damage in an accident) or into a mechanical home?"

Or into a dolphin body!!! Sqwea ea eeae ee eaee eae eeeaeeae

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at June 12, 2004 03:45 PM

One of the bigger problems I see with current cryogenic suspension technology is the basic dilemma of how our bodies chemical makeup doesn't respond very well to be frozen. Clearly our minds and body are chemical structures that are attenuated to varying electro thermal reactants. The shape and makeup of our brains components right down to the electrons that jump from cell structure to another structure are fed by our bodies metabolism. Our metabolism can be thought of as a fine filter that screens out the universe's organic compounds cook off in some star billions or years ago. That arrangement of materials in our bodies becomes greatly disturbed by the freezing process which scrambles our cell matrix with sharp shards of ice crystals.

Animals that are genetically designed to withstand being frozen solid through the winter and then thaw out and go screw eachother in the spring have organs that secret antifreeze into the body and protect there cells from being obliterated. Nature is showing us how it can be done we just need to learn how to mimic that process for ourselves, step one, before cryogenic suspension can be considered a serious savior. I would hope for but am slightly skeptical that anyone frozen today wouldn't have much hope in the future. If one day we could save them then it would definently be must farther off then the people frozen with an effective biological antifreeze.

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at June 12, 2004 04:02 PM

No, long term memory isnít mere electrical patterns But we donít know THAT much about the physical process involved, and I have yet to see anything definitive to show whether it can or cannot survive the process of cryopreservation. While I have a lot of respect for cryonics, too often I see an automatic assumption that memory will survive. I see it as an open question.

On the definition of "mind": I tend to look at this question from the AI point of view. One of the things I find most interesting is that people focus on the word "conscious" usually meaning "awareness." But the truth is that we are not consciously aware of most of what is going on in our mind. We donít know how we walk, or talk, or why we have certain feelings Ė consciousness only serves to manage these tasks. If we did understand how we did the things we do, we would have walking, talking sentient robots by now.

Marvin Minskyís book "Society of Mind" gives an interesting perspective on how our brains may work: "I" am actually a "we" Ė multiple expect systems, dealing with different functions, that converse. Part of we sees, part of we interprets that, another part identifies faces, etc. Internal conversations, appreciating music and so on are different subsystems communicating. What we think of as the "conscious" mind is sort of an operating system. It is simply another specialized function. From an evolutionary standpoint, there isnít much need for a brain to understand its own function, but there is a great deal of need for a process that can manage those functions.

Posted by VR at June 12, 2004 04:27 PM

There is no automatic assumption that the memory will survive. The assumption is that it may survive, and if you don't do cryopreservation, there is a certainty that it won't.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 12, 2004 04:33 PM

I'm agnostic on cryogenics; but everybody seems to have missed the pertanint point in this specific case - the plaintiffs cancer went into remission. He lived! If he had got his way, the chances of further life would be, well, unknown. The judge effectively bet on remission, and won.
Therein lies the conundrum - by waiting and seening if the illness is actually terminal, you basically have to see irreversible damage talk place - which reduces the value of the long sleep considering the odds of revival.

There is also the problem of the property rights of a cadaver. If death is left undefined, when is the will exercised? When the cryo company goes bankrupt?

Posted by Duncan Young at June 12, 2004 09:14 PM

I'm agnostic on cryogenics; but everybody seems to have missed the pertanint point in this specific case - the plaintiffs cancer went into remission. He lived! If he had got his way, the chances of further life would be, well, unknown. The judge effectively bet on remission, and won.

Duncan, you miss the point. The judge didn't rule that he couldn't do it if he was cured--he (or she--I don't recall) ruled that he couldn't do it under any circumstances.

The judge did bet on remission, but if remission hadn't occurred, Tom Donaldson would have lost. He wasn't asking for immediate suspension--he was asking for it in the event of a setback in the cancer, and if it had occurred, he would have been...screwed.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 12, 2004 09:30 PM

Again, it is a matter of where the odds lie - the possibility of reversal now vs. the possibility of reversal in the future. A balance which changes with the severity of the condition, inversely or directly, depending on your assumption.

It is of course, it is also a problem with the large portion of society which has problems dealing with the doubts inflicted by messy biology-and instead choose bright lines from ancient texts. There was an interesting article in the New Yorker last year about organ donation, and how the concept of "brain death" is basically a legal fiction required to obtain viable organs. Organ donation, done properly, is a Good Thing; but still, the blury line is not a comfort.

Posted by Duncan Young at June 12, 2004 11:12 PM

"There is no automatic assumption that the memory will survive."

Really? Rand, could you point out a reference from a pro-cryonics article that positively points out that we don't know yet if memory can survive the process? The Alcor faq mentioned above:

has a short paragraph on memory, but ignores the issue of freezing and storing the tissue for many decades. Nor does it mention that we know very little about the process behind memory. But it did seem to be a very positive statement about memory survival.

Again, I'm not against cryonics. I just look at this as an open question of science, something that should be clearly stated as an unknown. Most of the material I see discusses the possible technology and ignores the science questions.

Posted by at June 13, 2004 04:07 PM

That particular paragraph doesn't address the structural issues of freezing and storage, but those are addressed separately in the FAQ. That paragraph only deals with the myth of the loss of memory in the absence of electrical activity.

We do, in fact, know a great deal about how memory is stored.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 13, 2004 04:18 PM

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