This is another post coming from Hofstadter’s philosophy of consciousness, so read that first if you haven’t already (here). The thing about philosophy is that it’s just navel gazing unless the conclusions are used for real decision making.
The important part of consciousness for this discussion is that it’s simple software. It’s that pattern of thoughts, memories, and other supporting data, all contained in your wet meat brain. There’s two very important results from this; one is positive, the other existentially terrifying.
What is unique about You isn’t a physical thing, it’s a pattern of information. Information can be copied without affecting the original. The best illustration of this was from “The Mind Eye” where the authors explained the ramification of a Star Trek style teleporter. A body is copied, sent as data, and replicated on another planet, all done effectively instantaneously. As long as the old version is disintegrated we have no issue saying the new one teleported. If you ask them, that’s exactly what they think happened, they remember being in the machine on planet A, then a moment later they’re on planet B. But nothing required the destruction of the original version. If the original is alive, they would say the machine doesn’t work, they just stood on planet A and nothing happened. It’s clear that the person in the machine never leaves it, there’s simply a copy created on planet B, a copy which no one can prove isn’t the original. Accept that the original is still around and absolutely disagrees with them having gone to planet B. There’s much more nuance to this hypothetical technology, some comical issues, some terrible, but that’s for other authors. The salient point is that it’s entirely feasible for this technology to exist and that therefore we can’t ignore its effect on our philosophy of the mind. It’s well within the normal bounds we set for discussion of speculative technology.
So where does this leave our beliefs on self & consciousness? We can’t tell the difference between copies and we can’t perceive the deletion or creation of our minds. We are software, a particular instance of the class we call ‘human’. Aside from calling into question the very notion of an individual self, there’s other ramifications. You’ll never achieve immortality by “uploading” your consciousness. You’d still die; sure, a copy of you would be immortal, but you escaped nothing. The Gardner will collect. Hook your brain up to a computer and try to transfer your ‘self’ through the cables. It won’t work because there isn’t anything to transfer. You don’t really exist, at least not in the way we think of existing.
We’re like a Buddhist Mandala, a pattern of beauty that exists briefly before returning to mere sand. The monks keep the pattern alive in their minds; approximating it, changing it, and creating it anew. This is the positive flip side to this existential crisis inducing idea. The fact that these copies exist in a real sense breaks down the barriers between us.
The evolutionary origin of Hofstadter’s consciousness is that we attempted to simulate our human friends in our own minds. This was to understand them better, like how we understand the world through visualizing. It’s clearly important for a social clan based species to understand each other, so we got good at it. So good that when we simulated ourselves, we succeeded. We copied our own brain with itself. A strange loop. In effect, we imaged our consciousness into existence.
To a lesser degree this same thing happens inside your brain with the people around you. When you simulate speaking to them in your internal monologue, you’re creating rough copies of them. The better you know them the more accurate the copies become. When you really love someone you have an amazing understanding of how they act and react to things. That copy of them in your head is very accurate; it’s very real. They’re like a lesser AI, something well beyond our current technology. A being of intelligence but unable to create truly unique ideas (that wouldn’t be more sensibly attributed to their host brain, ie. you).
So in a sense, you’re never alone. This isn’t a trick of linguistics, these copies are real beings. They will never be as dynamic as the real people, they will never be conscious within your head; there is only room for one strange loop. But they’re real and they’re there
Take great comfort in the fact that you’ll always have these shards of people within you. Whether they left to go somewhere else or have ceased to be alive, the world cannot take them. No one can fully die so long as they are remembered.