Our identity is not just about our internal memories, beliefs, hopes and fears. We are made up equally of our environment, of things outside ourselves – for example, by how we react to people and places. With this in mind, the dream of uploading ourselves to the cloud has a fatal flaw. We can upload our inner selves to the cloud, but we are nothing without the outside world in which we live and the people in it, writes Charlie Huenemann.
We will turn to the possibility of uploading our ethereal souls to supercomputers in just a moment, but first let’s talk about keys and locks. A key is an ingenious little device with a handle (or bow) and a blade with some particular series of cuts in it. One could provide a very precise mathematical description of those cuts, and one might wish to do so because that specific series of cuts — exactly those, in that sequence — is what makes a key that particular key and no other. For this reason, we might well suppose that the shape of the key is the essence of the key, so that one need not look beyond the key itself to find its essence.
But this isn’t quite right. For there is a reason each key has the shape it has, and that reason has to do with some specific lock. That lock has some complementary configuration (often involving some number of little pegs of various lengths) which will allow a cylinder to turn only if the key, with its corresponding shape, is inserted into the keyhole. That is why each key has the shape it has: because of its relationship to some lock. If the lock is lost, the key’s shape doesn’t really matter anymore. It might as well have a different shape, for it is now just a decorative piece of metal, perhaps to be hung on a necklace or glued onto a piece of art. What was essential to it is no longer essential, for its relationship to other things in the world has been altered. It is not its intrinsic shape, but its relation to other things – or the lack of such relations – that determines what the essence of a particular key is.
Just as keys have the shapes they have because of the locks they fit, people have the selves they have because of the lives they fit.
Okay, now to selves and consciousness. Many scientists and philosophers have taken an approach to selves that resembles the first approach we took to keys. What is essential to a self is internal to that self: our memories, our beliefs, our attitudes and desires and hopes and fears, and so on. These are the cuts in our blade, and for each person the cuts are here or there, deeper or shallower, and it is these differences that make us so different from one another. Some scientists and philosophers hope that they will find some kind of explanatory correlation between the cuts of our blades and the configurations of our neurons, believing that there must be a clear connection between the two. Other scientists and philosophers (well, mainly philosophers) believe no such connection can be found, because we are dealing with very different sorts of shapes: shapes of the subjective or semantic or meaningful sort, as opposed to shapes of the more geometrical sort. These philosophers will argue that even if we were to know the full architecture of some particular brain, we still could not possibly know whether it was the brain of a cobbler or a prince. The only way to know whose brain it is would be to be it, somehow. Then we would know it “from the inside”— an inside we can never see with our eyes, no matter how acute our vision.
But these scientists and philosophers are forgetting about locks. Just as keys have the shapes they have because of the locks they fit, people have the selves they have because of the lives they fit. My memories and beliefs are shaped by what I have experienced, but they are also tuned to the people I ordinarily meet, what I take to be their expectations of me, and networks of obligations and responsibilities I negotiate on a daily basis. My attitudes, desires, hopes, and fears are quite fluid, adapting to my circumstances and the attitudes of others around me. I am the particular self I am because of my on-going, changing relationships to people around me, as well as to the culture, economics, and politics of my time and place.
Indeed, this is where the key-and-lock analogy breaks down, for keys and locks are relatively stable over time. Lives are rivers in constant change and flow. We fit into them because we are able to shape-shift as the circumstances of life require. A better picture would be of a lock undergoing continuous change, reflected in a corresponding and continuous change in the shape of the key; but at that point one wonders why we would want to employ the key-and-lock analogy in the first place. Still, it’s handy, so let’s go with it.