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If You Copy The Contents Of Your Brain To A Computer, Does It Become You Too?

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If I upload my brain to a computer, would it really be me or a copy of me? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

The answer, surprisingly, lies in an ancient religious (Buddhist) doctrine of Anatta (non-self).

The question is paradoxical because it operates within a wrong paradigm. You assume that there is, in fact, an absolute me. Under normal circumstances you may be able to ignore all signs to the contrary by assigning a me label to your entire physical existence as a living being (from birth to death), or possibly even extending it beyond that and inventing an immortal soul.

This notion starts fraying at the edges when you consider the impermanence of memory. (Is it still you if you somehow get your memory wiped? Was it you who had an epic bender last evening, even though you don’t recall anything from the last two hours, and you have no idea where or how you got this obscene tattoo on your crotch?) But the ability to copy or transfer consciousnesses really kicks the legs from under it.

Instead you say “Anatta”: “there is no self”. There is, at best, identity in process (continued and uninterrupted existence) but no identity in essence. What you call “me” at this moment is a compound of memories, traits, preferences, thoughts, and physical organs which is different from “me” a week ago or “me” a week from now. Each moment’s “me” gives rises to next moment’s “me” through Taṇhā (“craving”). Your “me” of right now is reading this wall of text because “me” is bored or curious or experiencing some other feeling or emotion which makes you strive to address the problem, which changes you. Over time, the assembly may end up replaced almost entirely. (Aside from some childhood memories, your present “me” has almost nothing in common with your 5-year-old “me”. This is also known to modern philosophers as the Ship of Theseus paradox.)

From this point of view, mind transfer is no different from continued existence. The state of consciousness identifiable as “you now” gives rise to a state identifiable as “you tomorrow inside the computer.” It’s not the same state whether it is inside the computer or still in your original body, making the question moot.

What’s somewhat less moot, however, is the question of responsibilities of your present self and of the society at large towards the set of your future selves, particularly if, at any moment in time, there’s more than one coexisting and self-aware self. For example, what happens to your property, does it get divided between selves equally, or does something different happen? Is it murder to terminate one of the selves after the transfer concludes? Is self-awareness even critical (that is, is it more permissible to terminate the original if the transfer was conducted while the original was in suspension, than if the original was awake throughout the process, or if the original was allowed to awaken after the transfer)? It’s a massive ethical can of worms.

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