Consciousness Thought Experiments

Here are two thought experiments to make you think about consciousness.

A scientist offers you $1000 to participate in an experiment. You will walk into a room, be strapped to a chair, and be given a drug that causes extreme pain. The scientist tells you the pain will be something like having your shins bashed with a baseball bat. The pain will last for 5 minutes. After that, the effects of the drug will wear off. There will be no permanent effects. Then he will give you a second drug that erases your memory of the last 6 minutes — enough to cover precisely the amount of time you spent in the chair. The second drug also has no harmful permanent effects. It just erases your recent memory. After giving you the second drug, the scientist will unstrap you from the chair and pay you $1000.

From the perspective of your future self, it will be as if you just walked into the room, sat down in a chair, and then got out of the chair and were paid $1000. Your future self will not have any memory of feeling the pain. If anything, you might feel a little bit better than when you walked in, because you will still be feeling relief from the pain ending, even though you don’t remember it.

On the other hand, from the perspective of your current self, you know that you will experience excruciating pain if you agree to the experiment.

Assume that you are confident the drugs will work exactly as he says and you trust him completely. You are certain he is not going to trick you, and you know that his actions will be monitored by others that you trust.

Would you agree to the experiment?

Think about it for a minute.

Now, suppose that you agreed to the experiment. You are strapped into the chair, the scientist gives you the first drug, and you experience excruciating pain for 5 minutes. Then it rapidly fades away. The scientist has the second drug ready to administer. He is about to inject it, but then he asks you if you would rather not have the second drug.

What would you choose? Would you prefer to keep your memories of the experience, or have them erased?

Now, here is another, stranger experiment to consider. Suppose that your consciousness could be replicated in a computer. Some new, revolutionary technology could scan your brain and replicate your consciousness: your memories, your personality, your intellect — everything that makes you you.

You can walk into a clinic and get your consciousness replicated in this way. You get to take your replicated consciousness home on a thumbdrive. If you insert that thumbdrive into your computer, you can install your replicated consciousness on your computer. Its vision can be connected to a camera, if you choose. Its hearing can be connected to a mic. Its voice can be connected to your speakers. Otherwise, your disembodied consciousness will be unable to interact with the world. It will be unable to move, eat, or experience sensations other than vision and hearing. You can turn it on or off by clicking a button.

From the perspective of your replica, it will be as if you went into the clinic to get your consciousness replicated, and then woke up as a disembodied consciousness inside a computer, without the ability to do anything. Your replica will have the same feelings that you would have in that situation — after all, it is you.

After the replication process, one of you will wake up in a body, and one will wake up as a disembodied consciousness in a computer, if it ever does.

Would you replicate your consciousness?

Now, suppose that someone you love replicated their consciousness. A week later they died in a car accident. You have the thumbdrive. It is sitting on your desk.

Would you install it? Would you rescue their consciousness from one oblivion, only to consign it to another? Would you talk to them one last time? Would you tell them that they are dead?

What would you do?