I don’t know if it has ever happened to you, but I sometimes find myself being absolutely and completely sure I’m someone else while I’m falling asleep (aka the hypnagogic state ). In these situations I suddenly find myself thinking as a person with a certain backstory that is different than mine, caring for people I have never met nor heard of, having distinct feelings and preconceptions about them, and life situations that are not the same I have in my waking life.
It’s an interesting phenomenon and it always gives me pause. The moment itself just feels so real and complete. In these experiences I’m usually just doing mundane stuff, with no supernatural or magical elements that I often see in my real dreams. And then suddenly I’m in my bed, in my real life, feeling just as real as I had a few moments before. These snapshots usually last a few tens of seconds, and I experience them a handful of times a year.
The feeling of realness in these situations, I think, comes from the incredibly detailed backstory that I have in my mind at a given time. These are, let’s say, fake memories that my mind has concocted to enrich the experience, or somehow reassure itself that what it’s perceiving is logically consistent.
This makes me wonder what would happen if I were to be placed in the present moment of my life, with all my memories but these have been artificially constructed. Would I be any different form what I’m now? Would I even notice?
What if my existence just started, at the very moment I’m writing this, and the memories in my head have been placed there artificially, even the memory of writing the paragraphs above this one?
What if your existence just started, and all your memories before this instant are fabricated. Would you know?
I don’t think we would notice. Your mind could probably switch from life to life if your memories are swapped without leaving trace (and of course your perception is shifted between the different observers/entities experiencing these lives).
The question is of course “Does the individual behavior of a being depend only on the memories or is there something deeper that makes you different?” I imagine you would say, for example, that personality is partially based on physiological traits that cannot be modified through memory. I’m by no means knowleageable in the area, but are we so certain that thin is the case? After all, very subtle ideas about identify, our place in the world and society, what we think we like and dislike, etc, are just memories are they not? Subtle ones to be sure, but still memories.
Now, I might be taking this a bit too far, but I’m reminded of the Hindu god Vishnu . He’s often depicted as sleeping on the coils of a snake (representing time), and while he’s sleeping he’s dreaming all of reality into existence. So, in his dream he’s dreaming that he’s all beings at the same time, but none of the beings actually know that they’re Vishnu. Could it be that we’re all a single consciousness and our memories are the only thing that makes us think we’re different? That would certainly make the phrase “we’re all equal” take a whole other shade of meaning.
Just for fun we could get a sci-fi spin on the idea above by mixing it with the brain in a vat scenario, which goes something like this:
Suppose that we have a brain sitting in a box with a bunch of wires that connect it to a computer. The computer is running a simulation and there are some wires that are transmitting sensory inputs to the brain, as well as other wires that transmit what the brain wants to do back to the computer, such that the brain is able to perfectly experience the simulation (think of the movie The Matrix ). Since the brain is only able to perceive and act on what is going on inside the simulation there is no real way for it to know that it is inside a simulation.
Now, let’s extend this a bit. The simulation above feeds perceptual information for only a single individual, so that the brain is seeing from one point of view. It is supposed that the brain’s internal systems maintain the working memory of that individual. But what would happen if we add a new wire that tells the brain what its working memory should be? Well, in that case the simulation itself would be able to tell the brain what its memory is at every point in time.
This ability to set the brain’s memory is not that useful if we’re simulating a single individual. But it would become interesting if the computer constantly alternates between different individuals, and at each moment the brain receives: sensory input of individual + memory of individual, and outputs the actions it wants that individual to perform in the simulation.
Now our hypothetical contraption is able to simulate multiple people more or less at the same time. These people would all be living inside the same simulation, they would all be seeing and interacting with each other, but none of them will have any way to realize that they’re all actually the same brain.
There are many more angles to explore: how identification works, the origin of consciousness, differences between sleeping and waking, etc. But these will have to wait for another post.
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