Lessons of Human Fusion

The story of Jerry and May (“Coed”) should give pause to anyone who invests all his or her self-concern in psychological continuity and connectedness.

To summarize the plot: Jerry, a 40-year-old neuroscientist, is diagnosed with devastating rapid-onset dementia, a prospect which he regards as equivalent to death.  To save himself, he hits on the plan of copying his psychological attributes to the brain of a graduate student, a young woman named May.  The copying process ‘reads’ his brain-states and ‘writes’ them to her brain, effectively reproducing his memories, abilities, personality, and other psychological dispositions.

Sticklers would regard this as a breach of academic ethics.  But Jerry, although manifestly self-centred, is not without a conscience.  The process he employs does not damage May’s psychology; instead, it takes advantage of redundant capacity in her brain to add his psychological attributes to her own.

Before the mental merger takes place, Jerry sees transference of his psychological attributes to May as a way to escape the fate of his disease.   He anticipates having a future in May’s body, which he expects to share with May herself.

The procedure works according to plan.  When they wake up, the personalities of both May and Jerry are recognizably present in May’s body.  All is not smooth sailing – May and Jerry find themselves in competition for motor control of a single body.  In order to act effectively, they must cooperate.  Sometimes the best way is for one to sit back passively and ‘let the other drive.’

But it is not an equal relationship – Jerry is at a distinct disadvantage.  May is at home in her body, and perfectly competent to manage it, but Jerry finds it foreign and difficult.  When he planned his transformation, he failed to anticipate the full impact of the physical dissimilarity it entailed: the sex change, the reduced physical stature, the girlish voice, loss of the gravitas that society concedes to the mature.  With May’s body, Jerry is more awkward than a pubescent teen.

That awkwardness, combined with competition from May’s personality, conspires to set him back.  And when his attempt to get his job back, by browbeating the department head, fails – when the glory accruing to the principal researcher of the mind-transfer project shifts to his assistant, Sam – when even his personal relationships with both May and Carole are utterly transformed, it is little wonder that Jerry abandons the field, lapsing into a ghostlike existence.  A single body does not sustain two persons at the same time very well.  Even multiple personality disorder is manifested sequentially, not simultaneously.  It is hard to share a body and remain an effective agent; one body cannot simultaneously carry out two different agendas.   Discouraged, Jerry takes a back seat to May, and fades as a person.

What can we learn from this?   Nothing, if the story is not convincing – by which I mean that, like any decent fiction, it comes across as psychologically accurate.   Given the basic premiss of the story – that a person’s entire mentality could be recorded and replicated in another living brain, without erasing the psychological attributes already present – how would life then unfold for these two people?  Since the experiment cannot yet be performed in reality, a thought-experiment is the best I can do.  The scope and rich detail of fiction allow a fuller exploration of the consequences of what-if scenarios than does deductive argument.  Fiction is, among other things, a planning tool which can warn of subtle hazards that may lie ahead on a contemplated course of action.  If I have succeeded in persuading readers that the loss of power and personality suffered by Jerry in “Coed” is a real risk of the kind of mind transference which the story envisages, then lessons can be drawn for the philosophy of personal identity.

Before the procedure, Jerry’s hopes for his survival rested in the psychological attributes which he planned to transfer to May.  Was his hope founded on a tragic error?  The answer seems to be yes and no.

Yes, in that he did not foresee the long-term outcome of the gradual dissolution of his personality, after it was no longer sustained by the body, the sex, the role in life that shaped it.  Jerry’s project did not work out as planned.  Various hoped-for outcomes did not in fact occur.

But human lives often do not go according to plan.  We do not normally say that those people cease to exist as a result.  Was Jerry also mistaken in expecting to survive the transition to May’s body?   No, because – given that the mind-transfer procedure worked according to spec – there was nothing to be mistaken about.   Jerry invested his self-concern in his psychological attributes which would be copied to May’s healthy brain, instead of in the neuropathologically doomed survivor who would continue to occupy his original body.   There is no fact of the matter as to whether he was right or wrong to do so.   He found it psychologically possible – perhaps even compelling – to ‘identify’ with a person occupying May’s body following the procedure, rather than with the person remaining in Jerry’s body.   If it is psychologically possible to invest self-concern in someone, one is not making a factual or logical error in doing so.

When Jerry first received his diagnosis, his self-concern was firmly bound to the male figure who would gradually, over the coming months, succumb to memory loss, dementia, and general incompetence.   For Jerry, who believed that what is important in personal identity is psychological continuity, a life without the mind he was accustomed to was at least as bad as death.  If he hadn’t had the opportunity to ‘escape’ by copying his mind to May’s brain, he would no doubt have continued to feel self-concern for the future Jerry during the early stages of the disease, when it began to damage his brain but before it had thoroughly destroyed his personality.  Just like any of us, he would have dreaded experiencing the onset of dementia, the gradual loss of memory, of competence, of independence.  He would have feared being diminished, while knowing he was diminished.

But when he hit on the idea of mind-transfer, his self-concern had another, more attractive, target.  He could adapt (he thought) to life with May’s body; and when that thought took hold, he ceased to worry about the other Jerry.  He was glad to pack him off to Europe, out of the way.

What should we think about that other Jerry, trying to enjoy his ‘last holiday’?  The story doesn’t say a lot about his frame of mind.  He feels like Jerry, of course, and thinks he is Jerry.  At first, while he still had his faculties, he would understand his situation.  He would not be surprised to ‘find himself’ still in Jerry’s body;  he would not conclude that the procedure had failed.  But, being Jerry, given to a self-centred turn of mind, he would probably feel as though he’d pulled the short straw.  I doubt he would then invest his self-interest in the other Jerry who, at that point, was alive and healthy in his twenty-one-year-old female body.  If he had thought more about it, perhaps he would have done so.

“Coed” casts doubt on the claim that the only relation that matters in personal identity is psychological continuity and connectedness.  Psychological attributes are certainly important to personal survival, but so are physical ones – sex, age, strength, weight, skin colour, the face by which others recognize us, symmetry or lack of it, presence or absence of diseases, deformities and disabilities.   Radical physical discontinuity, just like radical psychological discontinuity, can result in loss of what is recognizably the same person.  That is partly because psychological attributes depend greatly on attributes of gross morphology.

I stress physical attributes.  The above argument provides no grounds for the claim that a person’s survival depends on the continued existence of that person’s organism, or of a crucial part of it such as its brain.

The argument does have implications for the theory I advocate, of persons as information.  If we consider ourselves to be informational entities, such as books, software or genes, which, with adequate replication technology, can be copied from one body to another, then we need to be careful about what kinds of information we are talking about.   We cannot only pay attention to psychological information; information about the whole body is important to whom and what we are.

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