An Unwise Experiment

What question would you ask me, so that you would know it was me?

Late one evening as I returned to my hotel, the concierge gave me the letter that I had been expecting. It was a typically verbose reply from my school friend Lambert Woff, the professor of neuroscience. After I read it, I began to wonder if I may have changed the course of scientific history.

Dear Blutter,

Yes, of course I would be delighted to have you stay with me when you come to Stuttgart! In fact I have some news that should interest you. I don't know if you'll remember, but some years ago when I visited you, we had a long conversation about brain cell replacement, specifically the progressive replacement of neurons with artificial cells, capable of acting in precisely the same way as the originals. Do you remember? We imagined cells constructed of radio valves or something similar, replaced slowly one by one, and talked about what effect this might have on the consciousness and identity of the subject. It is actually a popular thought experiment amongst scientists that has come to be known as the 'philosophical zombie debate'. One view is that the substituted neurons could process the perception of the environment and subsequently act in every way the same as the original organism, yet there may no longer be any self awareness or sense of identity that lives there. I frequently pose this question to undergraduates, and always receive a fascinating variety of responses. Well, most of them are stupid, but some are interesting. Now I hope you don't mind me saying, but you are often of value to me when we have our discussions, because you are a sensible fellow, yet you have no scientific training. This occasionally makes you able to give quite insightful input into our discussions without your thoughts being polluted by the biases of common opinions among researchers and undergraduates today.

I believe your guess at the time was that for a zombie to control itself it must be aware of itself, and that no loss of any type of self awareness would be possible in order to perform an exact simulation of the original person, so once the substitution process was complete, there would be no obvious reason why the subject couldn't continue living in the normal way with an artificial brain, although I seem to remember you guessing that the practicalities of the idea would come with huge potential for unpredictable complications.

In some way I suppose I must have seen this as a challenge, or perhaps a desire to celebrate our long friendship, or possibly a trust in your judgement that wasn't very wise. About the time we had this discussion, the technology in the field of serotonin offset and antibody containment electrolysis was beginning to progress rapidly. To cut a long story short, within a few years it became possible using the process to perform exactly the experiment we talked about. Unfortunately the technology became available, but, strange to say, no sane participants were prepared to be the first subject.

But the more I thought about it, the more benefits to mankind that this technology could provide occurred to me. Transfer of consciousness, replication of life experience, accelerated learning... the possibilities were endless. A subject had to be found. At last, after much deliberation, I decided it had to be me.

The process is only similar in overall concept to the idea. Of course there are no technicians replacing the tiny bits of brain with radio valves, one by one. There are a number of operations that take about three days each, and they involve extremely slow injections of artificial plasma carrying genetically programmed cells into the brain, then a monitoring process which often takes some weeks before the next injection can begin. At this stage I have had nine operations, and it is predicted that I will have twelve to fourteen more.

As you predicted, there have been strange complications. Do you remember Mister Wilson at school? He told us he was taking colloidal silver as a health remedy for something, I can't remember what. Then he turned a sort of mauve colour. Remember? How it never went away? How much we laughed? Well, unfortunately that's me now. Also, my head is a noticeably different shape. But it's a bit like Macbeth - I'm too far gone now, and I have to keep wading to the other side. We believe the neuronal replacement will only be temporary, as normal tissue regeneration will replace the artificial network within a few years. Let's hope I don't look like that Nosferatu chap by then.

Now as you sit there reading this letter, you might think, is Woffle still the same fellow that I used to spend every holiday's adventures with, or is he now just a machine that writes the things it has calculated Woffle would inevitably write given exactly the same circumstances? Well, I prefer to think the answer is that I'm still me. But even though I just wrote that to assure you that I'm still the same happy school chum you knew, isn't it possible that I'm still a mindless automaton that has processed information and calculated that a reassuring letter is what Professor Woff would always do?

Well, these are questions I can't answer at this stage. The procedure has replaced less than half my brain so far, so I think you should give me the benefit of the doubt. But of course the zombie would say that too.

And here's another poser for you. Just imagine one day we meet, and I say to you, "Blutter! How are you? My brain is totally artificial now, what do you think?" What question would you ask me, so that you would know it was me? You're my oldest friend. All the silly running jokes and stupid noises we used to make when we were little boys, that nobody else would remember except us. Would that be enough? Would the zombie still remember them? And if you know, in your heart of hearts, that I'm gone, what would you do?

Anyway, I look forward to your arrival in Stuttgart in a few months. Then you'll be able to decide for yourself!

See you soon,


Lambert had won the Nobel Prize in 1925 for his work in cognitive science. The talent and perseverance that had led to his success as an academic were in stark contrast to the sedate life I had lived. But over the years, he and I had managed to catch up often, even after he moved to Stuttgart to chair a new department at the university. I felt some small pride that my friend, with his intellect and importance, still enjoyed the company of his old chum. But I must admit I was a little fazed by his letter. After all, we had both reached an age when one's sound judgement couldn't be taken for granted. And I don't remember the conversation he was referring to - I even wondered if he was recalling a conversation he had had with himself.

The time finally came around, and I arrived at the home of my old friend. There was no doubt his head was now larger on one side, and his skin certainly was a little blue. And he was also slightly bug-eyed, but I decided not to mention it. Goodness knows what his wife thought about it all.

The entire day was ours, and we decided to wander about the town with no goal other than to talk, and find coffee or something to eat whenever we felt the urge. Towards the middle of the morning we found a café and sat down. The day was getting warm, so I took off my coat, and as I rolled up my sleeve, he seemed to watch the process intently, as if analysing every move. The same thing with the other arm. Just out of interest, I kept rolling my sleeves up and down throughout the afternoon. Every time, Lambert would closely monitor the progress.

But what of it? His head had been violated. And perhaps he would have done it even if his brain hadn't been replaced with scientific potions. After all, he was one of the world's top scientists, trained in the discipline of observation and inference. It didn't prove anything. But I had to suppress a chuckle once or twice.

We had a marvellous time walking the city, the scientist and the librarian, catching up, discussing some of the problems in our lives, engaging in philosophical debates, and endlessly remembering the stories that defined our young years, the stories that never lost their ability to make us laugh until it hurt, even after decades.

Then the evening grew late, and it was time to leave him. But he was silent for a moment or two, before he spoke. Then I could hear the anxiety in his voice as he said,

"So what do you think, Blutter? Am I just an animated corpse that does a faultless impersonation of me, even to the point of thinking I'm me? Or am I still me?"

"Well it's really rather hard to tell, old chum. But don't you remember doing science with Mister Clarence in fifth form? Remember that accident with the Condy's crystals? After that I always just assumed you were some kind of zombie!"

He looked at the ground.

"Please, Albert, be honest with me. You're probably the only one who can tell if it's all been for nothing."

"Well... I believe you're the same fellow, even if you look a little beaten up. But look... just suppose you have a pot of pink gerberas on a table - if you replace the table, it's still the same pot of gerberas."

"Yes, but what if you replace the table and the gerberas with identical ones?"

"Ah. I see. Well... what is one's consciousness in your analogy? The idea of a pot of pink gerberas on a table?

"Well I don't even know where to begin! Perhaps you should come to one of my lectures sometime. But I don't know, I'm worried that I've just slowly faded away, and don't know it..."

"Well, by any measure that counts, you're still with us. Perhaps you've conducted a physical experiment to answer what is probably a metaphysical question. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful, old chap. But cheer up, your old brain will grow back!"

Lambert seemed unsatisfied with my reply, yet I had no idea what kind of insight he was hoping for. After we parted, from time to time, in boring hotel rooms and on train journeys, I thought about the things we had discussed, and I always ended up doubting every idea I had. But it was obviously very important for him, and I hoped he would find some of those answers.

* * * * * *

Two years later, Lambert resigned from his position at the university, to the genuine dismay of his department. The last I heard of my friend, he had become a high class couturier, and by all accounts his eye for style and insistence on perfection led him to become recognised as the world's foremost creator of cocktail dresses. No doubt his unsettling appearance had delighted the squealing arbiters of the fashion avant-garde and aided his career. Lambert's head never did regain its old shape, or his skin its natural colour. But people's personalities will change and grow - in the end I was quite sure that my friend had never died. Although whenever I asked him what he had learnt from the experiment, he would always change the subject.

September, 2015

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