This is the first of a three-part article to close the regular writings of this blog. The three-part article focuses on the idea of the self. The first part talks about the idea of the self in works of fiction.
What we mean by self
It’s one of those old questions with no straight answer. An attempt at straightforwardness: “self” is used to refer to a thing T that refers to the thing T where either a (a: thing T is the same as thing T) or/and b (there is only one thing T). It is a tricky concept because it assumes that there are some things T that can refer to the things T. When a person points to his chest, we can say that the person is pointing to him-self. In other words, we mean that the thing that does the pointing and the thing that is being pointed is the same thing. But, if a computer displays a message saying: “I cannot access the folder”, does that mean that the computer is referring to it-self? Or does that mean that the programmer, as the person who designed the software and the computer’s messages, is the thing doing the pointing and the computer is the thing being pointed?
How is the idea of the self related to simulation?
Simulation refers to the act of imitating the features of something. So when we simulate something, we aim to imitate all the features of that which is being simulated. This implies the idea of sameness. While the self refers to a situation where the thing doing the reference and the thing being referred are the same. So, if a computer says: “Cogito ergo sum”, does that mean that the computer (as a human would do) is referring to it-self? Or does our interpretation of the meaning change depending on our knowledge about the message? Eliza and Parry were two early AI programs that seemed to be able to have conversations and ,up to some extent, to refer to themselves. But Eliza and Parry were just simulations, and the act of referring to themselves could arguably be said to be a simulation too.
If one of the features to simulate something is the act of referring to oneself, is that feature simulatable? In other words, when a person says “I” and a computer says “I” is there any difference beyond the fact that one is a human and the other a computer? When a person says “I” and another person says “I” is there any difference beyond the fact that they are two different people? Another way of asking the question is, how much sameness is there in the utterances of “I” by the computer-person and person-person pairs?
It is a tale by Stanislaw Lem about simulation and sameness. In the story, a king contemplates being simulated inside a digital world where he can live along his beloved Inefabelle. But no matter how precise the simulations of the king are made, he rejects them on the basis that they are not accurate enough because for as long as he exists, no simulation can be perfect. And of course, it can’t, since, if a simulation is supposed to make a copy with 100% similarity, the simulated and the simulation must have the same physical and non-physical traits. One thing that a simulation cannot simulate is the fact that a simulation is something that comes after something. All simulations are made from simulated things. And if analogies from chaos theory are allowed, you could say that simulating (or approximating) a system of which you don’t have the initial conditions (in our case: you can’t go back to the time before the simulated thing existed) makes a perfect simulation practically impossible.
This is what it seemed to be hinted in the story. The very fact that a simulation does not come into existence at the same time as the simulated thing is the divisory line that separates a simulation from the simulated. In the story, the solution proposed is to annihilate the king’s “original” form. But I think that killing the original would not change the fact that the simulated king appeared after the “original” king and that the word “original” itself suggests that it (the original king) was the thing from which another thing was made. In this case, a simulation.
Simulated songs and original songs
Is there such thing as a simulated song? Of course not. Copying a song character by character produces two songs which are equally original. Yes, a copy was made and you could argue that the act of copying a song implies the preexistence of the song to be copied. However, since the two songs are indistinguishable apart from the fact that one was made from the other, it seems reasonable to argue that the two songs are original, or rather, that both songs are equally-valid instances of a song.
A similar line of reasoning could be applied to any other abstract thing that is simulated. It might be because abstract things, unlike physical things, do not change, and even if they do, they tend to change in rather predictable ways, so that if we simulate abstract things, the simulation and the simulated will change in exactly the same ways. While two otherwise identical physical things can change in different ways merely due to the fact that they do not have the same location in the physical world. And since two things cannot occupy the same location in our physical world, there will always be a feature, apart from the issue of the simulated thing existing before the simulation, that will not be simulatable. Of course, you could always simulate the universe and its physics down to its smallest component.
When a computer displays a message along the lines of “I found a virus”, what does the “I” mean? Who is pointer and who the pointed in that “I”? What does it mean when a human says “I”?