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You Am Us
Giulio Prisco   Feb 5, 2015  

We all, as individuals and members of societies, dedicate a lot of effort to finding ways to cope with the idea of death. Most believers in traditional Western religions imagine resurrection in an afterlife, where they will be forever reunited with loved ones. Most believers in traditional Eastern religions and spiritual traditions think that, while an otherworldly realm beyond physical reality may eventually be attained, most people go through a long string of lives here on Earth (reincarnation).

Eastern reincarnation seems less appealing than Western resurrection, because the memory of past lives is lost. Also, we don't like the idea of coming back to Earth without our loved ones. But mental discipline can perhaps bring back at least some memories of past lives, and perhaps kindred souls "travel together" through time in groups, and find each other - unknowingly - life after life.

I think future science will permit achieving resurrection and/or reincarnation as engineering projects. Our descendants will move out there, join the community of Gods in the universe, and contribute to the development of unimaginably powerful "time magic" technologies. They will find ways to reach back in their past - our present - make ultra-high resolution scans and snapshots of our minds, and copy us to their present - our future - with our past memories (that would be similar to the Western concept of resurrection) or without (Eastern reincarnation).

Please don't ask me how - I don't know, and nobody knows. I guess time-magic is probably beyond us like Einstein is beyond a mouse, and developing it will take thousands of years of research and development for our post-human, super-human descendants.

But what if we don't really need any of that?

What if reincarnation is trivially true in some psychologically acceptable sense?

Eastern philosophies insist that "all is one" - the boundaries between different parts of the world that we perceive, including the all-important boundary between "self" and "other," are permeable and ultimately an illusion conjured-up by our special ways to interpret the world. Also Western mystics throughout the ages have had the powerful intuition that everything in the universe is deeply connected to everything else to the point that, in a fundamental sense, everything is one. It's undeniable that the concept of "self" has important evolutionary advantages - if your ancestor didn't perceive a very clear and very important distinction between himself and a predator, he wouldn't have run fast enough to escape the predator and reproduce. But perhaps, behind the veil of perception and interpretation, consciousness is one: your ancestor and the predator were really one, from a fundamental perspective.

That is the theory of Daniel Kolak. In his book "I Am You: The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics" [Kolak 2004] he proposes the metaphysics (and practical philosophy) of Open Individualism: every consciousness is fundamentally the same, and we are all the same person. He writes:


"The central thesis of I Am You - that we are all the same person - is apt to strike many readers as obviously false or even absurd. How could you be me and Hitler and Gandhi and Jesus and Buddha and Greta Garbo and everybody else in the past, present and future? In this book I explain how this is possible. Moreover, I show that this is the best explanation of who we are for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it provides the metaphysical foundations for global ethics."

To help the reader imagine a world identical to ours where every consciousness is the same, Kolak describes a model universe where every person is represented by a tower composed of stacked boxes. Boxes are ordered in time, and contain snapshots of instantaneous mental states, with perceptions, thoughts, memories, and expectations for the future. A single consciousness roams the stacks, focusing on one box at a time. When focused on a box, consciousness experiences all (and only) its contents, and the resulting subjective experience is identical to being a particular person (tower) at a particular time (box).

Kolak's model universe is immediately understandable to anyone familiar with how computers work - a single program (think for example of Word) can work with different documents (think of different Word documents open on your desktop), apparently in parallel, but really one at the time. According to Kolak, you should think of yourself not as one of the documents, but as the program that is handling them all. When a document is closed, the consciousness program continues to work on other documents.

After showing us that his model universe is plausible and consistent (and subjectively indistinguishable from the actual reality that we perceive), Kolak dedicated the rest of the book to persuading us that the one-consciousness model, Open Individualism, is a better way of looking at the world, with fascinating arguments ranging from philosophy to fundamental physics.

I like Open Individualism because it explores and formalizes intuitions that I often had. Consciousness shouldn't be thought of as a property of thinkers, but as a property of thinking. My favorite metaphor, essentially similar to Kolak's, is a large room with many windows. Consciousness is the observer in the room, and experiences different individual reality streams looking from different windows. For example, one window could look at children on a playground, and another at a parking lot. Those would be two very different perception streams, but the consciousness experiencing them is one. You are the observer - consciousness - and the views from different windows are different lives.

What happens when the blinds of a window go down? You continue to observe reality from the other windows. What happens when a person dies? Consciousness continues to observe reality from other eyes. What happens after you die? You continue to live, as another person - actually, you continue to live as every other person. You continue to live a myriad of parallel lives, forever and ever. Your lives are not conscious of each other, but are yours in a fundamental sense.

There is a Facebook group for discussing Open Individualism. Once, a member of the group died. The other members discussed the best ways to honor him, and the consensus was that everyone should try to live a good and happy life. If you are satisfied and happy, then he is satisfied and happy, because he continues to live as you. And me. And everyone else.

I don't think Open Individualism can be "demonstrated," because accepting its premises is a largely matter of personal choice (more about that to follow). At the same time, modern physics gives a certain plausibility, sort of, to the idea that consciousness is One. For example, the correlations between two entangled particles with a space-like separation (each is out of the light cone of the other), which cannot be explained by speed-of-light signaling between two separate parts of the physical universe, tell us that the two particles are really one in some sense that our everyday intuition is not equipped to visualize.

As long as the two entangled particles are not observed, they are in a weird global quantum state (for example a superposition of entangled spin-up and spin-down states of each particle, A-up and B-down plus A-down and B-up, impossible to visualize). According to the popular Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, the weird quantum state "collapses" as soon as it is observed. So the first observation (for example of particle A) defines the result of a future observation of the other particle. But if the separation between A and B is space-like, according to Einstein there is another, equally valid frame of reference, where the observation of B comes first. So we cannot say which observer, A or B, collapses the system. This seems to say that, in some sense, also the two observers are really one.

There is a simple way to formulate this concept that does not involve weird physics. The observation that “I am,” the bare feeling of existence, may be the same for everyone. I first encountered this intriguing thought in Rudy Rucker's "Infinity and the Mind" [Rucker 1982].

Back to personal choice, the question isn't who you will be after death, but who you want to be. If you identify with your current body, memories and thoughts (a single box in Kolak's model universe), then Open Individualism doesn't offer a new life waiting for you after death. But if you choose to identify as a man living in the early 21st century who loves children and little dogs and science fiction and metaphysics, or just a crew member of Spaceship Earth en-route toward unknown cosmic futures, then there will be a wide range of towers and boxes for you. Isn't it obviously, trivially true that you will live again?

I tend to find Open Individualism persuasive. Following Kolak I am persuaded that, even if no higher power is going to resurrect or reincarnate me, other instances of me will live again, who won't remember having been me. But perhaps they will be Open Individualists, find me in some old Facebook archeology records of the 21st century, and accept me as one of their past selves.

Of course, I would prefer being resurrected with all my thoughts, feelings and memories, together with my loved ones. As I say above, I am persuaded that future science and technology will permit resurrecting the dead. I am hopeful, I really am, but resurrection science can only be developed in the far future, by our post-human mind children who will colonize the universe.

Back to Earth, here and now, Open Individualism as a practical philosophy can make an important positive difference in our lives. If you think that other people are you, you will not harm them, because you would be harming yourself. On the contrary, you will be kind and compassionate to them - to all other instances of you. I can see that suspending disbelief in Open Individualism has a positive impact on my attitude - and, what's really important, behavior - toward others. Open Individualists cherish the future, because that's the place where they will continue to live after death, and strive to create a better world for everyone, and then onward to the stars.


[Kolak 2004] - Kolak, Daniel. I Am You: The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Synthese Library, Springer.

[Rucker 1982] Rucker, Rudy. Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.


Take the sentence, “I tend to find Open Individualism persuasive.”

I, that is to say the physical human being typing this comment, am inclined to read that sentence as referring to you, the physical human being who goes by the name of Giulio Prisco and who presumably (I suppose you don’t have a ghost-writer!) authored this article.

And if that is, as I suspect, the sense you intended to convey, then you were writing from a perspective of Closed Individualism, not Open Individualism.

Perhaps I really need to read Kolak (and by that I really do mean me, this physical human being that is typing this comment, or more precisely some future version of me), but the above is intended to illustrate why I think seriously buying into OI would make conversation, and indeed any kind of practical living, essentially impossible.

Actually I think what we are really doing when we take OI seriously is to apply the usual psychological process of self-identification to something other than our physical, bodily selves. And the more we do it, the more it becomes a habit, and the more we get used to conflating our own consciousness (that is to say, the process of consciousness occurring within our own head) with consciousness in general. And one advantage of this may indeed be that we can find comfort in the idea that “we”, in this extended sense, will carry on after “we”, in the closed, individualistic sense, have kicked the proverbial bucket.

But this is basically terror management, and while some of us might find it useful I think we need to be cautious as to the conclusions that we allow ourselves to draw - and encourage others to draw - from it. Rather than thinking about who we might want to be after we die, why not simply think about how we would like the universe to evolve, both before and after we die?

I might, for example, get run over on the way to the gym later this morning. I would prefer that not to happen, of course, and there are things I can do to make it less likely. More positively, I want to arrive safely at the gym and leave it, a hour or so later, feeling well-exercised and generally enjoying the endorphins. But I can also have preferences about what might happen if I do meet with some grisly fate. For example, I can hope that the London Futurist meet-up tomorrow, which I was otherwise planning to attend, will be very stimulating for all concerned. And that my loved ones will cope well with their grief, and the logistical nightmare they will no doubt experience.

OK this is getting morbid, but you see my point? You really don’t need to buy in to OI to care about what will happen after you are gone. What you can do, of course, is to look after yourself, attempt to stay young and healthy, to the extent that circumstances allow, and try to do some good along the way. And generally get better at managing fear.

Hi Peter, as you say, we are only able to talk about OI using CI terms and language.

That reminds me of quantum and classical physics. We consider quantum physics as a better approximation to fundamental stuff, but we are only able to talk of quantum physics using classical terms and language. Two entangled particles, one here and one there, don’t follow classical physics… but “particle,” “here,” and “there” are classical terms and concepts.

We just don’t know how to talk quantum, because we didn’t evolve that way. Our mental categories aren’t designed for Das Ding an Sich.

I suspect something similar is at work here.

Your “terror management” point is good, but how does it get us through the night? I would like the universe to evolve with me, my sweet doggy and all my loved ones in it. We all need ways to cope with despair, not only for our own well-being, but also to be better able to do some good along the way. OI as a weak but acceptable form of continuation, and weird ideas about stronger forms of continuation via technological resurrection, are my ways to cope.

Fair enough.

Regarding the “we didn’t evolve that way” point, though, I’m a bit sceptical about the idea that we can’t “talk quantum” because of that. Maybe we just haven’t yet developed the right vocabulary and linguistic habits? After all, I am not a rock, but I can still talk about rocks. So why shouldn’t I be able to get my head around quantum weirdness? What I obviously can’t do is to gain an understanding of something at a greater level of complexity than my own brain. Any knowledge I have is a mental object existing within my own brain, so it cannot be more complex than my brain. This obviously limits how much I, as a single, unenhanced individual, can understand about the universe. But I don’t see any fundamental reason why we should find the quantum world instrincally difficult to understand. I suspect we just need to let go of some of our existing intuitions, and design some good experiments.

@Peter - I think it may be deeper than that and we might need more than new vocabulary and linguistic habits to make full sense of quantum weirdness.

I see quantum weirdness as an indication that Kant was essentially correct in considering space, time, causation, and other basic building blocks of our understanding of the world, as properties of our mental architecture rather than of “Das Ding An Sich” (The Thing Itself).

Think of a computer program that receives a continuous string of bits as input and organizes it as 2-dimensional rectangular matrices of 3 x 4 elements. The numbers 2, 3, and 4, are not in the input string of bits, but in the program. Another program with, say, 3, 4, 5, and 6, would build very different models of reality.

I guess future AIs built with different parameters will see the world in different ways and help us see deeper in The Thing Itself.

(which, by the way, is the title of a recent, related and highly recommended novel:

I think I more or less agree. But the language we use is important, since it has a huge influence on the mental architecture through which we perceive the world. By using language differently, we perceive the world differently. To achieve new understanding, we need new semantic strategies, and perhaps also new grammar. The exciting thing is that this opens up the possibility to arrive at radically new perspectives, even with existing brains. (After all, our brains are not significantly different to those of our Stone Age ancestors in terms of basic structure, but they would be completely incapable of understanding things as we do, because they would lack the relevant semantic categories.)

I find the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (language shapes thought) very persuasive, but all human language (that I am aware of) cut the world in space-time-causality categories, which makes me think that these categories are built very deeply in our common mental architecture.

That’s why I think radically different modes of perception, and languages to express them, will be developed in AIs first. But then, I guess humans with AI implants could access the new modes of perception and languages.

Admins, where is “Edit”? We need it to correct typos! Please restore!

To edit, click on “complete entry” below the article. Then the edit buttons reappear.

I suspect that space-time-causality is universal in human language and culture because it is such a fundamental part of the world we inhabit. Also, without causality there is no basis for action. (I write these words in part because I think you will see them, and be influenced by them. Without causality, this kind of rationale would not exist.) That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine or envisage a world without these things. (If it did, none of us would be mathematicians.)

Of course, AI implants might well help us to see things in new ways, ways that we would be incapable of seeing, or at least unlikely to see, otherwise. That said, I suspect that causality will endure to the very end. Acausal models of reality are, almost by definition, dead ends.

Chicken and egg, causation loops… you can read a loop starting anywhere. General relativity admits time loops where events in the future can “cause” events in the past..  I don’t have a new model of reality to propose, just a hunch that The Thing Itself is more complex than any model.

Well yes, absolutely. The Thing must always be more complex than any model of it.

Re causation loops, this would mply that whatever we do we are constrained to stay within the loop. This is not evidence against such loops, but it would have important ethical implications. Essentially it would imply that we don’t really have any power to influence the future. You could say that a many worlds view has the same effect: by acting in a certain way you can influence which future you end up in, but the other futures still exist. But that’s already something; with causal loops, you seem to lose even that. Unless you can somehow influence the way in which you go round the loop. Fortunately I don’t see any real evidence that we are in one, even if GR admits them in principle.

I guess my main point here is that we need to think about the practical implications of the theories we are espousing or discussing, i.e. what it would mean to act in a way that is consistent with those beliefs. Until such time I am willing adjust my behavior accordingly, I prefer to profess the belief system that I currently put into practice, namely that of a Closed Individualist who believe in an open, undetermined future. Indeed, I would find genuine evidence against that position depressing and disturbing, rather than reassuring. But I guess that to some extent reflects my specific sensitivities.

@instamatic - OI doesn’t affirm individual resurrection in any sense close to the traditional one. Rather, it says that consciousness is one (and therefore subjective experience is one), and watches the world from infinitely many windows in parallel, each window a conscious being. We see only one window at a time.

Whereas in CI, we ARE those windows.
(And that position is far more consistent with the way we generally use language, and indeed must use language if we are to think and communicate effectively.)

Of course both positions could be “true” (whatever that means) in different senses. Is water a liquid or a solid? The CI-equivalent position says it’s a liquid, and that’s indeed the way we commonly use the term “water.” The OI-equivalent position says it’s a solid, and produces ice cubes as evidence. Both positions can be defended, because both a liquid and a solid can be called “water.”

I was really enjoying this pristine, ethereal philosophical discussion, but I (and everyone in Europe) just heard a very loud wake-up call.

I heard it first from you, Giulio. Fortunately, Nancy and I are safe and sound at home.

I’m reminded, though, of a conversation we had recently with a friend, who had a less sheltered childhood than I did. We were talking about Brexit (!), and I pointed out that I thought the world was in danger of heading towards a very dark place. Our friend felt compelled to remind me that, for many people, the world was already in a dark place.

Well, the darkness has now come to Brussels, and it will strike elsewhere from time to time, even in place where it is not (yet) a reality of daily life. It’s not going away any time soon. And how will our political systems react?

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