Don’t Worry, You’re Used to Dying
A five-minute thought experiment I’ve found more enlightening than years of meditation
It’s the year 2120. Everybody is vegan, the English language has been largely replaced by memes, and your kids are struggling influencers. You’re the superintendent of a Bitcoin-mining facility, owned by an eccentric cryptocurrency zillionaire who took the slogan “to the Moon” a tad too seriously — the factory is literally on the rocky satellite.
Not that you’re complaining — it’s good money — but the Earth-to-Moon commute has been killing you for years. Almost literally. There are so many of these goddamn floating Tesla Roadsters zooming about that the company had to hire Chewbacca himself to maneuver the spaceship through the traffic. Just last week the famous Wookie pilot, along with half of your colleagues, was wiped out in an incident involving a randomly exploding Tesla.
In response to the public outcry, your crypto zillionaire boss decided to make a belated investment in a teleportation device. Naturally, you’re stoked. What used to be a hazardous three-day journey is now a mere digression in your day, barely an inconvenience at all. The user experience is almost uncanny — you enter a windowless telephone-booth-like apparatus on Earth, and exit it moments later, already on the Moon. How does it operate? A trade secret, you’re told.
Then, one day, a whistleblower exposes it all. And you’re appalled.
As revealed by his account, the device scans your entire body from head to toe, accounting for the location of every atom of every cell. It relays this data, terabytes of it, to a similar device on the Moon, which proceeds to re-create you, from head to toe, using its local sources of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements. It’s not a transportation device at all. It’s a 3D printing biological fax machine.
But what do they do with the original you, the one that walks into the device? They kill it! You are vaporized the instant your clone has materialized on the Moon.
With the initial debilitating shock waning, your mind starts to race. How could you have missed it? How is your consciousness not aware of the monstrosities it has been subjected to? Surely you’d sense some discontinuity in your being, some instability in the elusive entity dubbed “the self,” in response to being killed and re-created thousands of times?
The answer, of course, is obvious. You are merely a particular arrangement of atoms. This was as true in 2019 as it is in 2120. Your thoughts, feelings, and memories are all a function of a specific configuration of your neurons. Since the relative positions of the clone’s cells are exactly as they are in the original’s, the former has no way of differentiating himself from the latter. As far as the duplicate is concerned, he entered the machine on one planet and exited it on another, oblivious of the fact that he came into being just moments ago. His memories are identical to yours, and he can contemplate his years as vividly as any other human.
Then you start to question your whole reality. Every memory that you have — of your first love, of your fears and desires, of your children — has been rendered repulsive. Is it really you who inhabits this body? Was the real you killed long ago, leaving behind an endless succession of frauds? Are you a shell around the soul of another person?
You begin to fall into despair. Your head starts spinning. Your mouth starts drooling. Your legs give out.
The next time you open your eyes, you are lying in a hospital bed. The doctor informs you that you fainted, hitting your head in the process. Nothing major, you’re reassured, but they did have to replace some of your irreparably damaged neurons with synthetic ones. Is this a joke? You’ve been murdering yourself twice a day, and she’s soothing you about some standard medical procedure? Come on.
But suddenly, you’re hit with a powerful realization. An epiphany.
Even without venturing into science fiction, it’s clear our brains are in a continuous state of flux, death, and regeneration.
Cloning your brain in its entirety and annihilating the original copy is functionally no different from replacing your neurons one-by-one. If you are content with the second procedure, you ought to agree to undergo the first. The difference is as minuscule as clipping a nail versus cutting it off with scissors. One process is almost instantaneous, while in the other is gradual, but the result of either is the same chip of a nail.
Even without venturing into science fiction, it’s clear our brains are in a continuous state of flux, death, and regeneration. With every passing day, new neuronal connections are made and old ones are purged. As an infant, you only had a fraction of the neurons you do now, and as you age, you’ll be prone to forget even the most precious of your memories.
Thus, “there is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next,” as the neuroscientist-turned-author Sam Harris put it in his book Waking Up. The continuous, unending stream of experiences you perceive yourself to have is merely a very persistent illusion. In reality, you are a discrete state at a particular moment in time, a single flicker of light. Indeed, like a burst of luminosity from a flickering lamp, you shine just for an instant, only to go out and make way for another you.
Realizing this quirk of the universe, internalizing its implications, a sense of calm rushes over you. No longer blinded by ignorance, you have come to terms with the fact that the teletransporter is no more invasive than nature itself. You are ready to step into the apparatus for your morning commute once more. To die, and to be reborn.
Years later, well into retirement, you are given a few weeks to live. Cancer. The doctor who delivered the news looks at you probingly, waiting for a reaction.
But how do you respond to a man who has just told you something as insignificant as this? You have died millions of deaths. Dying is as routine to you as breathing.
You don’t greet the news with the panic, hysteria, denial, or anger the doctor expects. Instead you respond with just a mild, knowing smile.