Would Death Be Easier If You Know You've Been Cloned?

By Malcolm MacIver | December 27, 2010 12:41 pm

It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.

A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.

So Sam tricks GERTY into letting him go out of the station in one of the rovers. He finds the first Sam who has crashed and brings him back to nurse him to health. The new Sam decides that chronic communication difficulties—which have only permitted seeing previously recorded messages from his wife and daughter waiting for him to return back on Earth—might be an elaborate deception. He goes far enough off base to get outside of the range of jamming antennas and calls back home to Earth to discover his daughter, who was an infant in the pre-recorded messages, is now a teenager, his wife is now dead—and her father Sam is there on Earth.

The sinister truth of the helium-3 base is now fully disclosed. What is actually happening is that the “first” Sam was himself a clone (where this means everything, including all his memories, not simply a genetic clone). Evidently, the copying occurred early in Sam 1’s stay at the station. Each clone is awakened with the thought of returning home to his family in three years. What actually happens at the end of those three years is that the clone is incinerated in the return capsule, and a new clone is awakened, to begin the cycle anew.

Near the end of the film comes a striking moment. The Sam that nearly died in the earlier crash has gotten increasingly sick and will die soon. The two Sams realize that the bosses of the station are coming to kill both of them and activate a new clone. They hatch a plan that has one of them leaving back to Earth in one of the helium-3 delivery shuttles. After newly awakened Sam tells dying Sam that he deserves to go back—“you did the three years”—dying Sam disagrees, and tells new Sam that he should return to Earth, because dying Sam is too sick to make it. This is a really powerful moment in the film, and our feelings about it are helpful in untangling our own mangle of thoughts about identity and death.

Dying Sam’s sacrifice seems less significant than, say, me telling an unrelated co-worker to take the capsule home. There are suggestive biological resonances to this feeling. Think of how, in social insects like bees, individuals give up the right to reproduce in order to facilitate the genetic continuity of individuals that they are closely related to. So, would the fact that you have a copy of yourself, which diverged from you even quite some while back (in this case, three years of solitude on a Moon base), ease your anxiety about dying?

Consider the following thought experiment. Rather than three-year stints, the clones of Moon get replaced on a 24-hour cycle. You fall asleep. Your memories and any other physical changes from the “base copy” get noted and propagated to a new clone. You are then, in Moon-like fashion, vaporized, and in the morning, a new clone is awakened after these changes have been “installed.” You awake, none the wiser for this change in body. Consciousness is not continuous, of course, and discontinuities such as sleep are natural places where we can do the “body change” business with minimal mess (not unlike what was depicted in the fantastic sci-fi film Dark City). The gap between what actually happens in sleep and this scenario seems too small to quibble over. Or is it?

As experiences and other physical changes separate you from your base clone as weeks, months, and years pass, your ability to separate your own identity from that of the clone grows similarly. It is like a core scene in the play “On Ego,” when a Star Trek-like teleporter fails to vaporize the original version of the protagonist. So two protagonists now exist. From that moment forward what was once one person is now two people, with increasingly different senses of self and experiences.

Your sense of how much you would sacrifice for your copy might be a good test for how different you feel from him or her. Your sense of how much comfort you would feel in dying, knowing that this other version of you lives on, might be another good test for how much of your identity has leaked out of the lump of tissue that has hitherto conveniently been bounded off by your jacket of skin. Perhaps in the first few days after such a teleporter accident, you would feel you could give up your life for your copy (and be relaxed about the idea of dying so that one of you can go on); after a few weeks, maybe something less than your life, and after some years of passed, perhaps you’d feel you could sacrifice nothing more than you would sacrifice for a close friend. (Topic for a future movie and post: Does forming a close friendship involve blurring and merging of your two identities?)

Here’s some final thought experiments for you to puzzle over. The great anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote in her paper “The Forensic Self,”

[In] western culture, whatever we say seriously about persons and selfhood needs to some extent to be compatible with what a jury in a court of law will accept.

For a graduate degree in philosophy with Ian Hacking many years ago, I once applied this idea to the issue of multiple personality disorder (MPD), to see how the judicial system dealt with defenses of MPD. The courts have mostly taken a view most eloquently put by Judge Birdsong in the case of Georgia v. Kirkland: “…we will not begin to parcel criminal accountability out among the various inhabitants of the mind.”

Rather than MPD, let’s see where we get when we apply Douglas’ insight to the problem of multiple person disorder: having multiple copies of yourself present at once. What if, just prior to copying, one of you formed a criminal intent. Because of slightly different post-copying existences, one of you now decide to stop the other. Would it be ethical to kill your copy? What would ethics require of how you treat one another? After all, we have sometimes odd ideas of what we are allowed to do to ourselves: Yes to smoking ourselves to death, no to elective limb amputations. These confusions would only be amplified by the peculiar situation of having multiple person disorder. Or being the victim of a sinister plot by Lunar Industries on the Moon.


Comments (16)

  1. I’m strangely reminded of David Rorvik’s book In his Image The Cloning of a Man, published way back in 1978…

  2. John M

    The sacrifice isn’t as great as you suggest. From my memory of the movie, a clone only *lasts* three years. They gradually get sick and put themselves in the chamber to be put into suspended animation to be healed later, but are disintegrated instead. The first clone wouldn’t survive much beyond the return to earth.
    Moon was a great movie. The sets were charming and fun, strongly reminiscent of 2001 or a cleaner Alien. Its plot holes are acceptable. There are several points that could have been made to make it a stronger movie. For example, if the Sams talked about the three-year limit and their shared goal of revenge, then older Sam’s sacrifice would be seen as a vengeful strike against The Man. Strike that, that would be a worse movie.
    Originally I thought they were going to play up the “who is this second Sam?” angle, as in a hallucination or madness. I thought the movie played it pretty much like both Sams were real physical beings, if unexplained. Perhaps this thread if introduced would have made the plot more strained, but I love madness in movies and so hoped anyway :)

    Any story that makes you think about variations is a good one, in my book.

    Side node: I’d acquired Mansell’s soundtrack for “Moon” , but made a mistake. I loved it, as it repeats a single note in two octaves, thus giving the “one man is two” idea. The haunting “Together we will live forever” track is wistful and strong. My mistake was… that’s not the soundtrack for Moon, it’s for “The Fountain!” Consider getting the soundtrack and see if you agree it fits. (Tracks are on Youtube.)

    love the blog — thanks for posting!

  3. Jumblepudding

    I always had nightmares about being cloned, even farming ‘selves’ in tanks for use as organ donors and feeling a really intense guilt and horror. The feeling the movie The Prestige gave me came very close to those nightmares.

  4. Nullius in Verba

    The Everett-Wheeler (“many worlds”) interpretation of quantum mechanics says you get “cloned” trillions of times every second, each one living increasingly divergent lives.

    And in quantum field theory, every particle is only the long-term average of a frantic, fractal blaze of virtual-particle creation and destruction down at the Planck scale – so in a sense you are continually being destroyed and recreated 10^43 times a second.

    Not to mention the much more mundane business of cell growth, digestion and excretion that makes us physically a very different being to the one we were when we were born. (Much bigger for a start!) Would it make you feel better to know that all the cells of your body will be replaced one by one as they die, so that another you with your memories (some of them) carries on, thinking they’re you? Do you think the child you would have been comforted to know that they’ll be replaced by some stranger of an adult? (You.)

    The philosophy of identity has got a lot weirder stuff in it than just cloning.

  5. guest

    Did you just give away the ending of the movie with that banner picture? I haven’t seen it yet.

  6. Matt

    I loved the blog post and the movie, but I’m glad I’d already seen it, because you kind of spoil a lot of Moon with your title.

  7. Armand


    The fact that you’re identical is irrelevant. You still have completely seperate consciousnesses. I cannot experience consciousness through my clone, nor he through me. If I die, I lose consciousnesses, and the fact that my clone could still be conscious doesn’t do me any good. This would still apply even if I was killed first and my clone was created after my death, because there is no continuity of conciousness (And you don’t lose continuity during sleep. Your brain is still active, and you can even have conscious experiences; dreams). A clone or AI programmed to behave exactly like me is still not me, ergo any form of mindclone would not be a form of immortality. It would have to be mind transfer, where continuity of consciousness was preserved, such as gradually replacing brain cells with nanites.

    So no, having a clone would not make death easier, and I don’t know why I have to keep explaining this to Transhumanists.

  8. @Armand:


    You don’t “have to keep explaining this to transhumanists.” We get it. Really. Some of us even agree with you. However, many of us (including me) disagree with that stance for reasons which have nothing to do with a lack of understanding.

    It’s a philosophical question hinging on one’s internal definition of “self”. Your definition requires continuity within your own instance. The other definition (I realize I’m creating a false dichotomy here for the sake of ease of communication.) sees identity as a neural pattern or range of neural patterns. As long as lineage between patterns is maintained then each individual instance has equal claim to the title of “me”. I say “range of patterns” because while I am very different now than I was when I was 18, I was still “me” in both cases.

    For you the fact that two instances are identical is irrelevant. To me the continuity of a single physical instance is irrelevant, because it’s the dynamic pattern that makes the person. We see it much like software. If I have a program installed on one machine, and install that same program on a different machine, neither copy is more “real”, and they both remain the same program even though they may be configured differently. To push the analogy a bit further, even as one of the instances I’m comfortable recognizing the equal legitimacy of other instances of me, to the point where unless there are extenuating circumstances I would have zero preference over “which me” survives in a situation where one must be sacrificed to preserve another. Extenuating circumstances might include one instance having developed a valuable skill or having either more memories or more significant memories than another.

    I honestly think that resistance to this idea is nothing more than the result of us having evolved in a world where there is only ever one instance of each of us. As technology advances to the point where this question is no longer hypothetical (assuming it ever does) I hope that our thinking will gradually catch up with it and overcome the instinctive revulsion that many people have to the idea.

  9. Armand

    @ Datan0de

    I apologize if my first post came across as condescending, it’s just that I adamantly believe in my philosophy of self. To me it seems obvious that existence is conscious experience, and since I and my mindclone experience consciousness seperately, we are clearly two different people. A mind is qualitatively different from mere software. Though millions of copies of books may all have the same story, since a mind must be conscious, and consciousness cannot be shared, even between identical minds, each occurence of a mind is a seperate individual. If mindclones ever do come into existence, I think it will be obvious that they are seperate people, since your interactions with one mindclone will not carry over to the others. i.e anything you discuss with one clone will not be automatically known to the others. They’re obviously seperate people just as identical twins are seperate people.

  10. Malcolm MacIver

    Going back to the copy of a book analogy from the earlier post (http://is.gd/jOLh9) the argument that identical copies can be made does not mean that the various copies are one and the same object. Similarly, existence of “mindclones” does not mean that the different mindclones have one and the same consciousness. They are different instantiations of one and the same initial pattern. But because, unlike a book, they are dynamically changing, the instant the copying is completed, they start to diverge. Initially, and potentially for quite some time if the inputs are similar, the responses of these two minds will be very similar.

    So now, given this, there are some conclusions at odds with the intuition that “you” would come to an end should you be killed and your mindclone come into being (though I have problems with the concept of “mindclone” I’ll get to in a bit). Before I get to those, I need to clarify one thing: it simply isn’t true that you are continually conscious. This is under most standard definitions of consciousness out there. For example, we are all comfortable with saying that under general anesthesia, we lose consciousness. In all important respects, this is no different from most states of sleep. So, suppose you go into one such state of sleep. Then I make a mindlclone. Then I kill you, and your mindclone awakes. Continuity of pattern is preserved; and there is no confusing second consciousness to concern ourselves with. I don’t know on what basis you would claim not to be you, unless you had a particular affinity for the particular kind of tissue that all the dynamic patterns that make you are running on (the hardware). I’ll argue below that we need to properly copy the hardware too — but there’s no basis for saying that it has to be the original hardware and no other.

    What I refer to as Multiple Person Disorder is a side effect of keeping all the copies around. Given our that our social life, family dynamics, laws and so on are all geared around single instances of a person, this would lead to problems (nicely explored in the play On Ego http://is.gd/jOPse). The problem is not alleviated by pointing out that each person has a separate consciousness. It seems obvious that for a while, at least, clones would be easily mistaken — much more so than are identical twins. This is true even though they are having different experiences from the moment the cloning has occurred. In the my post, and in the movie, the interesting question then becomes how much would you sacrifice for this nearly identical other, and to what extent would you put the continuity of your particular instance ahead of the other instance(s). Like Datanode, to the extent that I have not diverged from my other copies, I don’t see why I would have any particular allegiance to which version of me survives in a situation in which for some reason all but one copy has to be killed. But as I get more and more dissimilar from my other instances, I would become more and more uncomfortable with giving up my existence for another instance.

    But one thing to be clear about is that selves are all bound up with having a body, and a particular one at that. So mindcloning is not sufficient to maintain self. Having your mindclone put into a different body would be as alarming as suddenly being paralyzed. While “you” could sustain this for a little while, after a few months of being paralyzed, you’d be a different person in some respects. So too if your mindclone was put into a different body. With all that we understand about the interconnections between brain activity and body activity there’s simply no rational basis for the mind-body dualism that is pervasive in our culture. We need to make distinctions and simplifications to be able to think at all, but that particular distinction is counterproductive.

  11. I’m with Armand on this one. The clones are two different people. They experience the world differently and one’s sacrifice for the other would be the same as sacrificing yourself for your twin brother.

  12. Matt B.

    Either subjunctive, “Would Death Be Easier If You Knew You’d Been Cloned?” or conditional, “Will Death Be Easier If You Know You’ve Been Cloned?” Pick a side–we’re at war.

  13. Has you ever thinked that in one human life are many diferents no comunicated?Childhood and senesence are extreme but are most in the life.You can remember as was your life as child but now you are other diferent people.All you parameters inside and outside has changed.Issues as dead or love are facts who change with age.Are no connection in this 2 worlds are closed boxes.Life in this sence has no continuity except as biological fact,but mindincluding emotions? is other matter.

  14. Malcom MacIver makes some very good points. A conclusion that I think can be reasonably drawn is that “self” vs “not self” is ultimately a false dichotomy. The “me-ness” of a particular instance of me would depend on the degree to which that instance had diverged from another instance.

    Neuroscientist Sebastian Seung has an excellent TED talk called “I Am My Connectome” that indirectly addresses this very issue, and articulates it far better than I could hope to. Regardless of where you stand on the question, I think it’s well worth watching:

  15. I thought I would share an interesting experiment in quantum theory I tried in regards to the infinite array of realities constantly splitting any time the smallest choice is made. The thought occured to me that our consciousness might be made up of more than one instance of ourselves. Think of it like an array of frequencies, and imagine the frequencies closest to each other overlapping realities. I wondered what would happen if I began concentrating on a single thought, any thought, but with the intent and expectation that all of the other me’s constantly splitting into new frequencies would also focus on the same thought. Would the focus of a wider array of realities affect the way I was percieved as well as how I percieve? I tested this idea with some of my families pets, concentrating on them with the focus of any future split off’s joining the experiment. I tried to look at them just as I normally would so that their reaction wouldn’t be the result of some human staring at them like a wide-eyed madman. In each instance the cats or dogs would immedietly come over and visit me, which they don’t do when I just look at them without the intent of focusing an array of me’s at them.

    Perhaps that is the same thing as meditation; trying to connect your consciousness to a wider field of frequencies to experience a more focused reality.

    Thanks for the mind candy!

  16. Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is magnificent, let alone the content!


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