I read the above comic, something which turned out to be a mistake because I have just enough understanding of physics, and philosophy to follow its line of reasoning, but not anywhere near enough to say if the scenario that presents for sleep, and survival of the self through the unconscious part of it is true, or just a thought experiment, and theory.

After having read it, I have some very rough nights, with the concept that if I fall asleep I die making it hard to fall asleep.

I understand that the creator of the comic is not arguing that falling asleep or losing ones stream of consciousness, but as I cannot imagine surviving the transporter, I suddenly find myself unsure if I can survive periods of unconsciousness.

Is unconsciousness during sleep something that a person should realistically fear? Obviously the body itself survives, as do the memories with one waking up -feeling- they are the same self that fell asleep. They will qualitatively be the same, but so too would the person emerging form a transponder. I am interested in if the person that wakes up is not just qualitatively similar, but numerically the same person that falls asleep? The survival of someone like me is irrelevant where this is concerned. My survival is what I am concerned about. As I imagine most other people are too.

On level of intuition, for me survival of both the body, brain, and memories seems important, but I dont know if they actually are.

Cheers! Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.

  • According to Locke, personal identity (the self) "depends on consciousness, not on substance" nor on the soul. We are the same person to the extent that we are conscious of the past and future thoughts and actions in the same way as we are conscious of present thoughts and actions. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_identity
    – user47436
    Aug 23 '20 at 12:50
  • Meaning personal identity persists only the spam of one stream of conciousnes? Or that we are the same person in locke view so long as we remember the past? I dont fully understand what he means by concious of future thoughts?
    – user48033
    Aug 23 '20 at 12:58
  • Locke said:consciousness as that“whereby I am my self to my self,”and then continues by saying,If there be any part of its Existence,which I cannot upon recollection join with that present consciousness, whereby I am now my self, it is in that part of its Existence no more my self, than any other immaterial Being.For whatever any Substance has thought or done, which I cannot recollect,and by my consciousness make my own Thought and Action,it will no more belong to me, whether a part of me thought or did it,than if it had been thought or done by any other immaterial being any where existing
    – user47436
    Aug 23 '20 at 13:14
  • Hume begins his discussion of personal identity by, strikingly, denying that we have any idea of the self: “There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment conscious of what we cal our self; that we feel its existence and continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. ...[But] from what impression could this idea be deriv’d? ..
    – user47436
    Aug 23 '20 at 13:18
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    It has had me legitmately scared to sleep since i heard that, but understanding that your numerically unique body survives, never turns off and the brain that create conciousness never loses its potential for conciousness even while unconcious. Tononis research has the brain becoming less integrated when you fall asleep, and more integrated when you wake up. Even still the thought of sleep deeply unnerves me. I dont think I will sleep unaided until I resolve this somehow.
    – user48033
    Aug 24 '20 at 21:49

This is the thread that Buddhism uses to unravel our intuitions about the self, what is called the conventional self. Buddhism is often caricatured as saying 'the self is an illusion', but that is a misunderstanding of the real doctrine, 'anatta' or anatman, which says we have no permanent, unchanging self, no essential nature, and who we are always depends on causes and conditions, it is dynamic, and an interaction. This is powerfully captured in the metaphor for dependent-arising Indra's Net. Most of human evil is linked in Buddhist thought, to seeking personal immortality or permanence, in a world where this is fundamentally impossible (see anatta as one of the Three Marks of Existence, as fundamental and unavoidable, even to deities), rather than through service to others and seeking the wellbeing of all creatures (the bodhisattva path, manifesting boddhicitta). I see this as elegantly framed for a modern Western audience, in this analysis of whether a truly anti war film is possible, which it links to hero systems, and grasping for notions of immortality.

The Buddhist approach to the self is paralleled in Western thought by bundle theory, which originated with David Hume.

And the idea found also in Buddhism that we can use the contrast of being asleep to being awake, to understand being more awake than normal consciousness, is found in Integrated Information Theory, which is being used as a model to try to understand different types of unconsciousness experimentally.

The idea of substrate independence, can help us understand identity can exist as systems of interactions, or what Douglas Hofstadter calls 'strange loops'. Substrate independence is underpinned by Turing equivalence, the idea that any system capable of expressing certain basic relationships, can simulate any other, as illustrated in XKCD, even a bunch of rocks.

Continuity is a matter of degree, not only the person who wakes up tomorrow, but each thought, is an expression of a different person. And yet, even after we die, some continuity remains, as our unresolved conflicts and attachments that we use to define ourselves, are taken up by new subjectivities, or points of view.


Your question begs the preliminary question, what is the self?

Modern neuroscience supports the idea of it being a mental construct produced by the brain as a kind of coat rack for all the things going on within it and associated with your physical senses. Clearly, the propensity to build such a model is genetically encoded and unavoidable. However some meditation adepts claim to be able to bring it to a temporary standstill, and some may refer to this mental state as "nirvana" or "enlightenment".

Much high-level neural processing can take place subconsciously. Indeed, many if not all thoughts which rise to consciousness were in fact subconsciously decided upon perhaps a second or so previously; for example the intention to press a button may arise around that length of time before you become aware of your decision. However a practiced reflex action, say a racing driver changing gear, may happen considerably faster. Your brain plays tricks on itself to synchronise it all into a seamless whole (much as a digital video player must synchronise its visual and audio output signals following processing at different speeds).

What seems to be happening is that the skimmings of this subconscious life get injected into a certain area of the brain which, uniquely, generates the qualia of conscious experience. Thus, the self we experience (and instinctively believe in) is just a summary model of the "true" self maintained by the subconscious brain.

The experience of continuity is an artefact of the brain's model (even the hardware divides into into short-, medium- and long-term memory architectures), which enables it to sort memories into temporal order and thus build a useful model of past and present events. We only feel the same person each morning because the brain reloads sufficient memories to make sense of waking up, much like logging back in to your user account at work and seeing the familiar desktop.

Now, you ask, when this lot gets shut down and rebooted, perhaps even cloned, is it the "same" self? I hope you can see by now that the "atomic" self we experience and instinctively believe in is over-simplified, and clinging to it is unhelpful. The roots of your self are the mental model and associated memories. Boot those on any suitably architected platform, be it hard- or wetware, a clone perhaps, and it will feel like the same old you. But any clone's experiences and hence recent memories will immediately diverge to become patently different selves. Kill off the ones with the longest memories and you have killed off your old self, but you can let them live if you want to. Either way, you are still your new self.

So there it is; the atomic and continuous self you agonise over is a delusion; It vanishes when you go to sleep and gets rebooted afresh for every dream and every morning. The self which underpins it is contingent on its past and survives the night. A clone may be regarded initially as a new "instance" of the saved self, but immediately diverges as a new one. The relationship of the self to those elusive qualities of conscious experience remains the hardest problem in the philosophy of mind: all bets are off.


From a four-dimensionalist POV, I think you might represent periods of unconsciousness as holes in an object. Now, holes pose a whole load of philosophy questions themselves 😅 but the parts of a block of Swiss cheese are still Swiss and still connected, notwithstanding there being air-filled holes in them. (Or water-filled, if we put the block in water; or oil-filled, or mayonnaise-filled... Imagine the ontological status of a block of frozen Swiss in a pool of melted Swiss, eventually the block and pool will meld, but until then...?)

The "hole" of an unconscious moment might look, though, more like a separation of a block entirely. However, absolute unconsciousness is unprovable, so I would suggest higher-dimensional jumps and tethers as ways in which a linear temporal hole is bypassed vs. the dread of dissolution.

  • This comments helps quiet a bit. Do you know if seeing yourself as a process of physical, mental etc elements is common or widespread? On level of intuition both physical and mental continuation seems important for survival. This example seems to be even more relevant if we assume we are in a computer simulation, or being with a soul acting as a numerically deaignator. Sometime we are something that is awake and concious, and some times we are something that is unconcious.
    – user48033
    Aug 24 '20 at 21:53
  • This answer puts me in mind of electron-hole quasiparticles.. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quasiparticle If you look at at split-brain experiments, we find roughly half the brain focuses on constructing the world, and half on the self. Isn't there a parallel, between operating our waking mental circuits, and dreaming new ones into existence?
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 3 '21 at 2:06

Hmm... According to your interpretation, being “conscious” happens to have exactly the same meaning as being awake. Don’t you find it a bit odd? And what does it say about you actually having a concept of it, or, indeed, being conscious yourself?..

As for your losing sleep over “mental continuity” — honestly, i don’t see how sleep could possibly make any difference. You might, just as well, vanish out of existence before you finished reading this paragraph.

Conversely, it is just as possible that you didn’t exist until 2 seconds ago, your memories of past life never actually happened.

Anyway.. I don’t know if that makes you feel any better, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it... if I were you.

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