Cultural Relativism Paper

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Dennett-WhereAmI.pdf

Where Am I?

Daniel C. Dennett

Now that I’ve won my suit under the Freedom of Information Act, I am at liberty to reveal for the

first time a curious episode in my life that may be of interest not only to those engaged in research

in the philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience but also to the general public.

Several years ago I was approached by Pentagon officials who asked me to volunteer for a highly

dangerous and secret mission. In collaboration with NASA and Howard Hughes, the Department

of Defense was spending billions to develop a Supersonic Tunneling Underground Device, or

STUD. It was supposed to tunnel through the earth’s core at great speed and deliver a specially

designed atomic warhead “right up the Red’s missile silos,” as one of the Pentagon brass put it.

The problem was that in an early test they had succeeded in lodging a warhead about a mile

deep under Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they wanted me to retrieve it for them. “Why me?” I asked. Well,

the mission involved some pioneering applications of current brain research, and they had heard of

my interest in brains and of course my Faustian curiosity and great courage and so forth … . Well,

how could I refuse? The difficulty that brought the Pentagon to my door was that the device I’d

been asked to recover was fiercely radioactive, in a new way. According to monitoring instruments,

something about the nature of the device and its complex interactions with pockets of material deep

in the earth had produced radiation that could cause severe abnormalities in certain tissues of the

brain. No way had been found to shield the brain from these deadly rays, which were apparently

harmless to other tissues and organs of the body. So it had been decided that the person sent to

recover the device should leave his brain behind. It would be kept in a safe place as there it could

execute its normal control functions by elaborate radio links. Would I submit to a surgical

procedure that would completely remove my brain, which would then be placed in a life-support

system at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston? Each input and output pathway, as it was

severed, would be restored by a pair of microminiaturized radio transceivers, one attached precisely

to the brain, the other to the nerve stumps in the empty cranium. No information would be lost, all

the connectivity would be preserved. At first I was a bit reluctant. Would it really work? The

Houston brain surgeons encouraged me. “Think of it,” they said, “as a mere stretching of the nerves.

If your brain were just moved over an inch in your skull, that would not alter or impair your mind.

We’re simply going to make the nerves indefinitely elastic by splicing radio links into them.”

I was shown around the life-support lab in Houston and saw the sparkling new vat in which my

brain would be placed, were I to agree. I met the large and brilliant support team of neurologists,

hematologists, biophysicists, and electrical engineers, and after several days of discussions and

demonstrations I agreed to give it a try. I was subjected to an enormous array of blood tests, brain

scans, experiments, interviews, and the like. They took down my autobiography at great length,

recorded tedious lists of my beliefs, hopes, fears, and tastes. They even listed my favorite stereo

recordings and gave me a crash session of psychoanalysis.

The day for surgery arrived at last and of course I was anesthetized and remember nothing of the

operation itself. When I came out of anesthesia, I opened my eyes, looked around, and asked the

inevitable, the traditional, the lamentably hackneyed postoperative question: “Where am l?” The

nurse smiled down at me. “You’re in Houston,” she said, and I reflected that this still had a good

chance of being the truth one way or another. She handed me a mirror. Sure enough, there were the

tiny antennae poling up through their titanium ports cemented into my skull.

“I gather the operation was a success,” I said. “I want to go see my brain.” They led me (I was a

bit dizzy and unsteady) down a long corridor and into the life-support lab. A cheer went up from

the assembled support team, and I responded with what I hoped was a jaunty salute. Still feeling

lightheaded, I was helped over to the life-support vat. I peered through the glass. There, floating in

what looked like ginger ale, was undeniably a human brain, though it was almost covered with

printed circuit chips, plastic tubules, electrodes, and other paraphernalia. “Is that mine?” I asked.

“Hit the output transmitter switch there on the side of the vat and see for yourself,” the project

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director replied. I moved the switch to OFF, and immediately slumped, groggy and nauseated, into

the arms of the technicians, one of whom kindly restored the switch to its ON position. While I

recovered my equilibrium and composure, I thought to myself: “Well, here I am sitting on a folding

chair, staring through a piece of plate glass at my own brain … But wait,” I said to myself,

“shouldn’t I have thought, ‘Here I am, suspended in a bubbling fluid, being stared at by my own

eyes’?” I tried to think this latter thought. I tried to project it into the tank, offering it hopefully to

my brain, but I failed to carry off the exercise with any conviction. I tried again. “Here am I, Daniel

Dennett, suspended in a bubbling fluid, being stared at by my own eyes.” No, it just didn’t work.

Most puzzling and confusing. Being a philosopher of firm physicalist conviction, I believed un-

swervingly that the tokening of my thoughts was occurring somewhere in my brain: yet, when I

thought “Here I am,” where the thought occurred to me was here, outside the vat, where I, Dennett,

was standing staring at my brain.

I tried and tried to think myself into the vat, but to no avail. I tried to build up to the task by

doing mental exercises. I thought to myself, “The sun is shining over there,” five times in rapid

succession, each time mentally ostending a different place: in order, the sunlit corner of the lab, the

visible front lawn of the hospital, Houston, Mars, and Jupiter. I found I had little difficulty in

getting my “there”s to hop all over the celestial map with their proper references. I could loft a

“there” in an instant through the farthest reaches of space, and then aim the next “there” with

pinpoint accuracy at the upper left quadrant of a freckle on my arm. Why was I having such trouble

with “here”? “Here in Houston” worked well enough, and so did “here in the lab,” and even “here in

this part of the lab,” but “here in the vat” always seemed merely an unmeant mental mouthing. I

tried closing my eyes while thinking it. This seemed to help, but still I couldn’t manage to pull it off,

except perhaps for a fleeting instant. I couldn’t be sure. The discovery that I couldn’t be sure was also

unsettling. How did I know where I meant by “here” when I thought “here”? Could I think I meant

one place when in fact I meant another? I didn’t see how that could be admitted without untying

the few bonds of intimacy between a person and his own mental life that had survived the

onslaught of the brain scientists and philosophers, the physicalists and behaviorists. Perhaps I was

incorrigible about where I meant when I said “here.” But in my present circumstances it seemed that

either I was doomed by sheer force of mental habit to thinking systematically false indexical

thoughts, or where a person is (and hence where his thoughts are tokened for purposes of semantic

analysis) is not necessarily where his brain, the physical seat of his soul, resides. Nagged by

confusion, I attempted to orient myself by falling back on a favorite philosopher’s ploy. I began

naming things.

“Yorick,” I said aloud to my brain, “you are my brain. The rest of my body, seated in this chair, I

dub ‘Hamlet.’” So here we all are: Yorick’s my brain, Hamlet’s my body, and I am Dennett. Now,

where am I? And when I think “where am I?”, where’s that thought tokened? Is it tokened in my

brain, lounging about in the vat, or right here between my ears where it seems to be tokened? Or

nowhere? Its temporal coordinates give me no trouble; must it not have spatial coordinates as well? I

began making a list of the alternatives.

1. Where Hamlet goes there goes Dennett. This principle was easily refuted by appeal to the

familiar brain-transplant thought experiments so enjoyed by philosophers. If Tom and Dick switch

brains, Tom is the fellow with Dick’s former body—just ask him; he’ll claim to be Tom and tell you

the most intimate details of Tom’s autobiography. It was clear enough, then, that my current body

and I could part company, but not likely that I could be separated from my brain. The rule of

thumb that emerged so plainly from the thought experiments was that in a brain-transplant

operation, one wanted to be the donor not the recipient. Better to call such an operation a body

transplant, in fact. So perhaps the truth was,

2. Where Yorick goes there goes Dennett. This was not at all appealing, however. How could I be

in the vat and not about to go anywhere, when I was so obviously outside the vat looking in and

beginning to make guilty plans to return to my room for a substantial lunch? This begged the

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question I realized, but it still seemed to be getting at something important. Casting about for some

support for my intuition, I hit upon a legalistic sort of argument that might have appealed to Locke.

Suppose, I argued to myself, I were now to fly to California, rob a bank, and be apprehended. In

which state would I be tried: in California, where the robbery took place, or in Texas, where the

brains of the outfit were located? Would I be a California felon with an out-of-state brain, or a Texas

felon remotely controlling an accomplice of sorts in California? It seemed possible that I might beat

such a rap just on the undecidability of that jurisdictional question, though perhaps it would be

deemed an interstate, and hence Federal, offense. In any event, suppose I were convicted. Was it

likely that California would be satisfied to throw Hamlet into the brig, knowing that Yorick was

living the good life and luxuriously taking the waters in Texas? Would Texas incarcerate Yorick,

leaving Hamlet free to take the next boat to Rio? This alternative appealed to me. Barring capital

punishment or other cruel and unusual punishment, the state would be obliged to maintain the life-

support system for Yorick though they might move him from Houston to Leavenworth, and aside

from the unpleasantness of the opprobrium, I, for one, would not mind at all and would consider

myself a free man under those circumstances. If the state has an interest in forcibly relocating

persons in institutions, it would fail to relocate me in any institution by locating Yorick there. If this

were true, it suggested a third alternative.

3. Dennett is wherever he thinks he is. Generalized, the claim was as follows: At any given time a

person has a point of view and the location of the point of view (which is determined internally by

the content of the point of view) is also the location of the person.

Such a proposition is not without its perplexities, but to me it seemed a step in the right

direction. The only trouble was that it seemed to place one in a heads-I-win/tails-you-lose situation

of unlikely infallibility as regards location. Hadn’t I myself often been wrong about where I was, and

at least as often uncertain? Couldn’t one get lost? Of course, but getting lost geographically is not the

only way one might get lost. If one were lost in the woods one could attempt to reassure oneself

with the consolation that at least one knew where one was: one was right here in the familiar

surroundings of one’s own body. Perhaps in this case one would not have drawn one’s attention to

much to be thankful for. Still, there were worse plights imaginable, and I wasn’t sure I wasn’t in such

a plight right now.

Point of view clearly had something to do with personal location, but it was itself an unclear

notion. It was obvious that the content of one’s point of view was not the same as or determined by

the content of one’s beliefs or thoughts. For example, what should we say about the point of view of

the Cinerama viewer who shrieks and twists in his seat as the roller-coaster footage overcomes his

psychic distancing? Has he forgotten that he is safely seated in the theater? Here I was inclined to

say that the person is experiencing an illusory shift in point of view. In other cases, my inclination

to call such shifts illusory was less strong. The workers in laboratories and plants who handle

dangerous materials by operating feedback-controlled mechanical arms and hands undergo a shift in

point of view that is crisper and more pronounced than anything Cinerama can provoke. They can

feel the heft and slipperiness of the containers they manipulate with their metal fingers. They know

perfectly well where they are and are not fooled into false beliefs by the experience, yet it is as if they

were inside the isolation chamber they are peering into. With mental effort, they can manage to

shift their point of view back and forth, rather like making a transparent Necker cube or an Escher

drawing change orientation before one’s eyes. It does seem extravagant to suppose that in per-

forming this bit of mental gymnastics, they are transporting themselves back and forth.

Still their example gave me hope. If I was in fact in the vat in spite of my intuitions, I might be

able to train myself to adopt that point of view even as a matter of habit. I should dwell on images

of myself comfortably floating in my vat, beaming volitions to that familiar body out there. I

reflected that the ease or difficulty of this task was presumably independent of the truth about the

location of one’s brain. Had I been practicing before the operation, I might now be finding it

second nature. You might now yourself try such a trompe l’oeil. Imagine you have written an inflam-

matory letter which has been published in the Times, the result of which is that the government has

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chosen to impound your brain for a probationary period of three years in its Dangerous Brain

Clinic in Bethesda, Maryland. Your body of course is allowed freedom to earn a salary and thus to

continue its function of laying up income to be taxed. At this moment, however, your body is seated

in an auditorium listening to a peculiar account by Daniel Dennett of his own similar experience.

Try it. Think yourself to Bethesda, and then hark back longingly to your body, far away, and yet

seeming so near. It is only with long-distance restraint (yours? the government’s?) that you can

control your impulse to get those hands clapping in polite applause before navigating the old body

to the rest room and a well-deserved glass of evening sherry in the lounge. The task of imagination

is certainly difficult, but if you achieve your goal the results might be consoling.

Anyway, there I was in Houston, lost in thought as one might say, but not for long. My specu-

lations were soon interrupted by the Houston doctors, who wished to test out my new prosthetic

nervous system before sending me off on my hazardous mission. As I mentioned before, I was a bit

dizzy at first, and not surprisingly, although I soon habituated myself to my new circumstances

(which were, after all, well nigh indistinguishable from my old circumstances). My accommodation

was not perfect, however, and to this day I continue to be plagued by minor coordination difficul-

ties. The speed of light is fast, but finite, and as my brain and body move farther and farther apart,

the delicate interaction of my feedback systems is thrown into disarray by the time lags. Just as one

is rendered close to speechless by a delayed or echoic hearing of one’s speaking voice so, for instance,

I am virtually unable to track a moving object with my eyes whenever my brain and my body are

more than a few miles apart. In most matters my impairment is scarcely detectable, though I can no

longer hit a slow curve ball with the authority of yore. There are some compensations of course.

Though liquor tastes as good as ever, and warms my gullet while corroding my liver, I can drink it

in any quantity I please, without becoming the slightest bit inebriated, a curiosity some of my close

friends may have noticed (though I occasionally have feigned inebriation, so as not to draw attention

to my unusual circumstances). For similar reasons, I take aspirin orally for a sprained wrist, but if

the pain persists I ask Houston to administer codeine to me in vitro. In times of illness the phone

bill can be staggering.

But to return to my adventure. At length, both the doctors and I were satisfied that I was ready

to undertake my subterranean mission. And so I left my brain in Houston and headed by helicopter

for Tulsa. Well, in any case, that’s the way it seemed to me. That’s how I would put it, just off the

top of my head as it were. On the trip I reflected further about my earlier anxieties and decided that

my first postoperative speculations had been tinged with panic. The matter was not nearly as strange

or metaphysical as I had been supposing. Where was I? In two places, clearly: both inside the vat

and outside it. Just as one can stand with one foot in Connecticut and the other in Rhode Island, I

was in two places at once. I had become one of those scattered individuals we used to hear so much

about. The more I considered this answer, the more obviously true it appeared. But, strange to say,

the more true it appeared, the less important the question to which it could be the true answer

seemed. A sad, but not unprecedented, fate for a philosophical question to suffer. This answer did

not completely satisfy me, of course. There lingered some question to which I should have liked an

answer, which was neither “Where are all my various and sundry parts?” nor “What is my current

point of view?” Or at least there seemed to be such a question. For it did seem undeniable that in

some sense I and not merely most of me was descending into the earth under Tulsa in search of an

atomic warhead.

When I found the warhead, I was certainly glad I had left my brain behind, for the pointer on

the specially built Geiger counter I had brought with me was off the dial. I called Houston on my

ordinary radio and told the operation control center of my position and my progress. In return,

they gave me instructions for dismantling the vehicle, based upon my on-site observations. I had set

to work with my cutting torch when all of a sudden a terrible thing happened. I went stone deaf. At

first I thought it was only my radio earphones that had broken, but when I tapped on my helmet, I

heard nothing. Apparently the auditory transceivers had gone on the fritz. I could no longer hear

Houston or my own voice, but I could speak, so I started telling them what had happened. In

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midsentence, I knew something else had gone wrong. My vocal apparatus had become paralyzed.

Then my right hand went limp—another transceiver had gone. I was truly in deep trouble. But

worse was to follow. After a few more minutes, I went blind. I cursed my luck, and then I cursed the

scientists who had led me into this grave peril. There I was, deaf, dumb, and blind, in a radioactive

hole more than a mile under Tulsa. Then the last of my cerebral radio links broke, and suddenly I

was faced with a new and even more shocking problem: whereas an instant before I had been buried

alive in Oklahoma, now I was disembodied in Houston. My recognition of my new status was not

immediate. It took me several very anxious minutes before it dawned on me that my poor body lay

several hundred miles away, with heart pulsing and lungs respirating, but otherwise as dead as the

body of any heart-transplant donor, its skull packed with useless, broken electronic gear. The shift in

perspective I had earlier found well nigh impossible now seemed quite natural. Though I could

think myself back into my body in the tunnel under Tulsa, it took some effort to sustain the

illusion. For surely it was an illusion to suppose I was still in Oklahoma: I had lost all contact with

that body.

It occurred to me then, with one of those rushes of revelation of which we should be suspicious,

that I had stumbled upon an impressive demonstration of the immateriality of the soul based upon

physicalist principles and premises. For as the last radio signal between Tulsa and Houston died

away, had I not changed location from Tulsa to Houston at the speed of light? And had I not

accomplished this without any increase in mass? What moved from A to B at such speed was surely

myself, or at any rate my soul or mind—the massless center of my being and home of my

consciousness. My point of view had lagged somewhat behind, but I had already noted the indirect

bearing of point of view on personal location. I could not see how a physicalist philosopher could

quarrel with this except by taking the dire and counterintuitive route of banishing all talk of

persons. Yet the notion of personhood was so well entrenched in everyone’s world view, or so it

seemed to me, that any denial would be as curiously unconvincing, as systematically disingenuous,

as the Cartesian negation, “non sum.”

The joy of philosophic discovery thus tided me over some very bad minutes or perhaps hours as

the helplessness and hopelessness or my situation became more apparent to me. Waves of panic and

even nausea swept over me, made all the more horrible by the absence of their normal body-

dependent phenomenology. No adrenaline rush of tingles in the arms, no pounding heart, no

premonitory salivation. I did feel a dread sinking feeling in my bowels at one point, and this tricked

me momentarily into the false hope that I was undergoing a reversal of the process that landed me

in this fix—a gradual undisembodiment. But the isolation and uniqueness of that twinge soon

convinced me that it was simply the first of a plague of phantom body hallucinations that I, like any

other amputee, would be all too likely to suffer.

My mood then was chaotic. On the one hand, I was fired up with elation of my philosophic

discovery and was wracking my brain (one of the few familiar things I could still do), trying to

figure out how to communicate my discovery to the journals; while on the other, I was bitter, lonely,

and filled with dread and uncertainty. Fortunately, this did not last long, for my technical support

team sedated me into a dreamless sleep from which I awoke, hearing with magnificent fidelity the

familiar opening strains of my favorite Brahms piano trio. So that was why they had wanted a list of

my favorite recordings! It did not take me long to realize that I was hearing the music without ears.

The output from the stereo stylus was being fed through some fancy rectification circuitry directly

into my auditory nerve. I was mainlining Brahms, an unforgettable experience for any stereo buff.

At the end of the record it did not surprise me to hear the reassuring voice of the project director

speaking into a microphone that was now my prosthetic ear. He confirmed my analysis of what had

gone wrong and assured me that steps were being taken to re-embody me. He did not elaborate,

and after a few more recordings, I found myself drifting off to sleep. My sleep lasted, I later learned,

for the better part of a year, and when I awoke, it was to find myself fully restored to my senses.

When I looked into the mirror, though, I was a bit startled to see an unfamiliar face. Bearded and a

bit heavier, bearing no doubt a family resemblance to my former face, and with the same look of

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spritely intelligence and resolute character, but definitely a new face. Further self-explorations of an

intimate nature left me no doubt that this was a new body, and the project director confirmed my

conclusions. He did not volunteer any information on the past history of my new body and I

decided (wisely, I think in retrospect) not to pry. As many philosophers unfamiliar with my ordeal

have more recently speculated, the acquisition of a new body leaves one’s person intact. And after a

period of adjustment to a new voice, new muscular strengths and weaknesses, and so forth, one’s

personality is by and large also preserved. More dramatic changes in personality have been routinely

observed in people who have undergone extensive plastic surgery, to say nothing of sex-change

operations, and I think no one contests the survival of the person in such cases. In any event I soon

accommodated to my new body, to the point of being unable to recover any of its novelties to my

consciousness or even memory. The view in the mirror soon became utterly familiar. That view, by

the way, still revealed antennae, and so l was not surprised to learn that my brain had not been

moved from its haven in the life-support lab.

I decided that good old Yorick deserved a visit. I and my new body, whom we might as well call

Fortinbras, strode into the familiar lab to another round of applause from the technicians, who were

of course congratulating themselves, not me. Once more I stood before the vat and contemplated

poor Yorick, and on a whim I once again cavalierly flicked off the output transmitter switch.

Imagine my surprise when nothing unusual happened. No fainting spell, no nausea, no noticeable

change. A technician hurried to restore the switch to ON, but still I felt nothing. I demanded an

explanation, which the project director hastened to provide. It seems that before they had even

operated on the first occasion, they had constructed a computer duplicate of my brain, reproducing

both the complete information-processing structure and the computational speed of my brain in a

giant computer program. After the operation, but before they had dared to send me off on my

mission to Oklahoma, they had run this computer system and Yorick side by side. The incoming

signals from Hamlet were sent simultaneously to Yorick’s transceivers and to the computer’s array of

inputs. And the outputs from Yorick were not only beamed back to Hamlet, my body; they were

recorded and checked against the simultaneous output of the computer program, which was called

“Hubert” for reasons obscure to me. Over days and even weeks, the outputs were identical and

synchronous, which of course did not prove that they had succeeded in copying the brain’s

functional structure, but the empirical support was greatly encouraging.

Hubert’s input, and hence activity, had been kept parallel with Yorick’s during my disembodied

days. And now, to demonstrate this, they had actually thrown the master switch that put Hubert for

the first time in on-line control of my body—not Hamlet, of course, but Fortinbras. (Hamlet, I

learned, had never been recovered from its underground tomb and could be assumed by this time to

have largely returned to the dust. At the head of my grave still lay the magnificent bulk of the

abandoned device, with the word STUD emblazoned on its side in large letters—a circumstance

which may provide archeologists of the next century with a curious insight into the burial rites of

their ancestors.)

The laboratory technicians now showed me the master switch, which had two positions, labeled

B, for Brain (they didn’t know my brain’s name was Yorick), and H, for Hubert. The switch did

indeed point to H, and they explained to me that if I wished, I could switch it back to B. With my

heart in my mouth (and my brain in its vat), I did this. Nothing happened. A click, that was all. To

test their claim, and with the master switch now set at B. I hit Yorick’s output transmitter switch on

the vat and sure enough, I began to faint. Once the output switch was turned back on and I had

recovered my wits, so to speak, I continued to play with the master switch, flipping it back and

forth. I found that with the exception of the transitional click, I could detect no trace of a

difference. I could switch in mid-utterance, and the sentence I had begun speaking under the

control of Yorick was finished without a pause or hitch of any kind under the control of Hubert. I

had a spare brain, a prosthetic device which might some day stand me in very good stead, were

some mishap to befall Yorick. Or alternatively, I could keep Yorick as a spare and use Hubert. It

didn’t seem to make any difference which I chose, for the wear and tear and fatigue on my body did

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not have any debilitating effect on either brain, whether or not it was actually causing the motions

of my body, or merely spilling its output into thin air.

The one truly unsettling aspect of …