Friday, July 01, 2011

The Nature of Self in Science Fiction Roleplaying

This is going to be an incredibly nerdy discussion of some deep philosophical issues... as they relate to gaming. Specifically, what exactly defines a unique individual as opposed to a copy of an individual, when examining consciousness and soul.

The reason I'm thinking of this is because of a reaction one of my friends had when I described the problem I had with trans-humanism as presented in the Eclipse Phase RPG. He pointed out that the idea of moving a consciousness from one body to another in Eclipse Phase was essentially the same as reincarnation in a fantasy world, and that I had no problems with that concept.

At the time, I wasn't fully able to explain why I felt there was a difference (especially since I'd never realized the contradiction before), but I think I can now. In the typical fantasy world the existence of a soul is not a matter of theological debate, it's provable fact. Not only do people have souls, but they form the core of individuality, and when you take a soul from one body and put it into another, the "self" is obviously attached to the soul and not the body. Characters in such a world can prove this by actually communicating with, or even visiting, the afterlife.

Leaving aside my personal religious beliefs, the idea of a personal soul that forms the core of "self" is NOT a given in a science fiction setting, and even if there is a soul, there's no way of showing that it remains attached to a copied consciousness. Basically, I have the same misgivings expressed by Dr. McCoy in Star Trek when it comes to transporters. If it basically destroys the body in one location and then creates a duplicate in the other, is it really the same person? Didn't the original person actually die while a completely new, yet identical, person came into existence on the other end?

This seems especially problematical when it's possible to make more than one copy of a person. If there's a soul in that case, what happens to it? Does it multiply? Is it divided? Does it only go with one copy while any others remain "souless" (there's an idea for a sci-fi/horror story, if it hasn't already been done)?

This all assumes there's a soul. If there is no soul then it presents a different set of problems. If atheists are right, and our consciousness simply comes to an end when we die, then wouldn't a consciousness "wiped" from a body after being copied into another body simply cease to be? Isn't the copy simply a new consciousness that thinks it had those prior experiences? Has not the original "self" perished?

These are the kinds of issues that bother me about transferring consciousness when applied to science fiction instead of fantasy. I haven't even gone into some of the other tricky areas, like "backup" consciousnesses that are used when the original is lost completely (a common concept in Eclipse Phase).

I thought there might be a way around this using the concept that the body completely replaces the cells within it several times over the average person's lifetime, only that's not entirely true. A big exception is neurons, which you get when you're born, and never get replaced. If our consciousness essentially resides in those neurons, then that actually supports my misgivings rather than providing a way out from them.

So, why does this cause me problems when gaming? After all, I'm not really trying to transfer my own consciousness. The problem is that I nearly always identify somehow with the characters I play. Even if I'm playing a bad guy, I can usually link some darker part of my self to the character and magnify it in order to get that identification. I can play a character that I have no identification with, but it isn't as fun. I can't identify with characters from Eclipse Phase because one of the core concepts of the game is something that I could never accept personally. Voluntarily transferring bodies without physically transferring the brain would be equivalent to suicide in my mind.

I'm curious to know if anyone else thinks along these lines, or if I'm alone in my being uncomfortable with this concept. I'm also curious to know if anyone thinks I've missed some obvious logical alternative to the conclusions I've come to regarding all of this.


Liz Rogers said...

It may also have to do with the theme and the mood of the RPG world. Both Paranoia and Free Market has a similar mechanic, but the idea of self being either disposable or a commodity are major issues in those systems. A game that takes the issues of consciousness transfer in less of a thematic way and more of game mechanics, I may have issues with.

Of course there is always the other side of the coin: what of the "shell" you are now inhabiting? Are you stealing their soul for your own immortality? Do you have more disregard for your own body (and the consequences of your actions) now, since you can replace it and possible get an upgraded model (That scene in Dollhouse where the fat Rossum Exec was looking for a younger thinner body to inhabit always freaked me out a bit).

There are a lot of questions this brings up and it makes me want to try out the game to explore the answers to them. XD

Fulminata said...

In Freemarket, the only time this comes up is when the body actually dies, anything short of that is repairable. They even cover this by saying that there is a minority of people who don't want to be resurrected in such situations because of similar concerns to the ones I've expressed.

Paranoia is different because it's coming from a dark humor sensibility to begin with. Since it's not a "serious" game to begin with, it doesn't bother me.

While I can see the value of exploring these questions in game, I'm not sure that Eclipse Phase is the game to do it in, mainly because it doesn't seem as if staying in your original body is even an option for a PC. The game appears to assume that you're playing a character that has accepted this kind of thing as routine (I say 'appears' because I've only read the first fifty pages or so).

I think a game like Freemarket, where the technology has a very real impact, but isn't necessarily ubiquitous, would be a better game in which to explore these concepts.

J. Griffin Barber said...

I think EP an excellent game and the ideas are awesome, given that part of the horror of it all is the slow loss of self to this new phase of humanity. When you do lose a part of yourself and don't recall it, will you miss it?

The process of changing between sleeves is, in the times current to the game, accepted, but it was originally done as a matter of survival. Humanity was going to die off completely if they didn't use the consciousness transfer tech to store personalities. Now, humanity is changed, perhaps irrevocably.

Interesting and challenging concepts, but not for all gaming groups.

Fulminata said...

For me, the concepts have already been explored in Eclipse Phase before you begin the game: humanity is essentially gone (aside from a possible handful that were already in space before The Fall, and who still have their original bodies), what's left are our electronic descendants, flitting from sleeve to sleeve. The question for me then becomes whether or not I would like playing these children of humanity (who sometimes think that they're human). When I look at it that way, it becomes a game that I might have more interest in.

I realize that others have different perspectives on what's going on in Eclipse Phase, but that's the conclusion I've come to based on what I've read so far.

Jabbott said...

I think you're overthinking the whole thing LOL!

For me I'd either be like:

1) I'm not going to think about any of the philisophical shit; I'm just going to be a bad ass cyborg, ala GiTS, and do cool sci-fi things.
2) I'm just going to accept that the soul transfers with the conciousness, no explanation, theory, science, logic or rational needed; I'm just accepting that and moving on.
3) I'm going to think that since this is a trans-humanism style game, which basically is post human in my understanding, the characters are no longer human beings. And since the soul is so much a part of what makes a human a human; then I'm just going to assume they don't have souls at all. Then the soul transfer question isn't an issue. Morality is just programming and consciousness is a unique series of 1s and 0s.

Fulminata said...

Since writing the original post, I think "3" is where I would go with it, although it's my understanding that transhumanism is about overcoming humanity's limits and changing humanity in the process, not replacing humanity.

I could be wrong on that, but it's the impression I've gotten from what little time I've spent looking at the issue.

If that's the case, I'd say that "3" is less transhumanism and more posthumanism. I'm OK with that as a starting point of a game though.

"2" still leaves some unanswered questions, particularly in a setting like Eclipse Phase where you can "fork" your personality so that there are more than one of you running around at the same time.

"1" is OK for some games, but I think it would leave me unsatisfied for most.

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