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What we owe ourselves: Clones and empathy

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MAY 07, 2023

In the United States during 1996 and 1997, several brain surgeries were conducted on patients suffering from severe epileptic seizures, in an attempt to control or cure their epileptic episodes. The surgeries were designed to bisect the patients’ brains between their left and right hemispheres to stop the spread of the seizures from one hemisphere to the next. However, one of the resulting consequences was a disconnect in consciousness — a mental division in regard to perception, cognition, volition, learning and memory.

To a certain degree, it was as if two selves were formed in this severance. During the first year post-surgery, patients were reported to have exhibited clashing wills between the hemispheres. For example, as one patient was dressing and attempting to pull up his pants with his right hand, the left hand would work to push it down on its side. Or, similarly, a patient’s right hand would be knotting his robe, while the left hand attempted to undo the knot.

Luckily, the patients didn’t really perceive the functional separations between the hemispheres, as the disruption would be counteracted by many unifying factors that worked to keep the disconnected hemispheres doing the same thing as they always had. The self remained whole: Any perception the patient had of himself continued to be that of one entire identity, despite competing wills and separate hemispheres. His memory would still be consistent and continuous, and his brain still his.

The self remained whole: Any perception the patient had of himself continued to be that of one entire identity, despite competing wills and separate hemispheres.

Derek Parfit, British philosopher, references these surgeries in his work “Personal Identity.” Throughout this essay, he’s particularly interested in the division of the mind and, consequently, the division of self and identity. “We can, I suggest, imagine a divided mind,” he writes. “We can imagine a man having two simultaneous experiences, in having each of which he is unaware of having the other.” 

Now, the epilepsy surgeries are perhaps as close to physiological separation of self as we’ve gotten in the real world, but Parfit furthers this hypothetical. He continuously questions the nature of one’s being if they were separated in two — as in, truly separated into two different bodies, two different brains. 

What then constitutes one’s identity? And if there are two of you, then who’s the real you?

There are varying perspectives on this. Parfit says that if one’s brain was split in two and placed into two separate bodies — each with fully functional cognition and the same memories — that there would be three possibilities: 1) that person does not survive, 2) that person survives as one of the two people, or 3) that person survives as both. 

A pivotal distinction to make here is the question of what survival entails. Is a person surviving the same as saying there will be some person alive who is the same person as the original? 

Parfit says yes. 

In Frictional’s video game “Soma,” the character you play is not himself. He is perhaps, by Parfit’s definition, a survivor of his original self, and perhaps by extension the same person. Major spoilers for Soma ahead. The protagonist, Simon, is a perfectly replicated brain scan of the original Simon from nearly a century ago. The original Simon was facing death having recently been in a car crash and then experiencing brain bleeds. Searching for a treatment, he went in for a brain scan that would supposedly find the best approach in curing him. The brain scan was kept for research. And a century later — in 2104 — the brain scan was randomly imported into a diving suit held together by the remains of another person’s corpse. And, also, it’s the apocalypse. Not the most ideal fate.

From clone Simon’s perspective, his memories are continuous from his previous self. He went in for a brain scan in 2015 and within the perceived span of seconds flashed into the future, now questionably not himself. The original Simon is dead — the brain scan could find no form of treatment for his bleeding. But has he survived through this brain scan — this person who, despite all physical discrepancies, appears to be the real Simon? 

You aren’t supposed to know. Not really. According to Soma creative director Thomas Grip, Soma means to highlight the subjectivity of consciousness — the fact that “you can never explain what it’s like to be you, and you can never be sure that anyone else has that experience too.” While Soma’s characters are meant to question their individuality, you as the player are expected to as well.

But there is one thing they intend to get across to you with absolute clarity, and that’s the concept of the coin toss.

When you copy and paste your brain, it’s not a cut and paste. There’s a one in two chance that you will wake up as the clone, and a one in two chance you wake up as the original. But both paths need to be experienced by somebody.

In the game’s finale, you as Simon are trying to upload yours and another character’s minds into an ARK: an artificial reality that most of the last survivors on Earth have already been uploaded to. The ARK will be sent into space where it can remain safe, so the upload only has one chance. 

After a perilous journey, finally reaching the ARK, Simon is uploading his brain scan, waiting to board — and then the ARK is sent off into space, and you — the Simon you’ve been playing — are left on hellish Earth.

Confused and enraged, Simon questions why he’s not on the ARK. The other character, Catherine, explains it to him: “You were copied onto the ARK, you just didn’t carry over. You lost the coin toss.”

“This is bullshit,” Simon says. “We came all this way. We launched the ARK!”

“I know it sucks, but our copies are up there. Catherine and Simon are both safe on the ARK, be happy for them.”

“Are you crazy? We’re going to die down here, with those fuckers living it large on a spaceship! They’re not us! They’re not us!”

It’s a bleak ending. Simon, believing himself to be left behind and totally alone — not even in the company of his own self — is enraged. The moment he’s survived by a clone who is in far better conditions, he is scornful that another version of him was immediately transported safely onto the ARK following the uploading. That Simon experiences the same total continuity our Simon felt when he first awoke in 2104. But Simon doesn’t believe that his copy is him. It’s a fake that is reaping the benefits of old Simon’s agony.

At the moment of the split, Simon became something else — something different from the one that lives on in the ARK. The two are fundamentally placed at two different vantage points and thus they cannot feel the same exact emotions about their situation. They’ve both had the same experiences leading up to the split, but now that they are faced with two different futures, are they the same person anymore? 

In an almost identical dilemma to the one in “Soma,” there’s this subplot in the animated series “Invincible” that comes off with a slightly different tone. At one point, a side character abhorring his current body wishes to transfer his mind into a more ideal body. In efforts to help, two scientists construct a procedure to copy and paste this character’s mind into a lab-grown vessel. 

The character is eager to have this procedure. And when the procedure is conducted and finished, a new body wakes with the original’s identical mind, and he questions, “Which one am I?”

We see almost the exact same language used in “Soma” here in “Invincible.” One of the scientists says to the clone, “You won the coin toss, champ. You’re the new one.”

Unfortunately though, the original is still alive. The life shared by the original and the clone is disrupted; One branch still exists. Feeling like he owes something to the original, the clone goes to speak with him. The clone says, “I’m sorry it wasn’t you.”

Then, in response, there’s that phrase again: “Don’t be. Be happy.”

It’s a more cheerful perspective than “Soma” — one where the original recognizes that some version of him gets to continue and experience life through his eyes but in an ultimately better position. “Soma” is latent with jealousy and guilt — all understandable given Simon’s position and the complete lack of choice in originally becoming a clone. Meanwhile, “Invincible” highlights the empathy we owe to our clones, and by extension, to ourselves. In efforts to survive as a clone of ourselves, we have to be prepared to be the one who is survived by the other and not the one who lives on. Someone has to lose to coin toss — and it’s got to be you. 

But what does it mean to be cloned and immediately put on opposite sides of a situation? Again, we return to the question of if the clone and the original are the same people at all by that point. If one is damned, and one is saved, how much can they truly understand each other? Are they now like two hemispheres of the same brain, competing wills?

If one is damned, and one is saved, how much can they truly understand each other?

Parfit says, “If a mind was permanently divided and its halves developed in different ways, the point of speaking of one person would start to disappear.” 

In “Soma” and “Invincible”, the prospect of the original and the clone developing independently of each other is short-lived. We hardly see the clone and the original living parallel to each other. Briefly, though, in the third book of the sci-fi Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, titled “Acceptance,” we encounter a clone and an original who both live far past their point of copy and paste.

The original and the clone have lived vastly different lives beyond their splitting point, meeting vastly different fates. Throughout the entirety of her existence, the clone continuously declares that she is not the original. She is something new — some far more developed version of what she once was.

“Perhaps a copy could also be superior to the original, create a new reality by avoiding old mistakes,” reads a part of her chapter. 

In “Acceptance,” the copy and paste serves as a turning point: not merely a splitting of one life but a moment at which the entirety of each life can drastically change — especially for the clone. For the clone, there is solace in the fact that she is not technically the original. There’s this recurrent question latent in every moment the clone reflects on her past. When she scorns the original’s actions, is this regret? Or is this hatred?

Going by Parfit’s idea — that it’s no longer a question if the original and the clone are the same person — it still stands that the clone experienced the same shared life before the split. Those mistakes are as much hers as they are the original’s. And yet, the clone makes the active decision to reject them as hers. But that doesn’t mean she holds them in contempt.

When talking about her original self, she says, “I am a copy. But not a perfect one. I’m not her. She’s not me. Do you know what I’d say if I came face-to-face with her? … I’d tell her, ‘You’ve made a lot of fucking mistakes. You made a lot of mistakes, and yet I love you. You’re a mess and a revelation, but I can’t be any of that. All I can do is work out things myself.”

How much forgiveness do we owe our old selves? How much happiness must we offer our superior selves? And how much empathy can we feel for our own selves?

“Soma,” “Invincible” and “Acceptance” are distant fantasies conjured by “what if”s: what if we could transfer minds, what if we could exist as two different people. But the concept of regret, the concept of jealousy, of self-hatred and understanding — these are all very real things. These are things we feel every day. Our relationships to ourselves is not a work of fiction, and rather something we can actively work to improve and strengthen.

If the benefits of your agony were only awarded to someone that is not you, you’d likely deem it unjust. But if it’s a version of yourself — then that’s a matter for you and yourself to decide. It’s not inherently wrong to be angry or glad that your clone receives better conditions. It’s a subjective experience. It’s a matter of if you believe you are your clone. If you believe they have a right to reap the benefits of your agony. You may come to find that your reasons for believing one way or another may not make sense to others. This is only natural. They are not you. You are not them.

This is exactly what “Soma”’s writers meant to highlight and what “Invincible” and “Acceptance” begin to hint at. Just what kind of person would you want to be if you were faced with the dilemma of being cloned? It is entirely up to you how your losing side reacts. You can resort to either jealousy or happiness.

They’re just two sides of the same coin.

Contact Logan Roscoe at 


MAY 07, 2023