The Two Lizzies

I wrote this story a while back, and posted it on a couple of forums.  But I often find I need to link to it (it was written to make a point!) so I’m reposting it here.  Hoping it might generate some discussion 🙂


The Two Lizzies

Lizzie was a single mum, with a one-year daughter, Beth. Lizzie wanted to get back to her job in neuroscience – she’d left tantalizing data unanalyzed – but she loved her daughter, and wanted to give her a good start in life.

Lizzie heard about an experimental technique, whereby she could be in two places at once. Perfect! She thought. I can stay at home with Beth AND go back to work.

Lizzie made an appointment for the procedure. She was told that she would undergo a whole body scan under anaesthetic, and every atom in her body would be identified and located. Then a random half would be selected and displaced one meter to her left, making two sparse copies of Lizzie. Fresh atoms, identical to those missing from each copy would then be added, resulting in two identical Lizzies where there had once been one.

On the day of the procedure, Lizzie left Beth with a child-minder, and drove to the hospital, taking a spare set of clothes. Soon she was under full anaesthetic. When she awoke she was aware of someone in the next bed. She turned – and saw her own face, as in a mirror, looking back at her. The face smiled back. Was it a mirror? “You”, she said, and the face in the mirror mouthed back, “You”. Lizzie laughed – it must be a trick. The face in the mirror laughed too. But it wasn’t a mirror – or at least, if it was, there was something very strange about the room acoustics. Lizzie sat up, and Lizzie in the mirror – if it was a mirror – sat up too. It wasn’t a mirror. That was now clear. The two Lizzies swung their legs over the side of the bed, in almost, but not perfect, unison. They stared at each other. “You are Lizzie.” They spoke simultaneously, and laughed, the same laugh.

“OK”, they said, in unison, “time to fetch Beth”. Two sets of clothes were hanging on the back of two chairs. They got dressed. “We’d better decide what to call each other” they said together, again, and laughed. “I’ll be BrownLizzie” said the Lizzie who was nearest the chair with a brown jacket draped over the back. “I’ll be BlackLizzie” said Lizzie, simultaneously, as she picked up a black jacket. Both Lizzies felt in their jacket pockets for the car keys. BlackLizzie’s pocket jingled. “Where are my keys” said Brown Lizzie. “I’ve got them” said BlackLizzie.

The two women walked out to the hospital car park. BlackLizzie got in to the driver’s seat, and BrownLizzie sat beside her. They drove off.

BrownLizzie felt strange, being driven by someone else in her own car. But wait – it wasn’t someone else – she was driving the car – BlackLizzie was Lizzie, wasn’t she? But BlackLizzie was driving too fast. “You’re over the speed limit”, said BrownLizzie. “No I’m not” said Black Lizzie. Then BlackLizzie laughed. If BrownLizzie thought she was going too fast then – wasn’t that her own opinion? Or the opinion she would have had if she’d been sitting where BrownLizzie was now? Well, of course – she was sitting where BrownLizzie was! They were both Lizzie!

BlackLizzie slowed down. This was cool! She’d be sharing her life with someone who would always think as she did – and if they differed, as now, then it would only be because she had a different point of view.

BrownLizzie was thinking similar thoughts. Of course, if she’d been driving she’d have been driving too fast. Now she’d have BlackLizzie to tell her, if it happened again. How useful to have a different point of view.

Hang on a minute, thought BlackLizzie and BrownLizzie, together. If we are the same, person, how can we have different points of view?

But no time to think about that now, it was time to pick up Beth.

Beth was astonished when two Mums showed up at the childminder’s. BrownLizzie got to the door first, and Beth hugged her knees. BlackLizzie felt a pang for a moment, then told herself that of course Beth’s hug was for both of them. BrownLizzie picked Beth up and carried her to the car, and strapped her into the car seat. Then the two Lizzies collided as they both tried to get into the driver’s seat. “This is more difficult than it looks!” they both said, again simultaneously. BrownLizzie went round to the passenger door and got in, and BlackLizzie drove home, both uncertain as to how to behave with someone whose thoughts and actions were your very own.

That evening, they tossed a coin to decide who would go to work and who would stay with Beth. There was no other way of deciding, and after all, the reason for doing this was because they both wanted to do both. “We can’t do half each” they said, simultaneously (having conversations was proving to be awkward), and then stopped. Both knew what the other was going to say. One of them would have to go back to work, fulltime, and the other would have to stay at home, full time. Otherwise, they’d spend most of their lives trying to keep the other updated as to what had been going on, at work, or at home.

So they tossed a coin. They agreed that if it was heads, BlackLizzie would go to work and if it was tails, BrownLizzie would go. It was heads. So next day, BlackLizzie got ready to go back to work, and BrownLizzie prepared to spend the next few years at home with Beth.

When BlackLizzie got home, BrownLizzie was excited. “Beth said ‘sheep’!” It was Beth’s third whole word. Well, there would be many more to come, and BlackLizzie would miss most of them, but BrownLizzie would be there, and would tell her everything she wanted to know. She’d know what BlackLizzie would want to know, wouldn’t she? They were both Lizzie. And BlackLizzie had had rewarding day, too, digging out her old data, running some analyses, addressing questions that had been burning for over a year. She started to tell BrownLizzie about them. BrownLizzie was full of eager questions.

This was great. Conversation was flowing more normally between the two now. Both women were starting to get used to seeing the other woman, so uncannily like herself. And they understood each other so well. BrownLizzie asked all the right questions, and BlackLizzie hardly had to complete her sentences for BrownLizzie to understand. And BrownLizzie told her all about her day with Beth, how they’d gone to the petting zoo, and how Beth had said “sheep” twice (well, “shee”, really), but only at the sheep, not the cows, so she really must have known what the word meant.

And for many months the two women were at least outwardly content. BlackLizzie came home each day to hear all about Beth’s growing vocabulary, and BrownLizzie was avid for news of BlackLizzie’s latest ideas and findings. It was, in many ways, like a perfect marriage.

But like all perfect marriages, cracks, hairline at first, started to appear. BlackLizzie would often work late. With the perfect childminder at home, there was no reason to stop when things were getting interesting. And in any case, much as she loved Beth, Beth could tell them apart now, and she was noticeably warmer and more confident with BrownLizzie than she was with BlackLizzie. BrownLizzie did her best to keep BlackLizzie up to date with every little detail of Beth’s day, but, frankly, sometimes BlackLizzie didn’t really want to know. New words, maybe, but every poo in the pot?

And BrownLizzie was struggling too. She wasn’t really keeping up with BlackLizzie’s ideas on what to do with the data, and sometimes she thought BlackLizzie was, well, a bit obsessive. I mean, wasn’t it time she got a life?

The day inevitably dawned when they had a big row. BlackLizzie had been late home again, and BrownLizzie had had enough. “You’re worse than a husband!” sobbed BrownLizzie. BlackLizzie was indignant. “Of course I’m not” she snapped. “I’m you!”. “Well, you used to be” sniffed BrownLizzie, “but I don’t know who you are now. I spend the whole day listening to one-syllable words from Beth, and then you expect me to listen to five syllable words from you. I don’t even know what half of them mean any more. All I want is for someone to bring me a gin and tonic and let me get a bit of peace in front of the telly. And if you were in my place you’d understand that”. “Well, if that’s what you want, you’d be better off with a husband”, said BlackLizzie scornfully. “I don’t even know who you are any more. But I certainly wouldn’t be moping around watching telly in the evening if I were in your place. I’d be trying to keep up with the journals at least.”

There was a stunned silence, as each Lizzie’s words rang in her own ears.

Each reflected on the woman she had become, the woman she might have been, and the woman she thought she’d never be.

22 thoughts on “The Two Lizzies

  1. Your story well illustrates why there is so much disagreement over the “free will” question.

    On the one hand, both Lizzies are making different choices, which suggests that they have free will. On the other hand, the two Lizzies are facing different circumstances – at first the differences are small, but those differences grow over time. So the incompatibilist will see this as a case of environmental determinism – their different behaviors are determined by the differences in their environments.

    However, your story also illustrates another point, and I think a more important one. We see the two Lizzies starting out as the same person, but becoming different persons over time. This illustrates that we are constantly redesigning ourselves, and thus constantly becoming different people.

    Western philosophy gets this wrong. It tends to depict a person as a static agent, where the person’s representations (beliefs, etc) are said to change, but the person remains a constant. This false platonic idealization of a person is part of why there is said to be a hard problem of consciousness, for consciousness appears to be incompatible with that ideal. And in a way, dualism is there as an attempt to cover over these problems with the philosopher’s conception of personhood.

  2. Great post, but not one the ID’ers will like. The idea, that by making a choice, the chooser actually changes, sounds too much like evolution!

  3. StephenB will definitely have a bad time with this! 🙂
    Imagine, his “now” free will alltering his “future” free will!!
    Will he get it?

  4. Toronto:
    Great post, but not one the ID’ers will like. The idea, that by making a choice, the chooser actually changes, sounds too much like evolution!

    Well, sounds Lamarckian I think 🙂

  5. It’s a fascinating conundrum. Star Trek has played around with the idea in at least three episodes, usually based on transporter malfunctions.

    As I see it, there can only be one ‘Lizzie’ at a given point in space and time. The second ‘Lizzie’ inevitably follows a separate and diverging trajectory through spacetime. And each ‘Lizzie’ we see is, in a sense, a 3D cross-section of a four-dimensional ‘event’ extended through spacetime – Robert Heinlein’s “pink worm”.

    As an aside, it is why I am opposed to abortion, except on medical grounds. My objection is not religious but based on my belief that the right to life should be extended to cover the whole human ‘event’, from the point at which the individual can be said to begin as an individual to the point at which it ends.

  6. Not true, speaking as an ID’er. It’s a great philosophical problem. I would expect that a religious person would introduce the location of the soul into this. As it is generally considered immaterial, then presumably the duplicate would lack one…

    Speaking of Star Trek (Seversky below), and science fiction in general, the alternate-universe double has been used any number of times on the Star Gate series as well.

  7. SCheesman,

    Now there’s a story waiting to be written.

    If a human being is cloned, would a soul be refused entry into heaven until ALL the clones are dead?

    If there is only one soul, can all, or only one of the possible human hosts, be able to feel that, “I am”?

    And for ID’ers, which of the clones, if any, have free will?

  8. Well, it’s an important element in my story that the Two Lizzies are not clones – they are actual copies of an actual human being, with her brain in the configuration that resulted from two or three decades of experience of life and learning and self-knowledge.

    Identical twins, and even, remarkably, Siamese twins, know that they are not the other!

  9. The story reminds me of the writings of Iain M. banks – in one, “Surface Detail” I think, one character muses on teleportation and if he’s still “him” after the event. He’s assumed he’s more similar than he is comapared to the event of going to sleep then waking. Perhaps we are all different people at different times?

    The film ‘the presitige” explores similar ideas.

  10. “Identical twins, and even, remarkably, Siamese twins, know that they are not the other!”

    This sounds like a tautology. What I am not is the other.

  11. Reminds of something I spend a strangely large amount of time thinking about. I’m often given to wonder what I would say if I was offered the opportunity to “upload” myself into a computer, to live on in a virtual environment as a perfect and fully aware software entity. The only catch being that the process was one way – my original body is evaporated in the process.

    My first instinct would be to ask “but would it be me?” And my knee-jerk reaction is to suspect that it wouldn’t be, and to refuse to undergo the upload.

    But then I got to thinking about what it is that defines “me”. I don’t think that there is anything the defines me beyond my head, no soul or anything. I’m not worried about creating a soulless robo-Dave, hell-bent on devastation.

    I came to the conclusion that what defines me is the continuity of my memories. The thing that wakes up in the computer after the procedure, iDave, has all my memories, acts the same as me and believes itself to *be* me. So it is me.

    It is the same as the difference between the me that goes to sleep tonight, and the me that wakes up tomorrow. The two of us have no guarantee that the original me wasn’t vaporised and replaced with an exact copy during the night, and it doesn’t really matter. Continuity of memory is what counts. With that, I started to realise that “me” is really a stack of mental states, rising through time. Provided more mental states are added to the top of the stack, then “I” continue to exist.

    Then I got to wondering what would happen if my original body wasn’t evaporated during the upload. What if it was kept around for an hour to check the process had worked, and then evaporated when the simulation had been fired up and de-briefed. Where would “I” be then? Would I be happy then to submit to the evaporation, safe in the knowledge that a “me” was living on in the computer?

    The answer there is no. At that point, the continuity has been broken. I can’t look forward and see my continuation, because the branch happened in the past. Dave and iDave are two separate, concurrent entities.

    And at that point, I’d run 🙂

  12. What defines us, and even then not at all times, is a continuity of experience. But one must sleep.

  13. Fair enough. But Dennett (or is it Hofstadter?) reports interesting case of a pair of twins who almost were!

  14. In a sense, I guess. But only in a rather attenuated sense. I’m not sure that experience has continuity. If it has, I’ve lost a lot.

  15. Elizabeth,

    On the Evo side of the ID/Evo debate, what we call “mind” or “consciousness”, is seen as a result of the workings of our brain. On the ID side, O’Leary and many others believe that this thing called “mind” or “soul” is seperate but “interacts” in some way with the brain.

    If you clone the body and therefore the brain, what effect has this on the thing they call “mind” or “soul”?

    Does the one “mind/soul” have to interact with many clones?

    This is really a question for ID’ers, and one that should show that the “mind” is a resulting outcome of the workings of the brain.

    In other words, each brain creates its own “mind”.

    If you clone a brain, you clone the “mind” in the state it was in at the time of cloning.

    What do the ID’ers think of this?

  16. I’m wondering if I’m missing the point of the story of the two Lizzies.

    Setting aside the question of whether such a precise duplication is even possible, it seems obvious to me that once you have created the copy you have a separate individual which occupies a different position in spacetime.

    I also go along with Dave Tansley in that I believe that we are what we remember. So, however similar the two Lizzies are at the moment of duplication, as time passes their experiences – and, more importantly, what they remember of them – differ more and more and they follow divergent trajectories through spacetime.

    If this is uncontroversial then my question would be “So what?”

    Oh, and my other question is what do you understand by ‘time’?

  17. See the film Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, for a well-executed exploration of this very topic.

  18. No, I don’t think you missed the point 🙂

    I wrote the story in a response to one of the interminable Beam Me Up Scotty threads that seem to be de rigeur on every forum 🙂

    To demonstrate essentially that what we call “I” is a trajectory, and if the trajectory continues, continuity isn’t that important, and if it bifurcates you have two trajectories, and beyond the bifurcation, two people with different identities when looking backwards, but before the bifurcation, one person when looking forwards.

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