I think it depends on how we define it. My first thought is that yes, we are individuals; but upon examining my own definition, I become less certain. A question arises: Even if we are individuals now, could something happen in the future to change the way we think of ourselves?
Before I get into why we may not always be as unique as we believe we are now, I should put “individual” in context. With respect to this discussion, I would define it as the self-aware psychological projection of a single organism’s experience of the universe. In other words, a unique personality that could only come to exist in a specific physical form (genetically speaking) oriented in a specific place in the universe with a specific set of experiences. By this definition, every human is an individual–even identical twins, who only share one of the three criteria.
I think a time could come when this definition is no longer universally applicable.
At this very moment in time there are scientists studying and mapping the processes of the human brain with the goal of possibly someday transferring or copying a human consciousness onto a computer or some type of virtual realm. There is some uncertainty as to whether this is feasible; it definitely isn’t possible with today’s technology. But if you look forward ten or fifteen years, given a few breakthroughs in processing power and our understanding of the brain, it starts to look much more probable.
Let’s just say it is possible, and let’s suppose I go to a lab tomorrow and have my brain completely mapped–every memory, thought, ability and experience–and then copied onto a computer. The copied consciousness is self-aware and able to perceive the world through a special camera and communicate through text. If the copy was to engage in textual communication with someone who has known me all my life, there would not be a single question that person could ask that would make them believe they weren’t talking to me.
By my earlier definition, what I’ve done is created a new individual, right? We share the same experience of the universe up to the point the copy was made, but after that, both the copy and original have their own unique experiences. Going forward they would be two unique individuals.
You certainly could look at it that way, or you could say that a single individual has become a plural individual. (I know that’s an oxymoron, but stick with me.)
Consider this: what if the copy was not on a computer but rather imprinted on the brain of an exact, living replica of my physical body produced at that precise moment? The replica body shares my DNA, and it is identical down to the last atom and even contains the undigested breakfast I ate that morning. After walking out of the lab, both versions of me could truthfully call themselves Andrew Vrana; each could go on living as me, believing he was the original, because each would have the exact same memory of going to the lab to have the copy made.
Which one is the original individual? The obvious answer is, the one that walked into the lab to begin with. But they both have that same memory, that same experience, of going into the lab. In fact every memory and experience they have up to going into the lab is the same, so are they not both the original? Even if you could determine which one entered the lab, would it even matter since the experience has the same effect on both? The simplest way to solve this problem is to say that there was one individual that diverged and became two, and now these are two individual people. If both are the original individual, however, this can’t be a true statement. They must then be a single individual with two separate sets of experiences.
But how is that even possible? The next part may make it more sensible.
Suppose the two Andrews both develop a terminal illness and have days to live. We go back to the lab together and have our brains mapped and uploaded. This time, our consciousnesses are merged and imprinted on the brain of yet another identical body–this one modified so it does not have the terminal illness. This new individual will still be the original Andrew Vrana, since it still has the same experience of entering the lab the first time, and it will have the experiences of the plural individual created by the copy. Thus the time spent as a plural individual would just be part of my individual experience.
So then what if two or more people who weren’t two versions of a single individual had their brains merged? The resulting person would be a single individual, yet at the same time three previous individuals. What if a plural individual merged with separate other individuals and never rejoined? The possibilities here are nearly infinite.
Assuming this is all possible in the future (and I believe it could be), is my above definition of the individual still valid? Maybe, though I’m still not convinced. At the very least we need to make the definition less restrictive. Perhaps each individual is the one and only product of a specific set of experiences and a specific physical form, but that individual could exist again if the exact conditions were met again. Or maybe we are all just aspects of a single individual, waiting unknowingly for the day we can end our fragmentary existence and become whole. In any case, we might not be individuals according to my original definition.
I hope to live long enough to see this discussion become an important one. For now, I like to think that I’m unique–at least, until someone can prove otherwise.