The Replica Problem

The Replica Problem by Samuel Tracey is the second in this year’s series of short stories written by students of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London.

Image Credit: Ghost of Kuji (via Flickr)

Image Credit: Ghost of Kuji (via Flickr)

“The replica problem is a thought experiment used by philosophers to answer questions about what makes us who we are. For example, are we the lump of chemicals that makes us or are we the sum of all our beliefs and memories and are our relationships important in defining us? My story takes the replica problem out of the realm of the thought experiment. I’ve attempted here to be mischievous with the use of the first person. You may find this confusing. To a certain extent, that’s what I’m trying to achieve here. I want you to feel uncomfortable about the allocation of “I” to more than one person. If after reading this story you think the question of what makes us who we are has become an easier question to answer then I’ve completely failed in my objective.”

I was not anxious at all, only excited and curious. Of course, I had a pretty good idea what kind of response my arrival would bring, but I couldn’t be sure. Today was a Wednesday and I worked from home on Wednesdays. It was by now 11 o’clock so I would have eaten my breakfast and settled down with my books. There was no reason to think that this Wednesday would be any different. I rang the bell.

I was already smiling when the door opened. What seemed like an hour, but was probably only a minute, passed. I was determined not to speak first.

Eventually the door was opened. “You’d better come in”. It seemed strange to be welcomed into my own home. I entered and looked around. Everything was the same: the table on the left of the door with the picture of me and my wife, the small wooden sculpture of a Masai warrior from our trip to Kenya.

“Let’s go to the kitchen”.

I sat down on my chair, the one facing the window and it occurred to me too late that this might be a little too forward. I wasn’t asked what I would like to drink. Instead, my host made two identical teas with the smallest splash of milk in each and put them on the table together with a small coffee cake and he sat down opposite me.

I sat down opposite and looked at my guest. The time I took to make the tea hadn’t made things any clearer in my mind. So I resigned myself to listen to his story before speaking.

“Just how I like it”, I said, taking a sip and raising my cup to my host.

I didn’t smile back. Instead I stared intently, expecting the movements to mirror my own and yet that isn’t what happened. Instead I was faced with an autonomous being. My mind did nothing to move the arms and lift the cup like that. My guest’s cheeriness annoyed me.

“Did we finish reading Locke this morning?” I asked.

“No, but we made some progress,” I replied.

“I bet there hardly seems to be any point now. This goes beyond the happy little thought experiments.”

“Enough of the fucking small talk,” I snapped, “what the fuck is going on?”

I don’t lose my temper very often and confusion is not a common experience for me, everything was always so straight forward. So to see the complete lack of comprehension of the situation in my host was rather amusing. I would have to explain… but not yet. I stopped smiling and said, sternly, “I want my house and wife and my life back and I want us to never see each other again”. I saw the surprise and then the anger rising. I wondered if I should carry on. No, I thought. I’ve had my turn.

“What do you mean your house, your wife, your life? Who the hell do you think you are?” I asked, conscious of the fact that the answer was obvious and yet when it came it would also seem absurd.

“I’m rather confident in stating that I’m Stuart Nevis.”

I didn’t like this answer. I stood up and paced around the kitchen. I looked out the window. The answer was not there. I couldn’t overcome the confusion I felt. I went back to the table and our eyes locked. I’d stared at these eyes so many times before. They’d always stared straight back, whereas now they scanned my face. They were smiling, unlike mine; they were a mirror image, but there was no denying they were mine. The grey-green colour was identical, the small flecks were there, the lines around the outside were just as deep but no deeper, the eye-brows just as wild with the same scar that I had received at the age of seven.

“How did you get that scar on your eye-brow?” I asked.

“I was pushed into a wall”.

“Who pushed you?”

“Jonathan Cummings”.

Neither my wife nor my mother knew that. Only I knew that. I nodded, convinced but still confused.

“Jonathan Cummings was a little shit.”

“And now he’s probably a big shit.”

I stood up without excusing myself and strode into the hallway and looked in the mirror and was relieved to see myself in the reflection. I returned to the kitchen, but my guest was still there, sitting at the table, finishing the tea. I sat back down. I had many other questions but I didn’t know where to start. “Are you a clone?” I asked.

“No. Clones only share a genetic makeup. We are more than mere identical vessels: our contents are the same.  I know what you were like as a child. We share a life. I don’t just understand you. I know what it’s like to be you. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. And, if I might return your question,” I said, not a little mockingly, “who the hell do you think you are?”

“I am Stuart Nevis. You are a copy of me. A fake. And now it’s time for you to get the fuck out of my house.” A mistake. I was far too curious to let my guest go without explanation and now he’d see I was losing my calm.

I chuckled. “I’m sorry if I seem to find this amusing. You see there are things I am aware of that you don’t know.”

“How can there be? You said we are the same,” and then I realised that wasn’t quite true, “So something happened this morning to you but not to me?”

“Something like that. Not this morning though. Saturday morning.”

I thought back to Saturday morning. There was nothing peculiar about it.  I’d been drinking Friday night, without Abi. She’d gone away on a business trip and wasn’t due back until later today. I woke up later than usual. I spent a long time failing to find my default green jumper. Then I noticed what my guest was wearing. “You took my green jumper you little shit!”

“Whoa there! That’s no way to talk to your… your self,” I retorted, “you wouldn’t address a stranger like that. Anyway, I just told you I was going to take your house and wife. I’m surprised that the jumper’s suddenly the big issue.”

“No, you must have been in my bedroom on Saturday morning, rummaging through my stuff while I slept.”

“Yes, I woke up a little earlier than you on Saturday morning,” I replied. I proceeded to explain how I had awoken on Saturday to discover what seemed to be myself lying beside me. I explained how, at first, I had tried to rouse him without success. I had been experiencing the same confusion my counterpart must be feeling now. I explained how, eventually, I decided to leave the house with a few things and watch him, my copy, from the shadows, to ascertain if he thought like me as well as looked like me. It had taken me just one day to discover that he not only thought like me, he believed he was me. When I finished explaining, I tried to imagine what my companion was thinking now. This should have been easy; the way our brains worked and our experience of life was the same… almost. Our lives had diverged that Saturday morning and I wondered how much difference those four days had made. And then I suddenly said, “I briefly considered killing you.”

I didn’t think I’d heard him correctly. It was like I was going mad, as if I was speaking to myself but the voice was not part of me. It was my voice from my body, but my body was over there. Was I in danger from this being? “And what conclusion did you come to?” I asked, looking for graspable blunt objects within reach, just in case.

“Is this the face of a killer?” I asked, pointing at my face, “you should know I’m far too lazy to do something like that. Think of the amount of hard work involved. Though it did occur to me that no one would miss you, not while I was around at least. I guess that’s why the thought occurred to me.  I was worried the thought might occur to you. I was in a state of confusion when I awoke to find you next to me. I’m sure you’re feeling a little confused yourself right now. Many thoughts came to me:  I thought it might be fun; you’d do all the hard work while I went out drinking. But why would you do that? Then I thought we’d take it in turns and share everything. But I didn’t like the idea. I didn’t like the idea of you sleeping with my wife, getting the respect for all the hard work I’d put in over the years, spending my money. But what was clear is that there isn’t room for both of us in this life.”

With these words of his, I suddenly saw the seriousness of the situation. Lives were at stake or at least identities.  To the world we were just one person. There would be no doubling of our salary, living space or Abi’s affections. And yet we were clearly individuals. One of us would have to leave and give up everything, but neither of us would want to stand aside. I wouldn’t give up all I had strived for. But I wasn’t a killer, and I trusted that this other guy wasn’t either. And I knew that he was intelligent, so I was prepared to listen to what he had to propose. And yet I was a little concerned. What had he been doing for the past four days. He certainly hadn’t been idle. “I take it you have a proposal.”

I nodded. “I do, but your decision must be made quickly and to facilitate that I’ve made some arrangements.”  I pulled the cake towards myself and took up the knife that was lying on the plate. “Remember how I… ” I corrected myself, “you…” I corrected myself again, “we… used to settle how to divide the cake between me… us… and Eddy when we were young?”

“Yes, one would cut and the other choose,” I interjected, impatiently.

“Indeed, it was fair, or at least it left everyone believing it is was fair. Well, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve divided things in a way that gives each of us an equal amount. And I’m prepared to let you make the choice.” I proceeded to explain how I had spent the last few days re-mortgaging the house, capitalising insurance and pension plans, closing down bank accounts, booking flights and all manner of other bureaucratic details. “…and so the choice is: take this envelope”, I held up an A4 envelope that I had taken out of the bag I had brought with me, “with access to all the money from the mortgaging of the house and all the money saved up over the years in every form but leave this house, Abi and this life and never come back. The person that goes will take the passport. A flight is booked to Brazil, where a new life can be invented. For a single person it’s cheap. Buy a bar or just a nice house on the beach. The money will last for a good few years. But the passport will be cancelled in four weeks time. I’ve already arranged a letter to be sent reporting it stolen. Or, take the other option: Remain here with the identity of Stuart Nevis. Also remaining here are all your qualifications, your reputation, your job and, of course, your love. But you will, of course, be penniless.”

“This isn’t a fair choice. With that mortgage Abi and I would have to get out in six months, and twenty years of pension contributions are too much to lose. You’ll make me a pauper, while your lying on the beach with your cocktails. Abi will probably leave me, whatever explanation I make for the sudden destitution that we will find ourselves in.”

“Then choose the envelope. Either option is tainted. I’ve been meticulous with this plan. All you have to do is choose.”

I looked at the envelope in his hand. I saw now why he had thought about killing me. But as quickly as him, I dismissed the idea. I liked this man. He shared my sense of fairness and his plan amused me in the way it differentiated between the tangible and the intangible. There was something tempting about starting anew, reinventing oneself, being single in a beautiful land with a substantial amount of capital. But if I hadn’t wanted the life I now had, the reputation, the friends, the wife then why had I worked so hard to attain them? But then neither option allowed me to keep the life I’d had: both options involved a kind of starting from scratch.  And it suddenly became clear: identity isn’t about what you possess, tangible or intangible: rather what defines you is what values you have and what choices you make. “Ok. I’ve made my choice.”


I paused at the doorway and turned around to look at Stuart Nevis for one last time. I grasped his hand and smiled, “good luck.”

“I wish we could stay in contact. I’d love to know how you get on,” I replied.

“It’s probably best we don’t. It’s probably going to work out badly for at least one of us. But we live with our choices. They make us who we are.”

And with that, off I went and here I stayed.


Samuel Tracey is currently studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College.


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