A philosophical interlude, if you will indulge me. There is an old science fiction trope about immortality, that it can be achieved by recording a mindstate, either at the moment of death or before, and unpacking it into a new body if the original dies. The implication is that the new body would of course be in excellent physical condition, and the process could be repeated indefinitely (or the body is a robot of some sort that does not age).
The earliest example of this idea that I have encountered was in a Roger Zhelazny novel, which I read long ago, in translation, and do not remember the name of. It has also served as a significant world-building element for Tad Williams’ Otherland, John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades, and I’m sure many others; the most recent one I have read is Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward.
All SF novels that use this idea inevitably concern themselves with a case of two instances of the same identity existing, and interacting. But that was never as interesting to me as the question of whether it is, in fact, immortality.
The problem is a lack of continuity. Ghost Brigades is the second book in a trilogy, and in the establishing work, Scalzi comprehensively evaded the issue by declaring that in his world, a consciousness could only be transferred directly into a clone (albeit a heavily modified one). The mind was never copied, it was transferred, and the original body died, even if physically it was still perfectly viable.
In Otherland, the advocate of the technology, developed specifically for immortality, expounds that it does actually involve copying a mindstate and storing the copy inside a computer. The advents are encouraged to kill their physical bodies and minds at the moment of the transfer; not because the technology necessitates or results in it, but because the two consciousnesses would continue to exist, in parallel, and would diverge due to unsynchronized experiences.
In Look to Windward, mindstate backups are commonplace and accepted as a form of immortality; a restored creature is considered still the same one, just missing a few days or months. The society of the world takes great care to ensure that no two identical constructs are walking about the universe at the same time, but there is no natural barrier to that, and it does occasionally happen.
To me, this does not constitute immortality, because I am not convinced that the reconstituted entity can be equated to the original (except in circumstances carefully contrived to show that it is, such as Scalzi’s original interpretation – a masterful cauterization of a nagging question that was irrelevant to his story and only served to explain how a 75-year-old wreck of a human could be quickly turned into a supersoldier). If a copy is taken of me, my personality, thought patterns and memories, and stipulating that the copy is perfect in the context of the argument, then that copy could be used to create another iteration of me that would be indistinguishable to other people. For anyone grieving upon my demise, it would certainly be an acceptable resolution. But I continue to exist beyond the backup point, and when I die, what happens to the self-aware me? To suggest, as Banks and Zhelazny do, that the dead me simply wakes up somewhere else with a case of amnesia, is entirely unsatisfactory. Me-2 is the same person in the regard of everyone else, except me.
This bothers me, because it is the absolute biblical definition of soul. The line of reasoning presumes that there is some absolutely unique focus for my personality, inextricably linked to this body, and that if a copy of me is created with the exact same memories and thought patterns, a sentient, self-aware creature that is indistinguishable from me either biologically or behaviourally, passing any Turing-style test, then it will still not possess my soul. Atheism precludes me from accepting the idea of a soul, but then I am not entirely limited to perception – I can conceive that there are forces at work in our physical universe that cannot be perceived by current technology. An atheist should be willing to consider any falsifiable idea, and perhaps there is some mechanism whereby two copies of a consciousness cannot exist; where a restored backup is no more than a vessel that then draws in the departed soul. This would actually be a decent premise for an SF novel, though I believe it has been done at least partially.
But until such a mechanism is discovered and made to work, let’s get back to a world without souls. The question remains: is the death of a personality that was then restored to an earlier backup an actual death? For practical purposes it isn’t, the question is purely subjective, since it is a given in this scenario that the backup is indistinguishable from the original, minus the memories between the points of backup and death.
If it is indeed death, if an expiration of a sentient consciousness is a permanent loss despite the creation of identical one, then where is the line drawn? I know, in this scenario, that when I die, someone will wake up later who will be convinced he is me. In this case, is short-term amnesia effectively death? Remember, soul does not enter into it. Do I die if my streak of continuous self-awareness and experience of the surrounding world is broken, even temporarily? If the answer is yes, then do I die every time I fall asleep?
If it is not death, then what is the value of human life, and how much effort should we really put into sustaining it? The history of our society proves that in the short term at least, no suffering is unendurable; for every tragedy, there is an example of someone who got through it, and if everyone was sure that they will wake up in a week/month/year in a new, healthy body, without any memory of the pain, why wouldn’t you take the ultimate decision whenever faced with anything greater than an inconvenience? And not just physical pain, either. Had your heart broken? Kill yourself and leave a note asking to be restored to a version from before you met her/him. Sidestepping tragedy becomes simply a question of leaving enough assets behind to cover the cost of restoring yourself. And it might just be covered by your health insurance: with economies of scale, restoration could just prove cheaper than treatment.
But if you have no soul, then why restore? In our existing society, a single human life is worth more than anything except another human life. Yet a lot of lives, lived to their natural extent, turn out to have been inconsequential. The value of human life is therefore not only a recognition of infinite, invaluable potential in every human being, but also a safeguard against human lives in general being treated lightly; our history has taught us that this is one slippery slope that cannot be tread upon.
But if mortality ceases to be a certainty and becomes a choice, then how easy will the choice be? Certainly it should be in each person’s power to decide if they will be restored or simply left alone. If a merciful society gives everyone the ability for immortality, then a thinking person will inevitably have to make the crucial self-assessment: is my life worthwhile? Do I deserve the effort and energy it would take to put me back on this Earth? Do I actually matter?
This is the hardest philosophical question of all, but it occurs to me that irrespective of technology or faith, everyone needs to ask it.
2 months ago