Wednesday, September 24, 2008


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.


Kristopher said...

Too much time on my hands here, probably, but I've always explained the "soul thing" with the fifth dimension, in the style of Edwin Abbott's Flatland. Clever little books for the Victorian era.

Move in three dimensions -- everyone knows how to do that. Well, WE know it. Squares and other 2-D entities don't have a clue.

Move in the fourth dimension and you move in time, of course. Move in the fifth dimension and you move "cross-personally" or whatever you want to call it.

Basically right now we're moving through the fourth along a fixed vector, and our fifth-dimension coordinate remains constant for the duration of our lives (except perhaps during certain experiences).

If we don't have even control over our fourth-dimension motion (all we can do is move really fast in 3-D so that maybe our instruments register a "past" 4-D coordinate reading, and even that is theoretical) we are fools to think that we can move around with any control in 5-D.

Going back to Flatland, soul transfer via mindstate backup is like one of Abbott's squares saying, "I'm going to make a square just like me. I will become that square or there will be some weird metaphysical overlap or bleed." Well, the square in his plane pushes 4 line segments together. All the square has done is made another square.

If I wanted to park my soul in someone else, I would either have to move a vessel not in my 5-D plane to where I am, or manoeuvre myself fifth-dimensionally to the vessel. Naturally I would have to keep my fourth-dimension coordinate steady as I go or I would miss the whole hyperspace in which the vessel is located and end up depersonalized and probably sheer existential terror.

Kristopher said...

And drugs are not (are never) the answer, though I do think some may produce some local 4-D curvature and an extremely small 5-D shift. :)

Unknown said...

Regarding the novel by Zelazny, I guess that it was "Lord of Light" (Valguse isand in Estonian).

erick said...

Interesting topic.

Ever since the question of a soul has come to my attention (and that happened relatively early in my case), I've tried to come up with thoeries explaining the link between the materia and the mind.

I think that the mind and the soul are one and the same. People in the olden days had very shallow knowledge of the human body, yet intellect and feelings somehow emerged from what to them was essentially a lump of meat. They did not know what a brain does, and how its an organ evolved specifically to house a mind. But we do, and hence we can ignore the misnomer "soul".

So now that we have a mind that is rather strongly tied to a specific configuration of neurons (or their equivalents, as it may be in the future), we can ask - what happens if someone duplicates it? Because as with all thing material, duplication is definitely on the table.

Well, the answer will be disappointing to those who have been led astray by the (mis)concept of soul. There will be two of you. However, chances are that you will quickly cease to be identical. Every moment of our lives is filled with little perceptions and the choices that accompany them: do I listen to the leaves rustling in the wind or watch the ant next to my feet? What TV show do I watch tonight? The two duplicates will very likely not choose the exact same choices and from the first different choice onwards they will cease to be identical, because their experiences (which effectively mold the mind into what it is) will start to differ.

But for those who want to feel special: there is an interesting quantum experiment which illustrates the situation. An electron is sent down a tube, which at one point diverges into two. If the ends are not blocked, the electron goes through either of them with equal probability. But if one of the endings is blocked, the electron ALWAYS goes through the end that is not blocked.

So you may think that in effect, there can never be two of you. There may be two bodies, but your "soul" will choose the one in which it can reside and fulfil itself with least impediment.

Anonymous said...

You had me at Schrödinger, Erick, but wouldn't the soul choose the one that is more challenging and conflict-riven? Or at least the one where the next choice is more immediate?

erick said...

What I meant was that the soul would obviously choose to stay in the body that has a greater chance of supporting the soul's existence.

That would be the body that will factually live longer.


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