Monday, May 29, 2006

While in California I phoned an author acquaintance to say hi. We ended up talking about Kurzweilian life extension, which my friend thought indicated an unhealthy fear of death. I offered that, without definitive proof that there is an afterlife, radical life extension -- perhaps via mind-uploading -- is both sensible and justified. My friend, the author of a nonfiction book dealing with spiritual matters, countered that one can achieve subjective validation that consciousness is more than epiphenomenal. In other words, some aspect of our awareness persists after biological death -- but, so far at least, it's impossible to prove this to anyone who hasn't experienced his own sense of cosmic rapport. Fair enough.

So how to experience consciousness as an abiding energy (if such it is) and not merely as the output of millions of synchronized synapses? Drugs, perhaps -- although I've been warned that the "tripping" experience is confused and noisy, leading to false positives and replete with neurological static. Meditation seems a better, safer route. Still, how does one know that a moment's spiritual insight is anything more than an experience cooked up by the brain as a way of appeasing our incredibly deep-seated fear of death and obliteration? Not having experienced any deep insight into the nature of consciousness, I have no choice but to remain agnostic.

Even if awareness transcends death, how does life-extension obstruct spirituality (for lack of a better term)? It seems to me that a longer, better life can help facilitate a more intimate understanding of consciousness and its ultimate role. It's been argued that an upload isn't the same as the original mind, rendering the point moot. I'm not convinced. Just as a person with prosthetic limbs and artificial organs is still a human, a person whose brain architecture has been methodically supplanted with newer, more durable components is still the same entity -- just less vulnerable to the threats that routinely kill or incapacitate meat-based humans.

Rather than hindering development of "soul wisdom," a machine substrate just might provide the processing power needed to realize the mind's true potential. If so, "posthumans" may be richly more endowed than their predecessors. Instead of the shambling caricatures encountered on board "Star Trek's" Borg (or other cinematic attempts to grapple with the posthuman condition) our machine-based descendants may be unexpectedly sagely, free of the biological clutter that contemporary gurus spend their lives attempting to jettison.

"Spiritual" arguments against transhumanist technologies (and especially attempts to equate life-extension with simple fear of dying) strike me as suspiciously hollow, no matter how well-intentioned. I don't think the medium matters; the process is what we should seek to preserve if we choose to remain at least partially true to our brief, embodied tenure as Earth's dominant species.

Update: This essay has spawned a small online discussion.


Jason said...

I'm with you, Mac. Even if you had a "revelation" of some sort, the Mac of 15 minutes before that would be rightly skeptical of the source and content of the revelation.

Meanwhile, there is real reason to belive that if there is any proof of a mind or soul that is not tied to the physical body, it will be found in the next century. We might as well do what we can to stick around and find out.

Perhaps it just because it makes no sense to me, but I find the spiritual or intutive arguments against transhumanism to be largely aesthetic rather than reaonable.

Paul Kimball said...


"It seems to me that a longer, better life can help facilitate a more intimate understanding of consciousness and its ultimate role."

You hit the nail on the head! Good column - brings back fond memories of our conversations cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway!


W.M. Bear said...

Mac -- As always a couple of points in response to another thoughtful animadversion by you on a very basic issue.

I happen to believe BOTH in the continuation of selfood past the experience of dying AND the possibility of translating selfhood deliberately from one vehicle (the human brain) to another (an electronic computer).

Let me start with the second point first. Since mental processes resulting in consciousness clearly RUN on a material substrate, the brain, that is arguably "nothing but" an extremely subtle information-process device when you get down to it, it should be possible to "mimic" this device artificial, with the result of such mimicry being also the production of a fully conscious machine. And also clearly, if/when we finally understand the obviously complex relationships among brain, mind, and consciousness well enough to create such a device, we will probably also be at the point where we can do something like "upload" a human mind to this device. (My only argument with Kurzweil is that I think we are much, much further away from being able to do this than he does -- due largely to what I like to call the "mind-brain misidentification fallacy" now rife in most intellectual circles, especially among programmers and software developers who ought to know better.)

Which brings me to survival after death. Your friend is right, I think, Mac. There is no way to "prove" this. The best one can do is to arrive at some kind of intuition of how this works and you'r right -- meditation is probably a superior method to drugs (although I will confess to having arrived at this point using, shall we say, every means at my disposal). Once you do see it (by whatever means) -- that is, once you really have a good intuition of the true nature of your own selfhood, you may grow extremely frustrated not being able to explain (let alone "prove") it, but there you are.

A good starting point is the following meditative, koan-like question a wise teacher once put to me. He said, "Ask yourself: 'Why am I me and not somebody else?'"

Danieru said...

What part of the human do we wish immortality upon? A deeply metaphysical question indeed...

There has been an interesting, often firey, debate unrolling on my forum on this very topic.

Check it out. I hope it raises a few mortal eyebrows.