Professor Susan Schneider has written an important piece in today’s New York Times: The Philosophy of ‘Her.’ I applaud her for recognizing that uploading should be pursued, and for writing a timely piece about this topic. But while she places great emphasis on the distinction between whether mind uploading is a copy or a transfer of consciousness—as did nearly all my students through the years—I don’t find the distinction important.
The primary reason is that when persons consider uploading, if and when its available, they won’t worry about whether they are copying or transferring their consciousness. Whether they upload into a genetically engineered body, a robotic body or to a virtual reality, most will gladly do so rather than die.
Professor Schneider is correct that whether or not the original you survives the copying makes a difference. If the original you survives then there are as many “yous” as there are copies of you, assuming the copies are perfect. Going forward each copy will change as it has new experiences and multiple persons would have been created. The copies would continue to change just as your current self does. This leads to problem of personal identity—how and if we remain identical over time. It is a philosophical conundrum, but it exists independently of uploading technology. There is always a problem of explaining how “you” persist through time.
If the original “you”” is destroyed in the uploading process, then we have transferred your consciousness into one or more new substrates. But there is no important distinction between being copied or transferred. If you want to hold on to essentialism—the idea that humans have an essence—then you could say that your true self was only copied and not transferred. But if you reject an essentialist theory, then copying yourself will be good enough, especially if you have no other options. Note too that the same problem arises for religious believers who die and wake up in heaven. Is the body that wakes up just a copy, or has your soul been transferred to heaven? But no one worries about this—they just want to wake up in heaven!
Now suppose you are facing death with a decrepit body. A new technology promises to upload your memories, experiences and all your other psychological characteristics to a robotic body, an AI or a virtual reality. Suppose further that the technology has been well-tested and many friends tell you of the wondrous experiences available to uploaded minds. Should you try it? You may decide to die and hope that Jesus or Mohammed will save you. But most will not. They’ll take the sure thing. Philosophical concerns about whether this new you is a copy or a transfer will not stop you from uploading. Not if you want to live forever.