Transhumanism Part 2: Problems with Immortality

Problems with Living Inside a Computer?

We have so far ignored philosophical questions about what we would do in a simulated reality for an indefinitely long time. This is the question recently raised by the prominent Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano. He argues that the question is not whether we will be able to upload our brains into a computer—he says we will—but what will we do with all that time?

I suppose that some may get bored with eternity and prefer annihilation. Some would get bored with the heaven they often say they desire. Some are bored now. So who wants to extend their consciousness so that they can love better and know more? Who wants to live long enough to have experiences that surpass our current ones in unimaginable ways? The answer is … many of us do. Many of us aren’t bored so easily. And if we get bored we can always delete the program.

Many also worry about whether their uploaded mind is a just a copy of their consciousness, and not the real thing. But this distinction is trivial. When uploading becomes available most won’t worry that they are just copying their consciousness. Whether they can upload into a genetically engineered body, a robotic body or to a virtual reality, most will gladly do so rather than die. After all, we are changing every moment and few worry that we are only a copy of ourselves from ten years ago. We wake up every day as little more than a copy of what we were yesterday, and few fret about that.

The situation does differ depending on whether or not the original survives. If the original “you” survives after being copied, then there would be as many “yous” as there are perfect copies. Yet these copies would immediately become different from each other as they proceed into the future. So copying yourself  just creates many different people. Of course there is no good reason to make multiple copies of yourself.

If the uploading process destroys the original “you,” then you have transferred your consciousness into as many bodies you choose to transfer it into, although again there is no imperative to copy or transfer yourself into multiple bodies. But the main point is that there is no important distinction between being copied or transferred. If you want to preserve your consciousness and have no other options, such metaphysical concerns will be irrelevant. Note also that this problem arises for religious believers who die and hope to wake up in heaven. Is the you that wakes up in heaven just a copy, or have you been transferred there? Again you probably don’t worry about this—you just want to wake up!

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, or a virtual reality.  Suppose further that the technology has been well-tested and many friends tell you how great it is to exist in robotic bodies or virtual realities. Should you follow them? You may decide you don’t trust the technology, or you may decide to die and hope that God or Allah will save you. But if you opt for the high-tech solution, 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.

Can “We” Really Live in the Future?

However, maybe this is all wrong. Maybe we can’t exist in the future. To see this, suppose that we cryogenically preserve ourselves. Even if our descendants revive us there is a chance that our minds will be too primitive to be properly rebooted. Future technologies may be incompatible with our archaic mind files. It would be as if we found an old floppy disk or early telephone, but no longer had the means to run them.

Alternatively our descendants might reboot our mind files, but find that our restored minds can’t deal with their radically different future. In response our offspring might download their knowledge into our minds, so as to better prepare us for their new world, but find our memory capacity and processing speed insufficient to deal with the procedure. It might kill us to assimilate all their knowledge. Literally.

To handle all this new experience and information, our progeny could re-engineer our brains or create new ones for us. Either way it is hard to see how our personal identity survives. Once we have thirty-first century brains loaded with thirty-first century knowledge, we are thirty-first century beings. We would no longer be the twenty-first century persons we used to be.

To solve this problem our new brains could be engineered so that we have access to our old mind files—thereby preserving something of our personality. But even if we could occasionally enter our old minds, we might find these former experiences so primitive that we wouldn’t want to remember them. Why remember being a twenty-first century hominoid when better experiences are available?

So our futures selves, operating on new brains, would stand in relation to our current selves as we now do to star stuff. We came from the stars, but we are not stars.  At some point our past lives would be so distant and unfamiliar, that our connection with them would be lost. So maybe we can’t live in the future. We live, if we live at all, in this reality, in this time. And when that time ends, we do to.

And yet …  we do live in the future … in a sense. When we imagine it, when we long for it, to some extent we are there. No, our little egos might not be there, that is a triviality best discarded. But as long as minds freely roam space and time we live on—within other minds. This may not be all we want, but it may be all we can get. No one expressed these sentiments as well as Bertrand Russell in his essay “How To Grow Old.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

So we can make peace with death by accepting this compromised sense of immortality, but if we don’t have to die then worries about accepting death evaporate. Russell’s advice becomes irrelevant. Yes, worries about how we can live on in the future are still with us, but this is always true. The ten or twenty year old me doesn’t exist now either. But as long as there is continuity between my human self and my transhuman and post-human self, then that is enough to say we survive in the ordinary sense. For what else could it mean to survive?

The Overpopulation Objection

Many worry that radical life extension or the elimination of death will lead to overpopulation and ecological destruction. In other words, while it may be best for individuals to live forever, it might be collectively disastrous. Readers may recognize this situation as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons.” Acting in their apparent self-interest, individuals destroy a common good. It may be convenient for individuals to pollute the air, earth, and water, but eventually this is catastrophic for all. However, I don’t believe that overpopulation and its attendant problems should give anti-aging research pause. Here are some reasons why.

If we have conquered death, then we may already be post-humans living after the singularity. Such beings may not want to propagate, since achieving a kind of immortality is a major motivation for having children. Such beings may be independent of the physical environment too—their bodies may be impervious to environmental stressors, or they may not have bodies at all. In such cases concerns about overpopulation would be irrelevant. I am not saying that they will be irrelevant; I’m saying that the tragedy of 150,000 people dying every single day—100,000 of them from age-related causes—is a huge price to pay for speculative hypotheses about the future. We should not assume that our concerns as biological beings today will be relevant in the future.

Of course, I don’t know how the future will unfold. But preserving the minds that now exist may be a better survival strategy than educating new ones. In the future we will probably need educated and mature minds—their invaluable knowledge and wisdom. So I argue that we should try to eliminate death, dealing with overpopulation—assuming we even have to—when the time comes. My suggestions may be considered reckless, but remember there is no risk-free way to proceed. Whatever we do, or don’t do, has risks. If we cease developing technology we will not be able to prevent the inevitable asteroid strike that will decimate our planet; if we continue to die young we may not develop the intelligence necessary to design better technology. Given these considerations, we shouldn’t let hypotheticals about the future deter our research into defeating death.

Note too that this objection to life-extending research could have been leveled at work on the germ theory of disease, or other life-extending research and technology in the past. Don’t cure diseases because that will lead to overpopulation! Don’t treat sick children because they might survive and have more children! I think most of us are glad we have a germ theory of disease, and happy that we treat sick children. Our responsibility is to help people live long, healthy lives, not worry that by doing so other negative consequence might ensue. We are glad that some of our ancestors decided that a twenty-five year life span was insufficient; we are happy that didn’t worry that curing diseases and extending life might have negative consequences.

Most importantly, I believe it is immoral for us to reject anti-aging research and the technologies it will produce, thereby forcing future generations to die involuntarily. After anti-aging technologies are developed, the living should be free to choose to live longer, live forever, or even die young if they want to. But it would be immoral for us not to try to make death optional for them. If we made decisions for them, we would be imposing our values on them; we would not be respecting their autonomy. At the moment we tolerate a high death rate to compensate for a high birth rate, but our descendants may not share this value.

Moreover, as I have argued previously, death is like a bomb strapped to our chest. The bomb is with us from birth, and can detonate at any time. If it is in our power to remove that bomb for future generations, then we should. We should not let hypothetical concerns about negative consequences deter our removing those explosives. I’d bet future generations will thank us for removing such bombs, and even if our descendants decide that a hundred years of consciousness is enough, they will probably be thankful that we gave them the option to live longer. I’d guess that higher forms of being and consciousness will want to preserve their being. They would want us to disarm the bomb.

The lovers of death don’t want to disarm the bomb because its detonation, they believe, transports you to a better address—from earth to a heavenly paradise where your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is often their justification for opposing the bomb’s removal. The problem is this story is fictional. And we know that most people agree because when humans conquer death, when they learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those in the future who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises we now pay for each Sunday in church. Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup, but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves.