I’m creeping into an age group where I begin to think more on the issue of mortality. Not because people in my own generation are dying around me (though it happens), but because the generation ahead of me – aunts, uncles, older colleagues, etc. – are starting to reach the phase where it’s not uncommon for them to shuffle off their mortal coils. I often think about mankind’s never ending quest for immortality. Until recently, actual immortality – instead of mystical immortality via religious conventions – was relegated to horror and science fiction. As a race, we ceaselessly explore immortality, and it’s usually done with trepidation, if not outright fear. Vampires have immortality at the cost of feeding on human blood, usually a fatal process for the victims. Zombies are immortality of a sort, or at least, the idea of resurrection (another way of beating death) gone horribly awry. Immortal alien beings tend to show disdain for humanity because, after all, a finite human life takes place in the blink of an eye to an endless creature. Even various incarnations of god have a tendency to trivialize human life, promising that the short stretch of mortality we all suffer through, slogging our way towards eventual death, is but a small stain of shit before an otherwise glorious afterlife.
Science reality (as opposed to science fiction) struggles with finding ways to “cure” the aging process – the inevitable breakdown of cells that eventually leads to organ failure and death regardless of how well you treat your body. It’s often addressed with worst case scenarios, at least by the pragmatic. Scenarios where only the rich will be able to afford a cure to aging when it’s released (color me cynical, but I assume that this is exactly what will happen should Big Pharma create a non-Oil of Olay anti-aging cream, or some other such nonsense). Others posit that without people dying to make room for births, the population explosion will result in a scenario that will make dying from natural causes preferable to living on an overpopulated world where, likely, one has to wait for population slots to open (due to death from unnatural causes) before having children. Given how the invisible hand of market capitalism likes to touch us all in our bathing suit areas, I suspect it wouldn’t be long before business was booming in the “murder for hire” field. Want to have a baby but there aren’t any open population slots? No problem! We’ll open a slot for you, for the low, low price of ten-gazillion dollars. Call Strategic Reproduction Services, today!
Immortality in that way is, in my unscientific opinion, unworkable until we can populate other planets (and we’d better find a way to get out of our own solar system to do it… otherwise, we’d be facing the same overpopulation problems in a nebulous future). I think, though, that the best hope we have as a society for practical immortality lies in a digital setting. I think it’s very likely, given the progression of digital storage media and computer processing power, that we eventually will have systems where we can replicate the neurological pathways of the human mind, both in its capacity for data storage and speed at which it processes external and internal stimulation. When we get to that point, we should be able to upload a digital copy of all that we are – our memories, our individual responses to externalities, out emotional states, etc. – into a digital world. Immortality could then be possible, for as long, at least, as someone keeps the machines plugged in.
This does, naturally, bring up a whole host of philosophical hiccups.
If you’re the kind of person who believes that what makes humans human is the presence of a soul – whether a divinely crafted “energy” source, a state of mental enlightenment that can be massaged in your feet, the sum total of various past lives. If what makes us human is the existence of a soul, than it is unlikely that it can be quantified in such a way as to be digitally stored. And honestly, if that’s the case, then the process of death and the reuniting of the soul with the great cosmic whatever-you-call-it is damn near the same thing I’m describing here. That said, I take a more scientific view of what makes us human.
Who we are is defined by the ways we experience the world, how our brain processes those experiences, what chemical and hormonal changes it triggers to give meaning to that experience, and how it stores the memory of those experiences. All of this originates in the brain, and if we can perfectly replicate the human brain in all of its glorious complexity, if we can break down the “1”s and “0”s of our mind for storage and duplicate the speed and complexity at which our brains process everything they process, then I firmly believe that we can continue to exist in a digital medium long after our bodies have rotted away and our bones turned to dust.
There are still some tricky spots, though, even if a true 1:1 brain to hard drive conversion can be made. The biggest as I see it is this; even if I copy my brain, my sentience, and my consciousness into a computer, I am still going to die. This wouldn’t be a transfer; I wouldn’t suddenly find myself in a Tron-like digital land. I, the Me-Prime, would still be here on Earth, looking at a hard drive that contains an exact replica of me, and still racing toward cellular decay and organ failure. The digital me – Me-Secundus, if you will – might be just as me as me am… er… I am.
So the Ur-Me (because it’s never not about me) can persist. Everything that Ur-Me is has been stored away and saved. Ur-Me’s experiences, Ur-Me’s memories, how Ur-Me processes the present and applies that toward decision making in the future, is immortal. Ur-Me continues to learn, and change; develop and “grow” by being the sum-total of memory and experience. Me-Secundus will then become Ur-Me, once Me-Prime takes a dirt nap.
Which, all told, means that I’m totally still going to die someday. But I’ll also live on in immortality.
At least until some joker puts a magnet too close to the hard drive, and then I’m fucked.
Possible Argument for the Existence of the “Soul”?
So while thinking more on this topic, I created a second scenario to try and understand the relationship between Me-Prime and its offshoots (Me-Secundus and so on) to the Ur-Me. I tried to get a better sense of what it means for a point-of-view to die (the idea above that even if my thoughts, thought-process, and memories were preserved exactly and placed into a digital environment where they could continue to develop and be built upon, that this physical me would still be just as dead as if he hadn’t preserved his brain-data). Rather than trying to differentiate between a “back up” of myself vs. the actual self, I expanded my scope to extra-dimensional thinking.
Accept, if you will, that the idea of multiple universes is accurate. There are, for this argument, an infinite number of universes existing “out there.” Assume also that in two universes – U1 and U2 – two versions of me – M1 and M2 – develop in the exact same way. These universes are exactly the same up until a termination event. That means that M1 and M2 have the exact same data set in their noggins. Every experience is exactly the same. Ever thought, emotion, reaction to stimulus, etc. are precisely equal. Were this a mathematical equation, it would be expressed as follows:
M1 = M2
Simple enough, right?
Now, assume that some entity develops universe-hopping powers. This entity hops into U1, vaporizes M1, and instantly replaces M1 with M2 from U2. Naturally, there’s a divergence of the two universes and U2 will take a path where M2 vanishes without a trace one day. But fuck those guys in U2 because they’re not terribly relevant to M2 anymore.
M2 has no memory or awareness that he has been taken from U2 and placed into U1. No one is even aware of the replacement, including M2 (or M1 who ceases to exist in the blink of an eye). From M2’s perspective, nothing has changed. Because U1 and U2 followed exactly the same paths up until M1 was removed from existence and M2 was kidnapped from U2, M2 and everyone who M1 interacted with will never know the difference. Thanks to that equation above, because M1 = M2, then M2 is now functionally M1, with one exception; point-of-view (and even M2 isn’t aware of the change in PoV). The multiversal PoV has shifted for M2.
M1 has been eradicated from the living world of U1 just the same as if he’d fallen into an industrial-grade incinerator. Those specific neurological pathways that existed in that specific brain are non-functioning. Just because, however, their exact duplicate pathways – and therefore, memories, thoughts, emotions, sense of self – exist in M2 who equals M1 doesn’t mean that the original M1 isn’t dead. M2 will lead as normal a life as M1 would have, and the interactions that M2 would have had with others in U1 will be exactly the same as had M1 survived. Remember, we’re not talking about a Fringe scenario where there were preexisting differences in the two universes, therefore Peter 2 is not equal to Peter 1, but two universes that – prior to the entity eradicating M1 and replacing him with M2 – were exactly the same while occupying two different “spaces” in the multiverse.
My head hurts.
So, back to poor M1. M1 is dead, but lives on as M2 because no one knows the difference, including M1 (who is gone) and M2 (who isn’t aware of the shift because there is nothing there to tip M2 off to the shift).
If M2 is functionally the same as M1, did M1 really vanish from the multiverse and get replaced by M2? Is M1 M2?
I’d say “no” because M1 ceased to exist and M2 was taken from another (now diverging) universe (but again, who the hell cares about them, right?). It’s just like my prior argument that a copy of one’s brain, no matter how exact, is still not the equivalent of the Me Prime living on forever in a computer.
So what is the difference? That relative “position” if you will between M1 and M2 across universes? That means there is something different about the two. So what the fuck is that difference?
Were I inclined to spiritual bullshit, I’d call it the soul. I will not. Just acknowledging that there is something completely unique about an individual and is separate from (or rather, exists on top of) his or her memories, thoughts, and reaction to stimuli doesn’t necessitate bringing spirituality into anything. What is that unique value? Can it be quantified? Can it be captured? Separated from an individual? Transferred somewhere else? Is it even something confined to any given dimension or universe? Could we be keyed into some extra-dimensional/extra-universal variable?
Perhaps. And perhaps this would be the thing one might call a soul were one so inclined. It would be a value that cannot be stored, sorted, or “written down”. It would, therefore, be impossible to achieve any form of immortality other than biologically extending physical life. Losing one or the other – the mind or the body – would terminate immortality because that extra variable on top of life is calculated from those two values (again, mind + body + who knows what the hell else?).
 I absolutely hate using the word “energy” like that, as if it’s a physical thing like water, but I’m using it in a metaphysical way here because I’m talking about metaphysical people and their metaphysical beliefs.
 But not Bono
 Let’s also assume at this point that the entity responsible for this pops off and is never heard from again, nor will any other entity hop over and say “holy shit, M1 you are really M2 from U2!”