Sunday, January 27, 2008

Would you like to become a digital zombie?

The survival instinct of the human mind is so strong that the idea of afterlife has survived religion and entered freethought in the twilight zone between science fiction and science facts. Why else would Steven Novella, a leading skeptic, post a long article on digital immortality plus follow-up? I have come across this old post (published a year ago) while gathering information about the fact that mind is linked to our brain and will die definitely with our brain.

Steven has put very interesting thoughts into the question whether and how a digital copy of the brain could be made and stored in a computer of the future. I like to go a step further and assume that it could be done: Would I want to have my mind digitally cloned for infinite survival?

I have a certain weakness for this type of reasoning. A couple of days ago, in a blitz chess tournament, I have wasted about half a minute contemplating whether I should want to give my Queen for two Rooks, only to become aware that this has been my only option. Fortunately, I kept enough time to checkmate my opponent with my two Rooks. Back to life: I am quite sure that my only option is the definite end of my mind after death. But Steven's science fiction stuff has fascinated me, so it may be appropriate to propose the desirability question for the hypothetical option.

Are we our brain, really?

Every tiny bit of feeling, emotion, consciousness, reasoning, and memory is produced by our brain. So are we our brain? I strongly hesitate, and the longer I think about it, the more skeptical I get. Suppose a leg is amputated. I still can feel phantom pain. But it would be very hard to produce all the feelings and impressions provided by the skin, the muscles, and the joints of my leg. Amputate the whole body and keep the brain alive in a perfect nutrient solution, then it becomes virtually impossible to reproduce all the lost input and make the brain believe that it still has its own body. Let alone the simulation of the whole environment. Thus, should it ever be possible to clone a mind, its situation would be pretty like that of an isolated brain in a nutrient solution.

Digitally undead, can this be called life?

I strongly doubt that a thing digitally cloned from my mind to a supercomputer still would be "me". I guess I should not bother of this clone's fate and happiness because this is his (its) business and not mine.

But let me be altruistic. Would the life of this digital zombie be worth living? Either it would be sort of an endless dream where he would not miss his body and his environment because these sensations would be produced by the mind itself. Really? I think even in dreaming our body is active and gives input, so a complicated software environment may be necessary to maintain such a digital dream.

But what about waking the zombie up? Then it will be necessary to provide a complete second life environment. And I guess that just avatars won't do. Our mind has evolved hand in hand with a body interface, it will hardly be working well without it. Maybe not at all without it. A digital mind zombie will not be able to interact with another mind zombie because neither of them has a body.

The torture of solitary confinement

Solitary confinement violates a fundamental human right. It is torture. Yet the victim of such a torture is much better off than a digital mind zombie: He has his own body, he has a poor environment but still a much richer one than the mind zombie has, he can drink, eat food, urinate, defecate, touch the walls, touch his body.

Whatever the housing of a digital mind would look like, however perfect it would be designed, I suspect it would be much worse than the worst solitary confinement.

On the other hand, if a mind zombie would be adapted to feel well in such a confinement, he no longer would be something like me. Let alone that it might really be me.

Not without my perfect robot!

I also have my doubts whether a mind zombie could stay mentally fit without a body and its inputs. When I got it right, the recent research in artificial intelligence more and more is about robots because the physical interaction with the environment is part of human intelligence. Take this interaction away, and people quickly get demented.

Thus, a mind zombie may require a perfect robot, a physical copy of his own body. Such a thing is impossible to construct with technical means. But it may be possible to clone the own body cells and grow all human organs in a test tube, replacing the old ones as soon as they are worn out.

Now, we get a number of serious problems. The brain is also a part of the body, so it also should be replaced when worn but the original idea has been to replace it by a computer. I do not see how such a media break may be overcome. But even worse, such a humanoid zombie would need resources, taking them away from his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


If I had the choice to have my mind digitally cloned, I probably would agree, partly out of survival instinct and partly because I would be curious how such an existence would look like. But I would insist on the option to have me deleted should I suffer from boredom or other unpleasant feelings. Without this being granted, I strongly hesitate. Probably I would prefer to be really, really dead, just as provided by mother nature.

Important note: This subject will be continued in my new blog Joy of Freethinking.

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