By Ooi Teck Chye
You and I Are Gonna Live Forever
The concept of “mind uploading” is no longer a novel or uncommon one in our current climate, with new and exciting technologies on the rise. It is likely still well beyond our reach, but thanks to science fiction in popular media and advances in technology, it is an idea that is familiar to many. Put simply, mind uploading is the process by which one uploads one’s consciousness into a computer or similar piece of technological hardware, thereby allowing us to transcend the limits of our physical shells and live forever – or so it seems. In this article, I’m going to break down an argument for why this might not work out the way we want it to.
I Am He As You Are He
There are a few problems associated with mind uploading, but in this article we will focus on just one: to borrow the words of one of my beloved professors, “If I’m going to upload my mind into a computer, I want to be really, really sure that I get to be the one in there.” How sure are we, when we transfer our consciousness into a computer, that the entity in the computer is us? Philosopher David J. Chalmers discusses this problem, along with various others associated with mind uploading in his paper “Mind Uploading: A Philosophical Analysis” (Chalmers, 2014).
We’ll bypass the first part of Chalmers’ paper, where he considers whether the entity that results from a mind upload is even sentient in the way humans are. We’ll assume, for the sake of this article, that it is, and that it is a fully functioning person, mentally speaking. Chalmers goes on to discuss the second part of the problem: is that person me? Chalmers lists a few ways in which uploading can occur, but for the sake of brevity, we will discuss the two most relevant: “destructive uploading” and “non-destructive uploading”.
In destructive uploading, the original mind is destroyed (hence the name) in the process of transferring consciousness to the computer. Chalmers proposes that such a method might involve freezing a brain and then analysing it in great detail, one section at a time so as to simulate it in a computer.
In non-destructive uploading, the brain is scanned by some as-of-yet-unavailable imaging technology, which captures its states in such high detail that it allows us to reconstruct it inside a computer, and the original brain is left unaffected.
Having listed out these types of uploading, Chalmers goes on to describe two ways we might consider the problem at hand: he calls them the “optimistic” and “pessimistic” views of uploading. If we hold the optimistic view, we believe that the uploaded entity is the same person as the original. Conversely, the pessimistic view holds that the uploaded entity is not the same person as the original.
Now, if we like the idea of mind uploading, we probably have the optimistic view: we think that we can transfer our minds into a computer and live forever. In this case, the type of uploading doesn’t really matter to us; destructive or otherwise, what matters is that we get to live on as cyber-us in a computer.
To a pessimist, the type of uploading doesn’t really matter either, but for different reasons: no matter what we do, we don’t get to live forever in a computer, because the resulting uploaded entity isn’t us. Unless we have some other magical means to transport our mind out of our body, we’re stuck: doomed to face our mortality. Chalmers, seemingly not content to let us be happy, gives us several reasons to doubt the optimistic view, as philosophers do.
Chalmers asks us to first consider non-destructive uploading. Essentially, the process involves copying our mind while leaving the original one intact in our bodies. In this case, Chalmers asks if the copy is us, in the sense that we consider the mind in our body to be us. Intuitively, it seems like the answer is obviously “no” – I’m still here, in my body, and since I’m me, that copy can’t be me. Well then, in the case of non-destructive uploading, we clearly don’t get “transferred” over. All we’ve done is make a copy, but that copy isn’t us. Surely, then, in destructive uploading, we might more properly transfer our consciousness over? No such luck, says Chalmers, because destructive uploading is essentially the same thing as non-destructive uploading, just with the unfortunate side-effect of destroying the original. If we think that the copy isn’t us when we are around, why should it be different when we are no longer present?
Well, what if we bite the bullet and say that the copy is me, even when I’m still here? After all, it is completely identical to me. Then we have a different problem, because if we say that the copy and the original are both me, then it should make no difference which of us actually does the “living”, so to speak. If that’s the case, I should be perfectly fine with my copy taking over parts of my life, such as going out with my friends in my place, having a nice steak dinner in my stead and so on. Yet, many of us are likely to be uncomfortable with that. As much as we might think that the copy is us, it is not the same entity as we are. After all, when my copy eats that nice steak, I don’t taste it in my mouth – all I taste is bitter regret at wasting money on this discount cloning service. If I download that copy into a body, it might look like me, talk like me, and even think like me, but it remains distinctly not me. In the same vein, when I eventually die in my own body, my consciousness would not, barring some divine intervention or magic, be transferred to the copy of me that is in existence. I would have the experience of being alive one moment, and then I would cease to have experiences, while my copy gets to continue living the good life forever in a computer. How is that fair?
No One Gets Out of Life Alive
The philosophical problems involved in mind uploading are not just limited to the one I have discussed here, it’s problems all the way down. At the very least, we need to seriously consider the implications of uploading our mind: it may not mean the same thing as transferring our consciousness; while it may be some consolation that some version of us lives on in the world, the whole point of uploading was that we get to be the ones that live on, not some discount copy of ourselves.
Chalmers, D. (2014). Mind Uploading: A Philosophical Analysis. Intelligence Unbound, 102-118. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9781118736302.ch6
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